Some years ago, I went on a two week assignment to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho in Southern Africa. The trip has earned something resembling cult status in local travel journalism lore. Teaming up with a staff writer from a leading outdoor magazine, we attempted to traverse the harrowing gravel roads that pockmark the country’s peaks and valleys – exalted by 4 x 4 enthusiasts and off-road pundits around the world – in a regular pintsized two-door family sedan. Fuck knows how, but in the end we managed to get through the entire white-knuckled, ass-numbing ordeal without so much as a flat tire.
To be honest, I don’t remember that much about it. I seem to recall flashes of wide-eyed livestock being felled by giant potholes as they scrambled across mountain passes ahead of us (this is cattle country, after all) and ragged children with outstretched hands running towards swanky SUV’s idling by the roadside screaming “Sweets! Sweets!” as dazed city slickers with altitude sickness vomited out of tinted windows, all tied together by some of the most majestic landscapes south of the equator. I guess when Mama Africa’s in the mood to party and blows some gritty pixie dust in your face, you simply assume the position and let your addled mind obscure what it will.
The morning after my birthday remains pretty clear, though. We celebrated the dubious fortune of my thirty-eighth year on this planet the night before in a dingy bar on the outskirts of Thaba Tseka. Feeling very much worse for wear, I watched the morning light glide over the skewed drawing of a bull on my wrist as we slowly continued to make our way west. It was still fresh. A girl with braids flowing down to her waist scratched it into my arm with a Bic pen just before closing time while we attempted a random cross-cultural conversation on the merits of astrology. Now, as the sun slowly drowned out the revelry of the night before, I felt The Fear settling in. I’ve been feeling strung out and lost in anguished introspection for months. As the haunting landscape shuddered past I was wondering just what the hell I was doing on this trip and, let’s face it, in this life that has roughly crossed the halfway mark somewhere between Semonkong and Mantsonyane. I started to sweat as I felt my ever-present dark companion draw itself into a monkey’s fist between my shoulders. I squirmed. Other than what the stars and the makeshift tattoo on my arm might claim, I much rather resemble a dog on the physiospiritual plane. Whenever I get anxious I need to take a piss.
“Pull over,” I mumbled to my bleary-eyed companion. “Penny Farthing.” (The venerable boredom of the road had us devise a quirky code system for the various calls of nature one might suddenly need to heed at 3600 meters above sea level).
Even though my Nikon was slamming against my bladder as I went racing through the tall grass sloping down to the valley, it felt good to be on the move. I just wanted to keep going, putting as much distance as possible between myself and my racing heart. When I finally broke through the swaying thicket and unzipped, I was surprised to be standing on a ledge overlooking a dizzying gorge below. In the distance a river was snaking through the bedrock, wisps of morning fog still dozing behind the current’s back. I stepped forward onto the edge and let it all go, the poison burning out of me into the void.
Turning ‘round again, I froze. A lone bull was standing about ten metres away from me, coolly chomping on what appeared to be an old feed sack. It wasn’t exactly a fine specimen. It’s horns were grossly lopsided, it had a gammy ear and a funk of decay seemed to be rising from its too-sharp bones. True to form, my immediate reaction was to numbly reach for my magic picture box and vanish down the viewfinder like a startled child. The shutter clicked it’s tongue.
Even though this fella may not have made much of a prize in a bullring, a zillion volts shot down my spine as he suddenly locked in on my shifty gaze and languidly scraped a front hoof on the ground. Having nowhere to go, I shot a quick look back over my shoulder at the sheer drop to the saw-toothed rocks far, far below.
Ever so slowly, as the world slipped back into focus, I raised my arms to embrace the miracle. Gone were the lofty buzzards of existential angst. My breath was slow and steady. Cured by an actual threat to my sorry flesh, I felt the breeze dry my palms as my hands sprung back to life.
Come on, you mangled fucker, I gestured. Time to end to it once and for all. Make my day. No one will ever be able to touch you for it.
We just stood there for as the seconds scraped by, a couple of badly-drawn bulls facing off on the edge of some random African cliff, the god of the herd’s cruel mistake frozen on both sides of the red-mirrored dawn.
Spent like a rodeo clown doing a final curtsy, I slowly turned on my heels to take in the terrible beauty of the valley below. Somewhere in the eternity that followed I suddenly realised that this entire mindfuck of a Trip we’re all on was just too important to be taken seriously.
My skull smiled as I braced my back, but my star-crossed saviour had since bowed out, quietly as he came.