Friday, March 10, 2006

The Mountain Kingdom


As is noted by any casual cartographic observer, South Africa completely encloses the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (leh-soo-too). This always struck me as odd because Lesotho is closer in scale to Slovenia than to Monaco. As far as I know, it is the biggest country that is completely surrounded by another. Come to think, I know of only two such countries. Vatican City is the other one. Please comment if you've got more. I like to indulge my fetish for geographic trivia a bit every now and then.

Lesotho is sometimes called the "Switzerland of Africa" because of its mountain setting. The kingdom was intentionally founded on high ground as a place of refuge from the ethnic and colonial wars that ravaged South Africa in the 18th and 19th century. The dramatic scenery was formed by the slow erosion of valleys into once what was a high plateau. There is allegedly some flat land near the captial, but we saw none of it. We came and went through the rugged Sani Pass on the eastern border with South Africa. We were joined by two Dutch sisters and a South African guide called Matthew.

On the drive in we stopped four times. Two halts were accounted for by the widely separated border posts. The third was a lunch break on top of a hill. After scarfing down the familiar "sandwich and fruit and drink box and cake" combo, we played hacky sack for a bit with some local shepherds in between denying their requests for money. Apparently, the people of Lesotho have taken to begging in a big way. Kids ask for sweets, adults for cash. The last stop was to take a swim in a mountain river. Only Matthew and I were willing to brave the cold water and enjoyed an invigorating splash around. In one memorable instance, my trunks were nearly pulled off by the fast-moving water. The only thing that prevented total ass exposure was a timely and apparently comedic (Jason and the girls are all witnesses) loss of balance.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in a lodge where we were to spend the night. It was the most modern building in an otherwise unmodern village. Most of the people of Lesotho lived in round stone houses with maybe one glass window and a thatch roof reinforced by plastic or corrugated iron. Almost everyone wears a traditional blanket for warmth and Wellington boots to protect against mud and rocks. The people are not terribly tall, smile easily, and take a strong interest in foreigners. Their language is called Besotho (buh-soo-too). It sounds a lot like you would expect a native South African language to sound. I spent a little time chasing the village children around the corn fields before joining the others at the local pub.

Perhaps pub is a bit strong of a word. It was a round house like any other, but it contained a few very animated locals drinking down cups of homemade sorghum beer. The taste is a bit hard to describe. Imagine a milky white light vinegar with strong overtones of pepto-bismol. Add to that slippery chunks for texture and you are close. To be fair, my dislike for the brew was not universally shared. Jason defected from public opinion and declared it to be "good". In fact, he liked it so much that he bought a large plastic gas can full of the horrendous crap and carted it back to the lodge to be choked down before, during, and after dinner. In total, we only managed to knock back about 60 percent. The rest was used to polish brass.

We were up early the next day to continue on by pony. The local horses were a bit smallish but easy to ride and very sure of foot. These traits were most welcome as all involved had but limited riding experience and we were traveling up and down very steep, rocky paths. The experience was marvelous. The horses did all the work while we sat back and enjoyed the scenery of little villages, green valleys, grey mountains, and blue sky. After lunch, we kicked things up a notch and started working the horses a bit harder. It felt silly at first, but I soon warmed to shouting "heeya" and urging on my pony with crop and ankles. They day culminated in racing Jason at a gallop along narrow paths and high ridges. I never thought of myself as the kind of guy that would be into riding horses, but I am.

The second night, we stayed in a more remote village. Our host was a schoolteacher and the wife of the local chief. Their property consisted of one large Western-style house, several traditional round buildings, and a roofless stone enclosure for the livestock. The enclosure served the dual purpose of fence and poop-concentrator. There is not much vegetation around, so dung is also used for fuel. The women occupied themselves with domestic chores and crops while the men were almost exclusively shepherds. Only the main house had electricity (from a generator) and the family's prize possession was a small TV set. It was there that we took our meals (just a hearty dinner and a light breakfast) and where our hostess treated us to a short history of Lesotho and told us about her recent trip to Wales.

After dark, there ain't much to see or do, so it was early to bed. In the morning, we struck out again on horseback, retracing some of our steps, but also covering some new ground. Just as we were approaching the lodge, the weather started to close in. We jumped off our horses just as it began to hail after a thrilling downhill gallop in light rain. The weather stormed itself out while we had a cup of tea, then we piled back in the truck for the trip back to the border. We stopped only for a bit to enjoy a drink at the highest pub in Africa, The Sani Pass Hotel, before continuing on back into South Africa. Lesotho is a quiet, scenic place, full of friendly faces. I like it. It makes me feel...welcome.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know what I discovered? South Park is a fucking HILARIOUS show. I'm paying for Comedy Central now. But I've never watched the channel until lately. And it's an effort to pull myself off the nightly reruns to go to bed.

3/23/2006 8:32 PM gmt

Blogger Rethabile said...

That's part of my site on Lesotho. Glad you had an OK time in Lesotho, even though you didn't take to *joala*


3/25/2006 11:11 PM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

San Marino is totally surrounded by Italy.

3/26/2006 6:45 AM gmt


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