The instant my husband and I crossed the Monontsha border from South Africa into Lesotho, the prim British lady canned inside our GPS unit began her campaign to back us away from the dramatic scenery and the friendly people.
“Turn around as soon as possible,” she advised with an icy malice.
Like the pit in a fruit, Lesotho is a tiny country wholly surrounded by South Africa, and we had entered through the northeastern Monontsha border primarily because it was conveniently situated on the route we were traveling but also because we were drawn to a mystery: half of the maps we carried marked it with an “X,” indicating a border crossing, the other half did not. Driving through the nearest South African town of Phuthaditjhaba, the mystery deepened as we couldn’t find a single road sign suggesting a border crossing existed. We ended up at a lonely hilltop shack with a gated entry.
“No, this is not a border crossing!” a man there informed us, clearly amused. “You must go back to Butha-Buthe.”
The border crossing at Butha-Buthe was a hell of a long ways away. We said “Thank you” and continued milling around the area, cross-referencing maps and views on the GPS until we finally arrived at a small, desolate, long-ago-white immigration building.
The woman inside insisted we didn’t need a stamp in our passports to cross into Lesotho. We were very leery of this, having gotten into a wee bit of trouble with the Mozambique border patrol for failing to get stamped when we crossed from South Africa to Mozambique (a country that sports an AK-47 on its national flag). While we talked with the woman, two customs officials searched our vehicle with conspicuous glee, delighted to search the foreigners’ truck. They snickered at the new packages of underwear we’d just bought in Johannesburg, then waved us through.
“Turn around as soon as possible,” the GPS lady demanded over and over until we shut her off. Since she couldn’t convince us on that score, when we reactivated her, she began plotting our demise by telling us, “Turn left here,” sending us over cliffs where not even the sheep dared graze, or, “Turn right here,” ordering us into river ravines to mow down the ladies washing their colorful laundry in the cold water. She attempted to lead us straight uphill on cow paths, and into the chicken-infested yards of the locals.
There are few cars in rural South Africa, where you can drive for 45 kilometers without encountering another vehicle in either direction. Lesotho, however, gave us an even greater appreciation of the soulful beauty of an empty road. There is a grand liberation in this aloneness, and you quickly become accustomed to it, even in love with it. It was a bit disappointing when we eventually came into some traffic congestion—that is to say, encountering two cars right in a row traveling the opposite direction. We were overtaken, with a comically slow pass, by only one vehicle—a yellow police van.
Lesotho, dubbed “The Mountain Kingdom,” is a wonderland of twists and curves and convoluted topography. It is not a territory for the motion-sick. A man we met on a train in South Africa told us the straightest stretch of road in all of Lesotho was the stretch across the Katse Dam. Throughout Lesotho, from point A to point B as the crow flies might be one kilometer, but the road distance is more like five kilometers because there is no crossing the canyons and deep ravines; you spend your day skirting the rims and traversing hillsides.
Despite the crisp air, we drove around with the windows partially down and the radio playing on low, comforted by listening to the DJ’s native language even though the only word we ever understood was “Lesotho” (pronounced “leh-soo-too”). We kept hearing a pervasive background noise from outside, however, and we stopped and got out of the car to try to identify it. Being in such a dramatic landscape of mountains and valleys, so sparsely populated, we expected a certain quietude. But the hills were alive with the sound of livestock bells. Sheep and cows sprawled across the topography, keeping their perch on improbably steep angles. So many simultaneous bells inevitably formed into rhythmic patterns, and as we stood still and listened, it became an almost tribal sound, like African drum beats, the “dink dink dunk dink dunk dink” of a hillside echoing with various pitches of cow bells. The occasional voice of a shepherd rang out above the din like a tenor’s aria. On other terraced hillsides, the brown spring fields were being turned over by men with single-blade plows hooked to oxen. It was as if the shepherds and their flocks were the radio for the farmers.
When my husband asked why I included a drive through Lesotho in our South African itinerary, I told him I simply wanted to see its interior. I’d looked at the maps and seen the paucity of roads, the serpentine course each and every one that existed drew, had read about the mountain passes only 4×4 vehicles were qualified to cross. I simply wanted to see what lay hidden in this tiny kingdom made up of 9,000-foot-plus mountains trespassed by only a few squiggles of dirt road. Driving into the dusk that first evening in Lesotho, my husband said, “I certainly feel like I’m driving into the interior of something!” He couldn’t identify the nature of this thing, this wild vastness; and I agree, it was very complex. A Cimmerian heart, a soul of height, an inconceivable weight of earth, eons of geologic and climatic forces, the breath of secrecy—a handful of people who defended themselves against European invaders through the alliance with their mountainous landscape.
Darkness hit us along the 78-mile road from Hlotse to Katse. The pitch-black, newly paved road had no painted centerline, and the edges were marked only with faintly reflective tabs of orange on one side and red on the other. The radius of the curves decreased while the frequency of them increased, and the hue of my husband’s knuckles turned ever whiter, knowing that a tire off the edge of the road would send us tumbling down a mountainside.
We spent the night at Katse in the only hotel in the region. Its straight tiled hallways gave us the uneasy impression we were in a hospital. Awaking in the morning, I was quite surprised to see out my window that I was 15 feet from a cliff, overlooking the cobalt waters restrained by the Katse Dam. It was a splendid way to begin a day.
That afternoon we drove toward the southern border and the famed Sani Pass. Though our truck was comfortable and warm, a part of me yearned to travel the desolate roads as the locals did—wrapped in a thick blanket, perched on a horse’s back. My heels would be the accelerator, the reins my brakes, the livestock bells would be my radio, and the Deep and Wide—that transcendent space—my cab. The most popular tourist activity in Lesotho is, in fact, doing pony treks; you can ride for an afternoon or several days.
As evening approached, the sky clouded over. Tiny crystals began spritzing our windshield. Soon, a full-blown snow storm engulfed our truck and the valley we were driving in. Having rented our truck in South Africa, its tires weren’t remotely prepared to meet snow. We took a series of slippery hairpin turns at about five miles per hour, my husband once again white-knuckled on the steering wheel and me biting my nails. Eventually the road mercifully straightened across a high plateau.
In the distance we could make out a frantic figure beside the road—a man wrapped in his traditional Basotho blanket, pressing his hands together in a pleading, prayerful gesture, holding them out in front of his chest. He had been caught out unexpectedly in the rapidly descending storm. We made space for him in the back seat.
“Underberg?” he asked.
“No. Sani Pass.” We had reservations at the Sani Top Chalet at the Lesotho border.
“No, we’re only going as far as Sani Pass.” Underberg was a city over 40 kilometers away in South Africa via a road famously and fatally treacherous in bad weather. I put my hands together in the same prayerful gesture he had, but I put mine to the side of my head and flopped it over upon them. “We’re sleeping at Sani Pass.”
“Oh.” He nodded his head. “Okay.”
“It’s okay?” I asked.
To make room for him in the back seat, I pushed to the side a basket of food and a cooler of beer. Bananas, cookies and a loaf of bread lay in the open basket. I couldn’t tell if he eyed them, but we offered them to him anyway. He wolfed down a banana and some bread, and drank the beer like water as we forged on through the storm.
“Good?” I asked. He smiled and slouched down in his seat.
When we stopped short of the border, confusion swept over the man, who was now warm and full, and perhaps a bit buzzed. Obviously this was not okay.
I shook my head. “No, Sani Pass.” I pointed toward the chalet.
He stared out the window for a minute, studying the round, stone rondeval huts, icicles dangling from the rims of the thatched roofs. At last the situation dawned on him. Dejected, he slowly opened the car door and pulled his blanket tight around his neck. Snowflakes swirled into the car in a gust and accumulated rapidly on the man’s shoulders and bare head. Suddenly, impulsively, my husband reached into the backseat, gathered up all the rest of the food we had and shoved it into the man’s arms. He bowed his head in a gesture of gratitude and stepped out into the blizzard, into a landscape rendered featureless, a white canvas at the edge of the Mountain Kingdom, his bare hands clutching the foreigner’s food against his chest.
We spent the evening swigging Castle beer at the highest pub in Africa. We asked the proprietor if it could be a problem getting down the pass if it kept snowing. “Yah,” he said, “it could be a problem,” and carried on about his business. Several years ago, 30 people were stranded at the chalet for a month because of a sudden snow storm! A helicopter was eventually chartered to fly them out.
By morning the snow had stopped, and eventually the clouds cleared away to reveal the renowned Sani Pass. Only 4×4 vehicles are allowed to travel it. It’s like an amusement park ride, all the twists and turns. I had a devilish desire to put the truck in neutral and careen down like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Apparently, South Africans are fascinated with the snow. They come by the droves to hire 4×4 vans to convey them up the pass.
Down, down, down we drove and at last were processed quickly through the South African border, as we were the only people crossing in from Lesotho. As we continued on our way, we kept waiting for the GPS to insist we turn around as soon as possible.
“Go forward 500 meters!” she said. “Keep going straight!”
Now there was a long, straight stretch of pavement to follow. Already I was nostalgic for the dusty winding roads of Lesotho. I was a little disappointed with the GPS lady, leading us away from the simple, soulful secrets of the Mountain Kingdom. If she had told us, “Turn around as soon as possible,” we might have, for once, obeyed her.
Postscript: In late 2012, Lesotho declared a food emergency. Two consecutive years of failed crops has put over three-quarters of a million people at severe risk. Lesotho also has the third-highest HIV infection rate in Africa, with one-quarter of the population infected. It is a stunning country visually, but a country whose people are hurting. As a tourist, you cannot solve a country’s problems, but it is good to be aware of them.