Wednesday, June 30
Roma - Mohale Dam - Nazareth - Mafeteng - Quthing
While the local population go about their business dressed in blankets, an amazing light consumes the scene as cartoon sunbeams burst out of the early morning clouds and light up sections of the red granite mountains.
Smoke billows from the chimneys of the ubiquitous circular rondaval houses - their thatched roofs making them look otherworldly, convincing you that hobbit families must be living inside enjoying a late breakfast.
The mountain pass reaches 2273 metres where snow hugs the rocks. The next pass is even higher and has the wonderful name 'the God help me pass' - sounds like a 40-yard up-field punt from Steven Gerrard in Cape Town.
It feels like we are living the millionaire's lifestyle when the four of us enjoy buffet breakfast at the otherwise deserted Mohale Lodge set high on a mountain ridge at over 6000 feet above sea level. The views over the surrounding countryside and the dam below are top draw. If in South Africa you had rent-a-fan, here in Lesotho you have rent-a-country as we seem to have this whole nation almost entirely at our own personal disposal.
It is the first World Cup rest day of the tournament, which means that after an hour a Mohale Dam we don't have to factor in finding a place to stop off at 4, and a place to stay before 8.30.
On the road south, reading up on the brilliant nation-building skills of the late Moshoeshoe ('The Great'), we stop briefly at Mafeteng where an elderly gentlemen named Martin Peter, who's clearly cast from the same mold as Moshoeshoe, gets chatting to me in the local supermarket. He reckons things were better before independence under British rule. "What this country needs is leaders, not money," he tells me. "We need your people to help us learn leadership skills because without them Lesotho will be in trouble in the coming years." From my brief encounter with Martin Peter it seems to me that he is exactly the kind of community leader that any town or region could desperately do with.
Driving further south past Mohale's Hoek, where Prince Harry spent some time working in the community, the daylight begins to fade and the thin cool air helps create a special quality of light. Sandstone overhangs and impossible rock formations encourage the three of us (who are not driving) to each take a ridiculous number of photos of the wonderful scenery.
On the outskirts of Quthing, just before dark, we pull off the highway and negotiate a bumpy dirt track to investigate the twin-spired sandstone Villa Maria Mission church. It looks very much out of place but its twin spires and statue of the Virgin Mary only add to the mystical nature of the surrounding countryside.
In the church grounds a group of small boys play football, prompting us to request a quick kick about in the shadow of Maria...ten minutes soon becoming an hour. One of the highlights of my whole trip has certainly been the impromptu kick-abouts with African kids all over the southern half of this continent. They always play with a smile; they always play with passion and enthusiasm.
After a comical hour spent trying to find the Mountain Side Hotel we enlist the help of the village bobby, who's sporting a retro 1950's uniform. He kindly drives around with us in the dark to the various hotels and guesthouses. But despite his much appreciated help the four of us end up in one room sharing two double beds at the aptly named Rainbow Guesthouse II...and consume four bottles of South African red to help deal with the silliness of it all.
Tuesday, June 29
Roma - Ramabanta - Semonkong - Roma
We are on the road by 7am for the tough mountainous drive south to Semonkong. Leaving Roma we pass through a truly spectacular mountain gorge. The temperature is barely above zero at this time of the day in Lesotho and the Besotho people are up early dressed in blankets, riding their ponnies, leading their donkeys, herding their sheep.
It's a feast of stunning, desolate mountain scenery, which is best described as a cross between Georgia, Bolivia, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. This country feels like one of those few remaining places that the rest of the outside world, particularly tourism, is still yet to discover. I am not sure of the reason. I guess it is negative perceptions of the political instability of past years, the almost 50% unemployment rate and the world's highest AIDS rate at over 30% of the general population. Or, more likely, the country is simply overshadowed by its neighbour, South Africa, and consequently overlooked. As Robin put it, "I thought Leotho was just going to be one great big township surrounded by barbed-wire fence so that its population can't get in to South Africa. But it's not. It's actually an amazing country."
We stop off at the Trading Post in Ramabanta for the exquisite views, great hospitality and a full English buffet breakfast for five quid each.
Then the gravel and occasionally pot holed-tarmac road south takes us past remote Besotho villages where shepardry appears to be the only job going. The wild valleys mostly top 2000 metres.
At Semonkong we drive off road and hike down the mountain to the sheer mounatin cliffs opposite to the Maletsunyane waterfall. Maletsuyane tumbles 192 metres making it the highest waterfall in southern africa. This is also home to the world's longest single-drop abseil at 204m. The dimensions of the canyon and the vertical drop of the waterfall are bewildering, almost dizzying.
It is a perfect photo opportunity: time to don the silly wig and wave the flag that we found lying on the terrace floor after the England v Germany match.
As we climb back up the mountain to the van a crowd of small kids can be spotted peering over rocks at the top of the rockface. They are more than happy to pose for some (I must say) brilliant photos of us all together waving the English flag up in the peaks of Leotho. You get the sense that this is where England's World Cup really ended - probably as we speak the English team have touched down at Heathrow; the World Cup is not over, but England's Silly World Cup is.
we stop off on the way back to Roma for a scrummy dinner, inspiring sunset views of the nearby mountains turning red and Japan v Paraguay at the Trading Post in Ramabanta.
Lesotho is an amazing country. If you want to experience somewhere completely different from the norm then consider coming here. As the tourism slogan so rightly boasts:
Real people, real mountains, real culture.
Monday, June 28
Bloemfontein - Mesaru - Roma, Lesotho
Last night's accommodation was probably the silliest to date - seven of us sleeping in horse blankets in a tent erected next to a swimming pool in a guesthouse garden. Pride of place inside the tent was a roaring fire to help us survive the bitterly cold Bloemfontein night.
Everybody is on the internet trying to rebook flights home. A couple of the Spain '82 lads, we are with, manage to get on the computer early doors, while most England in Bloemfontein are sleeping off their hangovers, and save themselves a couple of hundred quid in the process. One ways home, leaving in the next two days, soon increase in price from 4-500 pounds to 700 or more.
It is the first of the goodbyes as many of the lads set off for Joburg and Cape Town and the their flights home.
For those of us staying here the main emphasis is now tourism, not football: Blackburn is off to Harrismith; Camper Van Nick, Geordie Robin, Fabio and I are running to the hills...literally. We are off to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho where we can mentally recover from England's early exit and physically recover from the weeks of drinking excess in South Africa.
Leaving the scene of the crime - the Battle of Bloemfontein - behind us we head out east on to the N8, past the poor towns of Botshabelo and Thaba 'NNchu and on to the South Africa-Lesotho border.
It costs us 50 pence each to get the van into the country, while the visa is free. Immediately there is a strong sense of being in a completely different kind of country. The capital, Mesaru, is only a couple of kilometres inside the border. This is because the Kingdom of Lesotho once stretched well beyond its current borders before the Boers took much of its western territory. The huge tourist information office at the edge of the city centre is a brilliant point of reference for anybody travelling independently in Lesotho. They will put you right on the many amazing sights in this pocket-sized country as well as the numerous decent places there are to stay.
Home for the night for us is the Trading Post in Roma, 35 Kilometres south-east of the capital. First though we have to negotiate the world's silliest trafiic jam. A journey that should take us no longer than 30 minutes ends up taking two hours as the local powers that be have decided to send JCB diggers and two dozen workmen to dig up and tar the road at the height of the capital's rush hour. One lane in each direction becomes three lanes in one direction leaving the capital, then four lanes versus one oncoming. The eventual (rather predictable) result is total gridlock, with all present getting out of their cars to investigate, remonstrate, giggle and, in some instances, to have a fist fight with the workmen on the recently tarred road.
when we eventually reach the Trading Post a man with a shotgun in his right hand, dressed in a horse blanket and wearing an SAS-style ski mask opens the front gate and shows us to our two ensuite chalets. It is a very reasonable 150 Meloti a night each to stay here (13 quid) and there's coffee, live world cup football and a roaring fire awaiting us in the lounge of the main house. Bruno is soon asleep, while the three Englishmen still continue to debate the whys and why nots of England's early departure from the 2010 World Cup.