Pulling up to the Monantsapas border between South Africa and the tiny country of Lesotho in a 4-wheel-drive van, there is a visible line where the tarmac ends and the muddy path winding up into the mountains begins.
A man with a wool blanket draped over his shoulders leads his horse on foot while texting on his mobile phone. He looks up from his phone and waves at us as we drive past, then goes back to texting.
“Is there phone reception out here?” I ask the driver, checking the bars on my phone. It says ‘No signal.’
“They just put up a tower here, but the reception isn’t great,” says the driver.
The van continues wobbling and winding up and around the rocky hillsides, bouncing from one muddy hole to another, punishing the vehicle’s rickety suspension in a way that would have been painful in our economy rental car. Which is one reason why Ryan and I signed up for this guided tour to Lesotho through our hostel, the Amphitheatre Backpackers in Drakensberg. We figured it’d be safer to visit Lesotho with a tour than to test the limitations of our rental car agreement.
As we pull up outside a primary school sponsored by the Amphitheatre Backpackers, children run up to the van laughing and tripping over each other as they race each other to the van, handing over their mobile phones to our driver. “What a curious way to greet someone,” I thought.
But as the driver unplugs his own phone from the cigarette lighter to plug in one of the children’s phones, I realize this visiting tourist car is an important and consistent resource. With tours going into these hills every other day, Amphitheatre Backpacker’s van provides a 12-volt charge to top up the mobile phones of a village that still lacks electricity.
I’m sure there are more developed, more densely populated areas of Lesotho — like the capital, Maseru — where residents charge their phones in plug sockets located inside their homes.
But I know nothing about these places.
What I know of Lesotho is this small farming village whose inhabitants live below the international poverty line, like 40% of Lesotho. And despite what they lack, the people we meet here smile broadly at us and welcome us warmly into their village to explore their heritage, play with their children and learn a little about the way they live.
To find out more about the Amphitheatre Backpacker’s tour to Lesotho, visit their page here: http://www.amphibackpackers.co.za/html/lesotho.html