Saved in Lesotho – Attacked at QwaQwa: Four weeks in South Africa

 In My Stories

Arriving in Jo’Burg

In 2018, I decided not to go to my favorite wintering place, the Verde Valley of Arizona (most people know it as Sedona). Instead, I decided to revisit one of the countries I had visited before that I loved so much. South Africa was on the top of that list. I was feeling more age-restricted since my last visit in 2008. In the past, I had felt more confident about traveling and being spontaneous about where to go and stay. I’ve stayed in a lot of backpacker’s hostels around the world but, this time, sleeping in a bunk with a roomful of fellow travelers – most much younger than me – was beginning to push me further out of my comfort zone. So, I made a reservation at a guest house in Melville, a suburb west of Johannesburg. There, I planned to rest and get acclimated again to the country and its culture.

I got off my South African Airways direct flight from JFK feeling like a zombie. It was 6:35 am there and 1:35 pm back where I had left the morning before. Jo’Burg Airport was even more magnificent than it was the last time I was there. My first trip in 2001 brought me to an airport that was chaotic. The hardest part was navigating the hordes of freelance porters and taxi drivers fighting for your business. Today, it is one of the most modern, beautiful and well-organized airports I have experienced. But I was filled with anxiety about renting a car and driving out into the morning rush hour traffic on the opposite side of the road, with hardly any sleep and little knowledge of how to get to Melville.

A fellow associated with Avis loaded my backpack in the silver Toyota Corolla I had rented and took me to the ATM machines so I could get some rand. When I returned to the car, I proceeded to get into the passenger’s side; a habit I never seem able to break in countries that drive on the left.  I drove out slowly into the bright sun turning on the windshield wipers again and again, instead of the turn signal. I stopped at a BP filling station to get directions and buy a more detailed map than I had, but I soon found out that they don’t make maps of the area any longer. Everything is on a smartphone and everyone has one. Now, they make phone calls around the world and share information with WhatsApp.

“Melville, where’s Melville?” That was what one uniformed truck driver or workman said to another and another.

I finally got directions towards Melville, and stopped at a second gas station to ask for more directions. I realized that I did not know how to get the car in reverse, and had to ask one of the attendants to show me how. I needed help later in my trip when the theft alarm went off while I was getting petrol, and the attendant took my keys and shut it off. Folks there seemed more “with it” than me.

As I drove out of the steep driveway I managed to get stuck getting up to the road. I heard someone whistle at me and rolled down my window. A man showed me that I was negotiating too close to the curb on the left, and had put a gash in the car’s lower rocker panel. He went out into the street and stopped cars so I could get out. Of course, these were all black South Africans helping me. Their kindness would continue throughout my journey.

I finally found Melville and asked two more men for directions to Thulani Lodge. I pulled too close to the curb – yet again – at the lodge, and crushed the left front hub cap, taking a small chunk out of the tire. Shit, shit!! The thing I most feared was to damage this rental car, and I had two mishaps before I even got to my first lodging. I had refused to take out extra collision insurance on it, which would have doubled the rental price, and relied on my Capital One Master Charge benefits to protect me. I didn’t touch the car until I left three day later.

I slept a lot at the lodge and helped Jason, the young maintenance guy there, who smelled worse than the street people, unplug my shower drain using baking soda, vinegar and boiling water. A “plumber” had failed at the job the day before.

The first night in Melville I met a street vendor named Daniel from Zimbabwe who was selling the same type of trinkets made from wire and tin cans as others were hawking; every one of them claiming it was their creation. Daniel had a big bright toothy smile, a gift of gab and serious alcohol breath. I invited him into a pub called “Jo’Anna’s Melt Bar” where we shared chicken wings, chips (French fries) and a beer.

I gave him some advice about selling. “Find out what people want and need, and provide it.” He didn’t listen. He eventually got up to talk to someone outside on his cell phone, and I left. He tracked me down later that night and the next day, but I dismissed him with the same advice.

I slept until noon the second day I was at Thulani Lodge. Bondgi the housekeeper, (so plump she waddled a half-step at-a-time), thought I had died.

Return to Clarens

The fourth morning, I got up enough courage to head south to Clarens, in the Free State province, and stopped at a Toyota dealer to check on buying a new hub cap. I had Googled the way to Clarens before I left and as I drove out of the Toyota dealership, a female voice began giving me directions – even though I was on Airplane Mode and roaming was turned off.  At first, I thought I was using up my precious data from Verizon Wireless, but later on I realized that Google had stored the directions in my Android. It was like a miracle – one of the many I was to receive. I got on the N3 toll road and wondered when they would collect the fee. The rolling countryside was mostly empty of houses and filled with a patchwork of fields. I kept hearing a beep when I passed an overhead sensor, and finally realized that there was an EZPass-type device affixed to the top of the inside of my windshield.

A toll station finally appeared close to where I was to exit and I asked, “How much?”

“Free,” the distracted toll taker said, while munching on a snack.

I had been to Clarens 17 years before, during my first visit to South Africa. I had traveled through the mountainous independent country of Lesotho, and exited the border near there. I had stayed in Clarens for several days in a little cottage with a cozy wood stove, had dinner and conversation with the Afrikaner owners and their friends, and later, joined the wife, who was a teacher at the local grade school, to speak to her very integrated class about my travels and life in the U.S. As dangerous as Jo’Burg was back then, and still is, folks in Clarens did not lock their doors.

I wanted to return to the serenity and beauty of this small artsy village. Some things had changed. There were more shops, lots of guest houses, and most homes were now gated. I was amazed at how much the area was like Sedona, with towering red rocks and The Golden Highlands National Park nearby.

Riaan, the Mount Rouge Guest House manager, greeted me and never asked me to fill out a guest register or pay a cent in advance. I slept in a cozy cottage called “The Nest” for two nights, and then Riaan offered me the luxurious Attic Guest House for a little more than I was paying for “The Nest”. I eventually stayed for over two weeks, paying an average of $37 US a night for beautiful, modern accommodations that included two bedrooms, a full kitchen, veranda with a commanding view of the mountains, bath with walk-in glass-enclosed shower, a long claw-footed tub, and a patio with grill and picnic table where Riaan, his Italian friends and I had many wonderful dinners.

The hiking right behind the guest house was terrific. The trail reminded me of the Ridge Trail back in Sedona. There was yoga available right down the path, and hiking with Nereo, Riaan’s Italian friend, back through the hills to the reservoir was wonderful. The weather was delicious. The days were warm and dry, and every evening there was a thunder storm – some quite violent. At night it was blanket weather followed by sunny mornings, and then it all repeated itself the next day. Riaan and I became buddies, and spent time driving into Bethlehem (the nearest big town), and hanging out with his friends.

 

Overnight to Katse, Lesotho

My day started at Mont Rouge Guest House in Clarens, Free State, South Africa, where I left at 8:30 am enroute to the border at Caledonspoort, which came up very quickly. Along the way, I picked up a fellow who was going to a doctor in Fouriesburg – a small farming community. He showed me his left forefinger that had a long laceration on it needing some stitches. It was bright cherry red, against his deep black skin.

Approaching the border crossing so close to Clarens, I remembered Riaan, the South African manager of Mont Rouge, saying he had never been to Lesotho. Later, during my travels, I met others who said the same. This was my second trip there, having stayed in a retreat in the middle of this country within a country 17 years ago. At the crossing, there was the typical bureaucratically-stressful mystery, with a demand for documents, filling out immigration forms, and, of course, those rubber stamps pounding down on my passport. During my last visit the Lesotho border official did not stamp my passport on the way in. Consequently, on the way out, the official wanted me to go all the way back to where I started; well, that was unless I showed him some money. I talked my way out of that one by telling him I was a travel writer sharing my experience of the country and its people with the rest of the world. His eyes flashed up at me, then down and wham! The rubber stamp came down on my passport.

As I crossed into Lesotho, I took a picture of the “Welcome to the Kingdom in the Sky” sign. I eventually came to a T in the road at a busy market area packed with people. Little taxis buzzed around like bumble bees and, of course, those white vans that are the main mode of transportation in this part of the world. It reminded me of crossing into Mexico from the wilderness of the area around Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona into the teeming town of Sonoyta. It was stressful but I was okay. I had overcome my anxiety of driving on the left side of the road, by then, and this was easier than navigating the freeways in Jo’Burg.

I got to Leribe looking for A25 to Katse Dam, high in the mountains, and stopped for gas at the Puma Station. There were a dozen people working at the four gas pumps, plus a diesel one and a little convenience-like shop. Back home, there would be one person attending all of this. After getting filled up, I paid with my credit card and started driving out to backtrack to the road to Katse, but stopped to check my cell phone, which I believed was on the passenger’s seat next to me. It was gone!

“Maybe it fell between the seats,” I thought. I looked under the seats, tore apart my backpack, and checked all the cubbies in the Corolla – especially the one next to my door where my sunglasses were stowed. Panic set in. If someone had my cell phone, they could access all my accounts and apps; many with my passwords in memory. I searched everywhere at least six times. Nothing. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was that the phone was “lifted” while I paid my bill at the window. I began to backtrack in my mind to where I last used the phone. I pictured the “Welcome to Lesotho” sign. Yes that was it! I had not used it since then, nor had I made a stop until I arrived at the Puma Station.

I was tempted to escape back to the border, return to Clarens, and get online with my notebook computer, to first lock and then find the location of my errant phone. But, I finally decided to check with the young guard dressed in olive drab, with a typical wool olive drab cap that announced in small letters, “security”. He asked me when I had last seen the phone, and then got the station manager – a young fellow named Neo. We went into Neo’s very sparse office and tried to access my Google account. It was hot and stuffy, and I had to pee but the water was off and the bathrooms closed. I asked if I should relieve myself out back where the sheep were grazing. Neo called in his “assistant” Alice. She was a round woman with big buttocks and a bright smile, who asked me many personal questions.

“Where are you from? Where is your wife? Do you have children? How old are you?”

“How old do you think I am?” I asked her.

“80,” she said.

“What!!! No! 72!” I scolded.

Even in this stark office there was an up-to-date PC, and Neo had a cell phone like my missing Samsung 5. Alice let me use her bathroom. An empty water bucket to fill the reservoir sat next to it.

Neo had me take everything out of my backpack. He was a good detective. When we finally got online Google would not let me access my account without them sending me a code to my missing phone.  After almost an hour of unsuccessfully trying to find my phone via Google, Neo, Alice and I went to the car and searched again. On the way, Alice said confidently, “Your phone is in the car.” And I truly believed her. But we could not find the phone. I had given Neo 100 rand ($7 US) for his help, and as a partial reward to continue to recover the phone. I thanked them and prepared to drive back across the border to Clarens. I reached for my sunglasses in the door cubby next to me and, as I took them out, I slid my hand inside the cubby wall and felt something flat and smooth against the inside of the compartment hiding out of sight and touch. My Samsung 5 smartphone! It came alive as I removed it.

I was so relieved. It was as if a mountain of worry had been taken from me. I summoned Neo and Alice, who had now become my friends. Lesotho had gone from threatening to familiar. I shared with them that it was another miracle in my journey with Miracles@Work as we celebrated our success. I went to give them another 100 rand reward, but only had 200 rand bills. I gave them one anyway, which was a huge tip there. Neo and I had already exchanged emails. I promised to stay in touch, and we have since. I left, heading back to the road to Katse feeling that I had experienced a miracle that had transformed my fear of a foreign people and land, and my judgment of being robbed, into a genuine sense of Oneness.

The drive up the mountain passes to Katse was enchanting. I took lots of pictures; especially of water falls and young herders and their flocks. I was driving straight up into the Lesotho sky, experiencing fresh eyes during the journey, and stopping at little villages where I was the only “white” and not feeling threatened. My perception had been changed by a loss being turned into a gift that converted my fear to love.

It was a long, endless trip there, which actually only became endless toward the last 23 kilometers of a winding, uphill drive because I was really tired. The land is beautiful with lush green mountains, terraced with fields of mostly corn. Young shepherds, wrapped in colorful blankets and wearing wool caps and white mud boots, tended small herds of cattle, sheep or goats.

I stopped by one young man thinking he needed a ride, but then realized his goats were way up on the steep slope behind us. He asked for food and drink, and I gave him some of my bread and water, but he really wanted a Coke. Then he asked for a cigarette, which seemed out of place to me. There were lots of herders and some horsemen, who were also wrapped in traditional garb. Four of them rode up the mountain in a line like cowboys, and two young ones galloped their steeds down the mountain trying to keep up with my silver Toyota Corolla.

I was one of the only “whites” staying at The Katse Lodge in Bokong, at the end of the road at the Katse Dam. That felt very unfamiliar to me, but I should have been used to it by then. A lot of the men staying there were employed at the dam, which is part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project that supplies water to South Africa, and specifically Jo’Burg, through a series of tunnels. They call the water “White Gold”.

 

Attacked at QwaQwa

I returned to Clarens, and left the morning of February 6, 2018, after staying at the Mont Rouge Guesthouse for over two weeks. It was hard to leave a place that symbolized all that I loved about that country, with its great hospitality, perfect weather – even with the daily thunderstorm – fantastic views, hiking trails that reminded me of the American Southwest, and a wonderful little town that mixed art and good food with the great outdoors.

I headed west through Golden Gates Highlands National Park, winding up and down between its beautiful rock monuments robed in lush green gowns of grass lands. It was a roller coaster ride that I was gladly repeating. I was on my way to Harrismith, enroute to Royal Natal National Park, a planned loop around Durban, and up the east coast back to Johannesburg where I had started my journey. Friends in Clarens had plotted this most scenic route for me via R172.

It was about noon time when I passed a lovely village off to my right, just before the R57 highway overpass. The neatly arranged small houses, with red tiled roofs, nestled between the green hills, and a hot water tank (geyser) on each, impressed me with a sense of organization and filled me with a peaceful feeling. I thought of having lunch in Harrismith and wondered what kind of town it would be.

After going under the R57 overpass, I came upon some debris on the road, including broken glass, and saw a white sedan pulled off to the side. “Accident,” I said to myself, as I maneuvered around the mess. Next, there was a big black spot on the road and I could see more debris up ahead. “Really big accident,” I thought. Two police SUVs passed me going in the opposite direction. “They must be responding to the accident,” I rationalized. I came across rocks lined up in the road and went around them. I saw more damage up ahead. A tandem tractor trailer passed me going the opposite direction swerving around the obstacles. Then, I saw a large road sign up ahead that had been leveled. “What the…?”

A street to my right, coming down from the village, was littered with branches and more debris. Had a tornado struck?  A throng of people were running down the grassy hill from the village. Where are they going…? Thump! Something hit my car, then the window next to my head disintegrated. I was under attack from the people running down the hill. My action was an immediate reaction. I made a screeching 180 degree turn, as projectiles hit the passenger’s side of my vehicle. A glance at the rear- and side-view mirrors showed a mass of people in the road behind me. What had just happened?

There was shattered glass everywhere, as the wind blew in where my window used to be, and a plum-sized rock lay on the floor board next to me. I sped around the junk in the road, stopping by two police vehicles, and rolled down my still-intact passenger-side window. A big burley police officer, with fear in his eyes, asked me if I had come from Harrismith.

“Oh! Look what they have done,” he said, when he saw all the glass. I told him I had come from Clarens.

“Go back to Clarens or Bethlehem – just get out of here,” he commanded.

And I did – at high speed – wondering if all of South Africa was in turmoil. Was Clarens under attack too? Even as I drove with little chunks of glass all over the car and the air blowing through the broken window, a strange feeling of salvation flowed over me for escaping what could have been a terrible fate.  Later, the question occurred to me, why hadn’t the police stopped me when I passed and warned me. Was it because they were in retreat?

I stopped at the Golden Gate Reception Center to warn the staff there about the troubles down the line. Their attitude was passive.

“There is a strike in the QwaQwa. They don’t like the mayor who is also mayor of Harrismith,” the supervisor said.

I warned some travelers outside, because it was evident that there would be no travel warning left at the center, and high-tailed it back to Clarens, where Riaan was more concerned about a noise in his Samsung washing machine, than the fact that trouble was brewing, seeing the damage to my vehicle, or hearing of my narrow escape.

I drove to the police station to file a report, which was taken down on a piece of white paper by Constable Mofokeng, with Constable Hlaiele looking on. The officers there were also nonchalant, referring to the strike in QwaQwa as more-or-less not their concern, even though the main road from Clarens goes directly through there. When I told him the police were in retreat, one officer said something about being called women in the face of troubles like that.

A call to the Avis/Budget Rent-a-Car office in Bethlehem, focused mostly on my insurance liability. “Your liability is 23000R,” the station manager warned. It began to sink in that this type of thing is normal for South Africa. A check online and the news, resulted in no stories of motorists being attacked going by QwaQwa. I went to the local gas station at the bottom of the hill in Clarens, where two fellows cleaned the shattered glass from the interior of the car and tried to charge me 250 R. I paid them 50R. The lady at the bakery apologized for my experience without showing much surprise.

I went back to my Nest at the guest house. The shock and exhaustion had set in, but I couldn’t put the picture out of my mind of that crowd of people running down the hill, the rock shattering my car window just missing my head, and my narrow escape. What if that rock had knocked me unconscious? Would I be alive now?  I tried to wind down and repair my shattered opinion of South Africa, its politics, people and ways. All the beauty and enjoyment I had experienced there had been infected by the attack of a mob that had no idea who they were stoning, or how it would make a difference in their grievances.

The next morning, after finishing the draft of this story, I stood under the rain shower head and let the clear warm water of the mountains cleanse me of my narrow judgments. The water was flowing from the reservoir and little dam up where I hiked; where tall grasses and wild flowers against the rocky mountain landscape had me believe that this was part of heaven. I asked the holy water to renew that faith and feeling, and wash away the trauma of the day before, to allow me to drive through the local “township” village there, and stop at the store to get a cold soda, without fear of being attacked.

 

Back to Jo’Burg via the Elephant Coast

I stayed at Clarens only two more nights, then pushed myself to overcome my fears and headed for the wild northeast coast of South Africa. I avoided the scenic route via QwaQwa, and instead picked up the N3 Expressway at Bethlehem. I gave a big native guy named Njabulo Kumalo, a ride to Harrismith. He wanted a job, but all I would offer was 10 rand and to share my lunch with him at the Engen Petrol Stop.

I somehow found my way to The Village of a Thousand Hills. The climate had changed from semi-arid to semi-tropical. I stopped at an open-air thatched-roof bar where a table of “regulars” were getting smashed. It was early. Belinda, the barmaid, started checking for accommodations for me. One of the guys recommended a fancy hotel named “Chantecler” and another, Dave Molyneux, a cyber photographer, showed me the way. The hotel had a five-star location, gardens and décor, but only demonstrated two stars for service.

The next morning, I picked up a young white backpacker from Scotland, who said he had been tossed out of his accommodations. He tried to hit me up for a hand-out, but I told him the same thing I told my other riders. “This ride is your only handout from me.”

I took the loop around Durban, and was amazed by the juxtaposition of the modern freeway and soaring futuristic-looking overpasses, against the mass of travelers walking along the highway. I did not know where I would stay next, but stopped at the upscale seaside community of Sheffield Beach to check out the area and, after finding it too unfriendly, headed back to the expressway (N2), and had lunch at a nice restaurant called “Sage Café” that had Wi-Fi,  before I headed north. The owner’s husband told me to go to St. Lucia, so I made a reservation at “Lai-La Log Cabins” there.

Along the way on N2I, I saw a beautiful young girl in a long orchard-red dress, next to a white SUV flagging me down. Of course, I thought she had broken down. I stopped, and she ran up to my car as I backed up.

“I am going to Mkuze,” she said, as she got in.

“But whose car is that?” I asked.

It was her boyfriend’s, who had to go to work nearby. Her boyfriend had stopped ahead of us, and I immediately suspected foul play, but he made a 180 and went back the other way. It was a long way to where I dropped her off and, when I did, she offered me 100 rand. But, of course, I turned it down. “God bless,” she said in parting.

St. Lucia was another small artiste town with an estuary filled with hippopotamuses. The first night there, I came across one grazing by the road. I took a Range Rover safari to Hluhluwe Umfolozi Park Game Reserve and saw some game. On the way back to Jo’Burg, I stayed in the town of Ermelo, at a guest house where I was the only white person. Heading back to Jo’Burg the next morning, I picked up a charming motherly lady who repeated many of the same questions asked by Alice back in Lesotho. Where is your wife? You don’t have one? Why? How old are you? Where are your children?  She had been married 29 years and had three children ranging from 13 to 33. She had a cell phone just like everyone else, and called her husband to meet her when I dropped her off at Bethel. She too offered to pay me – that must be the custom – but, instead, I gave her my cooler filled with food, cosmetics and travel items.

I arrived at Tambo Intl. Airport hours before my flight, but found out online about a lounge where I could relax while waiting. I got mixed up trying to find Avis, and a native fellow jumped in the passenger’s seat to direct me back around to the drop-off. He asked for a 200 rand tip. I gave him 50. A last helper, who reminded me of my first encounter in Melville – big, friendly, toothy and reeking from alcohol – showed me the way to get to the VIP lounges. He asked for a 400 rand tip. I just laughed and gave him a 20. He was happy with that, and smiled as he waved over the barrier at the security line. I felt proud that I had learned some of the ropes.

At the VIP Shongololo Lounge, I paid the equivalent of $25 to hang out and have all I wanted to eat or drink, use the Wi-Fi, sit in big high-backed easy chairs, and talk to world travelers. One fellow, flying back on my flight, had come for just three days on business and saw nothing but Jo’Burg. An older couple from Atlanta had been on an all-inclusive tour.

At the gate, a group of security personnel had to give my carryon luggage a second search. I had saved the rock that went through my car window at QwaQua, and wrapped it in a lime-green micro fiber cloth. “What’s this?” The friendly native woman asked, and I told her about being attacked. “Oh I am so sorry for you. I apologize for your experience,” she said sympathetically. Tears welled up in my eyes at the kindness of my last contact in South Africa.

When I finally got Avis’ bill, they had been extremely fair to me. I had been fearful of being “soaked” for the damage to the Corolla.

The rock now sits wrapped up on my bureau as a reminder of the contrasts in South Africa. I’ll mount it as a remembrance of the love and fury that exists in all of us.

When friends ask me about the trip, I tell them that I am so attached to South Africa that I could live there. The damage done at QwaQwa, had been repaired with the smiles and gentleness of the South African people, the brilliance of her land, and the hope she brings to all of Africa.

John Adams, an entrepreneur and writer from Stonington, CT USA, was in South Africa for a month of travels. He can be reached via his web site at miraclesatwork.com. © February 7, 2018. All Rights Reserved by John A. Adams.

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