“Quick,” I cocked my head at Jessica and her brother Tim, two young Americans I’d met on the fifteen hour bus ride from Cape Town, “let’s go. We’re at the border.” I’d noticed a sign that said Ladybrand 16 kilometres in the other direction. So I’d checked with the conductor and, sure enough, we’d shot past the destination on our ticket. But it suited our purposes as we were headed for Lesotho, a small country completely surrounded by South Africa. A proverbial zit on the face of it’s massive neighbour.
We sauntered up to South Africa customs. I handed the official my Canadian passport. She swiped it a couple of times and went through every page. “You are coming from South Africa, but you don’t have an entry stamp.”
“Just a minute,” and I passed her my Australian passport. Same swiping, same page scrutiny.
“Sorry, sorry. I forgot I left Argentina on my New Zealand passport.” I blushed to the roots of my red hair. After 103 countries you would think I would at least know the routine. The woman at customs returned my passport and admonished me as though I was the slowest kid in grade one, “Remember that you have to present your New Zealand passport when you leave.” Behind me Jessica giggled. “You looked like a spy pulling out one passport after the other.”
We cleared customs for Lesotho and walked towards Maseru. All of a sudden I felt as though I was back in Africa again. Yes, South Africa is also part of the continent, but a two-week chronic diet of high walls topped with live wire and security guards had rattled me. There was an undercurrent of raw violence and I felt as though I was under house arrest. All of a sudden I could breath and walk down a street without fear of being mugged – or worse.
At the taxi stand I asked a local the fare to Maseru. One thing I’ve learned from travelling is that as long as you know what it should be nobody argues. Ignorance can end up in a nasty argument. The driver took us to the tourist office that was actually a tourist store and the staff couldn’t offer any help. Tim and Jessica headed to the taxi park that would take them to Semongkong where they planned to hike.
What to do, what to do? I hadn’t been able to book anything online that wasn’t hideously expensive. So I asked around and heard about the Victoria Hotel. On my way there I spotted a travel agency that was on up a flight of stairs on the way to reception. I lumbered up with my carry-on and diaper bag – perfect with all sorts of compartments – and met Violet, a delightfully friendly and helpful woman. One of those sorts of people you instinctively know you can trust with your cash and your passport.
The only thing on my travel agenda was that I had to meet friends coming in from Canada and Australia in Johannesburg on January 13th. So the sort-of plan was to spend a few days in Maseru and then go on to Swaziland and Mozambique.
“Are there any buses or trains from Maseru to Mbabane?”
Violet shook her head. The only way was to go through Johannesburg. So much for Plan A. She rang around to a couple of over-priced guest houses that sounded impossible to find.
So I thanked Violet and wandered around downtown Maseru – all two square blocks of it. I had a momentarily deja-vue that I was back in Shendam, Nigeria in 1981. Every taxi driver that went by honked at me. But that made sense as I was a white woman with luggage and everyone knows that they don’t walk. But I didn’t take it personally as he did it with everyone else on the street as well.
On the way to an Internet cafe I passed the Alliance Francais, an outdoor restaurant. The cook assured me he would be there until 15:00. It looked like a good place for lunch.
Nothing exciting in the inbox that required immediate attention. I checked places in Bloemfontein, a city in South Africa an hour and a half away, and rumored to be one of the most boring places on the planet. Hummmm, nothing much interesting there. But never mind, I would go with Plan B and see what I could find when I got there, stay overnight and take a bus back to Johannesburg.
Since doing lunch was going to be the highlight of my trip to Lesotho, I was going to enjoy every bite. And I did. Chicken, rice and a few vegetables may not be the most exciting meal in the world, but it was the ambience and the atmosphere that made up for anything that may have been lacking in taste. And the people watching was riveting. Sipping a locally brewed beer – which is another one of my rituals in each country, even thought I don’t particularly enjoy suds – on a hot day quenched my thirst.
Lunch over I headed back to the taxi park to go to the border. As I emerged from the cab a tout asked if I was going to Bloemfontein and I was shepherded into a waiting car. There was a small woman sitting in the front seat. A couple of touts rocked up with a big mama. And I mean big, as only Africa can produce. It took them two go-rounds of negotiating and pleading to convince the small woman to give up her seat to the one that spread out well over the consul in the middle of the car.
Then we were off. It was a new car and the guy drove well. On the way to Bloemfontein I moved on to Plan C and said, “Please drop me at the bus station.”
When I asked the clerk at Intercape about buses to Johannesburg he said the first available seat was three days later. Similar at the next bus company. Then I found the Eldo office.
“When in the next bus to Johannesburg?”
“Tonight at midnight.”
“Is a seat available, is it a luxury bus and does it have a toilet?”
Yes to all three. As it turned out I should have clarified the definition of “luxury.” And it should have been “Does it have a functioning toilet?”
I spent the evening in the Barrel and Basket, sipping sauvignon blanc, nibbling seafood and using their free wi-fi to my heart’s content. It was one of those connected times when there was nowhere I’d rather be or anything else I’d rather be doing.
Then midnight came and went without an Eldo bus in sight. When I checked back at the counter the woman assured me “It is coming.” And it did – a mere hour and a half late. When it rolled up I seriously thought of staying in Bloemfontein for three days to catch the Intercape one.
The Eldo bus looked mechanically questionable. Further it stunk of sweaty bodies crammed together in close confines. The bus was full and people were sprawled out in various contortions of sleep. And it was filthy. The front seat happened to be free so I slipped into it and propped up my carry-on beside me. There was no way I wanted to be parted from that bag.
The bus backed out. Even though I’m an atheist I did an Insulallah – Arabic for God’s will that we would make it – just for extra protection and a little ju-ju chant. Once on the open highway the driver drove like he was behind the wheel of a sports car. When he started talking non-stop on his mobile and texting I’d had enough. So in no uncertain terms I told him that I was going to report him for dangerous driving. He yelled back at me that he was a good driver and I told him to prove it. He loudly cursed me for being a white bitch, but he did put away his phone and slowed down.
At 07:00 we pulled into Park Station in Johannesburg intact. It was difficult to resist acting like Pope John and kissing the ground, but I managed to restrain myself. Barely.
Thirty-eight hours is quite a lot of travel just to have lunch in Lesotho. But I got a passport stamp, a meal and a story out of it. Bonus.