Gumboots and 'diamonds'

MASERU - Like most males in Lesotho's highlands, the old man with a limp wore gumboots, a blanket and a woollen hat.'

"Ntate," he called out, before digging deep into his pocket for a plastic bag, which he then bit to extract its contents.

It was a glassy-looking stone.

I had also been offered diamonds on board a bus over the Moteng Pass in Lesotho, back in 1986 when the road up to the top at 2810m was dirt.

Travelling up the pass then had been a hairy experience. The bus kept rolling backwards at the bends until the driver ordered everyone out and we walked across paths between the bends.

On the next trip, in 1999, the Moteng Pass had been tarred. My transport was a crowded minibus taxi .

A rosary hung from the rear-view mirror. Every time we turned a tight corner, the cross at the bottom of the rosary came into view and I would think: "This is my last moment!"

With this memory I chose to cycle across Lesotho in 2010, which meant being exposed to high-speed traffic and drivers who were obsessed with passing one another on hilltops, across white lines and around tight corners.

But to the Lesotho drivers' credit, I saw no sign of recent accidents on the 230-odd km route, rising up to 3275m, between Maseru and Mokhotlong.

On the lonely highland stretches, shepherds, their livestock and dogs shared the road with modern cars owned by Lesotho's "other half".

Electricity pylons and telecommunication towers ran parallel to the road. Some homesteads out in the sticks had electricity.

In 1999, there was a party in the village where I had stayed.

Horsemen "parked" their animals outside a small house near Mokhotlong and partied the night away.

In 2010, in a village at the foot of the Moteng Pass, villagers held a similar party after having saved money through their stokvel.

A mineworker sat in the sun beside his roadside home, made from stone, watching a tipper truck emptying rocks on a heap.

"Yes, there are jobs up here again now that the mine has re-opened," he remarked.

Not that there was ever much of a break in the business of diamond dealing up in the highlands - albeit mostly of the illegal kind. - Sapa