In hindsight, crossing the Drakensburg Mountains in a Volkswagen Polo after nightfall may not have been the most sensible way to begin a visit to Lesotho. True, Hannibal is said to have successfully crossed the Alps on an elephant. But he didn’t have my deadlines.
On paper, driving from Johannesburg airport to Semonkong, far off in the mist of the Mountain Kingdom, appeared feasible. Motorways some of the way, and then good tar roads – including a new stonking mountain pass from Maseru to Semonkong. The only problem was timing. A slight delay in the flight, and a big delay in picking up the hire car, meant that darkness was already falling as I joined the unreasonably long queue of cars, trucks and labourers at the border crossing into Maseru.
After braving some seriously pothole-strewn roads between Koonrad, Senekal and Bethlehem (where I saw the first of many donkeys of this trip), the drive – 11 hours in total – was about to become slightly more gruelling.
In Maseru, all restaurants promised by Rough Guide seemed closed. Stopping on Kingsway to get my bearings seemed to arouse some unwanted attention, prompting a friendly local businessman to exhort me to continue on my way for my own safety. Lesotho has a reputation as being safer and friendlier than South Africa – and justifiably so. But downtown Maseru after dark is the exception.
I joined the evening commuters leaving Maseru on the urban dual carriageways through the Maseru suburbs, stopping at various garages and ATMs, at each point given friendly welcomes from curious locals wondering about the pasty-faced visitor in their midst. One ATM had a full-time security guard – but not money. He shrugged apologetically and gave me directions to Roma.
Between Maseru and Roma, the biggest problem (apart from trying to read road signs in the dark) was avoiding pedestrians. While driving etiquette across the country is uniformly excellent, Lesothans take a laidback, almost philosophical approach to the art of being a pedestrian. The Irish equivalent is Patrick Street in Cork, where “doing Pana” – walking in front of traffic – has become an art. But I’d never seen it on a major highway.
Travelling from Maseru to Semonkong involves a climb of 2,500 metres – but also a descent of 2,000 metres. Speed bumps appear out of nowhere, but mostly the road is amazing – a true testament to Lesotho’s continuing development. Mostly.
You’re lulled into driving at 120kph, only to round a bend and find most of the highway covered with a landslide. I drive on – and the signs gradually turn from “Semonkong 90 (km)” to “Semonkong 80, 60, and so on”.
Into the night
So – it’s well into the evening. I’ve no working phone yet, the mountain passes are coming thick and fast, and there are verticle hairpin bends covered in rocks every few miles.
Up ahead, two disembodied red lights shimmer in the distance – a useful way to gauge where the road is headed. Yet sometimes the red lights appear so high up as to seem like lights from a small aircraft; at other times they seem so vertically below me that I doubt whether we’re on the same road. It’s only a few days later, when I drive out in daylight to visit some outlying schools, that I realise how fraught the drive had been.
There are ridiculous hairpin bends, ascents so steep that I drive – slowly – in first gear; and all the time on the lookout for scattered rocks on the road, or herders bringing a few donkeys to the next village. Turning one bend, a horseman rears up in front of me, the distinctive gold patterning on his Basutho blanket visible in my headlights. We exchange waves and I manage not to knock down his donkeys.
It is now 10 o’clock, and Semonkong is still a slow 20km away. Despite going reasonably quickly, it takes another hour and a half before reaching Semonkong, where a sign for the local guesthouse on the highway points me to the right, down a muddy track. An end to the journey at last – or so I think.
The pond in the road
With only rock and dirt beneath the Volkswagen Polo, and roads that mingle and diverge, it’s difficult to know I’m on the right track. The accommodation could be around the corner, or 2km away. The hillside is deserted bar some rather large dogs. It’s at this point, with only the lights of a distant house dimly visible, that the final obstacle presents itself in the form of a small circular pond in the road, about eight metres in diameter.
There is no way of telling how deep the water is; in hindsight I should get out and find a stone, or a stick, to test the depth. As I had planned to buy a sim card in Semonkong, there is no way of phoning the accommodation. Although generally confident in talking to strangers, the slight edge witnessed in Maseru means I’m a bit wary of abandoning the car and picking my way alone on foot at 11pm on a remote hillside.
So, I decide to drive around. Again, it would be wise to test just how deep the mud is on either side of the pond blocking the road before attempting to drive through it. But I don’t do that. Instead, I drive into the mud – and promptly get stuck. After 11 hours of driving, and with no way of knowing how far the accommodation was, or whether the local dogs are friendly or not, and with steam coming off the bonnet, and with the car seeming to be slowly sinking into the mud, and with darkness all around, and with no way of contacting the car hire emergency hotline, I’m fresh out of ideas.
An emergency call would presumably go to a police station in Maseru, where there may or may not be a police officer who speaks English; and who may or may not have a contact for someone in Semonkong who could help. If I flash the lights, will that attract help, or the wrong kind of attention?
In the event, I wait. And wait. And as so often, the waiting was rewarded; a large white 4×4 loomed in the distance, and crossed the pond. Gambling on his help, I beep the horn to attract attention, and he gets out slowly. “You’re in a bit of a pickle there, I see,” he says, laughing. Identifying himself by the moniker of “Parkeys”, he wastes no time in tying a thing rope to the back of the Polo, and towing me to safety.
We then discuss his long career at Aer Lingus, as part of the semi-state’s efforts in the 1970s to help developing countries set up their own airlines – in this case, Lesotho Airways. Parkeys instructs me to cross through the middle of the pond, apparently filled with bricks to see vehicles safely across. With a rush and a push and splash, I’m through. It’s deeper than expected, but at least the bottom is firm.
Now there is just a rocky gorge to negotiate. A few worrying clanks of the car’s undercarriage later, and I am outside the accommodation, on a bridge over a gurgling brook. Ten minutes of beeping, and the nightwatchman stirs, unlocking the gates, identifying my room. Everyone is asleep, there is no food or wifi, until morning – but there is a bed. I feel surprised, and grateful, to be in bed in one piece.
And that was day 1 in Lesotho.
This is the first of summer 2017 round recipient Darragh Peter Murphy’s blog posts from Lesotho. Darragh was funded to report on the lives of young boys in the country who are forced into working as shepherds to alleviate the poverty of their families. His project will take a look at their lives and the work being done by NGOs to try to help these children by offering night schools.