Four Hours at the Lesotho Border With a Flat Tire — and Locked Out of the Hotel
“L esotho must be the most popular country in the world today,” I thought to myself after having inched a quarter of a kilometer in an hour’s time, waiting to get into Lesotho from South Africa at the Ficksburg Bridge border crossing. “Why are so many people trying to get into Lesotho?!?”
Perhaps it was the fact that it was a Friday night. Nah, that cannot be the reason, I thought, as there is really nothing on either side of that border crossing in terms of nightlife. Maybe Lesotho is really that popular every night? I would have thought that that point would have come up in my research before I traveled. Did I choose the wrong border crossing? I purposely avoided the Maseru Bridge border crossing primarily because it entered the largest city in Lesotho — and Maseru is also its capital city.
No explanation with which I could think made any sense, as I sat there at the chaotic border crossing, thinking that I would rather enter the United States from Mexico at San Ysidro or Otay Mesa…
…and in the trunk of the Ford Fiesta which I rented laid a casualty of a pothole on Highway R76 approximately 20 kilometers northwest of Steynsrus on my way to Lesotho from Oliver Reginald Tambo International Airport which serves the greater Johannesburg metropolitan area. My flight from Abu Dhabi had arrived just before 8:00 in the morning earlier that day; and my plan was to drive the approximately 550 kilometers in six hours to where I was to stay for the night in Lesotho.
My day was already not going right. I usually exchange currency away from the airport, as I save money that way — usually significant enough to justify going out of my way. This strategy worked perfectly for me at Muscat City Center only ten days earlier in Oman. I stopped at the East Rand Mall south of the airport just northwest of Boksburg so that I can exchange currency and get a huge plastic jug of water — to refill the little bottles of water which I had acquired aboard my flights — and a two liter bottle of Coca-Cola.
First mistake: parking at the mall cost five South African rand, which turned out to be approximately 50 cents for me. The currency rate suggests that it should have cost me less than 50 cents? You would be correct, because the second mistake was that the currency exchange at the three places in the mall were poor at best and they charged a commission. This is one of those rare times in which I probably would have done better changing currency at the airport. The only good news of which I can think is that it was easier for me to figure out how much products and services actually cost, as it was approximately ten rand to the United States dollar instead of 11.7 rand. I figured the transaction cost me almost ten dollars — a rare mistake for me. Oh well — I swallowed my pride and headed on to Lesotho.
I was driving southeast on Highway R76 in what seemed like the middle of nowhere — when all of a sudden I felt and heard Whoomp! Thumpawhumpadump thumpawhumpadump…
…or, if you prefer something by Sly and the Family Stone, it went “Boom! Shackalackawacka Boom! Shackalackawacka” — except without the second “Boom,” of course. I will accept either sound effect.
My tire thumpawhumpadumped until I could find a safe place to pull over and find out what happened — and there was the tire on the left front side of the car, flat as — well — probably as flat as the Coca-Cola must be in the bottle which shook and rolled under the seat on the driver’s side of the vehicle. For a split second, I thought it was the poor quality of the road which created that sound.
All right. I am stranded on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere with the occasional line of cars and trucks whizzing by me. I went to the trunk and found a spare tire — maximum speed while using that spare tire is only 80 kilometers, but who is complaining? — and a complete jack system.
Okay. Time to get to work.
I undid the lug nuts and pulled the wheel with the tire — may it now rest in peace — off of the axle. Let me tell you that those things get super hot. I wanted to throw the thing at the flies which were now buzzing around me as the sweat was dripping down my face in the hot summer February sun, drenching my T-shirt. I suppose it could have been worse: having this happen in the dead of winter in ice, slush and snow; but at least there would have been no flies. Stupid flies.
Somehow I figured out how this jack worked; got my knees on the pain in the asphalt; and put the jack under a lip specially designed to hold it. Carunk. Carunk. Carunk. I should probably be done in 2036 at this rate. I then read on the jack how you should not be under the car while doing this — and I was not — when suddenly it fell off of the jack. I guess being on an angle on the shoulder of the road did not help; so I put the jack further back and lifted the car once again — and when there was enough room, I placed the scalding hot wheel well with the deceased tire under a section of the car before continuing to jack it up. I found a large flat stone to rest the hub of the wheel; removed the original wheel well which temporarily acted as a support for the car just in case; and moved the jack back to its proper position. Once the car was high enough for the wheel well with the spare tire, I removed the flat stone and put the new wheel on the car.
All the water I drank on the way down to this point had evaporated after I sweated it all out; but the spare tire was successfully on the car — and I tightened those lug nuts. Man, did I tighten those lug nuts! I must be nuts. Don’t worry — I did not over tighten them. In fact, I treated the car as carefully as possible — as though it were my own.
I put the wheel well in the trunk, hoping that it would not set the car on fire. Because it was larger than the spare tire it replaced in the trunk, it had eventually become the topic of conversation for those customs officials at border crossings who spotted this suspicious bulge in the floor of the trunk and wanted to know what lurked underneath.
Well, I thankfully am back on my way again, now dodging every suspicious anomaly in the roadway — as well as driving slower because of the limitations of the spare tire, which will now add time to my trip. That is still much better than being stranded in the middle-of-nowhere part of South Africa.
Already harried by that experience, I was thrilled to arrive near the border South Africa shares with Lesotho. All right, so there was a line of cars in front of me; but I could not tell how many there were — but they were not moving…
…and then the skies decided to open up. Oh, how lovely it was to sit in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm, waiting to cross the border — and night was beginning to fall. I was actually hoping to have reached my destination before the sun set; but those plans were shot to you-know-where. Oh, well — at least I was warm and dry. Make that hot and dry. Make that hot and dry with salty residue all over my body from sweating over changing a tire as a result of the lurking pothole.
Traffic from three different directions was converging into an intersection barely wide enough to hold four cars; and vehicles were being funneled into one line to cross the border. One of the guys directing traffic had no rhyme or reason as to whom he decided should go next; but he had three cars from another street come in front of mine before finally letting me inch forward. Oh — and you should have seen the driver of the gasoline tanker truck attempt to navigate through the clogged traffic not to cross the border; but to get out of there altogether.
I finally slowly inched my way across the border. Customs check with nothing to declare leaving South Africa. I had to park the car to wait in a poorly managed short line to get my passport stamped. Inched across the Ficksburg Bridge, empathizing with the poor people in the string of headlights up on the hill where I originally had entered the line during daylight, knowing that they have an even longer wait to cross the border than I.
Just prior to 8:00 in the evening, I had entered Lesotho. Passport stamped. Trunk checked. “What is under that there?” asked the officer as he pointed to the suspicious looking floor of the trunk. Sigh. Fortunately, that only took a few minutes. I then paid the 30 Rand at the toll gate.
Success. I finally entered Lesotho.
Let me impart a lesson to you which I almost learned the hard way: unless you are staying in or near Maseru, keep the fuel tank of your vehicle full. Fuel stations are very difficult to find in many parts of Lesotho; and I would up spending at least two hours of my time and driving almost 250 kilometers before finding an open fuel station and having the fuel tank of my rental car full. My consolation is that at 8.35 meloti per liter, fuel cost less in Lesotho than it does in South Africa. I probably saved a whopping five dollars; but that did cheer me up just a skoche. I know, I know — I am not in Japan; nor am I Japanese…
…so how did I find out? 90 kilometers from my destination was a shack with a police officer who opened a gate with a Stop sign attached to it. I had slightly greater than a quarter of a tank of fuel, which I thought was enough — until I asked the police officer if there was a fuel station at my destination. “There are no fuel stations there,” he replied.
Thankfully, I remembered passing a fuel station almost 35 kilometers back — and that was the nearest fuel station. Ugh. I am already so tired from flying as a passenger all night; all of the driving; waiting almost four hours at the border; and changing the tire from the stupid pothole. I drove back through the night — dodging many people in the process who apparently like to hang out either in the road or on the side of the road wearing the darkest colored clothes they can find — filled up, and arrived at that gate again. I think that the police officer was too tired to recognize me from approximately two hours earlier.
I drove up the steep winding road, dodging rocks — either rocks are constantly falling in those falling rock zones; or they just do not bother to clean them up — sheep, aluminum cans, frogs, and other hazards which caused me to feel like I was in a video game of which I was too tired to play.
After all of that, I attempted to get through two security gates with no success, as each guard told me that I needed to enter through a different gate down the road. I finally passed through the third security gate — the third time was the charm, where a tired guard unlocked the chain and opened the bar to allow me in — and hobbled at my destination shortly after at 1:30 in the morning…
…only to have the door of the front entrance locked and the lights out in the lobby inside.
I banged on the door. I shouted “Hello!” Nothing.
I drove all the way back to the security gate and awoke the poor guard. He promised to call and get the front door opened for me; and that someone should be there by the time I arrived back at the front door. I thanked him politely; but I was really, really tired. All I wanted to do was collapse onto a bed — I will even accept a sack of burlap similar to the one on which I once slept in the Côte d’Ivoire — and sleep.
In a leap of faith, I took out my belongings and carried them to the front door.
Nothing. No sign of life.
The stars in the partly cloudy southern sky looked pretty against the darkness of the night with little light pollution interfering with the view — but that distraction quickly dissipated in what was becoming more and more of a reality of not sleeping in a room for which I already paid.
The driver’s seat is looking more and more like it will be my bed for the night — or perhaps I might not get any sleep at all.
A thunderstorm decided to rain on my misery as I waited for almost four hours at the border trying to cross into Lesotho. All photographs ©2015 by Brian Cohen.