Lesotho: 72 Hours in the Mountains (part I)

12:14 PM Jessica Montgomery 1 Comments

I’m going to be honest with you. Up until a few years ago, I was unaware that the beautiful, mountain country of Lesotho (pronounced Leh-Su-Too) even existed. It’s location within South Africa is a bit bizarre, by geo-political border standards, making it one of three countries to be landlocked by another country. This fact alone was enough to make Lesotho instantly drop into my ‘unlike anything I’ve seen before’ category. But that little tid-bit proved to be the first of many "firsts" for me on this 72 hour road trip.

Some quick facts about Lesotho:
  --The lowest point above sea level in Lesotho is 1500 metres, making it the country with the highest low point in the world.
  --Lesotho is nick-named "The Kingdom in the Sky".
  --The Katse Dam (our intended destination) is the highest dam in Africa (the surface reaches 2050 metres when full). The dam is the result of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a cooperative project between the governments of South Africa and Lesotho. The water is pumped into South Africa and mainly used for the province of Gauteng.
  --Lesotho has no other major natural resources aside from diamonds and water; hence the selling of water to South Africa.
  --The terrain of Lesotho is mountainous and formidable resulting in a strong tradition
of horse riding.

Windy roads and waterfalls.
Lesotho, 2016
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Crossing into Lesotho was perhaps the strangest border crossing I've ever had the dis-pleasure of taking part in. Firstly, the border crossing looked deserted. Its concrete arches wedged between two mountainous ridges overshadowed two small buildings and a wire gate, manually operated by two men who were hardly in uniform. We had to park our car in a small parking lot and fall into an outdoor que with others looking to cross over into Lesotho. 
The line formed along the outside of one of the brick buildings and led up to a little counter, with a window and a border guard. I've never been to a border station such as this and I kinda felt like I was lining up to claim a prize, or at least a small fry. It was an interesting set up. After you were cleared by the counter you then returned to your car and passed through the manually operated gate. We watched person after person, couple after couple, eek there way up the line and then through the gate with their vehicle until... one man, who left the que by himself and returned to his truck didn't exactly finish the last step of this process. As we were standing there he pulled up his truck to the gate and, as if in some uncomfortable scene straight out of a Coen brothers movie, he put his truck in park and slammed his head against his steering wheel. The horn was blaring. Everyone in line was jarred and confused and immediately went into onlooker-mode. The man kept his head down, piercing the silence with his horn, as we stood helplessly by confused and confined by a small railing leading up to the patrol window. It was bizarre to say the least. None of the border guards seemed to pay much attention to it. Even those operating the manual gate, the gate that the man initially intended to cross until he passed out at his steering wheel, didn't seem too phased. Finally, after some motioning by us in the que, some border guards checked on him apprehensively with hands hovering above the pieces on their hips. After a bit of shaking from the border officers and mumblings of what seemed to be "I'm okay, I'm okay..." the man shook his head, and shook of what appeared to be embarrassment, and continued on driving through the border gate into Lesotho. 
Now, I'm not a medical expert by any means...but if a man passes out behind the wheel of a small truck, in front of a group of people, right before crossing a border into a country full of windy, mountainous roads..maybe that person shouldn't be sent on their merry way? Just a thought. 

That would be enough of a border-crossing story for this post and my liking, but no. That was merely the exposition; setting the stage for the real madness soon to come.
Finally, after the passed out man in the white truck drove off and a few more people had their passports stamped by South African authorities, it was my turn at the "drive thru" window. I immediately had a fear. This border crossing was so small and obscure, I was sure that my United States passport was a rarity being passed under the window. And sure enough, my Nation's crest was met with some very wide eyes; wide eyes that clearly displayed the cogs turning in the border officer's brain. This wasn't going to be a smooth ordeal. I immediately turned to Chris and said, "I think we're going to have a problem". Sure enough, after a few minutes of skeptical looks, pages being flipped back and forth, more than a fair share of heaves and sighs, I heard those fateful words: "Could you step inside for a moment, please?"

My heart was racing. My palms were sweating. Ah, so it's finally happening. I'm going to be "interrogated" and solicited a bribe for my release. I knew this day would come soon enough. I've heard about South African government corruption since the very moment I stepped off the plane. Our first road-trip, as we were packing up our car to head to Cape Town, while doing a last minute check Chris casually listed "bribe money" in his last minute check-list. Phone, wallet, keys, bribe money... Unfortunately, it's common practice among South African authorities to seek out bribes for a multitude of false chargers. I was anxiously awaiting to hear what mine was. Was my passport too dirty? Was my visa written in black ink instead of blue? Did they meet the quota for American's crossing the border today? But, lucky me, if I payed a "spot fee" of R400 I'd be able to get through? What's the problem officer?

Thankfully Chris was allowed inside the warm grey, linoleum office room with me. We stood beside the border guard as he continued to shift his weight, shake his head, sigh, and occasionally look up to eye me with a look of sheer disappointment and dubiousness. He continued to flip through my passport. There was an elderly woman sitting on stool behind me that looked to be upwards of 90 years old. Her face was worn and forlorn. She sat there, unmoving, with her legs crossed and her hands in her lap. How long had she been here? Was this my fate staring back at me?
The guard ran my visa as well as the ID page through a scanner numerous times then ordered one of his subordinate workers to do the same, only now with a magnifying glass. His message was now clear. He was trying to communicate to me that he thought my documentation was fake. Finally the silence was broken, "How much did you pay for this?", he said as he toyed with my passport. Searching my head for a logical answer, I tried to think back to what I payed for my South African visa in Chicago.

"About... $35USD I believe? I can't really remem-"
"No, what did you pay for THIS? WHERE did you get this?", he said prodding at the visa sticker with his forefinger.
"That's it. In Chicago. It was a part of my application fee for-"
"No."

And with this "No" he turned away from me and helped stamp other people's passports that were still lined up outside of his window. He wanted me to sweat. And I was sweating. But I truly had nothing to hide. I just spent the past few months running around, gathering up documentation, and heading to the South African, Chicago consulate to obtain my student visa. Legally. It must have been ast least 10 minutes before he finally explained that he thought my visa was a fake and that I payed for it illegally. He motioned to a fabric board on the far wall of the office covered in old, sun exposed documents and print outs. One of them was supposedly an "updated" version of what student visas look like. He said my font was wrong. I shrugged and told him that perhaps the consulate made a mistake. With a big laugh he shook his head and turned back to the little window; a bit more sweating on my part, and a few more people were allowed into Lesotho. *stamp stamp*

I pleaded with him. I began running through all of the hoops and time and documents and money that it took for me to obtain my South African student visa legally. But he was still severely unimpressed. "What kind of documents?", he finally asked. I began to list, "Notarized birth certificates, bank statements-"
"Yes, that is what you need..", eyes rolling, smiling. It seemed that pleading with him was in vain and that I should just wait for him to propose his "monetary" solution. But Chris was stubborn and thankfully he warned me about this. He's seen this before and knew that if you stood your ground there was ultimately nothing they could do. They could however hold us at the border, claiming there was an issue, and ruin our long weekend plans. They knew this. Hence the sweating. (We'd already been detained for what seemed like upwards of 45 minutes.)

Finally the border officer turned to me and asked for me to write down my address. "USA? or South Africa?", I asked. He shrugged then settled for both. I scrawled both addresses on a very official scrap of white paper torn from the corner of another document and handed it back to him. He took the paper and leaned into me, "Now, if I find out there is a problem with this..", motioning to my passport, "..you will be hearing from me personally. Do you understand?"
He took my passport and, with some theatrical reluctancy, he gave me my exit stamp. *stamp stamp* I thanked him, purely out of the need of the situation, and clutched my passport in my sweaty hands. My beautiful, beautiful passport. Chris and I walked out of the office and headed to our car with a confident facade and veiled urgency. We got our clear to leave, let's go before he changes his mind.


South African exit stamp: Unlocked!
South Africa / Lesotho Border, 2016
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We were finally on our way into Lesotho, one more checkpoint stood in our way. But it would seem that the Lesotho border post must of been taking tips from the South African side because their border experience was comparably as strange. We were motioned to a small, post-office looking building where inside sat a lady at a desk behind thick glass. The interior of the building had little else. It was bright, empty, and extremely dated. A few signs with script reminiscent of old hospital, block lettering pointed to a few empty desks and vacant corridors. It reminded me of the mental ward in One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest.

We walked up to the lady and slid our passports through the 2 inch opening below the frame of glass. She looked up, pushed them back at us and, in one fluid motion with her pen, grunted and gestured to a side table covered with scattered customs slips and forms. After sifting through the pile to find two that were not already half written on, we felt as if we were making some progress. After completing the forms to the best of our knowledge, we re-slid our passports under the glass frame. Our passports were then stamped with such a force of anti-enthusiasm I felt as if this was the worst possible thing I could've asked the woman to do that day. (There was some anger in that stamp.) But, we had the stamp! Success! *stamp stamp*

Lesotho housing.
Lesotho, 2016
We made our way back into our car feeling uniformly anxious and a bit mentally exhausted. We were both a bit unsure of what to expect next as we approached the gate equipped with another border official. Were we all set? Would they let us cross? Are they going to search our car? Are they going to turn us back to South Africa? (It had already been a 4+ hour drive and we still had 3+ more to go.) Our luck was pointing to 'yes'. But, surprisingly enough, our final encounter with border security upon leaving South Africa and entering Lesotho had been our most pleasant exchange yet. We pulled up to the gate and rolled forward, slowly and cautiously, into Lesotho. There was no car search. No questioning. Actually, they barely even glanced at our passports!

We sped away and left that border in the dust. Our weekend had finally begun. Spirits were high and we were feeding off of adrenaline. A new country. Sites! Exploring! Freedom! We made it! We were ready and felt like we'd dodged quite the weekend-derailing bullet. That is...until passing through our first major town, we were stopped by a police road block...


Lesotho: 72 Hours in the Mountains (part II) coming soon~


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