The trip South on the bus is pleasant enough: modern and roomy compared to many of the buses over the years in developing countries; religious programming plays on the overhead monitors. No livestock aboard but I do end up holding a small child while his mother deals with other issues. We are jointly amused. During our regular rest stops at modern highway stops I have brief conversations with a variety of other passengers and begin to loosen up.
At the Bloemfontein station my B&B host, Jan, meets me. I had expected a petite woman and am greeted by a close to 7 foot man. I am equally surprised by my lodgings. Golf Lodge is very upscale for me - giant room, marble bath, spa services, bar, gourmet breakfast. And, at under $50 a night a real bargain. Jan adds shuttle services.
As the trip went on I found that South Africa has the best lodging for the money I've ever experienced. My average night's lodging cost under $40 and I only spent 2 nights in places I wouldn't recommend highly. The hosts were uniformly hospitable and helpful.
Check the Golf Lodge out at - www.thegolflodge.co.za/photos.html
Bloemfontein is South Africa's judicial capital and a group of impressive government buildings fill the downtown. I spend some time watching a cricket match at the local University. Bloemfontein also has an excellent modern art museum - Oliewenhuis. Its outdoor cafe, the Terrace, was a pleasant place to relax after a long day walking the city.
My second night I find myself alone in the lodge. Am I in charge here? I walk less than a kilometer to a nearby group of shops and restaurants. During the walk I am not relaxed. I review Cordelia's keys to self-defense.
Back at the Lodge I unwind and enjoy more cricket and rugby on TV.
Ladybrand - My next stop requires using the local mini-taxis (vans). Jan isn't familiar with the process so one of his black employees goes along to help with a routine I've often gone through on my own from South America to Asia. I'm beginning to think a bit of paranoia and unfamiliarity is at play here. The passengers are friendly and the driver plays a pleasant mix of choral hymns.
My lodgings at Top House (www.thetophouse.co.za/) are as pleasant and more historic than Golf Lodge. The Horace Coaker house was built around 1900. Its owner was exiled for his political beliefs in 1967 and spent 8 years in the nearby kingdom of Lesotho, my destination the following day. I immediately feel at home. Afghan carpets and a collection of 1930's English and Afrikaner novels in the bookcase - my sort of place.
Maseru, Lesotho - The border is about an hour away by mini-taxi. Maseru is a bit more 'African' than my stops so far with its markets and bustle. Two policewomen guide me to the local bus stand where I catch a mini-taxi to the North to get a sense of the landscape which is striking. Lesotho is known as the mountain kingdom and has become a destination for adventure backpacking adventures.
The people aboard the buses are friendly and their lively conversations are interesting even though I don't understand the language. The attitudes, gestures, and facial expressions are universal. I'm struck by the public behavior of the women aboard. This is not a society where women have to keep silent or defer to men.
Lunch is at the Ouh-la-la Cafe, an adjunct to the local Alliance Francaise. This is evidently the lunch spot for all the NGO personnel in the country. And it seems that cappucccino is the drink of choice wherever I go. Evidently food is not going to be an issue this trip.
I return to Ladybrand for the evening and return the following day to see a bit more of the country. I end up "miles from nowhere" at one point but easily make my way back to Maseru, through the border bureaucracy, and to my pleasant room.
The following day I trek back to Bloemfontein in time for an overnight bus trip across the Karoo to Cape Town. For my dinner I try the Ocean Basket - www.oceanbasket.co.za/ - and have the very best grilled calamari I've ever had.
Hmmm. Good food, pleasant people. This is clearly a conspiracy to get me to lower my defences.