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Here Comes Treble: A Sunny But Eroded Weekend

...Passing through Butha-Buthe, the potholes were just as bad as they had been when we arrived, though they were now mostly dry. At the passport control counter in Lesotho, we had to wake the official who stamped our passports...

Isabel Bradley brings a colourful snapshot of life in the kingdom of Lesotho.

At the end of last week’s article, titled “A Soggy Journey”, our neighbours, Guido and Elisabeth, with Leon and me, had just got back into the Subaru and were driving to our final destination in Lesotho, the village of Pitseng.

We drove through over-grazed, eroded land where plants alien to Africa, such as willows, fir trees and gorgeous yellow poplars choked the river-valleys, climbed the mountain sides and stood blazing in the middle of vast brown tracts of eroded land. Small herds of cows and sheep, watched by young boys and teenagers wrapped in blankets, grazed the already close-cropped grasses down to their roots.

The poverty of every village and community we passed through was obvious. Now that the sun was shining, clean washing hung from barbed-wire fences, or was laid out on the ground. Shacks of iron, huts of stone and thatch and an occasional western-style house of bricks and mortar, were scattered widely over the countryside, with the tarred road to Pitseng winding smoothly up and down the high, terraced hills, framed by snow-capped mountains.

This excellent tarred road goes through the heart of Pitseng, where two parallel lines of solar-powered street lights had been very recently erected. The shopping area on either side of the road, a conglomerate of iron shacks, ragged tents and run-down buildings reminiscent of Butha-Buthe. The name “London” was attached to a mini-supermarket and a pub. A short way after the last of the shops, we turned left onto a muddy side-road, and then again into the muddy drive-way and parking area of Aloes Guest House.

Our rooms were spacious, with en-suite bathrooms, comfortable beds and air-conditioning that caused wonderful, warm air to envelope us.

On Sunday, while Guido and Leon worked in the lapidary workshop, installing the machines we’d carried with us, Elisabeth and I ambled around Pitseng. On the first morning, we headed down the still-muddy road in bright morning sunshine, away from the main road and moving slightly closer to those snow-capped mountains. We saw more mud, erosion and over-grazed land, more poor homes and one or two brick houses. Though we walked at a slow pace, we both needed to stop quite often to catch our breath because of the high altitude. According to Wikipedia, ‘over 80% of the country lies above 1,800 metres, or 5,906 feet’ *, and our lungs let us know that oxygen was hard to come by.

The people we saw were cheerful and friendly and all greeted us but we had no common language to communicate with them. Some of the children were brave enough to greet us in English, translating the typical African greeting into: “Hallo, how are you?” There is a primary and a high school in Pitseng, and on Monday afternoon we saw lots of children walking down the main road back to their homes, smart and happy in their uniforms.

Back on the grounds of the guest house, we stepped into some buildings where large, coal-fired driers were drying huge piles of rose hips. ‘Hundreds of rural Lesotho people collect the rose hip seed from the invader species Rosa Eglanteria which are used to make rosehip tea and oil.’ ** Staff members were scooping bright red dried rose hips into large buckets and then transferring them into bags for export to Germany. In the grounds of the guest house, the smell of fermented fruit permeated the air.

In the afternoon, both Elisabeth and I put our feet up and read, and took happy phone calls from our children wishing us a happy Mother’s Day.

Before dinner, Leon and I ventured away from the guest house. As we moved up the now rock-hard road, away from the lights and activity, darkness descended, and as we reached the first bend in the road leading to the main, tarred road, a couple walking down from the village materialised out of the night just about on top of us. Leon walked in something squishy, probably cow dung, but he couldn’t see his shoe or the ground to diagnose the problem. After the third near-collision with people making their way home from work, I decided it was time to turn around and return to the guest house. I’m not afraid of the dark, but not being able to see anything other than a thin slice of moon above the mountains made me decidedly nervous. We didn’t get close enough to the main road to see those solar-powered street lights shining, and felt we could have done with some of their light on our side-road.

On Monday morning, we chatted to a couple who had stayed at the guest house the previous night when they’d been turned back from driving to Katse Dam. The Katse Dam is the first in a series of dams built by South Africa to provide water to South Africa, and electricity to Lesotho, known as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project***. The dam is reached by continuing along the tarred road which runs through Pitseng. The snow had caused the road to be closed as it would be impassable, even for 4 x 4 vehicles. The young lady was a teacher with one of the American missions, and told us that schools have been built throughout Lesotho, some richer than others, some better than others, and that the government puts a lot of emphasis on schooling its youngsters. Her friend was a young man from Germany, taking a holiday from his work for a motor company in East London, South Africa.

After breakfast, Elisabeth and I headed for the main road and the shopping district, to find some sparkling mineral water for Leon. The snow caps on the still-distant mountains were shrinking. In daylight, it was much easier to navigate our way to the village, in company with school children going to school, women making their way to the shops, and men taking a break from their labours. Halfway up the road, standing on sturdy little tree-trunk legs and dressed in bright red, a tiny child was spurting tears and roaring its distress to the world.
We weren’t sure of its gender, and were rather disturbed that it’s slightly older, also miniature, siblings were laughing at it and that the general population was ignoring the poor infant.

Elisabeth and I approached, hoping to offer some comfort – but the closer we got, the louder the child roared. Its whole face, even above the eyes, was drenched in tears. We walked on, the sound of its distress receding into the background and then stopping altogether.

In the London Mini Supermarket in Pitseng, flavoured sparkling water was available, but no plain. We went into three other mini-supermarkets, all either next door to each other or directly opposite, clustered together at the top of the hill. Nowhere was there have plain, sparkling mineral water in stock. Luckily, Leon enjoys the flavoured water, though he did mention that it would ruin his whisky.

In every village there is at least one shebeen, a combination of community gathering place and drinking den. The shebeens are marked by smallish green, red or white flags above the roof, depending on the brand of beer that is brewed or supplied there.

We left Pitseng on Tuesday morning, and drove a short distance before pulling onto a very badly-broken-down side road, leading to a couple of huts at the edge of a river. There we were met by a young man who was obviously in charge of this important site and two small boys, one of about eight who should have been in school, the other probably about five. The younger child’s name was Lebo, but for the life of me I couldn’t catch the older boy’s name. He became, ‘Let’s go!’ as he encouraged us to clamber down the eroded bank to the river bed. The floods of three days ago had receded and we were here to see dinosaur footprints in the bedrock. There they were, three-toed and filled with muddy water which ‘Let’s go’ brushed away so that he could place his fingers in the toe-holes.

The toes of a dinosaur’s foot are the same size as Leon’s whole foot, which he demonstrated by standing next to the prints so that I could ‘size’ them in the photograph.

Then ‘Let’s go!’ said, “Come! Let’s go – FROG!” We allowed him to lead us downriver a little way, past the most appalling examples of soil erosion I had yet seen, to a rock where someone had painted a large, frog-shaped rock green. It was duly photographed with and without Lebo and ‘Let’s go!’

After photographing a low-level concrete bridge, we returned to the two round huts above the river. They were an information centre, which we spent five minutes examining. Elisabeth paid for our tour, and we travelled home again through a sunny countryside.

Passing through Butha-Buthe, the potholes were just as bad as they had been when we arrived, though they were now mostly dry. At the passport control counter in Lesotho, we had to wake the official who stamped our passports.

The drive home was uneventful. We made a pit-stop in Bethlehem to buy coffee and cooldrinks, enjoyed the classical music on the CD player, and watched the golden countryside slide past the windows.

It was good to be home.

Until next time…. ‘here comes Treble!’
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27 May 2013 by Isabel Bradley


*** http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/a-brief-history-of-africa%E2%80%99s-largest-water-project-3664


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