The Lesotho Incident

Lesotho mud houses

Are you old enough to remember slides, photo transparencies in little frames? I recently bought a clever little slide scanner and am having fun sifting through photos. These are from Lesotho, a tiny mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa.

I’ve fond memories of Lesotho – and I thought I’d share a little anecdote with you today. It’s an abbreviated version of a story that won me a travel writing competition many years ago, and it was even translated and published in German. Here’s a look back to a sweltering hot day in 1998:

Basotho hats, Lesotho

The Lesotho incident

It’s a hot January day and I’m in a minibus, flying across a Lesotho mountain road, wondering whether the holes in the windscreen are caused by bullets or sizable stones and breakneck speed.

I had just spent a few days in Malealea riding in the mountains on a lovely Basotho mare, experiencing nature and all that. Nice as that was, though, a couple of days of peace and quiet was enough. Just a girl and her horse gets lonely after a while, so I returned the little beauty (somewhat reluctantly) and took off towards Maseru Bridge and the Lesotho – South Africa border.

Lugging my backpack down to the main road junction at Motsekuoa, a fair distance in the midday sun, I look for a mini bus. I’ve been told they pass by all the time.

Not a bus is in sight. I sit on my pack and wait. And wait.

Soon, I’m joined by a girl and a boy, both 4 – 5 years old. The girl carries a little baby tied to her back. The boy asks my name. “Sophie, Sophie, Sophie”, he then says. Adorable at first. After 100 repetitions, less so.

As I sit there waiting, I ponder the friendly, trusting Basotho people.

On my way up to Malealea a few days earlier, the bus from Mafiteng was packed to the brim, but the driver wasn’t leaving until the tiniest little crevice was filled. Peddlers passed goods through the windows: sausages, Polish vodka, barbed wire, 10 kg bags of biscuits, brightly coloured Basotho blankets, jewellery, eggs. Money was passed back through several hands. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that someone along the way might pocket a maloti or two. Peddlers even ran after the bus to return change.

Lesotho, broken down bus

Meanwhile, I’m still at Motsekuoa, waiting for a bus. Occasionally, a car comes by, offering a lift to Malealea. Wrong direction. Apart from that, I don’t see a soul. Hours later, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve ended up in a twilight zone.

By now, I’m also developing a serious sunburn. The little darlings point at my increasingly red nose and laugh, all the while repeating “Sophie, Sophie, Sophie”. I’m seriously considering a name change, when a bus going in the right direction finally appears.

Lesotho busses often run with a minimum of two people per single seat. Bracing myself for that forced intimacy, I enter – and see to my relief only two other passengers. As we take off towards Maseru, I notice both are cheerful young boys. Very young boys, 14 or 15 perhaps. As is the driver!

I contemplate getting off, when he suddenly spins around and goes the other way.

“Sorry,” I ask, somewhat timidly. “Isn’t this bus going to Maseru?”

No response.

I repeat the question twice before one of the kid passengers turns around and says… something. My SeSotho vocabulary consists of “greetings sister”, “thank you” and “I don’t have any”, none of which seem appropriate.

He raises his voice and repeats … whatever he said. I realise he isn’t speaking to me at all. Instead, he tells his mate at the wheel to get moving. At least that’s how the driver understands it. I hang on to the door, but to no avail. The door panel soon lands in my lap. Screaming seems the most sensible option.

Even the king wasn’t immune to the hazards of driving in Lesotho. He died driving off a mountain road here some years earlier.

While the driver keeps up his Ayrton Senna impression, I spot a car on our tail. Have these kids pinched the bus or something? Glancing quickly over my shoulder, I see an arm waving something from the passenger side. Something shiny!

I knew those were bullet holes! This was obviously going to be a shoot-out! I could almost hear the told-you-so from friends who said not to go gallivanting on my own in Africa. They should see me now: scared, angry and just a wee bit nauseous.

What if I throw up on the driver, will that make him stop? With those men behind us, do I even want him to stop?

After a while, it occurs to me there isn’t any shooting. As we approach another crossroad, the driver spins around – again – and screeches to a halt. The car behind stops and a man comes out with the shiny thing, which upon closer inspection is a metal box.

As it turns out, he is indeed a bus driver, of legal driving age, who has forgotten his lunch. The man slaps my back, laughs out loud and tells me he’s his father and this whole thing is just a bit of father-son fooling about. They do it all the time; although, he admits, rarely with foreigners in the bus. Yeah, well…

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  1. InsideJourneys 16 August 2012 at 0532 - Reply

    That’s a funny story. I bet you had a good laugh at yourself the next day.
    I didn’t stay that long in Lesotho to take a bus but I did like the little I saw of it. Did you bring back any baskets?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 August 2012 at 0751 - Reply

      How cool that you’ve been in Lesotho, Marcia. I don’t often meet anyone else who has. No baskets, I’m afraid – and I had to resist buying one of those wonderful blankets, too. I had limited space in my backpack and it as the beginning of a longer journey in the region. Bought a small version of the Basotho hat, though. Still usie it as a Christmas tree ornament.

  2. Costa Rica news 16 August 2012 at 1135 - Reply

    Now that was a blog post worth reading. Have you and your daughters considered visiting Costa Rica? Ironically your story could be substituted with the country being Costa Rica and your experiences would apply equally here too. Pura vida!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1542 - Reply

      Yes, we were in Costa Rica last year, all too briefly. I visited a coffee plantation and the girls zip-lined in the jungle. We have to go back and see more 🙂

  3. Andrea 16 August 2012 at 1243 - Reply

    I SO need to find an affordable slide projector or scanner…how nice to reminisce!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1529 - Reply

      It has proved very useful.

  4. Jackie Smith 16 August 2012 at 1634 - Reply

    This was a fantastic travel adventure – I can see why you won a writing award as well. In this story, your photos were great but I found myself racing through your written words to see what happened. Loved this!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1529 - Reply

      Thanks, Jackie 🙂

  5. Lisa 16 August 2012 at 1942 - Reply

    That is such a great story – I couldn’t wait to see how it was going to end! Love the photos – they scanned so well!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1530 - Reply

      Yes, I was quite pleased with how they turned out – some of them.

  6. First, this was awesome but shame on them for playing this kind of joke on you!! I’m sure later you were laughing about it all.

    Second, Yes I’m old enough to have slides! I’ve been looking for “a clever little slide scanner” too. What did you end up getting?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1535 - Reply

      It’s called a G284, and scans slides, 35 mm and negatives, too. It’s quite small, so can be put away in a drawer.

  7. Nancie 17 August 2012 at 0018 - Reply

    What an adventure to tell you kids and eventually your grand kids. I bet you didn’t get on an almost empty bus for a while, without checking the drivers id!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1535 - Reply

      It did make me more aware – for a while, at least 🙂

  8. jade 17 August 2012 at 0053 - Reply

    I used to love watching old slides when my dad went on trips. We would all gather around, usually with hot chocolate because he traveled during winter months a lot, and watch him click through each photo and tell us stories. Those are some of my favorite memories.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1536 - Reply

      I remember moments like that when I was little. So nice!

  9. Oh my goodness – I was reading as fast as I could to see what the “shiny thing” was – and it’s his lunch box??? HA!!

    GREAT story!!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 17 August 2012 at 1539 - Reply

      Thanks! I have obviously watched too many police shows. Great potential for drama there, and then it was really all quite innocent 🙂

  10. Leigh 17 August 2012 at 1755 - Reply

    Great story Sophie. The days you travel on your own and you really don’t know how they’re going to turn out can be unnerving but they usually result in a story. Loved this.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2012 at 1005 - Reply

      So true, Leigh. It’s usually the unplanned experiences that turns out to be the most memorable.

  11. Marie 18 August 2012 at 2224 - Reply

    Love love love this story! And love that it’s from a country I’ve barely heard about!

    • lehana 19 August 2012 at 0754 - Reply


      • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2012 at 1005 - Reply

        Thanks, both.

  12. Steve 19 August 2012 at 0748 - Reply

    Fantastic story Sophie. I love how you went from the friendly, trusting Basotho people to “Is this bus stolen?”

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 August 2012 at 1014 - Reply

      Thanks, Steve. Your comment had me think a bit. In all my travelling, I’ve hardly ever been scared; can probably count the times on one hand. And most of those have been the result of an overactive imagination when travelling on my own. Funny that…

  13. Jarmo 19 August 2012 at 2238 - Reply

    That is hilarious! And fun story afterwards, even if it probably didn’t quite feel like it at the moment 🙂

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 August 2012 at 2346 - Reply

      Those are the best memories, aren’t they…

  14. Laurence 20 August 2012 at 1410 - Reply

    Sounds like the sort of adventure that is great to relate afterwards, and slightly terrifying when it’s happening. Still, it ended happily, and that’s the important thing 😀

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 August 2012 at 2348 - Reply

      True. A bit scary then, a fun memory now 🙂

  15. Natasha von Geldern 21 August 2012 at 0208 - Reply

    Heart in mouth! I wonder if Lesotho has changed much since you took these photos. I was disappointed to have not got there when I was in South Africa, or the Drakensburg…time to plot a return. Despite having been actually held up at gun point in SA – by a scared and desperate looking young man.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 23 August 2012 at 2350 - Reply

      Ouch, scary for real. And very sad.

  16. Roxanne 23 August 2012 at 1730 - Reply

    I really enjoyed this. Similar experiences – where visitors jump to the worst-case conclusions – happen all the time here in this beautiful Africa that I’m lucky enough to live in. Good to hear it ended well and with smiles all round! To answer Natasha’s question, no, Lesotho hasn’t really changed and I was there just 8 months ago. See for why I love that tiny country.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 August 2012 at 0003 - Reply

      I really fell for that tiny country, too. Riding in the mountains, the laidback, no-rush attitude, the scenery… just stunning.

  17. Turtle 4 September 2012 at 0939 - Reply

    Ha ha – that’s fantastic. I was really terrified for you at one point. I mean, the bullet holes must have got there somehow!!

  18. Mary @ Green Global Travel 22 October 2012 at 2250 - Reply

    It probably wasn’t funny at the time, but Lesotho seems like a great travel memory now. Thank goodness for the passage of time 🙂

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