There is no mistaking Lesotho; it is a completely mountainous contradiction to the South African topography. Immediately upon reaching the border, the mountains begin. These are real mountains, not the hills that so many places of the world call “mountains”. It’s incredibly dramatic to travel for hundreds of kilometers across the arid flatlands of the veld of South Africa to then see these gnarled peaks shoot-up from the horizon. These impressive geologic structures are precisely the reason that Lesotho exist.
Lesotho literally means “kingdom of the sky”. As a landlocked country, completely surrounded by South Africa, it was the mountains of this region that offered refuge for the Basotho people who fled first from the mighty Zulu and then European settlers.
Before we go any further into this story, let’s take a moment to define some important travel words from South African English, learned from many rather confusing conversations.
Important travel words:
Taxi: These are not the vehicles I would call a taxi... ya know, the kind where you hail the cab and tell the driver where you want to go. No, these are actually a a mini-bus/van. And, there are two different types depending on the number of people that the vehicle can hold. A “12-person taxi” is like a stripped-down van that have benches in it to actually hold a minimum of 15 people, sometimes more. A “big” taxi is like a mini-bus that is actually designed to hold 20 passengers.
Metered-taxi: This is what I call a “taxi”. You jump in and the dude tells you a price to go somewhere. Although, in this case, this usually involves finding other people to also join you on your trip, accomplished by a lot of horn-honking and yelling and using specialized hand gestures depending on the place that you may or may not be going.
Bus: Ahhhh... finally a word that means the same thing... but, there are also two different types of buses, the nice ones and the not-so-nice ones. The nice ones (also called sleep-liners or intercapes or greyhounds just to keep the words confusing) are usually a double-decker vehicle with a toilet. One must purchase a ticket in advance.
The “regular” bus has quite a range of specifications, but the general rule is you can hail them from the side of the road and directly pay the driver. The other general rule is that there will be a lot of people and supplies and other things.
Hike: What I call hitchhiking. This one always gets me... and has caused much confusion on my part and on the part of others.
Trek: Hiking, people.... this is hiking! Where you actually walk around in mountains and other natural-seeming places.
And now, armed with our new vocabulary, we can begin our trip!
As so many of my undertakings, this was a spur-of-the-moment decision. My plans had suddenly changed and I found myself in Johannesburg with nothing to do for a week. So, I looked at a map and said to myself, "Lesotho."
After a gander at a few maps, I decide to head to Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho. Once there, I’ll make a decision of one of three possible routes…. after all, I wouldn’t want to make any rash decisions and possibly limit my options.
I embark with a fairly straight-forward trip to the main bus station of Johannesburg. The two sets of escalators aren’t working, so I wander around for a few minutes until I find some seldom-used stairs that now serve as a giant human funnel.
As this was spontaneous trip, I do not have a bus ticket. So, I begin speaking to the several different bus operators. There isn’t a centralized system, rather different guys each doing their own thing ranging from big operators to single-bus guys. This means walking back-and-forth across the terminal and waiting in line to first find if there is a bus leaving and then a price. All this becomes more complicated by the fact that there are not direct buses to Lesotho... one must take a bus to a nearby South African town and then procure other means of transportation to reach the border.
After speaking to seven different bus operators each with different times, prices, routes, options... I settle on the company that has one of the better prices largely because the sales lady, upon hearing my surname, spends ten minutes talking about Dawson’s Creek, the TV series. After she got several minutes into eighteen different plot twists, I had to sheepishly explain to her that though I did indeed spell my name that way, that I have never actually seen any of the episodes. She immediately stopped mid-sentence and gave me one of those looks that only a black woman can conjure, a panic-inducing mix of “what u talking’ ‘bout?” mixed with “you call that dancing white boy?”.
What to do? I can only shrug my shoulders and promise that I will watch an episode as soon as I return from Lesotho while handing over my ticket fare. She doesn’t acknowledge that I’ve even spoken, just points and says “Gate 5.”
Self-conscious about having taken so long at the ticket counter I look back at the next person in line to offer an apology, but it’s not needed. Long, slow-moving lines are not unexpected and no one even seems to notice our lengthy TV sit-com discussion. I exhale a sigh of relief and quickly move on, looking at different shops for wet wipes, one of the staples of my travel equipment. No luck... No problem, I’ll keep looking for them en route.
I pass through the gate and hand a man my backpack to load the bus. It’s a proper double-decker bus with reclining seats and a toilet! Great news!!! No need to worry about doing the pee-pee dance while waiting for the bus to stop.
Things looking as luxurious as they were, I expect to make the 250+ km trip in 3ish hours. Nope, this bus stops at every little town and intersection along the way, more than doubling my estimated time. I arrive well after dark in a strange town and without a plan. I walk into the nearly vacant bus station and again exhale a sigh of relief to find that there are still two people at the ticket counter. Great! I can ask some locals for suggestions on places to stay.
The two young guys prove to be very helpful and begin making phone calls to some cheap hotels on their personal phones... another bullet dodged... as I’ve also run-out of phone time.
One of the guys finds a place and also tells me that he can call his friend that drives a “metered-taxi”. I make it to the place for 20 Rand and proceed to enter through three different security gates... it’s nearing midnight and caution is wise at this time of the day.
I secure a room and ask how to get to Maseru. The man responds that he’ll tell me in the morning. I explain that I’ll be getting up early and wouldn’t want to bother him. He gives me a look that says “don’t mess with me” and tells me that he doesn’t sleep. “Fair enough,” I think to myself and thank him for his help.
Morning comes early, but I’m excited to be traveling. I go to the converted tool shed that serves as a reception and hand my key over. I smile and ask the receptionist/security guard for directions. He thinks for a moment and then tells me to sit... it’s a little complicated and he’ll take me there himself in 30 minutes. “No problem.” I put my backpack down and begin stretching my legs, more to waste time than to actually stretch.
An hour and two taxis and some walking through morning markets later, I find myself at the “taxi rank”, the spot were mini-buses embark from, and return to, for nearly everywhere. I ask around to find a vehicle to the border. I find the stall on the farthest side of the rank, but I can’t pay here, as in most places. I need to go back across the giant parking lot to a little shack to pay there. I do as instructed, but ask the lady in the shack three different times if this is actually where I pay and if I would indeed arrive to the border... what can I say, it just didn’t seem right to me...
I get back to the taxi, but there are only four other people. Taxis don’t leave until they are full. So, one just waits until people show. Today, it proves a long wait. One hour... two hours... three hours... I laugh to myself as I think, “Man, I just should have slept in a little...” Just as I’m about ready to pull the plug and opt for the hitchhiking option, the last six people show-up and we’re off!
This proves to me a rather short ride to the border. "Man, I should have just hitchhiked," I think as we make the final turn. "No problem, I wasn’t in a hurry anyhow."
I quickly cross the border trying to avoid a woman that keeps trying to start a conversation with me in Chinese. She noticed that I have a multiple Chinese visas in my passport while the immigration officer was looking through the pages. I really don’t want to speak Chinese, so I shrug and walk away...
After completing the necessary immigration paperwork, I walk out of the gate. I manage to avoid being harassed from the long line of taxi drivers by crossing the street and slinking into a gas station (called a “garage” in the local vernacular). I ask the lady at the register how to arrive to Semonkong.
“Semonkong,” I say slowly, careful to enunciate all of the letters.
“I don’t understand.”
“Sem On Kong?” which comes out more as a question than a statement.
Lucky, the man behind me is fluent in Foreign Accent and he quickly mumbles “Semonkong”, more to hurry the process than to actually help.
“Oh, Semonkong…” the lady repeats, giving me the “why didn’t you just say that” look.
She points back across the street to the taxis that I just escaped and says, “Take a taxi to Maseru.”
I look for more explanation, but she has already moved on to the next customer.
I walk across the street, glad that I didn’t say anything unacceptable to the taxi drivers the first time through. I really don’t like be harassed by the drivers, and sometimes I get a little too feisty... but, even worse that the verbal harassment from the taxi drivers is having to go back to somebody that I’ve just told to leave me alone.
I avoid the “taxi” driven by a late-teen with a crooked ball cap rocking out to blaring dance club music. However, he is the first in line and the other taxi drivers point me back to him. I jump into the front seat of an unknown-brand-but-smaller-than-a-Volkswagon-beetle-vehicle and we shoot-off. Along the way, we drive down several different side streets looking for more passengers. We add one, then one more, then two more, then one final person until all of us are sitting on each other’s laps... nowhere else to put seven people in a car with only four seatbelts. Now, we are ready to go to Maseru. The taxi driver stops after ten minutes at his friend’s street-side food stand and points down a rather busy street. “You go there,” he says with a strong accent while pointing down a very busy street. “Close.”
I begin down the street, a very obvious foreigner. I don’t tend to blend-in in most places, particularly when I’m wearing my backpack. But here, I’m about as discreet as a flashing neon sign in a church sermon.
The “bus” station is not close and I stop to ask for directions three different times. The first person asks me why I didn’t take a taxi. I just smile and shrug my shoulders while thinking, “I did, but the dude dropped me off way too early.” The last person gives me a strange look and points across the street to a large open dirt area swarming with people.
Two of the young guys each reach to grab one of my arms. I lift my arms to avoid being grabbed... I’ve learned to tolerate the harassing and haranguing, but I can’t tolerate being grabbed. Now that neither has an advantage, they begin tussling with each other. What begins as pushing and shouting quickly becomes a headlock. I keep walking, not wanting to get involved. Once the “headlocker” sees me walking away, he quickly releases the “headlockee” and runs to my side to direct me where to go. He is clearly the victor and his spoils are to personally lead me to the place for Semonkong taxis. After a few minutes, we arrive to a rusted out taxi that is half full. The young man collects a few coins from the driver and moves down the way yelling, “Semonkong”.
I open the back gate of the van to put my backpack under the seat. Now that I have secured my passage, I realize that I haven’t eaten anything for nearly 24 hours (except for a orange in the morning during the “big taxi wait of 2015”). Turning to the driver, I make a eating motion with my right hand and say, “No go. Eat food.” I continue by holding up all ten of my fingers and saying, “Ten minutes.” He responds with a “shop shop” the local word for OK.
Feeling a hundred pounds lighter without my backpack, I begin wandering through the maze of people. Vendors and taxis and travelers and children and unemployed youth mix and mingle, each moving to their own pace and in their own direction. The clamor dies down as I move through; people stop their conversations and vending to look at me with surprise. I’m the only white person for quite a while and it’s safe to say that not many venture into the taxi ranks. Following my nose, I end up at a grill made from a ten-gallon metal bucket under a well-used tarp. I point at a piece of chicken and smile at the lady.
|Chicken and pap.|
I think it's more than other people would pay, but even if I’m paying the “foreigner” price, this is less than a dollar and I’m hungry, very hungry. I agree to the price which causes a small flurry of action. Shorty, I am returning to the van with a hot plate of pap, relish, and some roasted chicken on top... I don't want the van to forget about me.
I quickly attack my plate of food while standing outside the van. It is quite interesting for many people to see the "tall, white guy" eating pap and chicken with his hands. In short order, I have quite a crowd watching me eat, or perhaps better stated, devour my food.
I climb into the back of the van, ready to begin the trip. I climb all the way to the back seat and sit in the rear corner, next to the window. A young lady sitting on the bench in front of me succumbs to curiosity and begins speaking with me, asking me questions of where I'm from and what am I doing in Lesotho.
After several minutes, she moves to the back bench to make it easier to talk. There are three of us in the back seat now and it is quite cozy. I'm completely surprised to eventually see a "fourth" person, a young man, make his way to the back to seat.
To create a space for him, I have to turn legs to the left side, while moving my "back end" deep into the corner of the van. I then rotate my torso to the front of the van while leaning over to my left. I must put my left arm behind the "curious woman" and the "newly arrived young man" and my right arm out the open window. This is the precarious position that I must take anytime I ride in these buses/vans. Not entirely comfortable.
As we drive, Ms. Curious, points out landmarks to me. The national cricket stadium, national nurse training center, universities, cities, etc. Her English isn't perfect, but very understandable. This is why I'm surprised when, at one point, she gets a little tongue-tied.
She tries telling me something in English, but doesn't know how to. So, she repeats the word in Sotho, letswele, while holding both of her hands in front of herself, chest height, in a cupping motion, moving them slightly up and down.
"I don't understand."
"Famous place." she continues, intent on showing me what is outside the window.
I'm still confused, but don't look out the window... it's difficult to get in that position due to my current contortions.
"Woman. Look. Woman. This..." she says making the same cupping motion.
I still don't understand.
Frustrated, she continues. This time she holds her right hand in front of her while putting her right thumb on the first knuckle of her little finger, then putting her hands in the same cupping motion. "Ingono," she says in Zulu. "Ibele. Woman. Ingono."
By now, the rest of the van is also looking at the window and talking. A few are pointing out the windows to the left. I decide that I should look.
I begin the new contortions to get my head below the level of the window.
"Ohhh...." I finally understand the hand motions. Everyone is looking at two mountains that undeniably resemble two breasts.
I laugh to myself. "Nothing like real-life language learning..."
I take a quick glance at Ms. Curious, hoping that she isn't embarrassed. She doesn't appear to be phased at all.
It is dusk and people are returning to their homes before night sets in. It is chilly and the men, all on horses, are wrapped in a blanket in a unique style. The women have their hands fulls, either with bags of groceries or holding the hand of a child. I start looking for a place to stay for the night
It's time to go.
I still haven't quite decided how to return to Johannesburg. I could backtrack. It is more straight-forward and a guaranteed option.
The other option is to go south. With this option, I know I can get to the border at Qachas Nek, but none of the locals can provide me with any information past that point. On the map, it looks like the road just stops. It looks quite remote and could add 3-4 days of travel, especially if I can't make it across.
I decide to see what transportation is available. I'll go either way depending what taxi is waiting, but I'm looking for the road "untraveled".
I walk to the taxis in Semonkong much later than I should. It's very unlikely that I'll find something today, but I feel like moving. Besides, the cheap hostel where I've been staying isn't particularly friendly and the ex-pat woman in-charge told me, quite rudely, "This isn't the first-world. You won't be able to find anything today." Out of spite, I decide make a go of it.
As I walk towards the only "taxi" that is left at this time of day, I'm approached by an obnoxious youth asking me where I'm going. I tell him "No thank you." and continue to the "taxi". I tell the driver that I want to go to Qachas Nek and he motions me in. The obnoxious youth, grabs my arm, demanding money. I shake my arm loose and tell him "NO." He keeps insisting, but I climb into the taxi.
He walks angrily away, then comes back. He connives a cigarette from the driver and then tells the driver that I will pay for the cigarette. The driver looks at me and I refuse to give any money. The driver isn't entirely happy that he's out a cigarette, but it's none of my concern.
While we're waiting another young man walks by to ask me where I'm going. I tell him Qachas Nek. He laughs at my pronunciation and explains to me how to say the word. The "qa" is made with a clicking sound that ends with an open mouth to give it an "a" sound. This is followed by the word "chess". The second word is "just like neck" he says, while point to his throat.
I spend the next several hours practicing how to say Qachas Nek to no avail. It proves to be very difficult and I don't quite get it until several weeks later, much too late to be any good to me.
We close the van doors and drive two kilometers down the "main" dirt road of Semonkong, taking a right to go to "the" store. From there, a dude loads a large sack of grain and even larger sack of cabbage. Then he closes the door and we return to the original spot. We repeat this trip three times in the next 50 minutes. I'm not really sure what is happening, but every possible bit of space in the taxi is packed with something. Items precariously stacked and loaded so that nothing, and nobody, can move. At this point, we turn onto the paved highway; we are underway!!!
We bounce along the roads. Barely crawling up the steep uphills and dangerously screaming downhill. People get in and out along the way. After an hour, the dude with the big bags of food gets out creating some space for everyone in the van. He throws a bag over each shoulder and starts walking into the bush as we drive away.
I'm still don't know exactly where the van is going and nobody seems to speak English. We are headed in the correct direction and that will have to suffice for the moment.
We arrive at the final stop. I know it's the final stop because the driver tells me and the three remaining ladies to get out.
We are at a house on the side of the road. But, there is a turn-out... must be an important place...
I jump out and put my backpack on. The driver shouts something at me and points to a passenger car that is across the road. The driver of this vehicle gets out and walks towards me and the three women. He motions for me to follow him. I follow. I watch the women and following their example, put my backpack in the open trunk. The front seat has been reserved for me.
I tell the driver "Qachas Nek." I try to do the clicking, but just give-up and say it like a gringo.
"Yes. I know." he tells me.
"Great! You speak English!"
He explains to me that he can't take me all the way to Qachas Nek, but he can take me to the village where his house is. From there I should be able to catch a ride.
"Take that," I think to the woman at the hostel.
We drive along for an hour before we drop the women. They load their bags on their heads and begin carrying the buckets down a trail.
"They walk four hours to their home." the driver tells me pointing to some mountains in the distance. I can't believe that they will go that far.
"Really?!?!?" I ask.
"Yes, they walk until dark."
We arrive, and drive past his village. He decided to take me to Seforong. It's a bigger town and I have a better chance to catch a taxi. It's getting dark and it's not looking likely that I'll find a ride.
We stop in the town and look around for a ride. It's pretty windy and getting cold, so we both get back into the car. A couple of semi-trucks drive past. When they do, the driver jumps out of the car and looks at them, but nothing...
It's been about 45 minutes and the driver is getting anxious. I've told him several times that he can go; I'll find a ride or a place to stay.
A bus drives past, but it's empty. Looks like they're going home and not taking any passengers. It stops about 200 meters down the road and the "bus assistant" jumps out to buy a few drinks. I walk down there and start talking to the driver.
He doesn't want to give me a ride. I say "OK" and walk away. After a few minutes, the assistant tells me that it's OK and they will give me a ride. I'm grateful and jump into the empty bus. I still can't figure out how the buses know when to stop or when they give people rides or why a driver would say no and then yes... travel here is all a bit of a mystery for me.
-Qachas Nek [Lesotho]
I start looking for a place to sleep. Nothing is open but a few "bars". The bars are rough... a bunch of very drunk dudes in poorly constructed carport looking shelters. I ask a few places and I'm finally told to go to the bakery. From there, go two more stores and the lady that owns that "café" also has a hostel.
It takes me a little while to find the location. The "café" is closing. The owner is counting the money and two girls are cleaning the pots and tables. I walk in and explain that I'm looking for a place to sleep and I've been told that the owner has a hostel. The girls look at me like I'm a ghost. It takes the owner a minute to gather her wits before she tells me that she does have a hostel.
She sends the two girls with me to show me the way to the hostel. They are dumbfounded and don't know what to say. I try to talk to them, but it becomes easier to walk in complete silence and absolute darkness.
We arrive to the hostel and the manager shows me the deluxe room that has four queen-size beds and quotes me a price. I explain that the price is quite high for me and that I only want a single bed and a simple room. She tells me that she doesn't have anything...
I explain that I just spoke with the owner and that I'd been told that there were simple rooms available. After this, she remembers that she has a simple room in one of the out-buildings, but it has a shared bathroom.
"That's good for me." I tell her.
I drop my bag off at the room and ask if they have food. They don't. Then one of the girls tells me there is still food at the "café". We call the owner and she tells me that she'll save me some food.
I walk back to the café with the girls and take the leftover fried chicken and fries. They are quite greasy after sitting around for the several hours, but I gulp them down while they finishing cleaning. We all finish at the same time and they give me a ride back to the hostel.
I wake up early and quickly pack. I have a long way to go and I'm not entirely sure how to get back to Johannesburg.
I start walking towards the border, not knowing how far it is. I walk about 10 minutes when a car stops to offer me a ride. It's 20 Rand and I decide to go for it.
To my chagrin, it's less than 2 kilometers to the border... about a 10 minute walk. "Oh well," I think as I hand the man his money.  :"The dude is the early bird and made full advantage of it."
I enter the building and start the paperwork. I'm the second one to cross the border today.
I exit the chain-link gate on the South African side and there is nothing... I've never seen a border crossing like this. There isn't anything, just a dirt road that goes for quite a while. I start walking, determined to hitchhike. I walk for about two kilometers when I see a white truck parked on the side of the road. After I pass, the driver asks me where I'm going. I tell him that I'm going to the nearest town to find a bus.
"I can give you a ride."
"No thank you, I want to hike (meaning hitchhike)." I respond.
"It's not possible." he tells me.
"How far is it to the next town?" I ask.
I'm beginning to rethink my idea of walking until I can hitch a ride. That's really far and involves more possibilities of undesired outcomes than I had previously calculated.
"When will you leave?"
"I will wait. Let me know before you go and maybe I can go with you." I tell the man. I want to keep my options open.
I climb up the hill a little way to have a vantage point of the border. From here, I can see any vehicles that are coming and still make it to the road in enough time to catch a ride. I take off my backpack and enjoy the early morning sun as it rises over the distant hills. It feels warm and good.
There isn't any traffic from the border. After half an hour, another truck comes and stops, talking with the current truck.
I wait for about an hour and a half in total and decide that it's time to move. I walk down to the truck, but the driver is gone... "How did that happen?" I ask myself in surprise.
As I stand there, another truck pulls up and tell me to get in. He explains that the other driver has gone and he will drive me to town. He's a little upset because even though he takes the money, he has to pay the first driver. I don't understand how all that works, but jump in the back of the truck. I run the calculations through my head, still trying to find a possibility that makes sense, but nothing does.
I'm offered a seat on the "bench", a 2x4 board that is on two bricks. I decline. I'm told that I should sit there because I'm white; I just can't tolerate that. So, I sit on the floor. The metal floor beats my behind into a pulp with each of the many, many bumps on the way. "Nothing like a massage..."
We arrive to town at the "taxi ranks". I ask around and find that I need to go to Durban before heading to Jo-burg. I find a ride in one of the "nice" taxis, a newer model that seats 22 people.
I don't sleep much... I wanted a cheap place to stay and that's exactly what I found. It is a shared-bathroom hostel with an open window to the street. To top it off, my window is directly above a taxi stop meaning that I hear yelling and horns all night long. It's noisy as hell.
I jump out of bed and take a cold shower, the only option. I have to take three taxis and backtrack before I get to the taxi rank that will take me to Jo-burg. I find a new taxi that is just a few people short and will leave in a few minutes. "Score!"
I pull out my wallet, but I'm a hundred Rand short for the fare... "Damn it all."
I start asking around for an ATM that will take my chinese bank card. I found out last week that my US credit card had been automatically canceled from lack of use. Needless to say, it's not straight-forward to find a bank in South Africa, really, anywhere in the world, that will interface with the chinese banking system.
I walk to a grocery store that has four different ATMs. All are out of money. It's Monday morning and all the cash has been withdrawn over the weekend. It's too early for the machines to have been restocked.
I try another store, but my card won't work. I try a bank, but it also won't interface. I know the bank name that I have used before, but can't find that particular bank. I randomly walk for another 20 minutes asking people along the way before I'm given directions to the bank that I need.
I make it to the bank and withdraw enough money for the next week, then turn around to head back to the taxi rank.
I arrive for the departure of a larger taxi and jump in. I have the seat next to the door which provides me more leg-room that the typical seat, definitely much more than my usual spot in the deep, dark, back corner.
We leave Durban around 10 am. I make some quick calculations and figure we should arrive to Jo-burg between 4-5 pm. That gives me enough time to get another taxi to the suburb where I've been staying well before dark. Jo-burg after dark is not the place to be, especially as an obvious tourist that doesn't know the city.
We continue for about an hour when the entire van begins to convulse, dramatically. The driver pulls over, bangs around on a engine, and then starts the vehicle again.
This happens two more times before the van dies on the side of the road.
The passengers of the vehicle start becoming quite agitated. There is a lot of talking going around the taxi amongst the passengers and between the driver. After several minutes, I ask the young woman next to me what is going on. She acts surprised that I don't know, but I remind her that everyone has been speaking in other languages and I only speak English. She begins to understand when I tell her that I'm from the US. She explains that the van is stopped for an indefinite amount of time.
"Well then" I tell myself, "I may as well get out and stretch my legs."
I open the door and a few of the men step out with me to make phone calls. I pick up some rocks and throw them at fence posts on the side of the highway. I hit the posts several times which impresses some of the men.
Some of them start talking to me. One complains that his battery is dead and he needs to make a phone call. My phone battery is also dead and I don't have any phone credit left. But, my portable charge has enough charge on it to make maybe a 10 minute phone call. I offer it to the man and he's quite happy. His name is Lordsburg.
The driver has been banging away on the motor and making phone calls. He tells us that the company has decided to send another van and will have one there in about two hours. Not bad, considering that Durban is about one hour and forty minutes away. However, there is a slight problem. Our current van has 18 passengers and the one they are sending will only hold 15. The other three will have to wait indefinitely for another taxi to arrive.
There is an immediate outroar from the passengers. Everyone starts making claims to the importance of their prompt arrival, explaining why they should be on the next taxi. I keep throwing rocks, waiting for things to cool down a little before I approach the driver.
He thinks he anticipates what I'm going to say before I open my mouth. "You will be on the first person on the next van. You're white and should be on it."
"Actually, I wanted to volunteer to be on the second van. I'm not in a hurry and have the time to wait."
The driver is quite taken back. I also tell him that I'm hungry and I'm going to walk to the store that we saw about two kilometers back.
"I'll be gone about 40 minutes. Please don't leave without me."
The driver asks me to borrow any tools if they are available, specifically some big wrenches.
I start walking down the highway and Lordsburg hollers at me to join. Looks like he is also going on the late van. We dart across the three lanes in each direction. There is a garage at the gas station and I ask to borrow some tools. They look around, asking other mechanics and attendants, but with no luck. I walk to the shop and get a meat pie with cider, also buying some phone credit.
After I finish my lunch, I return to the van. The other van has arrived and now it's just Lordsburg, me, the driver, and another passenger.
We wait another hour for the next van to arrive. This van is a rusted-out, beat-up 14 passenger van.
We jump in. The other two guys talking to the passengers of the new van. Finally, we're moving again.
We continue for a few hours when we are stopped by a police check-point. These are quite common. Six to eight police are on the side of the road and wave over vehicles. I've accidentally driven through two of these and I've been stopped several times while riding in taxis.
The process is the same. The taxi driver jumps out and talks to the police officers for 5-10 minutes. Papers are waved around, there is some yelling and screaming, then the driver walks back to the back of the van and somewhat discreetly hands the police a few bills and then we continue on our way.
However, this time is different.
It all starts out the same. But, it is taking a long time, a really long time. After about 30 minutes, the driver enters the vehicle and slams the door. He is pissed! Nobody in the van says anything. Instead of continuing to drive straight, he turns the van around and starts following the police car back the way we came from. What is going on?!?!?
Again, nobody says anything for about 10 minutes before a brave passenger asks what is going on. The driver goes off for about five minutes. I only understand the swear words, and there are a lot of them. Shortly, the whole van is in an uproar, everyone is pissed-off! I wait until it has quieted down enough for me to ask Lordsburg what is going on. He explains that we have to return the town we passed 30 minutes back. It isn't really clear what has happened, but we are definitely not going in correct direction.
We arrive to the town, the taxi driver swearing the entire time, and drive into the parking lot of a government building that is surrounded by razor wire. There is a gate that must be opened for us to arrive and is closed after we go through. Our driver gets out of our van and into the police car, then they all drive off. I look around, then to Lordsburg, who just shrugs. None of us have any idea what is going on... we've just been locked in a big parking lot behind razor wire and left there, possibly for the night.
I open the door and get out... "May as well stretch my legs." I laugh to myself. "Stuff like this can only happen to me... only me."
I start kicking a rock around the parking lot while my mind explores options. I have to say that they appear to be quite limited.
Lordsburg and a couple other dudes also get out of the van and stand around. We talk for a while before I have an idea.
I start walking towards the guard station at the gate. En route, I put my phone to my ear and begin talking like I'm an important person making an important phone call. I raise my voice to sound upset and shout a couple of times. After I finish my pantomime, I knock on the door of the guard booth. I act like I'm very upset, but controlling myself and demand to know what's going on.
"Nobody told you?" he asked.
"No," I reply curtly. "Nobody has told us anything. There are women and children in the car and none of us know what is going on."
He explains that there has been an infraction. That the van is only supposed to have twelve passengers and is carrying fourteen. So, the van was impounded.
"Impounded?" I demand. "That's ridiculous." And, given all that I've seen, it is."
"When will we leave?"
"I can't be sure. I think that an agreement will be made."
I'm not sure exactly what that means, but it doesn't sound good. I tell him that I'm a traveling writer (what the hell, I'm already acting... may as well go with it...) and that I don't believe this will reflect highly on his country nor profession.
He apologizes and repeats that everything will end well, even though he can't tell me when. I explain that the sun is setting and it's getting dark, in addition, the government building is closed and nothing can be done tonight. We should be informed what to do so that we can make the appropriate plans for the night.
"We are free to leave, correct?" I ask, making sure that I'm not being held captive.
"Yes, you may leave, but I don't recommend it. They will find a solution."
"Will be leave tonight?"
He just shrugs. I figure that I've gotten all the answers that I'm bound to get and I've pushed my luck as far as I can. I curtly thank the guard and walk away, reminding him that this isn't how things should be done nor how people should be treated.
I transmit all the information to Lordsburg, who then passes it to the rest of the passengers. Nothing to do now, but wait. I turn on my phone, using the last of the battery to send a quick message to my friends that I'm safe and will be arriving late to Jo-burg. "Don't worry, I'll be careful." is the last thing I can send before the phone dies.
We wait until after dark before the driver returns. He enters the building with the policeman and another guy. Me and Lordsburg also walk towards the building, entering through the same door. The driver is waiting in the lobby. We ask him what is going on. He explains that he didn't want to pay the bribe that the police man was asking, so they made him return to the impound yard to pay a fine. He didn't have money, so they took him to the bank and then they had to find the correct person to open the building.
I pat him on the back and tell him that I'm glad he didn't pay the bribe. Even though its been a hassle, he had my approval.
He's pays the man his silly fine, and we all get back in the van, screeching out of the parking lot.
Our delay of several hours has caused me a bit of a problem. We are now due to get back to Johannesburg around midnight... this is not the place for me to be wandering around in the dark AND it will too late for me to take a bus/taxi back to my friend's house.
I delicately ask Lordsburg what I should do. He doesn't know and asks the driver. Soon, the whole van is discussing my problem and exploring different possibilities. I love how quickly everyone is involved and trying to help me. There is a lot of chatter and I don't understand the majority of what is being said...
After several minutes, a plan has developed. Apparently, we will drive right past the suburb where my friends live. The driver doesn't know exactly where, but one of the ladies does. Another lady is certain that there is a gas station right off the highway that I can walk to to make a phone call. Someone offers to let me use their phone to call my friends, but I can't turn my phone on to get the phone number. Lordsburg knows which overpass we should stop at. Another guy makes sure that my friends have a car to pick me up because they live on the opposite side of the town from where I'll be dropped. Everything is coming together.
It's a moment of perfection. This day has completely gone to shit. Lordsburg explains to the rest of the van what had happened to us in the other van. There are gasps for the other passengers. The driver laughs and starts swearing again as he talks about the policeman. Everyone understands that this can, and does, happen. There is camaraderie in the craziness and support to make the load lighter. This is Africa at it's absolute finest!
We stop at an overpass, but one of the ladies shouts that it's the next one. We slowly cruise to the next overpass and I jump out of the van, making sure that I have the correct directions to the gas station. I close the door to the van to cheers and the entire van telling me goodbye. The driver honks as he drives away.
I climb over a small wall and walk up the side of the overpass. I follow the directions and find the gas station in a matter of 15 minutes.
I must have been quite a sight as I walked up to the gas station because all the attendants stopped and stared at me. It was after midnight and I'm sure I was quite unexpected. I began explaining my story and asked if I could plug-in my phone to call my friends.
I went inside to buy a bag of popcorn and big soda to share with the attendants. We sat around eating popcorn and drinking soda while I told them all the stories of my day and trip. We all laughed and joked and kept saying, "This is Africa."
And so I waited for my phone to charge and then for my friends to arrive. Before I got in the car, I gave the gas station ladies a hug and fist-bumped all the dudes. I opened the car door and sat down as my friend laughed and said, "you've made quite an impression..."
"Ya, you know that's how I roll." trying to sound much more dope than I really am.
"Whatever... So, tell me about your trip..."
1. This modern kingdom has the highest low point of any country in the world and the tallest mountain in Africa south of Mount Kilimanjaro at 3,482 meters (Thabana-Ntlenyana). -return to the story
2. Wet wipes are quite possibly the best invention for traveling and are my constant companions, right after my headlamp. There's nothing quite like the wet wipe shower with its own little rhyme that emphasizes the importance of order: face, pits, tits, then nasty bits. -return to the story
3. Pap is a maize porridge with a thick consistency that accompanies most meals. It is eaten with the hands. -return to the story
4. Semonkong means "Place of Smoke" in Sotho. The name is due to the mist in the air from the nearby waterfall, Maletsunyane Falls (also called Lebahane Falls). -return to the story