Ramblin’ Man: Stories of jaunts and journeys

Published on: December 9, 2015


Maseru,-Lesotho---2012-(1)Lesotho is a country in Southern Africa that is completely surrounded by South Africa. With the extreme poverty and high rates of HIV, the country sees very few tourists. I decided to visit Lesotho after a week-and-a-half of traveling Southern Africa as it was one more spot in the large 4,000 mile circle of seven countries that I wanted to drive through.

In my previous travels I have learned that every place has something to offer, and in general it is the less traveled and tougher to get to places that offer the best memories.

To get there, I take a right out of Aliwal going north, and drive the 35 miles to the Lesotho border. This is not the recommended route, but taking the recommended route would have brought me straight to Maseru, the capital, on South African roads, and in turn I’d have missed the countryside. I was not willing to miss this part as the big cities are only part of a country.

I come to the border crossing on the west side of Lesotho. I felt uneasy and out of place due to the fact that the place seemed almost deserted and the line to cross is nonexistent. This place reminds me of the old highways in New Mexico where the deserted buildings of the ’50s and ’60s continue to just barely stand.

I discover throughout the rest of this trip that this is not normal for African border crossings; they are usually loud and crowded. I wouldn’t say it was scary, but perhaps a bit Twilight Zone-ish.

Maseru,-Lesotho---2012-(12)A small customs and immigration office and a few rundown buildings around the border that may be homes or businesses is all that is there. The lack of activity makes me wonder if they aren’t just simply abandoned. My first thought is, this will be quick and easy. It’s never quick and easy in Africa. My crossing is slowed not because of long lines; in fact, I was basically the only one there besides border agents and locals selling miscellaneous items such as wood carvings and gum.

The holdup was finding the one agent in the area who spoke English and knew the process of letting an American into the country. He tells me I’m the first American tourist he has seen in years and one of three tourists in the last eight months at this crossing. He’s an older man with that big African smile that the older generation seems to have, the smile that, regardless of the situation, he knows life is good. He warns me of the potholes and that my new VW Polo (basically a Jetta) makes me look like a tourist in an area where tourists aren’t common….

Message received, but if you took every warning you received while traveling, especially in Africa — well, you wouldn’t be traveling.

Once I made it through the crossing, I realized this crossing is not a common entry point for tourists. The roads are unpaved for the first 10 miles, and potholes are everywhere due to the rain (picture driving a VW up a dried out riverbed).

Lesotho is a beautiful country that seems to be flat everywhere you are, yet there are always big and beautiful mountains in the distance regardless of how far you drive. I can think of no other word to describe it than the Afrikaans term, the Veld, as so often mentioned by Wilbur Smith in his novels. The Veld is a wide open rural landscape; it is a flat area covered in grass or low scrub. The land is classic Africa from the books I have read in the past. It’s a barren feel, yet you know it is bursting with life. The temperature is hot and the air is dry, but it is summertime, and it is Africa, so hot is a relative term.

I love driving these roads not just for the peace they offer now, but daydreaming of the amazing stories of southern Africa, where adventurers and explorers made their fortunes in diamonds, ivory, and blood. Africa seems to be the closest place on Earth to unexplored wonders and adventure, and I think that is the true great appeal of this continent.

I link up to the main road and start the drive to the capital, Maseru, which is about 90 miles away. This road is now paved, and the potholes are few, but they are much larger. So large, in fact, that avoiding them wasn’t always an option, and as most are shallow, it’s more of a discomfort than a danger.

All said, the discomfort wasn’t even that terrible as I was on vacation, it wasn’t my car, and iPods don’t skip like CD players used to.

As always, I spoke too soon. Combine huge holes with high speeds of 90 to 110 MPH (limited law enforcement means limited speed traps) and bad things are bound to happen…. And sure enough, a pizza box-size hole viciously attacked my wheel, blew the tire, and hit hard enough to crack and bend the rim.

The area I am in seemed deserted, but before long, in a way that only happens in Africa, people appeared. The land is flat, I’m at least 20 miles from any town on the maps, and yet here is a mother and her two children. Dressed the way that seems so usual here, faded clothes donated through First World countries for the children and a full-length dress in simple patterns for the woman. In Africa, you would assume the Chicago Bulls were still on top, and they had just won another championship…. Oh, what simpler times….

Did I mention I also lost the hubcap in the process? I know this because this pleasant woman has it in her hand along with a basket on her head, and a smile on her face as I am unloading the spare and jack. She begins pointing at my wheel and saying something that even language barriers can’t block, something like, “the wheel is bad” or “you hit a pothole.”

In my head I’m thinking, “Thank you, I hadn’t noticed the missing rubber and the odd fact that the wheel isn’t round like the other three.”

I got the tire changed and was about to go, when I noticed the second child, who must have left, is coming back with something in his hand; it’s a local dish of sorts wrapped in tinfoil. It could be any of the staples of the region from potatoes, corn or rice, which is sometimes mixed with a small amount of meat such as beef, goat or seafood, mashed up porridge style. I take the meal, give them some U.S. money for their kindness, and drive away. The currency of Lesotho is the Loti, but U.S. dollars seem to always be the better choice. This particular dish, when I open it up, will most certainly keep me on the toilet for a week. I throw it away, but smile at the kindness of the gesture. Good people truly are everywhere, but you seem to notice them more when you are least expecting them.

Maseru,-Lesotho---2012-(19)All four wheels are round again, and I continued onward to Maseru. I headed to the center of town and found very little lodging, basically two hotels. One is a very nice and very expensive hotel and casino, which I found out later is mostly occupied by the Chinese businessmen that seem to now own every mining right in the country, and the other is the unknowing dump I chose, if for no other reason than the price US$40 versus US$350.

The room is sparse, and the door locks seem not to work at all. I can also assume for good reason that pest control has not been in the budget for years. The room for the night has been paid for, the car trunk is there to lock everything in and, after all, maybe I can drink this mess away. Staying in the room to rest a bit seemed very unappealing as it smelled of mold, and it sounded like the cars from the road were driving over my bed, they were so close. It was time to go out.

About two blocks from the motel is a locals’ bar that seems a little shady. The bars over the windows and bars are common in Africa, but the fact the paint on these were all chipped up as if multiple night attempts to break in was a thing the owner knew all too well. The concrete floors are all cracked up and the smell of tobacco, a bit of pot and a lot of body odor do little to help the bar’s ambience.

The music is loud and outdated, but I could still hear numerous loud conversations in languages I can’t place. As the alcohol is the only sterile stuff in the place, this is a place to drink, if nothing else.

As night falls, I can say with certainty that my Spidey senses were spot on; it’s a rough dive, and tourists are not common here if the looks from the locals were to be taken at face value.

I decided to stay and drink more; after all, I couldn’t go back to my room sober. Cockroaches and thieves only bother sober people, and I don’t want that kind of attention. At least, this is the traveler’s lore I have used in the past. If nothing else, maybe I could forget the roaches.

About two hours into this bar visit, four locals walked in who also didn’t seem to belong, if for no other reason than their clothes didn’t have holes and stains, and two of them spoke English. They are dressed as if they plan to hit a club later, the guys are in slacks and button-down shirts, and the girls are in shiny club dresses that are sure to impress every man in the area. I, as always, am in board shorts, a T-shirt, and flip-flops.

I talk to them for about 15 minutes, and I find out this is one of their non-English-speaking friend’s neighborhood. As locals, even they say it’s rough, and that it’s not a place for rich white people. I tell them I’m not rich, and they laugh and say, “You’re white, you’re rich enough.”

The two English speakers, it turns ou,t are brother and sister and they invite me to the “rich area with the rich people.” They are in their late 20s, seem full of life, and have nothing but positive things to say about the future of their country.

It’s becoming clear that money — or at least the appearance of money — is very important in the capital. I agree to go if taxis are available to bring me back. I’m told taxis can’t be trusted, but that they are more than happy to bring me back after bar close.

I ask them if they drink and drive often, and they laugh and say, of course, the HIV will kill them before an accident. I later find out that HIV is a bigger problem than I originally thought, with a 50 percent HIV rate among women under 40 in the urban area.

It is going to be a long night! We drive right into the heart of Maseru’s newest area. A couple square blocks of banks, a few shops and restaurants, and a big bar. This area seemed to be the only developed area in the city of 250,000 people. There are only two new auto dealerships in the whole of the country, a country of over 2 million.

The rest of the group is here, we are now eight plus me. These are the up-and-coming professionals of a struggling country. One works in politics with South America, a few more have jobs, but most seem to simply exist on family money. Where the family money is from even now eludes me. We’re kind of a young breakfast club of an under-developed nation.

We get the best table in the house, and I’m told that it is a result of me being an American and white, as this is not a common sight. In fact, I hadn’t seen a tourist, let alone a white person at all. They are excited to talk about politics, culture and business, but most of all the future. They talk of the new diamond mines opening, though I don’t think they understand that as the Chinese own these, it’s not quite the economic boom they are planning for.

We drink Savannah Dry, a dry cider that is popular throughout the region. At one point I ask if they know a lot of people with HIV, they laugh and say of course. I ask if anyone at the table has it, and again they laugh. They say, “Of course, but there are drugs for that.” It is simply a part of life, and it seems to matter none.

After a few hours they decide it is time to go meet some of their family, and we ask for the check. A full rack of ribs and about 60 bottles of Savannah Dry is a bill of about US$80. I think this is a great deal, but notice the looks of fear, since each of their shares of the tab is about $6 to $7. I offer to pay to pay the bill, and this has now made me part of the family. All I can think at this point is that it’s barely dinner and a movie in the States, and I have free taxi service … kind of.

We leave the bar and head to the parking garage where we left the car. As we are walking, we hear running and whistles blowing behind us, and we all step to the side as what appears to be a homeless man and two police officers run by us. The officers catch up to him and start beating him with their sticks. This continues down two flights of stairs into the parking garage where we are heading.

I look to my new friends, and all they say is, “He shouldn’t be near the rich people’s cars.” I can’t help but think about the crippling $7 bar bill my new rich friends just nearly endured. What the man’s crime was I will never know. Such is Africa, the disparity between the haves and have-nots.

The rest of the evening, we drive around town meeting people and drinking cheap beer. It seems there are few rules if you have a car. We were never pulled over regardless of how much swerving we did, and yes, the potholes were bad.

Maseru,-Lesotho---2012-(21)Around 4 a.m., I get back to my disgusting room smiling, about a great night out with fun new friends. The next day I moved over to the casino and actually negotiated a huge discount and spent the next two days walking the town, lying by the pool and playing cards with businessmen.

Lesotho was a blast, beautiful and raw. Now it is time to drive on. Next is a short trip through Zululand and then onto Swaziland.

Jason Barth is the owner of Shell Point Marina in Ruskin, Florida. He has traveled to 44 countries in the last 12 years and always wanted to write about his travels. The above story is about two days in Lesotho, Africa,  during a solo three-month trip.