Lesotho: The Sandile Fiasco

“Are those skis?”

“Oh yeah, I know where that is.”

Oh no you don’t. I told you Pointless wasn’t pointless.

If I asked them to point out Lesotho on a map, I reckon most people would have a stab somewhere in the middle of Africa. Right continent but way off: Lesotho is a landlocked country surrounded entirely by South Africa. We were in this neck of the woods for the cricket, and fresh from a surprising England win at Cape Town we scampered via Durban to a town called Underberg, where a guide would accompany us into this unknown, tall nation.

Lesotho is known as the ‘roof of Africa’ – the whole country is more than 1,000m above sea level, unique in the world. Our guide was a man named Sandile. We stopped for breakfast not long after we left Underberg. He had a bowl of Shreddies. I should have known then something wasn’t right.

The route into Lesotho is via the Sani Pass, a steep and rocky mountain road that feels like it’s been chipped out over centuries by hoof and sandal alone. You make your way up to the border to leave South Africa, then you rattle through a few strange kilometres of no man’s mountain neither country wants, before you get to the Lesotho border at the top. You’ll be wanting to have a settled stomach for the Sani Pass for a variety of reasons.

One of the first things Lesotho had to offer was ‘the highest pub in Africa’, by Jove. Rude not to and all that. During our pint we spotted the first bit of wildlife, a Sloggett’s Ice Rat, which was due to be the title of the next Fall album until Mark E Smith fell off his stool.

It was both literally and metaphorically all downhill from there.

The mountainous areas of Lesotho are beautiful, make no mistake. Three quarters of the country is mountains, all green in the summer, and every corner on the winding roads across them brings a fresh view.

The people themselves are apparently obsessed with brown, which is what the ‘sotho’ bit means in the local language, which is itself called Sesotho, spoken by the Basotho people, an individual of which is known as a Mosotho. Keep up.

There are individuals dotted about all across these mountains, herding livestock to God knows where. In a nod to a time before life became busy, shepherding is a very real career path here.

Sandile parked us up on a mountain to have a picnic lunch, including the filthy South African delicacy biltong. If you haven’t, don’t. There was nothing around to relieve myself up against as any normal man requires; forced into a piss in the (strong) wind, I still managed to get less up my leg than standing beside a selection of randomly spraying halfwits at a trough at the cricket.

Time for our first bit of ‘proper tourism’. With no explanation Sandile left us in the hands of a young man with limited English whose job it would be to show us some cave paintings. There weren’t many. They were small and half rubbed out. What’s the next one down from underwhelming?

I’ve since found out there are many far better preserved examples of bushman cave painting in Lesotho, so what this tour company were doing taking us to these is beyond me.

We did learn that if a messenger from a rival tribe came to a Basotho village, he’d be offered a bed and a woman for the night. If he refused to have sex with her that meant he was a spy for some reason and he’d have to be killed. Better yet, if there were no women free he’d be given a man instead and the same rule would apply. Before you start thinking Africa’s become gay-friendly all of a sudden, the man-gift had a sack on his head so really how was the messenger to tell the difference?

Back with Sandile for the long drive to the night’s accommodation. We had by this point established that he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. He understood and spoke English perfectly well, but it became increasingly clear that some sort of stroke or bump on the head had loosened the bolts.

At the B&B’s reception a woman looked nonplussed at our arrival. She showed us our room and left; no information about meal times or any of that. We asked Sandile. Confusion in his occasionally focused right eye, as though these were details we should already know, because he didn’t, so, dunno? An uncertain plate of meat and mash was eventually thrown at us, no water or other liquid was forthcoming and despite being the language lynchpin of the experience Sandile was about as much use as a roll of candy floss bog paper.

These are good examples of our three days in Lesotho: nothing was explained, nothing was much good and each bit of ‘tourism’ will forever be paired in my mind with an image of Sandile staring in bewilderment through glasses like jam jars.

That first night was spent listening to a man nearby laughing uproariously to wrench me awake the moment I’d start to nod off like something out of One Foot in the Grave. Morning’s first concern was that Sandile appeared to have floated off this astral plane and taken the bloody car with him, but it turned out he’d been off getting a tyre changed and cancelling our first activity of the day.

Oh, this day. Our only full day in Lesotho, and after the inauspicious events of yesterday I could see nothing but the words CULTURAL VILLAGE flashing ominously on the itinerary we’d inexplicably signed up to. Before that there was at least due to be a look at some confirmed-authentic dinosaur footprints, but it turns out that any rain in recent weeks renders them invisible so no footprints for us, and nothing but a blinking Sandile to replace them with.

More caves next.

Sandile: “Do you want to walk down or shall I drive?”
Us: ” Well, what is it, how far is it, what sort of terrain is it?”
Sandile: “………………………………………….I’ll get your guide while you think about it.”

At Ha Kome, about 150 years ago a man fled the Zulus and ended up living in a cave (read: rock ledge). A settlement grew to include normal, non-cave buildings nearby but incredibly that first man’s granddaughter still lives in the cave. And that’s the tourist attraction. The bored woman Sandile had dumped us on drawled impenetrably, though managed to haul me back from the brink of rage with tales of cannibals. They’re quite fond of their history of cannibalism, though I imagine they describe it as a ‘proud culinary heritage’.

On to Thaba Bosiu and the dreaded cultural village. Recreated huts and a worthless pile of How We Used To Live, ‘used to’ being less than 200 years ago because this nation’s history stretches back no further than the self-appointment of King Moshoeshoe I in 1822.

In one hut two actors sat immobile and silent in the dark while the guide showed us the type of pots and cups they used. I was really getting into it – omg is that a gourd? – until his phone unleashed a riotous ringtone and broke the spell. In fairness the museum was quite interesting, though it did reveal that the birthplace of the nation, the mountain right next door (Thaba Bosiu itself) is navigable and potentially worth a look. Why we were down here in this bloody cultural village rather than up there wasn’t explained and I didn’t feel the urge to confuse Sandile by asking.

We headed into the capital, Maseru, for lunch, noticing a huge jam due to some broken traffic lights and hopefully he’ll see that and not and drive out of town that way RIGHT? We ordered in a nice enough restaurant and Sandile vanished, muttering something about seeing his friend’s new house. Our only clue that he might come back was that he’d left the car key on the table. By that point I’m not sure I cared.

But back he came. Obviously the first thing he did was drive straight at and into the traffic jam, made worse by an incredible downpour and sudden flood. You can see it here in this photograph of Sandile taking a picture of his steering wheel.

Maseru is a big version of what we’d seen elsewhere in Lesotho’s 25% of lowlands – phone shops, taverns and people milling about. This country is absolutely unremarkable outside of the mountains so it’s a good job they’ve got so many of them.

A hundred minutes later we were heading back up. We were in a 4×4 that could manage 25kph uphill on normal concrete roads. Sandile assured us his rickety contraption didn’t need to be fixed – it was absolutely fine, just ‘slow’. You should know mate.

Happily the grim weather gave the surroundings a pleasing Lord of the Rings, Misty Mountains feel. Once again I have to stress that this is a beautiful place to look at; I had regained contentment as we reached our lodge for the night. In its restaurant, we attempted to order one glass of wine from the ‘wine by the glass’ list and were met with bafflement by a waitress who seemed to be trying to convey via surly outrage that she was only allowed to take orders for solids. The woman instantly hated us so much we ended up with a different waitress without asking. Lesotho’s remarkable tourist industry strikes again.

Sandile sat blank-faced and silent throughout all that, naturally. At one point he pointed to a set of ice skates on the wall – the rivers here can freeze over in the winter – and asked “Are those skis?”

Day three and we were due to head back to Underberg, but not before seeing the Semonkong Falls. With recent rainfall and at nearly 200 metres it’s a splendid sight. Here you can see our intrepid guide surprisingly not falling into it.

But obviously it had to involve another Sandile fiasco. We walked down to the edge and recommended he let us walk back up too, as the car might struggle with the steep, muddy hill. Down he drove; up we walked to the sound of the screaming engine and spinning wheels, picturing Sandile’s face as blank as a fresh sheet of A4.

And so we left Lesotho. It’s a country in a quandary, with conflict between what it inherently is – the ‘roof of Africa’, a place of obvious natural beauty – and what it’s trying to become, the land of the Basotho people with a rich and diverse history. The bald truth is that that history is painfully short and not especially storied. Don’t play up that angle, especially when you spent half of it eating each other.

If Lesotho played to its strengths, marketing itself through its brilliant green mountains covered with shepherds, it could carve out a niche for itself in an increasingly crowded African tourist environment. If it has no interest in visitors that’s fine too, but the more it sells itself as a cultural destination the more nondescript it will appear.

It would also do well to exploit its winter. We were here in their summer, but an African country that gets snow and ice in winter should really make the most of it. It would obviously be even more beautiful in a blizzard, though with the planet heating up I fear it may already have missed its chance to be the Saint Moritz of the southern hemisphere.

It’s pronounced Le-soo-too by the way, not how you’ve been saying it. Now go back to the start and read it properly.

Sandile wasn’t done with us yet, of course. Back across the border into South Africa, the itinerary had us down for lunch in a town called Matatiele. Lunch, we discovered, could be either KFC or Wimpy. Explaining that we had no interest in coming to Africa to eat American chain food perplexed poor Sandile. And so hungrily on to Underberg we drove, before finally being done with our friendly but shambolic pilot.

I’m usually inclined to see a country in a positive light until shown alternative evidence, but my God did this tour and that buffoon make liking Lesotho an ask. Ultimately though, fiasco notwithstanding, my abiding memory will be of its geography. Maybe, if we don’t cremate the globe in the next 20 years, these gorgeous mountains will be somewhere to see in the winter, maybe even to ski down.

In skis.

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