The Kingdom in the Sky

Friday at 2pm Avery, Colin, Matt and I got in a rented 4×4 and headed for the hills. A few hours’ drive from Pretoria is Lesotho, and we made it most of the way there by nightfall. Friday night we spent in a cottage on an asparagus farm — not much asparagus in the middle of winter, but the place felt authentic enough. We checked in, dropped our bags, and went to nearby Clarens (a surprisingly nice little town in the middle of nowhere in the Free State) for dinner. The meal was delicious, and the restaurant doubled as a microbrewery that makes its own cider (a popular drink here, in the US relegated to more of a novelty). Delicious. This is the cottage we stayed in, and the view of the farm at dawn the next morning:

Early on Saturday we headed straight for the border, stopping only to get gas and some gas-station breakfast. Crossed the border without incident, and immediately headed for Oxbow, about an hour and half’s drive from the border. Even upon first entering Lesotho there are certain differences — just after crossing the border we passed a man on a horse. On the way to Oxbow we climbed quite a bit in elevation, to close to 3,000 meters. At Oxbow we were confronted with the reality of AfriSki, the place the others were so excited to get to. It’s the long, diagonal patch of white on the righthand side of the second photo below. The first photo is from the drive up to Oxbow.

While the others skied I climbed the nearest mountain, which like most of the terrain was covered in low bush-like grass, small rocks, and the occasional patch of snow. I made it up and back in less than two hours, a very nice climb. It was part of a chain of sorts, so I climbed to the ridge and then followed it upwards towards the nearest flattish peak. The view was fantastic. The air was cool but not too cold, and the scene so picturesque that hiking alone along the ridge I felt like I was in an outdoors-gear catalog (how much my life is defined by my consumer culture). The first two photos are taken from the top looking around (you can just see AfriSki in the background on the right side of the second one). The third was taken on the way down, looking back up at the ridge I had descended.

From the ski place we headed for Mokhotlong, where we’d spend the night. We still had plenty of daylight in the afternoon, though, so we decided to try to see the Katse dam. It turns out the road to the dam from where we were isn’t tarred, however, so an hour into the drive along with the rocky dirt road we decided to turn back. Just the detour itself was well worth it, however: we got to see plenty of villages & scenery, engrossing & beautiful. We took a wrong turn towards the beginning and while we were trying to figure out where to go next some children ran up to us; that’s Avery bending over beside two of them. The second photo is one of the traditional huts that populated the villages we passed. They’re made, it seems, entirely of rocks and grass for the roof, which works well because rocks and grass are about all there is around most of the highlands. We barely even saw any non-domestic animals; there’s really not much there. The last photo is just a larger shot of the mountains in the area; I’ve got about 40 others that look almost identical.

One of the most amazing and haunting sites of the journey I’ve <a href=”">already mentioned</a> I don’t have any photos of — the largest village we drove through was having some sort of gathering, there were about 300 people gathered discussing and watching things (though I’m not sure what). When we drove through the first time they were away from the road, so we could only guess what was going on and move on. On the way back, however, it seemed like whatever they were doing was over and they were congregated more around the road. As we drove through almost all talking stopped and everyone just stared at us. It felt wrong to be there, but we weren’t trying to disturb anything. I definitely didn’t have the guts to take a picture, but we drove right through the near-silent crowd. It was the strangest and in some ways most wonderful part of the trip.

We spent the night at a hotel in Mokhotlong, where we also had a poor dinner (the lights kept going on and off, they didn’t have half the things we tried to order, including the pineapple on my Hawaian pizza, which they only told me after they had made it and were about to bring it out [what I was thinking ordering a Hawaain pizza in the middle of nowhere in the highlands of Lesotho is an excellent question, but the menu was all western so I didn't feel too bad about it]). After dinner we went to the hotel bar, which turned out to be the place to be in Mokhotlong: there were about 40 very, very drunk Lesothoans in there when we arrived at 9pm, and they were extremely happy to talk to us. The first few minutes I was pretty uncomfortable, because as the only white guys we kind of screamed “foreigner” and people were staring at us, but we started talking to people and they were actually quite nice (and, again, very drunk). We had a couple beers and talked to people with varying commands of English before calling it a night.

We woke up before dawn on Sunday and made it out of Mokhotlong as fast as possible (there was still music coming from the bar at 6:30am, don’t know if the stereo got left on or if the party was still going). Roosters crowed as the sun came up. We drove to the top of the Sani Pass, where there’s a chalet (it’s not in the picture, but it’s near the sign in the first photo). We had an excellent, hearty breakfast there before braving the pass. The pass itself was unbelievably epic, definitely a highlight of the trip. It’s basically a huge valley between two peaks that a winding rock-and-dirt road descends. We had rented a 4×4 to make sure we could do stuff like this, but it really showed the difference between true off-road vehicles and ones designed for the highway — our Nissan X-Trail just didn’t have the ground clearance to really excel at this. Still, thanks to Matt’s extremely competent driving we made it down with relatively little incident, only got the car stuck on a rock once. The second photo is a view from somewhere towards the top of the pass, looking out over the valley we’re about to descend.

Back in South Africa at the bottom of the pass, we started to head back to Gauteng. On the way we stopped by Little Switzerland for a late lunch, a nice resort with an excellent view of the Drakensburg mountains (that’s the photo below). We then drove through Golden Gate park as the sun was setting, and were back on the N3 heading north to Pretoria shortly after nightfall. Made it back by 8:30pm and I crashed early, entirely exhausted but very pleased. This was definitely one of the best parts of my trip so far.

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