Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Going Big, Getting High

Ficksburg, 10:33. I’m ready for sun, sweat and soil. I’m scared. I’m excited. I’m in a town that feels like a frontier sort of place. I won’t be surprised if I see a couple of cowboys walking down the street, heading for the OK Corral. I can already see what’s in store for me – very tall mountains, the Maloti’s – rising to an ominous blur of blue and purple. I’m traveling on my own through Eastern Lesotho. Well, not exactly. I’ve got something BIG, to get me across the Roof of Africa in a single day.

At the border post of Maputsoe, I get a taste of what’s to come. Nobody knows anything about my intended route. No one knows whether the roads are still impassable due to heavy rains, or how long my route might take. Somehow this distills my nerve, restores my wits. I’m heading into the unknown and there’s nothing else to it. I’m expecting to flash across the mountains in a blur of silver, and to emerge on the other side, at Sani, in the late, perhaps even early afternoon. Silly boy.

I’m taking an unusual route. It looks something like an upside down ‘5’. This means it’s a much longer road to the other side of The Roof. Instead of going via Oxbow, I’m turning off at Hlotse and heading past Katse Dam towards Thaba Tseka before turning sharply towards Mokhotlong, where my road meets the conventional one and passes right beside Southern Africa’s highest point. After that, I descend down a road too steep for most vehicles – the Sani Pass, with a gradient of 1:6. After only a few minutes, my cellphone loses it’s signal.

At Hlotse (a name reminiscent of Lhotse, the peak adjacent to Everest), I pass the turn off to Thaba Tseka. I could easily have gone on, but I turn my sleek vessel around, and head towards rougher country, and even rougher roads. Meanwhile, the scenery around me is changing. The first thing I notice is how different this landlocked country is to my own. Lesotho immediately feels different. There are no fences beside the strip of tar that shoots and swings across muscular green countryside. This already gives an impression of freedom, and vertigo, and exposure to the outdoors. Roofs are held down with large rocks. But more charming than anything, are the people. Children all over Lesotho shout, “GIVE ME MONEY!” as you pass by. I find a flock of blue frocked schoolgirls, weeding a vegetable garden. Then I encounter a shepherd boy with a painted face, dressed in vivid red. I find the same dress code repeated over and over: gum boots, a colorful blanket, a shepherd’s staff and a winter hat. This pattern is found across this mountain Kingdom, and it soon becomes clear why. My road suddenly flies steeply upward, along the dragon’s back.

Pitseng, 11:40. If I had any doubts about my road, they were eclipsed first by a pair of intrepid (and apparently very strong) cross-country cyclists. The pair – one from Canada and one from Holland – had cycled (and walked) the route I’d mapped out, in reverse. They said the rivers were coming down in spate, but were able to get themselves and their bicycles across the worst using a small ferry. They pulled out a map, warning me, “Don’t get lost!” and showed me a possible alternative 4x4 route I could take if the Senqu (one of the sources of the Orange) was still roaring over roads. More than anything, their confidence and joie de vivre fused into me. And second, when I was lifted high on the shoulders of the Mafika Lisiu Pass (3090m) knowing their travails had taken them over these self same roads, I was fully inspired to follow this road to its end.

The Mafika Lisiu Pass gets you higher than Sani, and the road offers equally stupendous scenery. Forget using the aircon at this altitude, the air is fresh and cool enough, and will remain thus for much of the remainder of the journey. Now, I found very few huts or vehicles for miles and miles. When you turn off the engine your ears ring. You can hear the tyres of your vehicle crunching on rock, and your own feet crush the hard bristles of some hardy mountain grass. It’s very quiet. A single bird chirrups through crystal clear air - the sound rings like a bell. Every now and again you drive through a tongue of silver water that spills over a road. Stop there and listen to the gurgling song – it’s probably better than anything you’ve got on the radio. I offer two small boys 50 cents each, and they jump up in triumph in the cloud I leave behind. I see flecks tilling the fields way down in lush green valleys, and teenagers riding donkeys.

The next pass is Laitsoka, at 2650m, but I only reach it at 13:57. The tar road has long since fallen behind, and I get glimpses of the Katse Dam. I have a hitchhiker on board, a young shepherd wearing rags – looking like a lost Jedi or someone else out of Star Wars. Now the road becomes tough, and the scenery increasingly wild and beautiful. There are fewer and fewer people, and all that seems to live up here is grass and small birds. I reach Ha Seshote at 14:09 and Nkaobee Pass (2510m) at 14:18. I notice storm clouds moving in. I know if they open up I have a long drive back. I’m determined to stay ahead. At times I’m hitting 60km/h, but mostly I’m between 40 and 50. That means, literally 40 kilometres in an hour. It’s not much. The scenery swooping around me is rough and gorgeous. I reach Thaba Tseka at 15:55. I’ve been on the road for over 5 hours now. At times I feel like I’m sitting on a bucking bronco.

The fun but arduous drive takes me along ribbons of unfenced road, with chasms falling around me. I cross a huge river, which I take to be the Senqu (or Orange) River, and it’s already mighty, frothing and foaming, churning mud and pieces of mountain on its way down. The end of the bridge is underwater, but I am so high off the ground that I easily make it. I also spot two boats pulled up against the hill. I’m glad I’ve had a good night’s sleep, because now, with darkness descending, I need good reflexes. I am driving rapidly but not recklessly through the mountains that give birth to our mightiest river. In the gloom I notice a sign for a self catering guest house called St. James. I cross a steel bridge at 18:43 and get out the car to check my map. Have I gone through Mokhotlong, or Thabang? If so there wasn’t a sign to tell me. I haven’t seen a sign in a long time. Later I ask a local if I am on the right road to Sani. He points in the direction I’m going. The mountain is wearing different jerseys, and then clouds cover them and all I can see are the lights of the Isuzu probing the cold fog. It’s cold and lonely. I see a jackal slinking away from the road as I approach. Some parts feel like Seweweekspoort up here. There’s sandstone and the continuous chuckle of a stream over rounded rocks at high altitude. I can’t see it, but I know Thaba Ntleyana is looking down on me.

I see a sign – SANI PASS – in the gloom. And then a closed gate. The Sani Pass closed at 16:00, and it’s now 20:10. I’m at the Sani Top Chalet, the highest Pub in Africa, at 2874m. But I’m home, and what a cozy and comfortable place it is, after such a hard and uplifting day.

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