Monday, February 16, 2009

Butha-Buthe, Lesotho

Friends: Water is the prime resource of the very poor country of Lesotho. With its high elevation, perched like a giant bubble the size of Belgium in the middle of South Africa, it grabs a considerable amount of moisture. The country is in the midst of a large scale development of dams. One project includes a tunnel to funnel water to Johannesburg, nearly 200 miles away.

The moment I reached the Ramatseliso border crossing at over 7,000 feet elevation, I was greeted by Lesotho's prime resource, as a hard cold rain began pelting down. When I walked into the South Africa border post in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt, over-heated from the hard, steep climb on an abominable rocky dirt road that forced me to push my bike through some of the more perilous and steeper sections, the pair of border officials practically ordered me to go back to my bike and put on my rain jacket before they'd stamp my passport and allow me out of the country. I was certainly a most unlikely site in such flimsy wear with the temperature not even 60 and they bundled in jackets barely keeping warm.

I was relieved that anyone was at the post, as only two vehicles, a pair of trucks in tandem coming from the opposite direction, passed me in the three hours after I turned on to the road to Lesotho after nearly 30 miles on back dirt roads from Mark and Nicky's ten acre rural homestead. Nicky topped off their incredible hospitality by riding the first twelve miles with me, leaving their home at 6:30, making sure I didn't go astray, as none of the roads were marked. Mark passed us in their SUV 45 minutes into our ride with their two sons to make sure all was okay. Nicky is a prolific reader as well as cyclist. She was the one who introduced Mark to the bike, who'd been more of a rock climber and kayaker until he met her in their Cape Town college days. Nicky mentioned a handful of books on South Africa I will be eager to dive into when I return or at libraries along the way if I exhaust my stock.

After we parted ways I had to rely on assorted landmarks that Mark had mentioned to keep me on route. There was virtually no traffic or people to confirm my way. I was on the alert for a kopje (a small flat-topped hill) with a lone tree atop it for my first turn. Then I had to turn again after a cattle guard. There were two t-intersections where I had to make sure I went the correct way. This gave me an early sample of the unpaved and virtually traffic-free roads of Lesotho, though this was mostly flat and smooth.

After entering Lesotho, I continued along a ridge that skirted the border. There were as many ups as downs and not gently graded. I had some more pushing to do, not only on the ups, but on the downs. I had never pushed my bike as much as I had done this day. The road was only slightly better than it had been climbing the pass. That was easily the worst road I had ever cycled, but it was only a small taste of what awaited me. I wondered if Mark had purposely sent me this way to take that distinction from a 300 mile unpaved stretch I had ridden in Bolivia that culminated with a climb up "The World's Most Dangerous Road." The hard, cold rain certainly contributed to the difficulty of this road, but at least it was still rideable, unlike a muddy stretch in Bolivia.

The rain was coming down so hard I was concerned about finding ground for my tent that wasn't saturated. I would have stopped riding long ago, perhaps as soon as crossing into Lesotho, if I didn't have such a deluxe Gore-Tex jacket that kept my torso perfectly dry. The exertion kept me toasty warm, even though my legs and shorts and shoes were drenched. It was 12 miles from the border to the small village of Sekokoaweng. I kept thinking of an experience Mark told me about from one of his annual Lesotho Thin Air Challenge Tours ( that he takes thirty mountain bikers on. A storm caught a dozen of his riders before they had reached their destination. They sought refuge in a village where they were put up for the night. The storm was so sudden and severe, with visibility reduced to less than 100 feet, Mark was unable to go back in search of them. He didn't have a great amount of sympathy for them anyway, as they were all dawdlers, late starters and hadn't adequately trained for the ride. Mark said there is an Afrikaner expression that applied to their predicament--"If you are stupid, you must bleed." I was hoping I wasn't stupid for attempting this ride on a road bike carrying 50 pounds of gear on roads meant for mountain bikes. My ride could be called the Lesotho Thin Tire Challenge.

I didn't think I had enough time to make it to Sekokoaweng before dark. I was barely managing four miles per hour. If I cycled non-stop I'd arrive there right at dark. But I was near exhaustion and needed to eat and rest. I contemplated stopping at a flat, solid-grounded clearing where a handful of sheep were clustered with their backsides into the wind, but I had only come five miles and I wanted to at least get halfway there. A mile later I checked out another meadow, but it was too soggy. Half a mile further I came upon a flat rise that had decent drainage and hadn't been turned into a bog.

After settling into my tent I immediately unbundled my sleeping bag to wrap around me for warmth. I was horrified to discover that it was soaked. I knew it was likely to be a bit damp, as the plastic bag I had wrapped around it wasn't perfectly waterproof, but I didn't expect that much rain to have penetrated. Even more disastrous was that water had infiltrated both my panniers. Not a great deal, but enough to dampen all their contents, meaning I had no spare dry clothes. I had inadvertently sealed my less than full panniers by folding their tops towards the bike, rather than away from it, allowing a slight depression atop each to form where a small pool of water had gathered that managed to seep in during the hour-and-a-half of our drenching. If I had folded the panniers in the opposite direction, the water would have rolled off rather than gathered. I had never ridden with my panniers not full in such conditions, and didn't realize that even though the tops had been folded over a couple of times, that water could find a way in if given such a chance. It was a brutal lesson to learn, and a possible life-threatening one. The temperature was 57. It would fall into the 40s. I had to take down my tent and continue on. But first I downed a can of spaghetti. The slight rest and nourishment revived me, but I had less than an hour of light to bike six miles to the small village in the continuing rain.

The moon was full, but it didn't penetrate the thick clouds. The pools of water on the road reflected the waning light and helped keep me on course. Not a single vehicle passed me after I resumed riding. After five miles it had finally gotten too dark to continue riding and I had to walk. I kept looking in the distance for the lights of the village. There was a lone light that seemed miles away, but it was at least a hopeful sign. After about 15 minutes of walking a pick-up truck passed me but didn't stop. A short way further it turned off the road and came to a stop. I assumed it had stopped to open a gate. I started frantically whistling as if my life depended on it, hoping it would wait for me. It did wait, but not because of me. It had actually stopped at a small general store at the village I was looking for. It was such a small village it had no electricity. I might have cycled right past if the truck hadn't pulled in.

At the small general store there were two candles on the counter and a small cluster of customers all wrapped in blankets. I asked if there might be a place where I could spend the night. No one responded as none of them spoke English. As I lingered, hoping someone would take sympathy on me, a woman school teacher appeared who spoke English. She told me there was a lodge at a national park about 20 kilometers away that the truck driver could take me to. I said that would be nice, but if possible I would prefer to sleep here. All I needed was a blanket and a dry corner to curl up in. She thought I didn't trust the driver. She pointed out the writing on the side of the truck's door, that it was part of the country's water conservation department and that he could be trusted. Another English speaker showed up, a man. After a little more discussion, he said it would be all right to stay at the village. He said that a man had offered me a bed. The woman was still concerned that it would be too rustic for me and that the lodge would be preferable. After debating for several minutes, with the conversation sometimes in the Lesothon language, I assured all that it would be an honor to stay in this small village, and that I didn't wish to inconvenience the driver. The school teacher finally gave her approval.

The bed was in the back corner of the local cantina. It was surrounded by milk crates full of alcohol. It too had no electricity, nor heat. When I entered there were four young men huddled in the middle of the concrete building sitting on plastic chairs. There was no table, just a counter off to one side. My bed was behind it and the lone wall in the building. Several minutes later the school teacher, Grace, returned with a clean sheet, two blankets and a pillow and made the bed for me. I was ready to collapse, but we three English speakers stood at the counter and chatted for half an hour. I showed them the map Mark had drawn for me of my route and confirmed with them the handful of local phrases--greetings and food. They also provided me with a primus stove for my alcove, which provided more fumes than heat.

The male English speaker, Maphasa, was a part-time school teacher. He turned into my guardian, sleeping on a plastic-coated mattress behind the counter. It was still raining in the morning and continued raining all day. The temperature remained below 60. There was no drying my gear. I couldn't risk continuing on until it had dried. I spent the day sitting in bed with two blankets wrapped around me and a wool cap on my head as I read. Maphasa remained with me all day, also wrapped in a blanket, as was everyone's garb in this community. There was no running water, other than a town pump. I bought a couple of cans of baked beans and a tin of spam at the local store at three times their cost in South Africa. Maphasa brought me a plate of the local cuisine for dinner, beef and a corn dish called pap that looked like mashed potatoes. He said the local women didn't think I would like their food, but it was delicious. Grace stopped by to check in on me. She assured me that they weren't criminals in this town. I was happy to have a couple of my Obama Inauguration newspapers left over to give both her and Maphasa.

The wind blew hard all night and the rain continued until about four in the morning, finally letting up 36 hours after it had started. But it was still heavily overcast in the morning with no sign of the sun. There was a significant enough breeze, though, that I could drape my sleeping bag on my bike on the porch and it dried. I also draped my clothes on chairs and they too dried quickly in this thin air. By ten a.m. I could be on my way. I was happy to have finished my book the previous day so I could give it to Maphasa. It was "Kaffir Boy," the autobiography of a black South African who grew up in the harsh poverty of Alexandra, the worst of the townships outside Johannesburg. He earned a tennis scholarship to an American University thanks to the American tennis pro Stan Smith. When I asked Maphasa what I owed him for my two nights of accommodation, he refused any compensation.

My next five days in Lesotho were a series of extreme challenges that I survived thanks to more of the generous kindness of the locals, along with my ever-present companion, a healthy dose of good fortune. Less than ten miles after resuming my ride the road was blocked by a swollen raging river. It might have been possible to ford it carrying first my bike and then gear, but it would have been quite perilous. Instead I parked myself beside the river hoping some four-wheel drive vehicle might come along that could manage it. A woman came to the river with a couple of buckets for water. She told me that it could be days before the river waned enough to cross. If that was the case, this would be quite a scenic place to spend a few days. At least there was a grocery store a couple miles back, and that lodge I declined a few miles beyond. It was a little after noon and I was in need of eating, so I plopped down and waited. Not a single vehicle had passed me all day, but 45 minutes later a pick-up truck came along. No need to wave him down, as he had to stop to survey this raging river. He was driving a small Toyota, but he had no doubt he could cross the river. He agreed to give me a lift, but told me there were many more rivers along the way that would be impossible for me to cross. He was willing to take me past them all, including over the 9,000 foot pass that Mark said would be more spectacular than the Sani Pass. It was a tragedy not to be able to bike it, but I didn't have much of a choice.

The man's truck was loaded with goods he had bought in South Africa for his small general store in his village all covered with a tarp. There was just enough room to squeeze my gear under and lash my bike on top. Then I joined him and his wife in the front seat of his Toyota. He made the trip twice a month, but it was rare for his wife to accompany him. He knew the road as well as anyone. The second river we came to his truck stalled in the middle of the swift current. I feared we were sunk. He nonchalantly took off his boots and rolled his pants up to his thighs and then went out and checked under the hood. The truck started up but stalled again. But the third time got us through. One of the rivers he had to stop and carefully plot a course. There was a ledge like a mini-waterfall. If the current took hold of us it was curtains. But he knew what he was doing. There were six such crossings on the climb up the mountain and three on the backside. It took us three-and-a-half hours to drive 25 miles over this 9,000 foot pass, and not another vehicle came along.

He dropped me off at 4:30 at a fork in the road where he turned to go one way and I the other. I was sorry I wasn't able to accompany him to his store and help him unload his cargo. I biked until dark at seven without encountering another vehicle. It was a horrible sign that the road ahead might be blocked by another swollen river. None of the locals I passed though said anything. Kids from all the small villages descended upon me as I passed screaming "Give me some sweets," or just "Some sweets," and sometimes "Give me some money" with an insistence that was most unnerving. At my slow pace they could easily run along beside me and some did for as long as 15 or 20 minutes. Some pointed at the three water bottles I had on my bike, and demanded, "Give me a water bottle," as the woman did at the river where I was first marooned. One of the boys tried to snatch a sock I had on the back of my gear drying out. It happened at a spot where the road had turned bad and I had just dismounted to push my bike, so I luckily caught him in the act. But I feared these kids were just looking for the opportunity to reach and grab a water bottle. After this stretch I kept only one bottle on my bike for the remainder of my time in Lesotho. The sock-snatcher stuck with me longer than any of the other kids. When he finally gave up, his final act was to throw a rock at me, just missing.

While I camped that night I kept straining my ears hoping to be awoken by the sound of a vehicle chugging along the road, but all I heard was the clomp of a horse in the early morning light. It was four miles to the town of Sehonghong, the only significant town labeled on my map for nearly 100 miles. There was a final 20 percent grade into the town that I doubt I could have ridden even on an unloaded bike or if it had been paved. At this town the road finally turned smooth and somewhat flat. I felt like I had been saved. A few miles beyond the town a mini-convoy of jeeps with rafts on top passed me coming from the opposite direction, brightening my spirits even further. Little did I know that they had set out from a nearby lodge and were not proof that the road was open.

Fifteen miles further I came to an intersection with a couple of small stores that didn't sell much. From one I bought a bag of nuts and from the other some freshly baked bread. It was there that I learned that the road in both directions was blocked by raging rivers. One person said, "The river is full. You can not cross." I had to see for myself. It was three miles to the river. There were a couple of vehicles on the opposite side waiting for the water to come down, but none on my side. There was a bridge over this river, unlike any of the river crossings from the day before, but it had no railings. It was a basic concrete slab with three markers on each side indicating the depth of the water. It was about three feet above the bridge. It was two in the afternoon. I set up some rocks at the water's edge to monitor the height of the water. It did go down a few inches in the several hours I sat there reading, but not enough for anyone to attempt to cross. I waited until nearly dark before setting up my tent a quarter mile back up the road safely above the river. At six the next morning I was awoken by several cars passing by. I quickly broke camp. When I reached the bridge, a guy was warily leading his horse through the still knee high rushing water. I tested it without my bike confirming I could maintain my balance in the current and then took my bike through. The water pushed strongly against my panniers, but I was able to hold it firm. If nothing else, all these delays of the past several days were giving my legs some much needed rest.

That was the last of the over-flowing rivers, but then I had two days of high passes over 9,000 feet to negotiate on rough unpaved and inhumanely graded roads. I wasn't sure if my legs had it in them, but the enforced rest did them considerable good. I finally came to pavement at Mokhoklong at 3:30 Saturday afternoon. I had 110 miles of sweet pavement to South Africa, but with some more demanding passes, including one of over 10,000 feet. It was a prolonged torturous climb to that final summit. Several times I thought I had reached it, but each was a false summit. It was ten miles further from that first false summit, on an Altiplano of a sort. It was almost a relief to have a somewhat flat stretch, but the strong headwind up there, made it still feel like I was climbing. For the first time I had to pull out my water purifier, as there hadn't been a village for over 50 miles in this inhospitable terrain, and pump some water out of a stream that was most likely pure, but with life stock grazing in the vicinity I didn't care to take any chances. The only settlement was a squatter's camp outside the world's highest diamond mind. The next day one of the South African managers of the mine stopped his car along the road to offer me a cold drink and have a chat. He told me the mine employed 800 men. They were provided with accommodations at the mine. Those in the squatter's camp were hoping for a job opening. He said he would have gladly given me a tour of the operation if we had encountered each other nearer the mine.

I began my great descent less than an hour before dark as ominous clouds were moving in. I knew of a lodge down the road that served as a ski resort. I was less than a mile away when the heavens unleashed. It was coming down so hard and blowing in my face I took refuge behind the lone out-house sized building that remained in the ghost town of Oxbow. I set up my tent behind it protected from the gale force winds and driving rain. But an hour after I had set up my tent, I was flooded out. Once again I had to take down my tent and push on, hoping that there was indeed a lodge down the road. It was nearly dark. This lodge was well-illuminated. The cheapest room went for $35. I asked if I could set up my tent somewhere. She said she would give me a discount and let me have a room for $20. I told her I was on a $10 a day budget and that I had been camping. "Aren't you afraid?" she asked. At last she sent me off with her assistant to look for a place to set up my tent. There were a couple of dozen bungalows with nice grass all around that were ideal. There were only two parked vehicles there. She let me camp for $5 and also gave me access to a hot shower, something that was utterly unthinkable half an hour earlier.

Two South Africans staying at the lodge told me I had just a three kilometer climb ahead of me and then it would be all down hill the next 60 kilometers to South Africa. I was cursing them unmercifully when another long strenuous climb turned up after the first one, with a warning sign of 14% grade. My legs had been pummeled by the strain of the previous days. I was able to tack back and forth across the road lessening the grade, but when I came to an 8% grade into a fierce wind after that, I couldn't manage it and had to push my bike for a kilometer until I came to a switchback and had the wind at my back. That was the final switchback to the final descent.

Lesotho has been an incredible adventure. Much of the country's two-and-a-half million people still live traditional subsistence lives in small villages. I will have some sensational photos. It was after my descent that the mine manager and his wife stopped me along the road holding up a bottle of a cold drink. They altered my route to Swaziland telling me about a national park and a town with lots of retired English women that might try to nab me. They said that would be the first place where I could find Internet, not knowing about this place in Butha-Buthe that just opened in December. The husband had biked Morocco and ridden a big Cape Town ride many times. Their great friendliness, as I have frequently encountered, had me excited to be returning to South Africa. But I also return with great wariness. It is 300 miles to Swaziland, another safe haven.

Later, George

1 comment:

Robert Kennedy said...

Everything except water cobras and crocodiles, eh George? Your adventure in Lesotho is quite reminiscent of Christopher McCandless's trek "Into the Wild," where he wasn't so fortunate when it came to being caught behind one impassible swollen river in Alaska, yet you were forced to cross nine of these in one day! Yes, you were smart enough to be on an actual road where you've always depended on the kindness of strangers. Your perilous journey is starting to resemble fictitious adventure stories, like Indiana George and the Rivers of Doom, the stuff that legends are made of.