The Star Late Edition
A taxi journey back to the mountain kingdom
We accompany migrant workers on a trip home after a long year of hard work
MAKOAE Mosothoana’s journey began in Howick, KZN. He had already taken four taxis by 9am when we met at the Good Hope taxi rank in the shadows of the Drakensberg mountains.
The taxi booking office was a shack outside the concrete skeleton of a former border post.
Mosothoana’s palm felt rough, like shaking hands with a brick. We encountered two types of travellers: those taking cheap South African goods to sell in Lesotho, and migrant workers like Mosothoana.
As a labourer he earned R70 a day in SA, the price of the final leg of the taxi home. It wasn’t only the cheapest route, but the only way of getting to the remote part of the world he called home.
Mosothoana has made the journey 20 times in as many years. “I always make sure I’m home for Chirstmas,” said the 49-year-old who wore a full black suit complete with waistcoat and tie.
“I like to look nice when I come home,” he laughed. He carried this year’s earnings on him, all cash. The Lesotho loti is pegged to the rand, and both currencies are accepted.
“There is no space on the taxi for anything else,” he said.
These were no ordinary kombis but 4x4 minibuses with rocks behind the back wheels for hand brakes when they parked. The taxi driver wore a builder’s hard hat for it was no ordinary drive, climbing over the Drakensberg mountain range and traversing the Sani Pass, the gateway to the king- dom of Lesotho.
As we crossed the South African border and bidding farewell to tarred roads, a police officer gave comforting reassurance; “These drivers do the route every day, rain or snow. You are in safe hands.”
As if there was one specifi- cally intricate path to be followed, the driver carved his way up the mountain passes, at points making three-point turns to negotiate around crumbling cliff edges. The road snaked up the mountains as if it were the tail of a dragon and the kombi was the slayer.
The hot summer’s day swelter was exaggerated by 14 people squeezed into a minibus built for 10. With all the people and cargo, it was difficult to see out of the window, but often you wouldn’t want to see the tyres hugging cliff edges.
The road has craters like the face of the moon and for much of the drive, one could have walked quicker. The sound of the suspension springs squeaking like a well used mattress could be faintly heard over the blaring music. The kombi stopped three times at clean mountain streams where passengers quenched their thirst.
The Lesotho border post was in the clouds, and crossing the imaginary line one is instantly transported to the Africa you always imagined.
To a time when man’s barefoot print made just a scratch on the Earth’s surface.
You are greeted by stone huts with thatched roofs. Sheep roam freely. A mosotho man draped in grey blankets and wearing a straw mokorotlo hat rode past on a small black pony.
Mules, donkeys and horses are an essential part of life in Lesotho, like camels in the desert.
The rear of the customs office was an animal pen, filled with mountain goats dressed in sheep’s skin. The customs official stamped the passport without even checking the photograph. Lesotho sometimes feels like another province of SA rather than a separate country.
I ask for one week. “I’ll give you two,” he laughed.
The kombi’s music got louder as we approach the town of Mokhotlong, the first of 10 of Lesotho’s major districts. An old friend was waiting for Mosothoana with a wheelbarrow to carry his goods on arrival. From Mokhotlong they walked 10km to his stone hut up in the mountains.
His wife waited outside with open arms.
They celebrated the season the sesotho way: by slaughtering a goat and having a feast over an open fire.