Cycle of life in southern Africa
We should have turned back. The moment Mel came off her rented bicycle, headfirst over the handlebars in what Austin later described as horrific but hilarious slow motion, grazing her arm and obliging our Basotho guide, Thirsty, to ride back to Malealea to retrieve antiseptic cream and bandages, we should have turned back. But for reasons both valid and otherwise – Mel’s resilience, my pride – we continued onwards. No one ever told me that mountain biking actually required one to bike through mountains.
Continuing onwards was not our first mistake – that would have been our decision to go mountain biking here in the first place. We had arrived in Lesotho from South Africa the previous evening, passing through the Tele Bridge border crossing in the country’s south-west on the cusp of magic hour and manoeuvring along winding, unpaved roads into the mountainous country’s even more mountainous interior. The difference between Lesotho and South Africa was obvious and immediate: the former’s poverty asserted itself within seconds and the latter’s air of paranoia and hostility evaporated as quickly. Basotho children ran alongside our Avis rental car and waved. A young girl blew me a kiss at a stop sign.
A quirk of colonial history – Lesotho, landlocked by South Africa, remained a British protectorate when the African powerhouse was founded in 1910 – the country has avoided many of its surrounding neighbour’s peccadilloes, even if at the cost of having to endure its own. The poverty is one of them. Political instability is another. Indeed, there would be a coup attempt only weeks after our visit.
We arrived in Malealea long after the sun had gone down. Miles Davis had played us through the pitch-black night, up hills and around impossible switchbacks and through the Gates of Paradise Pass that leads to Malealea Valley. “Wayfarer, pause and look upon a gateway of paradise,” reads the sign that greets you at the pass. But even in the rental’s high beams, there was not much to see at this time of night.
We woke the next morning at Malealea Lodge, a one-time trading post that is now the hub of cultural tourism in the valley, the sort of place Don DeLillo once described as “a modern product ... designed to make people feel [they’ve] left civilisation behind”. Its carefully rationed electricity certainly helped to give us that impression.
There were several ways we could have spent our day. We’d done a lot of hiking over the previous weeks and the pony treks were rather expensive. “What about mountain biking?” I suggested.
“The intermediate route should be suitable,” Thirsty told us. “The brochure says it’s about an hour-and-a-half ride, but it might take us a little longer than that.” The three of us set off with him and a second guide, whose name never became clear to me.
By the time Austin pulled up with a flat, not five minutes after Mel’s injurious acrobatics, it was beginning to look as though it might take longer than Thirsty had anticipated. He dismounted and set about replacing Austin’s tyre with one he was carrying in his bag.
The seemingly immutable laws of these things deemed a third misfortune inevitable, and by saying so aloud I all but ensured it would befall me.
We had been climbing gradually now for some time, weaving bumpily up and over stones and through cornfields. The clicking of gears and our laboured breathing occasionally mingled in the air with the sound of cowbells as men on foot herded their animals to greener pastures somewhere out of sight. Thirsty was pulling away up ahead and Mel, Austin and the second guide were falling behind. I was growing increasingly confident in both the bike and my capacity to control it and it was only a matter of time before this delusion would see me lying beneath the thing with a good-sized flap of my knee hanging off.
Luckily, no one was around to see my fall, and by the time someone finally noticed the wound, it had been cleaned with spit and index finger and was already drying black. But by now it was clear that the ride was cursed.
We carried our bikes down a ledge so rocky even our guides couldn’t navigate it.
“We hope it will be ready for riding soon,” Thirsty said of this segment of the route. “The villagers work a few days each month, removing the rocks to make a bike path.”
We stopped to drink from a bore at the village in question. This cultural tourism lark was beginning to feel ever so slightly colonial. But the pain kept us focused. We had come less than one-third of the way on our journey. Two of us were bleeding, three of us exhausted, and things were about to get worse.
About a kilometre out of the village my bike came apart underneath me. I heard the back gear crack, the chain unravel and Thirsty’s heart break. He looked devastated.
“We are in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
It was agreed that an expeditionary force should set off for the Avis rental back at the lodge. Thirsty was the best rider among the five of us, but refused to leave the broken bike, his employer’s property, behind. Given that when we got the tiny car from the lodge it would only fit two dismantled bikes, at least three of us would have to ride back now. Mel was injured, Austin was at the end of his tether and everyone was justifiably worried that I would break another bike. But eventually it was decided that Mel would be the one to stay behind with Thirsty.
The next three hours would be among the most painful of my trip and the most enlightening of hers. While she and Thirsty discussed everything from Basotho funeral rites to local crime and punishment – at one point, she found herself in the midst of an ongoing murder dispute that hadn’t yet graduated from the tribal level to the official one – I learnt what muscle cramp and dehydration felt like in tandem with the entitlement to bring them on by choice.
I was going as fast as possible and it wasn’t long before I lost sight of the others and found myself alone. I can only imagine what I looked like as I rode into the village of Qaba – at the top of the series of uphill switchbacks that had so waylaid us the night before – a single white man in a too-tight bike shirt with rivulets of dried blood flaking down my leg. Exhausted, I got off the bike and pushed my way through town, sticking my tongue out and panting, to the amusement of the locals. I saw a bore and longed for a drink, but it soon became apparent that the children walking beside me would only water me in return for things I hadn’t brought along.
“I don’t have any!”
A girl no older than six stopped in front of me and, holding out her palm, got straight to the point.
“Give me money,” she said.
I shrugged, mounted the bike and rode past her.
Should I have brought some sweets? Some cash? The laminated instructions back in my room had been very clear on this point: any financial contribution to the community was best made in the form of a donation to a development fund run out of the lodge. But wasn’t such a suggestion designed to placate foreigners such as myself, allowing us to distance ourselves from the people whose lives we were ostensibly here to observe up close, making us feel okay about not giving directly while infantilising the local population by giving instead to the white people at the top?
The gate around Malealea Lodge was still open when I arrived around sunset. It would not be long before it was chained and padlocked again against the handful of huts on the outside. But there was still time for one last twist of fate.
I was lying on the grass near the bike shed, hyperventilating, when the second guide rocked up. He smiled. “You can go to get them now!” he said. “No,” I said, “I can’t. I can’t drive.” He looked at me blankly. “We have to wait for Austin,” I said.
But between me pulling ahead and our guide catching up with me, Austin had become completely, hopelessly lost. It seemed only fitting.
Our long-suffering guide put his helmet back on, sighed at the idiocy of the white man, and rode back into the mountains.
Once located and escorted back to town, Austin, who was furious, set off in the car for Mel and Thirsty, who had begun to wonder what had happened to us. By the time they got back I had showered, cleaned, dressed my wound and restored my electrolytes. This didn’t impress anyone. We ate in silence, went to bed early and didn’t talk about the incident.
In fact, we still haven’t talked about it, and it’s entirely possible that, by writing about it now, I am breaking some secret, unspoken agreement. The Avis rental passed through the Gates of Paradise early the next morning and, even though we hadn’t been able to take in the view upon our evening arrival two nights earlier, not one of us looked back.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Cycle of life". Subscribe here.