There's a set of safety videos you're supposed to watch before you take Sani Pass. South Africa as a country is rather sloped. Johannesburg, in the center, towers several thousand feet above Cape Town, out on the coast. And rising high above the rest of South Africa, plopped Vatican-like in the middle of the surrounding country, is a tiny nation called Lesotho. If you want to drive from Durban up through Lesotho en route to Joburg, as was our intention, you have to ascend the Drakensberg range and take Sani Pass. And if you intend to take Sani Pass, you really ought to watch the videos.
Sani Pass is notable for its treachery. The weekend before we'd planned to go to Lesotho (pronounced: "Le-soo-too") it had snowed on Sani Pass and two convoys had crashed. The passengers had sustained injury. The Pass is the last stretch of the demilitarized zone between South Africa and Lesotho in the Drakensberg mountains. It features sixteen consecutive hairpin switchbacks right before you hit the top, at a steep enough angle to send you scrambling after a bag of dropped marbles. People die on Sani Pass. Every year. All it takes is a little incompetence or a moment of lapsed attention. Should you survive the journey to the top, you can commemorate the accomplishment with a stop at Africa's highest pub. Can't say the same for Kilimanjaro.
The videos, it should be said, don't offer much in the way of helpful insight. The gist of their advice is "be careful." Even so, they make it patently clear that the driver needs to pay very close attention to negotiating the road at hand.
I finished watching the videos as the rest of the crew pulled up in our four-wheel-drive rental car. My job was to take notes on the safety instructions and get our Airbnb ready for check out while everyone else went to acquire the wheels. So it was with an elevated level of curiosity that I discovered they had gotten a flat while attempting park in front of our house. I wasn't there for the event, but I imagine them careening up to our Airbnb like an out of control space craft disgorged from a wormhole onto a barren and craggy red planet. Whatever the case, the car apparently struck the curb and upon impact the driver side tire burst. I looked on as the team hefted the jack out of the trunk and put on the spare.
Our party was four strong. There was myself, my girlfriend, Haily; her friend from college, Dave Blackwood; and his colleague from work, Munesu (Muni for short). Blackwood is an American working in Zimbabwe. He's tall, lanky, and painfully caucasian with a plop of curly, unkempt hair. Muni is a Zambian working in Zimbabwe. He's short, black, and speaks with an American accent. They'd come down to Durban to bum around with us on our way to Joburg and to take the Pass.
But first we had to make a stop in Pietermaritzburg, about an hour outside of Durban, to trade in our car for one with four tires.
Pietermaritzburg is a city named for two men: one Mr. Pieter and one Mr. Maritz. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the contemporary land to which Piet and Maritz laid claim is a veritable wealth of rental car companies on offer in the town's regional airport. We exchanged our car without hassle -- upgraded to a superior 4x4, if anything -- and stocked up on supplies. I picked up a bottle of spiced rum from the Seychelles, which I'd been coveting on trips to other liquor stores in the country. The others got food, or some such provisions. Our destination for the evening, just on the South Africa side of the Lesotho border, was about four hours out, longer if we took the scenic route.
Our first stop after Pietermaritzburg was the Mandela Capture Site, so called because it was where Nelson Mandela was captured before being throw in prison for twenty-seven years. That morning I'd reread the passage in Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, where he recounts the capture. He was on his way from Durban to Johannesburg, same as us. He was driving the N3 outside of Pietermaritzburg, same as us. He was on a fugitive on the run from the authorities, same as us. As we rolled up to the Capture Site on our left was the ditch that Mandela had prudently noted right before getting thrown in the slammer.
From the N3, the monument looks a sapling forest of black iron poles. We turned off the road by the pole forest and went someways into an adjacent field. Without knowing any better, the scene looks like any other pokey field off any other highway in which nothing exciting has ever transpired. On the far end of the field is a parking lot. The trees around the lot were infested with monkeys bounding from branch to ground and back. (This is one of the primary differences between parking lots in Africa and parking lots in America.) You walk from the parking lot past a barn, a souvenir shop, and approach the monument down a long, straight paved sidewalk. At intervals along the sidewalk stand markers of milestones in Mandela's life. His birth, his start in politics, his circumcision (he devotes a very long passage in his autobiography to this event). The milestones are spaced to represent the passage of time between them. Mandela is famous around the world for what he did after his release from prison, being elected as the South African head of state, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. What is less recognized is how vigorously engaged the man was before his arrest. To give some idea, he doesn't get to Robben Island, where he spent the majority of his time in prison, until page 379 of his autobiography. The first four hundred pages aren't filler either. They're strewn page after page with the kind of accomplishments that would make chapter titles in anyone else's life story. What is striking, moving even, about the markers is that it gives a tangible weight to what twenty-seven years in prison takes from a life. It is a literal laying out of Mandela's long walk.
At the end of the sidewalk, the path descends into a corridor opening up into the teardrop landscape in which the black poles stand. At the apex of the tear is a plaque on the ground. It says something to the effect of "stand here and look up at the thing." Upon looking up one sees that what was until now a morass of shifting iron assembles itself into the visage of the man himself, Madiba. It is as if you were looking at a chalkboard etched with his face, in profile, wise and weathered. Move to the left or the right and the scene disassembles. Shift back and there he is. Once you've taken in the monument you're left with the long walk back to the car.
The route through the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal province forks. We had the option to either stay on the highway or opt for the Midlands Meander. We took the Meander. The small roads of the Meander skirt about the hills, whereas the N3 highway blusters right through them. The Meander is named in the spirit of overzealous marketing. The route takes longer, but the landscape is as inconsequential as it would be through any other road. Frequently the Meander splits, allowing one to adjust the journey for their own appetite for meandering. Blackwood was driving. Muni's job was to call the splits. As we came to our first turnoff, Blackwood inquired, "Muni, left or right?" There was a brief silence. Blackwood turned right. Muni: "left." Blackwood shot a glance toward the passenger's seat.
Everything on the road was unexpected, at least to Blackwood, who reacted as if each hair pin turn or cow in the road was something totally misplaced, as it would be on a freeway in Los Angeles. Haily and I sloshed to and fro in the back seat, as on a winding roller coaster, with each yank of the wheel from Blackwood. There were many pedestrians walking the side of the road, and we imperiled each of them as we shot past. Periodically we would hit a rumble strip, and Blackwood would slam the breaks, throwing the rest of us forward as we took the strip at an ambitious 100 kilometers per hour. The road became dirt as we neared the mountains.
Blackwood engaged in a number of extracurricular diversions in addition to his primary responsibility of driving. Arising out of the silence of the car, "Is that a grain silo?" Equipped with his own answer, Blackwood replied, "I think it's a grain silo." Blackwood is an economist. He is well-suited to it. "This road seems expensive. Lots of Bridges." We waded through the dirt road into flaxen plains drifting off into a deep purple haze. "Some serious soil erosion on the right." In the distance, wedges of mountains were set in receding rows. "Are those the Drakensburg in the distance? I'm convinced those are the Draks. Hi Draks." Blackwood tugged on the wheel to avoid a herd of sheep, acquainting my cheek with the cool, moist window. "This is a windy road, guys." Every three minutes or so, Blackwood would ask, "Muni, left or right?" He performed this ritual with a devoted constancy, no matter how obviously subsidiary the left turn in question might be. Muni, not necessarily invested in the navigational success of our journey, could never be counted on for a timely answer. Blackwood, for his part, could be relied upon to pierce any silence lingering in our car as it wove through the Transkei.
"It's crazy. Someone, like, invested in making this fancy-ass bridge."
"Oh, look! An ice waterfall! I love ice waterfalls, guys."
"Look at those pinnacles! They've got to be something. The Draks!"
"It's funny. Sometimes the dust stays for a long time and sometimes it doesn't."
At length, the road resumed its paving. Blackwood: "Imagine living out here." Muni: "Turn right." The only turn was to the left, as Blackwood noted. "I meant left." We took another rumble strip at full tilt, Blackwood slamming on the brakes once the impediment was felt. We made our way through the layer cake of a landscape. In the foreground the dark green of poorly lit fields, in temporary recess from the sun's jurisdiction, the light green of the fields still touched by daylight, the blue of the closest mountains, the purple of furthest mountains, orange fading into the purple of dusk. "Those mountains look so craggily. Must be the Drakensburgs."
At no obvious landmark the road turned to dirt again and rocks ricocheted below our car like a pinball machine. "Are those ostriches? They are! Oh wait, those are cows." We passed a 'beware of blasting' sign.
Muni: "Straight." Blackwood: "Right or straight?" Muni: "Right and then straight is what I mean."
The sun went down, and we made our way into the mountains. "So clearly those are not the whole Drakensburgs," intoned Blackwood.
It was dark when we got to our destination for the evening. After hours of being subjected to Blackwood's sudden jerks of the wheel as last second responses to imminent danger, I felt as though I'd spent the afternoon in a cocktail shaker. I was eager to stretch my legs after a day sealed in the car. It was cold outside, mountain cold. We stayed the night at a bed and breakfast. The only other occupants were a fleet of Dutch high school students. There were scores of them. Our party and theirs dined on a hearty meal of bread and stew provided by the lodge. At dinner, I leaned over to one of the adults in their number and struck up a conversation. They intended to take the Pass, as did we. I asked if he had watched the safety videos. "Of course," the man said. "It's important to pay close attention to the road, you know?" As I was about to respond, I couldn't help but overhear Blackwood contribute to a separate conversation:
"Sani Pass tomorrow! I bet we'll see lots of ice waterfalls."
In the early morning we took leave of South Africa and crossed into the DMZ. Before we got going we let some air out from the tires for the rough terrain. "You ready, Blackwood?" I asked. The best he could offer was an empirically-based "I don't know."
The road up Sani Pass was dirt all the way, except when it was rocks. The route took three hours in total. An hour of that was stopping ever 500 feet in elevation, certain that this was going to be the best lookout spot we would reach. Much of the early stages were under construction, so the path was littered with flaggers and orange cones and eight-ton Caterpillar bulldozers. When the path got bumpy it was like climbing a mountain in a car. In effect we were. There was frequently a non-negligible change in elevation from tire to tire. We didn't need four wheel drive. We needed a mountain goat.
About half way up we passed a cross on the side of the road, a memorial to one who failed to take the Pass. There were also doohickies strewn about the road, like broken off car parts or something like that. It was all a bit unnerving.
We spotted three ice waterfalls, close up, and stopped to take pictures at each.
Blackwood, it should be said, buckled down for the final stage with the sixteen hairpin switchbacks. It wasn't snowing, mercifully. And our Nissan-cum-mountain-goat served us well. The only really perilous part came when I would look out my side of the window and gaze over the practically infinite distance we would tumble if our car should flip or apparate three feet to the right. In short, we made it.
When we leveled off at the top of Sani Pass we were greeted by the vast tundra plateau of Lesotho. We had climbed a mountain and instead of finding a summit we found a plain. Expanses of yellow grass stretched off into the distance, raising up into another mountainscape beyond. Here the ground was palpably closer to the sky. In the fore were three round huts and lodge. One of the round huts was border control, where we dutifully presented ourselves. The lodge housed Africa's Highest Pub, or as we called it, the World's Highest African Pub. After marking our official entry in Lesotho we repaired to the pub to celebrate our victorious assent with a round of Maluti, the everyman's beer of Lesotho.
To drive through Lesotho is to stumble upon an outcropping of the Himalayas in Southern Africa. The horizon is layered with dry mountains dusted with snow, situated beneath a cloudless sky. It is more than a little startling upon embarking across the terrain to realize that the "Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho" refers not just to the mountains which you just climbed, but the entirely novel and independently worthy set of mountains in front of you. As we arrived at the first slope coming out of the plains the car inclined to what seemed like a forty-five degree angle. Blackwood floored it. The Nissan sputtered for all it was worth. We hit thirty kilometers-per-hour, tops.
The road was nice, paved and smooth. New. Blackwood was impressed. "Who paid for it, I wonder?" Yet if South Africa featured more roadside characters and livestock than seems advisable to the western driver, it was the western drivers who seemed out of place in Lesotho. The road belonged to the characters and the livestock. After our initial assent (we'd be up and down, scrawling across mountains for the rest of the day), we passed two Basotho men walking their mule up the road. The mule dragged a cart of building supplies. We slowed to overtake them. They seemed friendly. They waved. We waved back. They made the universal pantomime for 'picture' and struck engaging poses. Amused, we snapped a picture. They immediately implored us to reimburse them for their modeling services. They were savvy. We'd been snookered into it. Lesotho is a remarkably poor country, even by African standards. A man's gotta make a buck.
We gave them oranges from our stash instead.
What is most breathtaking about Lesotho -- ineffable, as well as uncapturable in photos -- is to take stock of whence you came and discover that you've traversed a sea of terraced mountains, piled one upon the other, as far as can be seen. We reached the highest point at 3240 meters. Highest point of what, it didn't say. Probably the World's Highest Basotho Point.
From there we continued to slalom through the countryside. On our way down we passed a mule piled with straw. We never saw a driver. It looked like a mobile bush. We began to hit more Basotho villages as we went. We passed many herders and each one of them attempted the ol' picture-for-money gambit on us. They would see our car coming down the road from way off and take leave of their field of sheep to run toward the road in desperate hopes of soliciting some monetary pittance. To travel this road is to acquire minor celebrity. We were of unconscionable wealth and unimaginable circumstance to those whom we passed.
Each village is sprawled across the hillside like a broken rack of billiard balls. The men and women alike are draped in colorful and festively designed blankets, a signature of Basotho culture. It's cold up there. They don the blankets to have even a semblance of a chance at warmth. Their huts are round with thatched roofs, each about the same size. A queen-size bed coerced inside would start to curl up along the walls. The hillside is spangled with handsome livestock, goats and sheep mostly. Off in the distance a larger flock of sheep or a pasture of cows graze and are watched over by a blanket-robed shepherd. I must say that it is all a beautiful sight to behold. To say as much is an incontrovertible romanticism of poverty. But it is true nonetheless.
No one passed us in the other direction. We overtook no one. And no one overtook us from behind.
We came across the Letseng diamond hostels. Lesotho is home to one of Southern Africa's most prolific diamond mines. (None of the wealth ends up in the hands of the average Basotho, of course.) The hostels are where the workers live. Away from their families they stay while there is work, then return home. Such hostels are common in this part of the world, for instance in Johannesburg when it was a gold boomtown. The mine was quiet when we passed. No workers to be seen at the hostels.
At length we reached Afriski, where we planned to stay the night. Afriski is southern Africa's only ski resort, as well as its preeminent douchebag basecamp. It features one ski run. While it was cold up there, it was not snowing. They had a snow machine to rectify that impediment to hitting the slopes. It is a rather pathetic scene to see an otherwise barren hillside painted with a single strip of white powder, like roots showing under dyed hair. Haily and I don't ski. We were mostly there for the hot tub. Which even in Africa, so we thought, they surely must understand is a critical amenity at any ski resort worth half its salt. Alas, there was no hot tub at Afriski.
We dined at the resort's lone restaurant. Overpriced burgers, pasta, pizza, "salads" -- that sort of fare. On every television (and there were several visible from any vantage) was a promo video for Afriski, displayed on an endless loop. People skiing, drinking, cheering, skiing, drinking, cheering: offered for the consideration of dining patrons all evening. We split a bottle of wine between the four of us. Then Haily and I retired to our room. Blackwood and Muni went to do something else.
What we anticipated when we rented a "ski chalet" was a posh little bungalow outfitted with a fireplace, a number of tacky taxidermied animals on the wall, and tall ceilings supported by hearty wooden rafters. What we got was a dinky little bunk house with a kitchenette and a temperamental space heater. Worse still it was shared between our party and another, made only slightly better by the barrier separating our bunk room from theirs. The beds, it is worth noting, were mercifully outfitted with electric blankets, as the room was otherwise more or less the same temperature as the outside world.
When we got back to the room, I decided to make friends with the neighbors. I grabbed my bottle of Seychelles rum and knocked on their door. So commenced our first night at Afriski.
Their crew hailed from Joburg. I introduced myself, and as each of them told me their name I foisted the the bottle of rum in their direction. We became friends very quickly. I asked them about what brought them to Lesotho. They told me they were filming a rap video. Oh, really? Yes, they told me, they had to get up at four in the morning the next day to scout a shooting location. I asked them who the rapper was. "Shane Eagle," an eminent up-and-coming South African rap artist, or so I was informed. Alright, sure.
I hung out in their room for a bit then bid them adieu and went back to ours to take my leave of consciousness for the evening.
In the morning we wandered down to the slope. Blackwood and Muni had come to ski. Haily and I thought about giving it a shot. But never having skied before we were overcome with a strong desire to do nothing. I'd also run out of money somewhere back in Zimbabwe some weeks before. We retired to the room.
It was nine or ten in morning. Haily and I were back in bed reading when into our room walked a new fellow, who we didn't recognize, accompanied by a lady-friend. They gave us a cordial nod and went into the room next door. Shortly after they were followed by the crew from last night. That had been Mr. Eagle himself, retreating to the room for a little R&R after an early morning shoot.
In the afternoon we made our way down to the ski slope. We posted up with our books at the Apres Ski Cafe, situated at the bottom of the run. We went in to order a couple hot chocolates. A rugby match played on the television. It was the Jaguars versus the Wallabies, or something like that. I watched it with academic curiosity. The thighs of rugby players have always intrigued me. They give the impression of the legs of an NFL linebacker having been glued onto the physique of soccer player. Then all of a sudden, there was an eruption from the other patrons. The Wallabies seemed suddenly heartened, for reasons I was unable to ascertain.
Back outside, we sat in the cold air with our hot chocolates and listened to the Euro trash blasting on the loudspeaker. People were beginning to engage in Apres-ski activities, such as drinking from funnels and dancing on tables. They played that one song where Shakira sings, "This one is for Af-ri-ka." Everyone went fucking crazy. The entire place was filled with white people. Probably South African white, but it was still weird to hear them worked up over the mention of Africa. Two men wandered through the crowds in gorilla suits. I overheard one conversation in which the gentleman next to us related to his colleague, "All good vibes out there, bro. All good vibes." Inside the café there hung a set of snowboard bindings from the rafters where, evidently, patrons are voluntarily strapped in and encouraged to take as many shots as possible while hanging upside down. The winner-board displayed names and tallies, the most outstanding performances from the previous evening. Mark scored twenty. David scored an heroic twenty-five. All good vibes out there, bro. Lines of neon plastic shot glasses were strewn about each table. There was an Afriski official going around pouring an unidentified liquor into people's mouths, straight from the bottle. All good vibes.
Another official paraded through with a device -- an upside-down traffic cone positioned to funnel liquid into a tube which ran to a Y-junction splitting the tube into two -- and as he passed people stood back, mouthed, "oh, shit" and gave an impressed look, apparently intrigued by this feat of plumbing. The gorillas seemed not to notice when the officials passed and kept on dancing. This apparent lack of appreciation is undoubtedly why their species has failed to contribute any advancements to the practice of HVAC or pipefitting.
"This next one is going to get your body moving," the DJ proclaimed and then dropped the needle on the Macarena. As it turns out, the Macarena is quite difficult to do when drunk. Lots of coordinated fine motor movements. However, one reaches a point of drunkenness where precision takes on a subsidiary role to zeal and candor. Then you get good at the Macarena again. Really good.
These people all looked so dumb. Yet, I wished I could be a part of it. Perhaps if I had skied all day the whole thing would've made sense. But it just didn't. Surreptitiously I poured another dose of rum in my hot chocolate and slunk back to reading.
At length we located Blackwood and Muni on the slopes. They'd put in a good session. They joined us in a round of hot chocolate and gawking at the partiers. We returned to the room and washed up. Then we went for dinner. At the restaurant we were seated at a table for four near the back. In the corner we spied a number of familiar faces. It was Shane Eagle's entourage. I went over to strike up with some of my closer mates in the group. They'd had a good day of shooting and were about to head back to Joburg. They asked me if I'd be going back that way any time soon. I told them I would. We exchanged contact information. I bid them farewell and returned to my seat. I even received a nod from Mr. Eagle himself, who sat laconically at the far corner of the table.
After dinner, we returned to the room. Since the Eagle entourage flew the coop, we had new bunkmates. Two girls, about our age. We liberated the alcohol from our stash -- a few bottles of wine, the rum, and a bottle of South African brandy which we mixed with soda -- and began to consume liberally. We got to know the girls a bit. They were a lively couple. From Bloem, the same town where J.R.R. Tolkien hailed, as they made a conspicuous point to mention. After a few drinks, they drew us a map of the places we ought to visit in this, one of South Africa's all-too-easily overlooked interior cities. We asked them why they were in Lesotho. This proved to be a mistake -- both their coming to Lesotho, and our getting mixed up in it. But we wouldn't understand that fully until later.
The last entry in my notes for the evening reads: "Tequila YES France [undecipherable] swift."
The tequila I endorsed so enthusiastically had been obtained when we moseyed back down to the Apres Ski Café for the evening's festivities. There was supposed to be a ski burning (an ancient douchebag rite of passage, I believe). But we missed it by a couple minutes. France came into play with a young man with whom our group became acquainted. He's from there. I'm not sure what exactly it was that had transpired swiftly.
Upon our arrival in the seedy nightclub that was the Apres-Ski, we had acquired a number of beers. With these beers we played beer pong, the four of us. Muni and I blew Haily and Blackwood to smithereens. Sincerely, we demolished them. I celebrated with another round of drinks for Haily and me. Shrewdly, Muni and Blackwood ceased to drink at that point. I'd attained an advanced level of amicability by now. This is when we met the French guy and his colleagues. French guy worked at Afriski. Come to think of it, he was probably the one going around with the inverted traffic cone in the afternoon.
He challenged us to beer pong. Or we challenged him. I don't remember. Muni and me versus him and Haily. I drank Muni's portion. From this junction on, the night comes to me in snapshots. After the game, French guy bought a round of tequila shots for the group. It ended up being him, me, Haily, and his friend. I don't know that he was keen to buy me drinks, as I reckon he was mostly interested in Haily. After that there was dancing. By now I would likely have been very good at the Macarena, should the opportunity have presented itself.
Prudently, we made our way back to our room. In tow was French guy, the two girls who were our new neighbors, and a man with whom they were affiliated. Likely some other people as well. There manifested something of a commotion between the two girls and the guy, a conflict to which the ladies had alluded earlier in the evening. They had been rather modest in retailing the magnitude of the hostility.
I'll tell you what I can remember and what I was able to reconstruct from accounts the following day.
There was a huge spat between the girls. The man was the husband of one of the girls. She had come to Lesotho at the behest of her friend to get away from him. He was no good for her, apparently. She wanted to reconcile with her husband, but her friend had advised against it. The man was adamant that her friend couldn't prevent the reconciliation. The reason that we were involved in this was that the man was outside the bunkhouse and had to come through our room to get to her's. The members of our party had sided with the friend and were not in favor of admitting this man onto the premises of our domicile. Staff members of Afriski were present, French guy included. There was much shouting. The husband shouted at the girl for not accommodating him. He shouted at the friend for preventing him from getting his way. The girl yelled at the friend for preventing her from acting on her wishes. The friend shouted at the girl for consistently fucking up her life. The Afriski team stood there and did nothing. Haily maintained our delegation's moral position while Blackwood and Muni tried to keep peace as best they could.
The details of this conflict were mostly lost on me -- they still are -- though I found the whole thing rather engaging at the time. In the midst of the kerfuffle French guy stuck around. I supposed at the time he was just hanging around to see how everything turned out, and so I was amicably disposed toward him. However, that changed in a matter of moments as Muni made it clear to me that the reason he was sticking around was that he was attempting to coax my girlfriend into running off to some shadowy corner of the premises to make out with him. Upon reception of this intelligence, there was a momentary lapse in my pleasant disposition. I grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and backed him away from our bunkhouse, excusing him with an aggressive shove in the opposing direction. This obstacle appeared to make the endeavor no longer worth his pursuing, and he began to clear off. This marked a point of escalation in the evening, and there was a consensus afterward that it was time for me to go to bed. As I stepped back into the bunkhouse my amicability was revived and I poked my head out to wave to French guy and convey that no hard feelings were felt. He seemed unmoved this sentiment and left in a minor huff. I tucked into bed and was asleep shortly thereafter.
The next morning the friend (the one whose aim was to keep the husband out) came sheepishly into our room. She apologized for the whole mess. Then she lapsed into a sob story about something to which I was not in a position devote my attention. The other girl was nowhere to be found. She had gone off with her husband. As for the French guy, I asked Muni about the incident. "You don't remember?" he asked. "You told that guy to 'le fuck off.'"
For the first hour of that morning I had the distinction of being the world's most hungover person. We piled in the car and took our leave from the premises of Afriski. We set off through the Basotho mountains on our way toward Johannesburg. And as we wound down the mountainside, surveying the infinitude of Basotho majesty before us, I stuck my head out the window and yorked. Laudably, not but a skosh landed on the exterior of the car. Blackwood pulled over into a turnout, and we took a moment to appreciate the scene while I finished hurling. Just like that my hangover was exorcised. We lingered for another minute to take in the beauty.
Our final destination in Lesotho was the site of an ancient cave painting. The decent from the heights of Afriski to South Africa along Lesotho's north border is less precipitous than the Sani Pass route. The goats, the mules, and the villages were spaced further apart on our leisurely decent through the mountains. We pulled off at one of the auxiliary roads that links up with the main highway. We parked the car and piled out. Down a paved path we came across a wooden building, closer to the kind of wooden structure you'd expect in a rural part of a developed nation rather than the traditional circular huts. Inside we paid for a guide to take us down to see the cave paintings.
The guide, a Basotho woman native to the area, took us past the barn to where the path became dirt and dropped down a canyon slope. We descended a wooden staircase implanted in the hillside. Then we crossed a bridge where the guide pointed out that if you fell off it into the crevasse you wouldn't easily get out. In fact this had happened before. Not to tourists, per se, but other varieties of out-of-place white people. A little further in, the hillside flattened out into a dried up river bed with a peculiar outcropping of rock. Immediately in front of us was a rock wall with a bent and cavernous face that looked like an overgrown half-pipe. It wrapped around out of sight. Our guide explained that a great battle took place here long ago, the details of which were lost on me. I was feeling better than before, but my head wasn't yet on straight.
Then she took us over to the cave paintings. They were on a rock wall across the dried river bed from the half-pipe. We crossed a man-made boardwalk that led over to the paintings. The boardwalk fenced off the last couple feet right before the wall. The guide hopped the fence and put her finger right up to them.
The cave paintings were a faint orange scrawling of stick figure persons. They weren't much in the way of an imposing visual presence, but I guess that's true of most things people wrote down a long time ago. How long does it take a newspaper to yellow, a couple decades? These had been here for hundreds and hundreds of years. Ostensibly (and by that I mean this is what the guide said), they depicted ancient Basotho hunters going after elan. My initial interpretation was that this painting was composed on a slow day of elan hunting. From the one hunter to the other: "And you see, Joe, this is what it would look like if we had in fact caught an Elan today." That's when he would've put down the drawing of the elan with a spear going through it. The guide's interpretation differed slightly. She said they were depictions of the visions that came to these Basotho hunters while in trance. They drew themselves tall and skinny, though in fact they were rather squat in figure.
The rock walled canyon bottom did seem like a good place for a trance. There was an engaging acoustic effect where you could cast your voice across the river bed. It wasn't so much of an echo as a single repetition from across the way. Still recovering from a hangover, I found this simple effect fascinating. Doped up, I imagine it'd be quite riveting.
And with that we hiked back up the canyon to set off for the South Africa border. There was still a ways to go from the edge of Lesotho to Johannesburg, a few hours maybe. The terrain contrasts sharply. Lesotho's endless array of mountains is engaging and beautiful. Interior South Africa is infertile plains, distant buttes, and straight roads. It's like taking leave of Nepal and finding yourself in Wyoming. The country boundaries must have been drawn along scenic borders rather than ethnic ones. We were no longer in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
Back in Joburg we split our separate ways. Haily and I spent a night or two in the city then took off on another road trip through the country down to Cape Town. Muni and Blackwood went off to whatever their next plans were. We'd had a densely packed couple of days, from wandering Mandela's long walk to taking Sani Pass to participating in a domestic disturbance to communing with man's long-standing devotion to commemorating his conquests. We were ready for something a little less involved during our stay in Johannesburg. Thankfully, during that time, nothing would ever come to fisticuffs nor would we project unwelcome bodily contents into a vast and comely mountainscape. My only disappointment, looking back, is that we never did hit up Shane Eagle's entourage.