Ride the lightning

"Flash before my eyes
Now it's time to die
Burning in my brain
I can feel the flame"

Ride the lightning - Metallica - 

It's really impossible to predict when our time can come; that moment, that one time that we all in one way or another fear. In order not to worry, we can go through life trying to ignore that it will come, or we might as well live worried all the time thinking that we have more chances to prevent it. Whatever the attitude we take, we all know about its eventual inevitability. When I set off for Lesotho, mostly every imaginable thing was in my mind, except the possibility to be even remotely close to death. What I would remember a few days later though, is that death is always potentially near us at all times.

The advent of the unexpected

It is a steady, almost straight climb from Midlands meander, all the way to the border at the bottom of Sani pass. Despite the constant uphill, during the two days that I move towards there, I keep rejoicing myself with the beauty of this sublime scenery of green hills neatly sown vanishing into the horizon. A landscape that stays beautiful all day but as usual, it gains its maximum splendor at sunset when the setting sun paints the mountains in gold and outlines their silhouettes accentuating the depth of the shapes, it is intoxicating.

On the third day I reach the end of the asphalt where the real fun begins. A brutal road of loose rocks, increasingly steep, takes me slowly uphill between two mountain ranges of the Drakensberg Range, with its characteristic peaks in the shape of truncated pyramids flanking it. Up there, in a tiny gap, I can already sight the final stretch of this brutal pass.

The day is bright and radiant, the scenery gorgeous, and the road becomes increasingly harder, therefore I take all the time in the world to do this climb. The steep gradients and the dreadful conditions of the road makes it impossible for me to go fast anyway. I'm struggling bend after bend as I get higher and a scenery more and more stunning reveals itself before my eyes.

The day is coming to its end and some 3 km before the South African border post I decided to camp in the only possible spot that opens up in this rigorous geography. If I decide to continue until the border post, It’ll get dark and I assume they would give me trouble to camp at the border. Besides, with this backdrop and in such a clearly privileged place I don’t really want to push forward, it is for moments like these ones for which I live. I’m at 1965 m of altitude. The weather is cold but tolerable, there is no wind and I decide to pitch my tent in a way that will be perfect for a night photo.

With everything set already and the last bits of daylight, I begin to enjoy this dream camp while I cook my dinner appreciating the grandeur of this range. But the dream would soon start to fade while I’m eating, as I begin to see lights flashing above and behind the peaks, right up there at 3000 m altitude. The bolts of lightning draw my attention but even though I know I’m in an area famous for its thunderstorms, I decide not to worry. It only lasted so little, when all of a sudden the wind started to blow out of nowhere, and it kept blowing and blowing in the same direction of the storm. At that precise moment, a strange unease feeling that felt almost as pure animal instinct, took over me and prevented me to keep swallowing the food. In a fraction of a second, I became aware not only of my total exposure but also of the impossibility to go find any possible refuge.

Already in absolute darkness, the thunders begin to grow louder and louder until they start to make me tremble. However, its vibrations pale in comparison to those blinding flashes of white light that are approaching at an imminent pace already. More and more frequently, closer and closer, brought by a wind that by now, takes a truly violent force. At that moment, I rearrange my stuff outside the tent to protect it from the rain and take the important panniers inside. I open the front zip to be able to see outside and I hope for the storm to pass close but not above me.

 Being inside, now that the wind is blowing, I come to realise that the tent is pitched perpendicular to it thus losing all of its aerodynamic properties. The now hurricane-like wind begins to bend the aluminum poles to the point that I think they would break. The rain finally comes, I have the tent’s wall wrapping around my whole body when suddenly I start feeling blows, almost as if I was under heavy machine gun fire. They are huge hailstones that started to hit the exposed parts of my body and the whole tent. The violent wind gusts blow the pegs away and now I'm left wrapped in my own tent as though it's a sheet, my body weight the only reason why it doesn't fly away. But the wind is so powerful that the flying tent flips over, the floor is now on my back and everything is flooded.

And those lights, those goddamn lights that by this time they leave me blind and begin to send shivers down the spine. When I was a child they’ve taught me that the less time goes on between thunder and bolt of lightning, the closer to you is the storm. I could feel how progressively, that period of time shortened till completely overlapping, at which point the rumble of the thunder made the ground tremble and the blinding lights become permanent. I realise for the very first time that I’m in serious danger. These storms are one of the main cause of death of the

On a night that should originally be pitch black, the interior of the tent goes completely white, almost incandescent. The wind, the thunders, the light, I feel for the first time in my life that this is it, probably my time has come. I throw myself to the flooded ground, I pull out my notebook as I can and I write two different notes to the 4 most important people in my life. I try to control my pulse but I can’t, my whole body shakes uncontrollably.

With the notes already written I curl and rest my forehead on the ground, I clench my teeth and my fists and I scream in fear for each lightning strike that brings that fucking light that burns my retina. I scream until my voice runs out, I know that at any one time one will strike me, with every clench of my teeth I wait for that one final strike. With the tent completely bent and the door flying open, I spot an image outside that was to be engraved forever in my DNA: a sky that from side to side was this massive spider web of lightning I have never ever seen before. It was right above me and it was terrifying. I keep screaming for each strike, each thunder, my time is about to come and it is now imminent.  I keep the images of the people I love the most in this world in my mind and I compulsively repeat their names followed by I love you. 

I lose track of the time I am in this inferno, seconds seem like hours, hours seem like days, but slowly I begin to notice that the time between thunder and lightning starts to grow again and that now, it's on the opposite side. Some time went by and the periods of absolute blackness returned, my heart slowly starts to calm down and the throbbing eases. I think this is starting to pass. The wind continues blowing violently but gradually everything was again reassuringly pitch black.

I flip the fully flooded tent and put the floor back in its place. I come out, I'm all wet and freezing but I need to find the pegs that had been blown away.  I see the bicycle lying on the ground, it had been dragged like 5 meters from its original place. I stand it back up before going back inside to lay on my back facing up and trying to stabilize my pulse. I realise that death has just passed right next to me but for some reason, it decided not to take me with.

The day after

I’ve slept very badly, cold, wet and very agitated. I got out of the tent by 7 am and a sky of intense blue and a radiant bright sun welcomes me. It makes me feel like this is what is like to be reborn. I put everything to dry and prepare my breakfast while I’m watching the mountain range and reflect on yesterday's event.

A few hours later, when I arrive at the solitary border post, five officers are on duty. One comes to me to get my passport while the other ones go on their own business. Meanwhile, I get to talk to the officer and I ask him:

-Officer, you have seen yesterday’s storm, haven’t you?

-yes, of course! very strong, they are very common here - He replies at ease
-Oh, really? And tell me, in such situation, is it really very dangerous to camp out in the open? - I asked

--oh yeah! of course very dangerous, a lot of people die carbonized every year - He says

-   Well, I was camping yesterday, 3 km down the road from here, in that open space. - I said almost whispering.

At that very moment, everybody in the office stopped doing what they were doing, turned around and in unison they exclaimed: WHAT????!!!! One shortly concluded: - “You, Sir, you have to be grateful to be alive”....

I know.... I am - I said to him, with my sight lost and losing myself in my own thoughts.
The loud bang of the stamp hitting my passport on the table shook me out of the daze state I had rapidly fallen into and I left. Ahead of me lied the last 11 km left of ascent, the hardest ones, before reaching the top of the pass where the Lesotho border post is at 2974 m. It was time for me to live and enjoy life now even more than ever before because one never knows when it may be your last day.

It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to go through a situation in which one believes one will die. When everything is over it’s very easy to play it all down thinking: how close death could have actually been? But I’m pretty sure that this one time it was very close. I experienced fear, I experienced visceral horror; at that point, you feel as though your whole life passes right before your eyes, until your thoughts finally settle on the most important people in your life and in certain significant events. However, the sensation I had in that moment, the one that underlied the whole experience was one of getting ready to receive death, and I sort of prepared for that final strike with which everything would end. I could define it as desperation in the beginning but something that would evolve shortly into acceptance. It was as though I didn't have any pending debts with life and I was accepting that if I had to go, then so be it. It's a feeling for which there are really not enough words, or no words at all to describe it, but certainly a feeling that I don't want to go through again. The brutal thunderstorms would accompany me for the rest of my ride across Lesotho but from then on, I would try to make sure that they would never again catch me unaware by surprise.