May 18th: Maseru, Lesotho
I once again was early to rise, enjoying the frigid mountain morning while the sun rose. Around 7 a.m. I headed into town grabbing some delicious local flatbread for only three maloti, about $0.45, while I sat and waited for the Internet café and grocery store to open their doors. I was taking it easy for the day, stocking up on food, and giving myself a mental break from dealing with minibus taxis. After breakfast a guy approached me who was about my age. Assuming he was the usual hawker trying to get me to buy something I casually exchanged pleasantries waiting for the business pitch to come. The business pitch never came. His name was Tumelo Moshoeshoe, a 21 year old that just wanted to practice his English. I had done a pretty good deal of reading and research prior to my trip, and the Moshoeshoe name rung a bell. I couldn’t resist the urge to ask him if he was related to the distant King Moshoeshoe I, the founder of modern day Lesotho. To my surprise, he was! His grandmother was the 16th wife of King Moshoeshoe II, but with the amount of wives the previous kings had, and the size of Lesotho, there is probably a decent chance of meeting someone related to the king distantly. Tumelo accompanied me on the rest of my walk since we were both going to the same place. I was headed to the market to find out were the minibuses leave for Semonkong, and he was on his way to drop off his father’s luggage for his trip home to visit their family in Leribe, a short ride north of Maseru. He insisted I meet his father, and with no plans for the day I decided to tag along. After meeting his father he proceeded to show me the minibus taxi stand were I needed to go the next day. I then bought a big plate of chips to share with Tumelo that were covered in every possible condiment drizzled on top: salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, chutney, hot sauce, vinegar, and a couple others I didn’t know. It was unexpectedly one of the most delicious things I had eaten so far on my trip.
On the walk back I found out Tumelo was working as a baker selling cakes and bread on the street, and only had the day off to help his father. Tumelo was well versed in the history and politics of Lesotho, and was patient enough to provide me with an opportunity to practice speaking and learning Sesotho, the national language of Lesotho. The language learning would come in handy outside the big city as many fewer people spoke English in the rural lands. Before we parted ways, Tumelo insisted I take his fathers phone number incase anything came up on my travels through Lesotho, and gave me one of the most important tidbits of information I needed. He told me Lesotho was having their elections for prime minister on May 26th. Elections in Lesotho, like many African countries unfortunately, have been a source of conflict. The 1998 election were the most turbulent, with widespread riots and violence in Maseru. It caused the election to be postponed 4 years until 2002. After that things had gone well until the 2007 elections, which led to strikes and protests, but nothing as bad as 1998. Fortunately the chaos was very localized and only took place in the capitol, Maseru. Not wanting to find out first hand how the 2012 elections would turn out, I decided to cut my trip through the country a little bit short.
The next day, May 19th, I rose before the sun about a quarter to six to ensure I got the earliest possible start to my journey. I was headed from Maseru, southeast, to Semonkong in the interior of the country. I had read that the 114km (70 miles) journey could take anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, so I wanted to make the most of my daylight hours lest anything go wrong. My day had an auspicious start with good fortune finding me just as I left. The sun was just peaking its head over the horizon, and I had only walked a couple blocks of the 2km (1.2 miles) to get to the minibus stand when I was picked up by a police officer. He was leaving the station as I walked by, and wanted to know where I was headed. Under many other circumstances the last thing I would want would to be stopped by the police, but the friendly officer gave me a lift as I was headed his direction. My good fortune continued after the officer dropped me at the minibus stand. The minibus taxi headed to Semonkong had one seat left open, which meant, one, I had a ride, and two, the minibus was now full and would depart right away.
The Basotho beats were bumping in the 16-person minibus, and I was feeling good, and optimistic about my journey ahead. These feelings seldom last and it wasn’t too long before I came crashing back to reality. About 35km (22 miles) into the drive the gearbox decided to quit on one of the steep grades going up into the mountains and we came to an abrupt grinding halt. No one looked too surprised as we all got out of the minibus to hang out on the side of the road while a replacement was sent from Maseru to take us the rest of the way. On the plus side we hadn’t made it too far from Maseru, so it wouldn’t take too long for a new minibus to arrive. The hour or so wait on the side of the road did allow me to meet the other passengers I was crammed into the minibus with. One of those people was Malaka Alex. He was currently studying agriculture at the university, and was headed to Semonkong to visit his grandparents. The company made the time pass quickly, and before I knew it I was back on the road to Semonkong. The road itself is only paved from Maseru to Roma, and semi-paved from Roma to Ramabanta. The rest of the 70km (43 miles) is basically a 4×4 road, and we were not in a 4×4. There were however, odd stretches on the 4×4 road that were paved for a few hundred feet, and then back to 4×4 road. This made me wonder how they possibly ended up there. These odd stretches of pavement also allowed the driver to accelerate as much as possible before slamming on the brakes right before the pavement ended. As if those short bits of acceleration would cut hours off the trip.
The scenery along the drive was phenomenal. As we wound our way over some of the higher mountain passes you could see Thaba Putsoa, one of the higher mountains in Lesotho at 3096m (10157ft) above sea level. The whole country is located on a huge plateau, and it has the highest low point of any country on earth, with its lowest point at 1400m (4593ft). The mountains are ancient, and are also home to minwane (dinosaur footprints) preserved in the sandstone, but I unfortunately didn’t get to see any. There are many spectacular gorges and huge sandstone cliffs that have been slowly eroded by the wind and rain to create very smooth and curvilinear faces. The hillsides are dotted with small villages clustered with rondavels, the traditional style Basotho house, which is a round single room with a thatched roof.
The second minibus taxi, despite its creaks, and moans rolled into Semonkong around 11:30 a.m. Semonkong could easily be described as a one horse except for the fact that there are more horses than people living there. My friend from the ride, Malaka, kindly showed me the way to the lodge, the only place to stay in the village, and we parted ways. The lodge is perfectly situated in a small gorge between two cliff faces on the Maletsunyane River. Not long after I arrived I set up my tent for 80m ($10) a night. The owners of the lodge were extremely nice, and they stopped by after I was done setting up my tent to let me know that I had picked an excellent day to arrive, as there was going to be some traditional horse races that day. My luck had returned and I was quick to take them up on their offer to take me with them.
The races were held on a flat plateau not far from the lodge, and it seemed as though the entire town had shown up for the event. There were no set races, and each race would start with one of the horse’s owners parading the horse and jockey around shouting out where the horse was from and all of its exploits. He was putting the challenge out to other people to race his horse. This meant the races could consist of practically anywhere between 2 and 6 horses. The jockeys were kids probably about 10-16 years old with some of them seemingly quite well known. Betting was rampant but I decided it best to hold on to my money. The betting works the same way as the race. There were no bookies, it was up to you to find a person willing to bet against you and then find a third uninterested party to hold the money during the race. I figured if I bet I had a pretty good chance of losing my money either way. The racetrack was probably about 5½ furlongs and was arced around a cornfield on a well-trodden path. The starting line across the cornfield was marked by a few standing cows. The finish line ended in a crowd of people with two older men sitting on rocks acting as the “photo finish”. The races were wild and rowdy with little or no rules, and more then one or two exciting finishes. If the race was determined to end in a dead heat by the two older men, then it was simply rerun and the horse with more stamina was the victor. All this put an eventful end to my first day in Semonkong as I prepared for my first night of African camping.