We were afraid that Lula the Landy’s misspent youth in rust inducing Scotland had come back to haunt us. However, a quick telephone call to Ride Out Mike of Just Done It in Cape Town assured us that the curious whistling noises that she was emitting were just a hangover from all of the dust that she had consumed, eating up dirt roads on the Wild Coast. No AA meetings required for this floozy just yet then and thank goodness because today we would attempt to enter the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho and cross, hopefully, our first of many borders.
Lesotho is land locked by South Africa and so people (and dogs) pass through its borders everyday but after so many tales of difficult border crossings and unsure of how Bow Wow would go down (even though he had all of his appropriate documentation) we played it safe and made for the Ramatseliso’s border with four days still left on our South African visas. This particular entrance gate can only be accessed by 4×4 and so is seldom used and therefore, we had heard, less officious and more relaxed. Nevertheless, we crawled up the rocky incline with trepidation and fingers tightly crossed while Bow Wow tried to look as cute as possible.
We needn’t have given a hoot; the well wrapped up border guard welcomed us with a toothy smile, obviously delighted to have some company at his remote, lofty post. He gladly stamped our passports and after a quick chinwag we were on our way, albeit very slowly as the Lesotho road was so bad, it made the 4×4 South African road that we had just arrived on look positively well maintained. It was quite clear that this road was more accustomed to hooves than tyres and at one point we were almost overtaken by a determined donkey carrying two crates of beer. Evidently he was stocking up for the World Cup.
With the nerve wracking crossing now behind us, we could fully appreciate the magnificent landscape; golden mountains stretched on forever without a building, tar road, electricity pylon or even a tree in sight. Lesotho appeared at once powerful and gentle with its dramatic summits softened by a covering of long silky grasses in colours muted by the strength of the elements. We passed flaxen crops and small clusters of stone built thatched rondavels that looked so primitive, we half expected them to have been erected by the Lesotho tourist board for the benefit of foreigners. However, people really do live here in the same way that they have for centuries, with no electricity, machinery or cars.
Although undeveloped, this was very different to the poverty that we had witnessed on the Wild Coast. Here the land is well cultivated with golden meilies (corn) and like a Van Gogh painting, hand gathered hay stacks scatter the landscape. It is apparent that people work extremely hard and live well, only taking from the environment what they need. At first we were shocked by the lack of progress but then we started to think differently. Whereas people in Lesotho work to live, we, in the West, work to play. Certainly our lives are physically easier with machines to do much of our manual work for us and medicines to cure our illnesses but at what cost to the Earth and spiritually we seem in more of a mess than ever.
Someone keen to step out of consumerist society, at least for a while, is Nicolas Lepoutre, a Frenchman who is walking and camping across Lesotho solo. When we met him at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, he had only 40 Rand (under £4) on his person, his credit card having not worked on his arrival from France. He refused to accept any money from us and explained that he thought that he had subconsciously created this situation on purpose to make his journey even more challenging and ultimately more satisfying. We could relate to this having our own added challenges which are equally gratifying, one of them called Bow Wow.
It wasn’t long before we began passing Basothos (Lesotho citizens) at first on horseback and then on foot, all with thick woollen blankets pinned in dramatic folds and tossed over their shoulders with such swagger that they could easily be mistaken for the work of fashion designers, Alexander McQueen or Vivienne Westwood. These blankets are the traditional dress of Lesotho and depending on their pattern and quality tell of their wearer’s status in the community.
Our arrival certainly made waves; women balancing heavy loads on their heads, old men smocking long pipes and whole school yards of joyful children greeted us with enthusiasm as soft sunlight streamed down and we trundled past. In the hours it took to reach Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park and with aching wrists, we finally understood why the Queen waves in the gentle way that she does.
Weird rock formations that resemble the remnants of a lost civilisation and absolute silence make camping at the isolated Sehlabathebe National Park feel like being on another planet. An extremely cold planet at night, so much so we wore up to eight layers to bed like Michelin men (luckily there were no fashion police around as we would most certainly have been arrested) and it was not for romantic reasons that we zipped our sleeping bags together but a vain attempt to get warm. In the evening we were visited by jackals, lured by Bow Wow’s Hill’s dog food, who blinked dazedly in our torch light, seemingly unfazed by our protector’s low growl or our ungainly attire.
Thankfully daylight brought glorious sunshine and we thawed out on long walks through the valleys, Bow Wow almost totally camouflaged against the bleached grass. He made full use of this fact and given half a chance would stealthily creep up on the park keeper’s horses, donkeys and mules grazing nearby and give chase. For this reason, we had to tie him to the car when we washed our dishes. One day, as we returned with soapy marigolds and sparkling pots, we heard Bow Wow whimpering and were dumfounded to find the equines who he had been terrorising earlier, menacingly surrounding him. They somehow knew that, quivering on a leash, there was very little damage that he could do and seemed intent on teaching him a lesson. Needless to say, it did the trick and Bow Wow has not horsed around since.