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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Child from a village in the Lesotho High Lands
March 29, 2007

Lesotho - The Kingdom in the Sky

Magical Lesotho was a country we had looked at 12 months ago when we first started planning this trip, and we had immediatly added pony trekking on the to-do list. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, and has the distinction of being the highest country in the world (having the highest low point). Lesotho is dominated by harsh extremes, snow being known to have fallen in every month of the year, the country side being dominated by mountain peaks rising well over 3000m.

Lesotho, pronounced Lee - zoo - too, whose people are the Basotho, where they speak SeSotho, drink Maluti, bought with Maloti, regardless of the climate locals wear a heavy woolen blanket like a mexican poncho, and the king's name is Mashoeshoe, yep, sounds like the perfect country for me.

Unfortunately Lesotho is a little out of the way, especially traveling by public transport. We ended up catching an eight hour bus north from East London on the coast, to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, arriving just after midnight where we managed to haggle a taxi driver down to a reasonable price to drive us to our hostel for the night, the Navel Hill Backpackers. Essentially it is the only backpackers in the Free State, which is a good thing for them because, being a converted water pumping station, it was noisy and fairly uncomfortable. For us it was only a stop over.

After spending a day re-supplying, we caught a Gigy's Taxi at 5am in the morning with Inga, a swedish backpacker to the local bus rank. There is something special about arriving at a strange bus rank on a crisp morning, where everyone else is black (as we were kindly informed when enquiring with the bus owner about the trip to Lesotho), you have all your possessions conveniently packed onto your body, and you have absolutely no idea where you are supposed to be going. Thankfully, once again, the kindness of the people in South Africa shone through, a local lady pointing out where to buy our tickets from, and again where we needed to stand to catch the bus.

When the bus arrived, it was a mad scramble to pack your own gear in the luggage lockers underneath the bus, amazingly the bus managed to leave on time, a first for our trip so far in Africa. Unfortunately after making fantastic progress over the next hour, we pulled into Thaba 'Nchu to pick up additional passengers and we were kindly informed that we would be waiting for an hour and half for the other busses to catch up.

We were finally dropped conveniently 100m from the South African Border Post near the Maseru Bridge. After hearing all the horror stories of African border crossings, we weren't expecting the next hour to be easy, and without so much as a sign highlighting what we needed to do, we set off into the nearest semi-official looking hut. After getting stamped out of South Africa (we think), we started across the bridge into Lesotho, the South African guards stopped us, yet instead of an intensive search, they merely asked if we had our stamps, after nodding, they waved us through.

The Lesotho side of the bridge was even more relaxed than the South African, instead of just walking into Lesotho we thought we should at least try and get a stamp, with no clear fence or border, we walked into the only building other than the taxi rank, where a semblance of an official was snoozing at the counter. After approaching he grunted at a pile of forms, after going through the formalities, he agreed to give us a 30 day visa, before happily stamping our passports with a 14 day entry, then going back to sleep!

Maseru is not exactly the tourism hub you would expect of a capital city, with budget accommodation options limited, we taxied to the St James Anglican Church, where after a little white lie we were signed in as Mr and Mrs Thomas, thank you very much, cheapest accommodation on the trip so far.

As far as capital cities go, Maseru is one of the oddest, the main street was paved in 1947 for a British Royal visit, and for a long time was the only paved street in the whole country, which comes as no surprise. After walking the streets for a while, it seemed that half of the population still walk around with their traditional blankets and cattle sticks. With no major sights of interest, other than stopping in for a chat with the lovely ladies at the tourism board, we had a quick bite to eat at an Indian Chinese restaurant, before heading back to the Hostel for the evening (8pm Curfew).

The only way to get around Lesotho is by four wheel drive, which we do not have, or mini bus, which is cheap, and accessible to those like us traveling on a budget. Instead of opting for the 800R transfer offered by the lodge, we decided to spend 25R on a bus ticket instead. After walking 3km's loaded up with our packs, day bags, and enough food to last a week, we arrived at what we had been told was the bus terminal.

Things are not always as easy as you would like them to be, the only thing located on the site of the bus terminal (or at least according to our map), was a bustling local market. After a minute of looking a little perplexed, and as the only white folk in a clearly black district looking very out of place, we were approached by a local gentleman who, after finding out where we wanted to go, told us to follow him.

Now I am not the most trusting of people, in fact some would even say I am a skeptic, yet there comes a time when you have to make a judgment call, do we spend the next four hours lugging all our gear around trying to find the bus, or do we impart a little trust in fellow man. This time around, we went with box number two - trust.

We set off into the bustling market place, weaving our way along small side streets and winding little alley ways, pushing past people selling everything from meat, freshly roasted corn, car parts and leather polish. He ended up taking us all the way through the market to the far side, where he found the right bus, making sure we got the right price, and that the bus was leaving shortly (most buses do not leave until they are 100% full, and in Africa, a bus is never full). Our faith in mankind definitely came through as we would have spent hours trying to find our way through the maze.

When the bus finally left there were four of us crammed into the back seat with our packs, a box of stuff and a big drum of water. The mini busses in Lesotho are all souped up with mag wheels and rocking stereo systems, we were privileged to have the Bo Ma Be Maphutsing (a six song) cassette tape on loop for two and a half hours. Oddly enough, at some point in time the piano accordian was introduced to Lesotho Hip Hop and is now the main instrument on all Lesotho Pop.

95% of Basotho are catholic, however on our journey to Malealea we passed a procession of girls who were wearing black from had to toe, and had reed masks completely covering their faces, as we passed Donna asked the other passengers what was going on, the bus conductor informed her they were part of a circumcision ceremony, when she asked if they were boys or girls, he said girls...

As we entered the Malealea lodge, to our right was a group of maybe 100 kids all lining up to get shoes, it turns out that over the previous days, and the following few days to come, up to six schools came to get new shoes for the kids, kindly donated to the Malealea Development Trust by some Dutch visitors who had been here earlier in the year. Being at Malealea really feels like you are staying in part of the community, not separated off into a secure compound. They get locals to walk you through the schools, and villages, they hire horses from the surrounding farmers for pony treks, and sponsor a number of initiatives in the area to promote better health and well being for the locals.

After settling in to our traditional Bosotho Hut we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the lodge steps, finally indulging in a hearty Braai meal and couple of Maluti beers with the other guests.

With the weather a little over cast we spent the morning finalising the details of our six day over land trek, due to start tomorrow, before having a quick bite to eat for lunch, and then hiring a local from the village (Steve) to take us for the three hour round trip out to some San Cave Paintings. The walk was a great introduction to Bosotho life, immediately outside of the lodge we were in the fields, Sourgham, corn and wheat fields stretching for miles into the mountains, winding our way along small goat tracks through a couple of smaller villages, then down a very steep valley into a canyon where we saw three sites of paintings. On the way back we were caught in a torrential downpour that soaked our pants till we were absolutely drenched to the skin. Luckily they lit a couple of big fires that night and we had a chance to dry out most of our gear. For me I only have one pair of pants, and with the pony trek due to start at 8am the next morning I spent a cold evening in shorts and a t-shirt.

Beer of Choice: Maluti
Music of Choice: Bo Ma Be Maphutsing

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