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Guessing my way to Lesotho part 3

May 6, 2012

DAY 3:

I woke up, had a bucket bath and a bowl of cornflakes, and said goodbye to the family that had shown me hospitality. The woman who took me home yesterday had gotten up before me and taken her daughter to school, but her husband stayed behind to guide me. He refused any money for letting me stay the night but I gave him the book I had bought the day before. I’ll have to find another copy some other time.

My guide worked for the Lesotho equivalent of a District Attorney and after we took a taxi to town, we walked together through a part of the city, quite busy even though it was still early in the morning. He took me right to the bus I needed, and I knew it was the right bus because it had a big wooden sign saying “Katse” on the dashboard. I paid for the ticket in South African rand, which is accepted at the same value as Lesotho maloti. Taken to its logical conclusion, that would mean that rand is actually worth more than maloti because only rand can be spent in both countries, but sometimes convenience comes before logic. The husband left me there once I was safely on the bus, and all I had left to do was wait.

The bus filled up slowly and calmly. The differences between this and a South African bus were subtle. Instead of the usual parade of vendors down the aisle selling fruit, people were trying to sell all sorts of non-comestibles, including cassette tapes. Haven’t seen those in a long time. I was sitting near the back and it wasn’t until the bus was nearly full that someone sat next to me. She was Coloured according to South African taxonomy, I guess, and I’m not yet as comfortable as some South Africans when it comes to guessing at people’s races and I probably never will be, but I’m saying it now to give some context to the following details. She had freckles and she was on her way to visit her adoptive brother. I never really learned her Sesotho name but her surname meant spear so she was called Spears. She explained a lot to me about Lesotho as the trip went on, but even she couldn’t explain why the bus doesn’t fill up with gas before it waits at the bus stop. I sat by the window and Spears sat closer to me that she might have otherwise if there hadn’t been a woman in a leopard-print blanket standing the aisle crowding her space.

I was a little astonished by what I saw once the bus left the city. My understanding of the history of Lesotho, and why it’s a hole in the map of South Africa rather than part of it, is that the Dutch had conquered the good farmland (now Free State) from the Basotho before they became a British protectorate, and what’s left is the land the Dutch didn’t want. So I wasn’t expecting the country to be beautiful. As we drove through the mountains (which is the entire country, basically), it started to make more sense to call the land where I live hills. These mountains were covered with grass, although there were some shiny patches around the peaks. The shiny spots were stone covered in water. I don’t know how, but water was seeping down the mountains everywhere, and we kept driving by rivers and waterfalls.

I saw people out the window, but there were few and far between. Most of them were tending flocks of sheep or goats, and a few of them had dogs. They wore blankets around their shoulders (did I mention it was cold?) and some of them idly spun the sticks they carry as traditional weapons as they looked over their herd. The goats were white and shaggy and looked better suited for a snowy climate, or the ice planet from Star Wars. Lesotho is the world’s leading exporter of goat hair. There was one guy who looked like he was wearing a costume made of feathers, but I only saw him for an instant and I never saw anything like it again.

The bus stopped constantly to pick up or drop off people on the side of the road, often in places where I couldn’t see any trace of civilization. When the bus started picking up people outside of the city, this was my first real contact with the rural people of Lesotho. They say Limpopo is rural but Lesotho definitely has me beat. They exhibited a more casual disregard for my personal space and their personal hygiene than I had ever seen before from a population as a whole. [Having ridden on a bus packed like a sardine can to and from my site since writing this, I can say that this isn’t really true, but it seemed that way at the time.] Men and women will wear blankets around their shoulders, and while the Basotho have traditional straw hats, they’re more likely to wear caps or ski masks, and they all seem to like rubber boots. It took me some time to realize that the woman in the leopard-print blanket standing in the aisle near Spears was a man. The whole look with the blanket as a cloak and pants tucked into your boots can make you look quite intrepid, as long as you avoid leopard or floral prints.

Looking at a map, you wouldn’t think a ride to Katse would be long. But the thing about Lesotho roads is that they snake and curve around the mountains. The road we were on didn’t follow a contour line, not by a long shot, but it didn’t plow above peaks or through valleys either. It might have made me impatient, but with a girl like Spears beside you, it doesn’t seem to matter.

We stopped at a village and I got out to look at the shops. I bought a Lesotho SIM card so I could call Justin, which had been my plan from the beginning, although I wasn’t expecting the SIM card to cost R30 because they cost more like one cent in South Africa. As I was walking back to the bus, on the road behind me was a square of people singing and carrying blankets at buckets on their heads. I asked Spears what was going on, thinking it was a tribe of nomads. She said they were selling stuff.

I got my SIM card activated and working about the time that Spears got off the bus. I called Justin to update him on my progress and get further directions. The place I was going to was called Katse Dam (in South African English, a dam is any still body of water) but the specific village was called Ha Hoba. I was starting to feel like I should be there already because I had been on the bus for 7 hours.

“Are you on a dirt road or a tar road?” Justin asked me.

“It’s paved… No, wait, it’s dirt. Not sure when that happened.”

“Do you see any landmarks or signs?”

“Well, I’m surrounded by mountains… There are a few huts, too. Wait, there’s a building with a tin roof.”

“Any signs, though?”

“There haven’t been signs for a while. Wait, there’s one for a school…”

I wasn’t able to tell Justin anything useful but he told me that I would reach the village a few minutes after getting on the tar road. I walked to the front of the bus to ask the driver and ticket checker if they knew where Ha Hoba is.

They said no. No one knew where Ha Hoba is.

I sat back down and waited. There aren’t a whole lot of places to make a wrong turn on this road, and the bus was still going to Katse even if no one knew specifically where I was trying to go. After another hour or two, the bus made a left turn onto a tar road, and in a few minutes we stopped at a sign that said Katse. I got off there, because the place looked developed as Justin had described and because a lot of people were getting off too.

“Here you are. Ha Hoba,” another passenger told me as I was getting off the bus.

The bus had dropped me off among some crude brick buildings. I asked around, bought some airtime to call Justin and tell him where I was, found a bathroom (I had been on the bus for 9 hours, after all) and came out to see Justin waiting for me. He found me by asking where the white person is.

And that’s how I got to Katse, and how I spent 9 hours on a bus on my birthday.


From → Lesotho, Traveling

  1. Just Gary permalink

    Another excellent post. I’ll hypothecate about the bus and gas: Perhaps they don’t want to fill up before they have money from passengers. It could be purely economic. Also, in the “unlikely” event that they have to park the bus, it’s not full of fuel that can be easily stolen.

    • If the driver or company has money at the beginning, they should have money at the end as well. South Africans aren’t famous for their money management skills, but I hope the driver isn’t drinking it all away while driving!

      Hadn’t thought of the gas being stolen, though. One hypothesis I had was that the fuel tank meter might not be reliable so the driver fills up just to be careful, but that only makes sense for the old and beaten up taxis.

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