The Mountain Kingdom

The next stop and also the next country, albeit for only one day, was the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Lesotho is the highest country in the world. That is, it has the highest low point of altitude of any country. I would have thought it would have been Nepal, but there you go. Apparently Andorra comes second.

I was both excited and anxious. Sam’s little quirk of not tolerating long sleeves could certainly prove be an issue. We were issued with a rug from reception for Sam, and I dressed him as best I could otherwise, with two T-shirts, a padded vest, long pants and hiking boots.

Ten passengers piled into two 4-wheel drives. I let our driver, Stuart, an ex-park ranger, know why the boy in the passenger seat was sitting wrapped in a rug. He presciently enquired whether Sam would mind if we had an extra passenger in the back of the car, a poisonous snake in a secure container that he intended to release in the mountains. Sam did mind, but managed to process his stress soon tab to read further

On the road. We had, in our car, Stuart and Sam in the front, two Dutch backpackers, Hanneke and Gijs (pronounced Khais, go figure!), whom we had met previously, and myself in the back, and in the rear of the car a young female Japanese hitchhiker who was getting a free ride to the base of the mountains, sharing her space with a large plastic cylinder containing the mysterious snake.

Heading north towards the towering range, the sealed road gave way to gravel and started to climb. We had before us the mother of all South African mountain passes, the Sani Pass. A family of chocma baboons crossed the road, scratching their armpits. A long-crested eagle sat on a roadside post, and soon our sharp-eyed driver spied a lone elan, the largest of antelope, grazing on the steep ridges lining the valley. Red winged starlings and double collared sunbirds darted amongst the marsh pokers and marmalade bush, sugarbirds fed on the proteas, and jackle buzzards and cape vultures, with their two metre wingspans, soared and circled above off the drafts coming off the cliffs. Nature was on show.

At our first stop Stuart pulled a small sack out of the cylinder, deftly opened and then inverted it, gently spilling the slithering contents onto the sand near the edge of a thatch of bracken. The short squat snake sat still until gently pushed by the other ranger to slither off to the undergrowth, where he would be safer from the birds of prey ever present above.

Sam was transfixed. He tried to speak to the snake in Parseltongue, the Harry Potter snake language. It didn’t speak back. Our fellow travellers were amused.

As we started off in the car again I wanted to pick the brains of our knowledgeable guide.

‘Why do they call them Puff Daddys?’ I asked.

‘I am not sure why they would call them Puff Daddies, but they call them puff adders because they puff out their necks when threatened.’

Gijs clarified it for me. ‘I think you’ll find Puff Daddy is a rap singer.’

Blushing in the bouncing Land Rover filled with stifled sniggers and smiles, I wondered to myself how I managed to do these things.

We dropped our Japanese hitchhiker at the bottom of where the road started to steeply climb. Stuart couldn’t take her any further as this was a commercial tour and she’d politely declined to pay. This ‘taxi rank’ was actually a small collection of abandoned stone buildings from the turn of the century, and she could have be waiting alone for up to three or four hours before a taxi, a minibus filled with locals, turned up. Alternatively, she could hitch a ride with a private car. Our intrepid co-traveller, with her waterproofed back pack and ‘I don’t need help’ attitude certainly wasn’t the typical Japanese tourist that I was familiar with back home in Australia.

The buildings used to be a trading post that Besotho herdsmen would drive their sheep and goats down to be sold, and buy wood, grains and other supplies in return. This trading post became obsolete when the old mule trail down the valley was hacked and picked by hand into a primitive road, and vehicle access meant the trade could happen in Lesotho itself, up and over the pass. The first car, a war-surplus Jeep, came over the pass in 1948 driven by an ex-spitfire pilot. He needed labourers equipped with ropes and various block and tackle to make the summit, a journey that took six hours to complete. The road was made into a functional road in 1950 and the west of Lesotho had transformed its trade route.

We made the ascent of 1300 metres over nine kilometres, bouncing through creeks and clinging to the vehicle that clung to the track that in turn clung to the walls of the cliffs. Hairpin left, hairpin right, we wound our way up. The border with Lesotho was at the top of the pass, though the South African border post was sensibly at the bottom. The Lesotho post, a white-plastered one room building with a side door and one small barred window at the front, housed a lone bored customs officer inside. On the outside of the building were hand-painted large black letters spelling out ‘Welcome to Lesotho’. Behind it lay the treeless plains of the mountain kingdom.

Sam sat on a rickety old desk outside the building. Wrapped in his rug he looked like a local. Our entry and exit stamps to Lesotho were stamped in our passports at the same time.

Stuart drove the Land Rover across the plains, empty except for the occasional flock of unclipped mohair goats driven by Besotho herdsmen wearing ragged cloths and carrying metre-length black sticks coloured with decorative twine.

Fluent in Sesotho and known by all the locals, Stuart stopped to chat to a woman at a village to see if we could visit her house later. She told him a herd of goats was being clipped in a shed nearby and we were invited to watch, an offer we accepted.

Sam and his rug again attracted attention. He walked up to the herd in the pen outside the shed and started to ‘talk’ to them in goat sounds. The shepherds and shearers were intrigued. They dragged the beasts up the ramp by their horns as they bleated and resisted.

‘Is this animal cruelty?’ Sam asked.

‘Oh, maybe a bit but not too bad. It’s like getting a haircut. They need to get it done, before they move down the mountain where it isn’t so cold.’

‘They’re getting a haircut!’

Sam excitedly moved around the shed looking at the goats getting clipped and the wool piles. He looked at the shearers with their long sharp shears.

‘I’m not getting a haircut?’

‘No Sam. Well, not here.’

For lunch we had a picnic packed earlier by the hostel staff, on the highest point of the road to the capital at 3,240 metres. To the west of us lay the 3 482-metre high Thaba Ntlenyana which translates as ‘beautiful little mountain’, which may seem strange but it was a little mountain on a high plain. It is the highest mountain in Africa south of Kilimanjaro, yet animals graze near the peak and shepherd boys easily walk up its summit.

Stuart drove us back to the woman’s stone rondavel. The rodavels were built by carefully arranging stones on the circular wall before the gaps were backfilled with a mixture of mud and dung. A similar mixture was used to make the floor. The thatch for the roof was from the short mountain grasses pulled out by the roots, with the dirty roots on the outside of the roof and the grass stems thatched together on the inside.

In the centre of the floor, a hollow held slow burning dung fuel, upon which sat a heavy cast iron covered pot. The heat from the hollow permeated the floor and effectively gave the hut subfloor heating. There was a mild smokiness to the room, but not unpleasant, even to Sam. The warm smokey air rose into the roof before slowly filtering through the thatch.

The Besothi woman wore, surprisingly, a beanie with an Australian flag on it. She opened the pot to reveal some impressive baked bread. Sam loved it, so I bought a segment to go with his lunch. The home made beer tasted more like cider.

Stuart translated for her and we learnt a few Sosothi phrases before bidding our farewells. On the way back to the border we called into one of the few buildings we saw besides shepherd huts, Sani Mountain Lodge. We drank a surprisingly good Lesotho beer as the mist from an incoming front swirled around the building, and Sam had a lemonade, while flicking through the magazines in front of the log fire. I was glad Stuart had driven this road several hundred times as he seemed to be using ‘the force’ to navigate the bends in the descent down the pass in the dense fog.

In the two hour drive back to the hostel, Sam got on a roll about justice systems and modern history. Stuart, Gijs and Hanneke were surprised, as was I, about his knowledge of the French Revolution and the North Korean government. He must have been Googling. When he gets on a roll like this, I like to run with it. It is an opportunity to direct him back to some more functional and mainstream understanding and knowledge. We discussed the Cuban missile crisis, the European and Pacific theatres of war, when they started and ended, and the death of Hitler. Our cumulative general knowledge struggled to keep up with him at times.

He can really surprise me sometimes.