Sometimes it just isn’t meant to happen.

I had looked forward to visiting Lesotho, with an anticipation I reserve for only the most obscure countries. With the hope of being able to look upon this tiny country landlocked entirely by South Africa with warm fondness whenever I gazed at a map of the world upon my return – as one of the few in the know. I had wanted to explore the country’s central mountain region, to go hiking solo for the first time in Africa and discover Basotho villagers still proudly holding onto their customs; to go for a run in the cooler temperatures of the Kingdom in the Sky; to share an experience with like-minded explorers of the paths less trodden.

Not a chance.

The first thing that hit me at my Maseru hostel, conveniently located next to a swampy abandoned military airbase 3km out of town, was both the stench of stagnant water and the wall of pterodactyl-sized mosquitoes tickertape parading my entrance into the dormitory. With no WiFi, no aircon, zero lighting after nightfall and no other companions other than the French couple in the room next to me celebrating Valentine’s Day as though the end of the world was imminent, I attempted to knock myself unconscious with my very aptly named Lonely Planet.

The following morning, I headed to the bus station to catch a combi van to Malealea, three hours away in the mountains. At 8am I was the first passenger standing by the bus. At 9am I was still the first passenger standing by the bus. At 10am I was still the first passenger standing by the bus. At 11am I was still the first passenger standing by the bus. Even by African combi standards, this was ridiculous. My mood, already exacerbated by the worst night’s sleep of the trip, was grim.

Much of my time at the bus station was spent talking to Sibelo, the 22 year old eldest of three recently orphaned siblings. With a smile as wide and generous as my old Italian grandmother, he instantly put me at ease with a warm welcome to his country and the by now familiar opening volley of questions. As our conversation matured beyond the usual pleasantries, however, the picture he painted of life in his country and his own home was bleaker than anything I had ever heard first hand on my travels. Backpackers frequently and proudly extol the virtues of visiting the most desolate countries, but rarely are they actually exposed to the real extent of poverty.

With unofficial unemployment within the country standing at 70% since the mechanization of the South African mining industry, most landowners being forced to rent out their fields to third parties, and a third of the population not having direct access to running water, Lesotho sadly merits its tag of poorest African country. Sibelo ekes out a living hustling passengers into his affiliated combi vans, but of the 1,800 Maloti (£80) he manages to scrape together every month the vast majority goes towards feeding and clothing his 13 year old sister and 16 year old brother, as well as his grandmother. We talked for close to two hours, his eloquence in English and hope for the future strangely worsening my mood, if this was even possible. If this bright, optimistic lad is struggling to make ends meet and survive, what hope for the rest?

As my waiting time passed the five hour mark and with still not a single other passenger occupying any of the 22 seats, I took an executive decision that greatly displeased me: I decided to leave Lesotho there and then. The thought of another night at the hostel of doom, with no realistic prospect of logistical success the following day did not even bear considering.

As I crossed Maseru Bridge border back into South Africa barely 22 hours after arriving, I genuinely felt as though I was failing Lesotho personally – something I have never experienced before. But it was the right decision, of this I am positive. For every Namibia, there must be a Lesotho to bring perspective to a global picture. The lows of travel are every bit as enriching as the highs: they provide an insight and understanding that sunny beaches and world wonders cannot. It is just a shame they aren’t as much fun.

Maseru North Bus Station – Grand Central this ain’t…

Breakfast, lunch & dinner

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