The quad-breaking Kingdom
Looking at a map of Africa, it looks just like a dot lost in the immensity of a continent; so small that it is very easy to overlook. It is a "freckle" called Lesotho, dubbed the Kingdom of the Mountains and there as if it were a separate world belonging to a fairy tale, I entered through its highest portal: Sani Pass at almost 3000 mts of altitude. A pass as marvelous as it was brutal and yet would be nothing more than the perfect appetizer, a brief introduction no more, for what would turn into an endless succession of scabrous passes that would follow and that I would have to get across in order to cross this tiny little kingdom inhabited by shepherds, living closer to the sky.
Coming from South Africa, and to a lesser extent from the rest of southern Africa, it is impossible not to notice the pronounced difference as soon as one enters Lesotho. Standing there on a cold morning contemplating a dawn painting the Drakensberg mountain range in gold, a Basotho shepherd wrapped in his blanket, surrounded by his dogs, looks at me solemnly in an almost spiritual silence. He looks at me with the same curiosity with which I look at him. Suddenly, I feel that I have returned to Africa, but I also recognize that these people are remarkably different from the ones I had known so far. His features, his clothes, his houses, his walk; the proud and penetrating look that reflects the temper of only those who resist the inclemencies of a rough geography and a rigorous climate.
Elevated for the most part above 2500 meters, in Lesotho I immediately feel that special air that I used to perceive every time I traveled through the Tibetan highlands. That feeling of overwhelming immensity, the vast expanses without people, the softness of the mountains stamped with the shapes of the clouds, the cold and dry air, the villages in the distance miming their surroundings in the most perfect of harmonies. If Tibet is the roof of the world, Lesotho is certainly the roof of Africa.
In between mountain passes, the valleys open as mountaintops draw the shape of the horizon. The vibrant green tones of a remarkably cold summer, at times, bring me happy memories of the Mongolian steppe. The Basotho houses are a beautiful example of vernacular architecture that seems to have come out of a tale. Each village accompanies the shape of the slopes. The houses consist of a simple circular stone wall, compressed thatched roof, doors and windows painted generally in celestial light-blue, defining more than clearly the 4 elements of architecture described by Gottfried Semper in the past (excuse the inevitable architect's observation :)).
But this almost heavenly beauty of Lesotho should not be taken lightly, for the most magical of paradise can become the most brutal of hells. Summer, when all the slopes are elegantly dressed in green, is also the time when the sky unleashes all its fury on the earth. The thunderstorms of this region take the lives of dozens of shepherds every year. That night at the base of the Sani pass, after having survived, perhaps miraculously, to that squandering of electricity that fell from the sky all around me, I promised myself that from that moment on, I would always try to camp in a safe place. But the unpredictability of the storms in this region makes it very difficult because they can occur at any time, anywhere. However, the most frightening thing is that the speed at which the weather degenerates is horrifying and most certainly much faster than I can cycle on these highlands, from a place exposed to a protected one. That is why arriving at the end of the day to a village and camping next to the houses of the Basotho would bring peace of mind. There, I would sit and look in total awe, from the safety of a hard roof above me, at how fast a beautiful starry sky would turn into a lethal electrical one.
As I usually do in all the countries I visit, from the first day I arrive I take learning the basics of the local language as a priority, and in this case I learned more and more Sesotho as I moved along. This allowed me to be able to communicate with the morrena (head of the village) when arriving at each village and to be able to ask permission to spend the night there. Although I have always been received with open arms without exceptions, there was this one time when I witnessed how a morrena came out of his house openly punching the woman who had just come with me to help me introduce. I never understood whether he was drunk or crazy or what, but the truth is that I was so paralyzed by such violence that after the woman was able to run away, I left behind her to camp somewhere else. Except that once again, I would be exposed to a new storm. When I saw the fury of this new one, I understood from the first moment that I was going to be playing face to face with death again and that I could no longer afford it. When the bolts of lightning were almost upon the village, I had no choice but to go to the only place I could turn to in the darkness of the night when everyone was already inside their houses: inside a latrine. The smells that gushed beneath me were corroding my lungs, but still, the disgust was more benevolent than the new storm I witnessed that night. Before taking refuge, taking photos until the last moment, I have seen again and again the black night becoming an incandescent day. If I had ever doubted the wild force of nature (not that I ever had), then I would have no more doubts about it.
The days, on the contrary, remained dazzling, with immaculate celestial skies contrasting with the colors of the grass and the flowers, but they were an endless battle against the excessively steep slopes and the succession of interminable passes. The mountain passes here are a punishment that only adventurers with a large share of masochism are willing to face. In the sea of stones that lead me to Thaba Tseka, the slopes are creepy, some of the steepest that I have had to face. Between valley and valley, there is so much effort that I have to put on the pedals, even on the lowest of 27 gears, that at times it really surprises me that the chain will cut open.
I can move forward between 35 and 45 km a day, from sunrise to sunset on the saddle, in an exercise of strength sometimes immeasurable with the bicycle so loaded. Somehow, as I advance by making my quadriceps tremble in pain, I begin to imagine Lesotho as a dot in which all of Tibet had been compressed. The equally steep descents go by in the blink of an eye, pushing the brakes so hard until the tires scream and my tendons hurt, only to find out at the end of them another narrow valley that I can cross in minutes only, before beginning yet another eternal climb. I do not know who has planned these roads, but I begin to believe that they definitely have a vendetta against cyclists.
As I struggle through the rubble that covers these roads, the tiredness of my muscles leads me to lose my balance. Sometimes it is simply a loss of control that leads me to put one foot on the ground, in others the bicycle falls to the ground, but there are times when the blow can be more serious. Here, for the third time in my life on a bicycle, I get one of those unforgettable beatings when I lose control of the handlebar lightly at the edge of the road and the front wheel goes of a slope with a 50-60% gradient. After that point, there is no turning back. I lose total control between the rocks and shrubs that cut the skin of my legs wide open, as the speed increases irreversibly. In such a situation, braking can be even more dangerous because the steep inclination and the inertia can throw me into the air and lead me to land head and body on sharp rocks and thorny bushes. I roll without control for about 50 meters until I manage to dump my weight to one side and make the bike slip until it snaps into the bushes and finally I can fall relatively safe to the ground. I have no choice other than unloading it completely, so I can take it all back up to the road. Once there, I stare at the landscape until my heart slows down and I thank once more for not having broken each and every bone.
Conversations on the rooftop of Africa
The climbs and descents take me through dazzling landscapes, but the real magic of this little kingdom is when I reach the plateaus where the slopes become more gentle and allow for some space to breathe. Summer brings to storms so violent that they can kill, but with them, also comes life to earth with the fertility they propagate. The fields are filled with white, lilac and yellow flowers where the Basotho children stroll in their donkeys. However, summer can be no more than a saying when you live at 3000 meters high, because the cold keeps people wrapped in their blankets practically all day.
If the days are relatively cold, summer nights at 3 C are icy. Due to the danger of storms, I decide to live with the Basotho in their villages every night as much as possible. They smile with joy as I reach their villages and exclaim: "Lumelang! O phela joang? Morrena e kae?" because they are not used to hear a white man greeting in Sesotho and asking for the head of the village. In this way, I am always received with open arms; when they do not invite me to sleep inside their houses, they tell me where to pitch my tent, close to them and give me anything I need. With them, I spent the end of each day talking until nightfall. The nights and the debacle between the stars and the bolts of lightning are memorable, but so are the sunrises when the skies are clean and immaculate and very early, at 6 am, the Basotho are already up to start with the tasks of the day.
On my last night before the expected descent to the South African border, I decided to camp again in the open country to spend a night with the Basotho shepherds. Unlike village people, shepherds live with their sheep and guard dogs in the vicinity of high rocky peaks in isolated huts in the middle of the mountains. Wrapped in blankets and rags, and covered with a mountain hat or hood, these iron men face the brutal storms out in the open, the cold and the days and nights of solitude in which they live.
When I approach them, I notice them alerted by my presence. First I think that I am annoying them and I am not well received, however soon I realize that they are only asking me not to approach their huts so that their dogs do not devour me. What a fury those canines that by 50 metres away, they already need to be caught down by their necks so they do not come to tear me apart. When one holds them, another of them comes to talk with me. They speak a very difficult dialect of which I do not understand a word but after gestures and signs they manage to understand that I need a safe place to camp. There, in that very weather, at a relatively equidistant distance from three huts, they tell me that it is safe for me to pitch my tent. I try to make myself understood to ask about the storms to no avail, so I reluctantly and forcibly decided once again to be exposed to whims of nature, after all, it is night time already and I have no other choice.
That night I spend one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced in summer, only comparable to those of Tibet and Mongolia. I stay outside for a while as usual, despite the intense cold to contemplate the Milky Way from the rooftop of Africa. Everything is dark and silent. However, when I find myself warm inside the sleeping bag, I am indirectly involved in an overnight conversation between the Basotho shepherds. But of course, not in person, but at a distance. Between hut and hut, situated at a distance that I estimate no less than 200-300 meters, the shepherds converse in short sentences, calling to each other in the void and the darkness, sort of extending the words until fading in the silence. When one word "goes out", the other answers. My tent, located in the center of an imaginary triangle where each hut lies at each of the triangle's point, is the epicenter of the conversation. There, at 2,900 m high, on that frozen summer night, under millions of stars, and without the threat of a storm, I fell asleep while they "talked" well into the night, talking through the emptiness of this immense open land. One of the most magical experiences I have ever kept as part of my memories. The next morning, the shepherds brought me a breakfast on a tin plate full of old breadcrumb soaked in icy goat's milk. It was pretty disgusting to be honest, but I received it with great joy. I have been accepted among them and that is a gesture that I will not forget. They stayed with me until I finished picking up my stuff, while having fun looking at themselves on the LCD of the camera.
It took me 10 days to cycle about 350 km to cross Lesotho from east to west. By the time I reached the top of the last pass I had to do on that very last day, which was the last of a succession of three consecutive very steep passes (if paved), my quadriceps did not want to keep going anymore. Even after having raised my portion of pasta for dinner to 400g or 300g in the case of rice, accompanied with 400g of beans (aluvias), I have seldom felt such muscle pain. I feel my thighs completely sore, they no longer relax after a night's sleep and the pain persists. I am happy but exhausted. I am already descending towards Mafeteng and the magical green colors have been transformed incredibly into the yellow that will dominate the shades of the Great Karoo when crossing South Africa. The temperature has also risen and returned once again to a very pleasant point.
A few miles from Sepaphos Gate, a remote border with South Africa that lies at the end of a dirt road with no traffic at all, I stopped at the last village where Elizabeth, the sister of the morrena welcomed me and looked after me like a son. Eli, who had worked two years as a nanny in London, noticed that I was evidently very tired when I appeared at the door of her house. There, exhausted, Elizabeth, who so affectionately called me "Nicky" from the moment she knew my name, cooked for me, talked to me about her difficult life with joy, and even kissed me goodnight in the bed that she had laid for me in the house of his brother. From there, I would have the long and hard stretch left to Cape Town, at the end of this first stage of crossing the African continent.
The unforgettable rooftop of Africa
Lesotho may be small, but what it lacks in size it boasts with grandeur. Up there, elevated at 3000 m high, landscapes dazzle while the Basotho live virtually separated from the rest of Africa in their own traditional universe, as though as they contemplated the rest of the continent from above. It is probably that very same sort of "separation" from the rest that makes it so unique in its characteristics. There, the Basotho have resisted invasions and preserved their culture virtually intact, maintaining a slow pace of life based on the most basic needs, which is not easy in a region of the world where the pace of globalization clearly marks the rhythm of life of the majority of people, both in mere desire and needs. It has certainly been a physical challenge to cross Lesotho, it has exhausted me and even made me feel pain after facing climb after climb after climb. On the other hand, I was able to gain insight into the unique life of these resilient people, who share many of the characteristics found on those places as dissimilar as those in north-east Asia.
I would return again and again to Lesotho, to travel to even more remote places, because in this 'great dot' of Africa alone, one can easily spend a little eternity.