Sunday, December 30, 2007

Unlimited beauty

Sunrise at Sani Top Chalet was not something Matt and I could accomplish.

Luckily Anice was adamant she would get up at 4am to capture the amazing sight on camera, so here are some pics courtesy of her.

After we woke up and all had breakfast, we twisted and winded our way down Sani Pass.

Standing at an incredible 2865 metres, it is the highest pass in South Africa.

Offering breathtaking views and tricky to manoever corners, we passed other trucks, cars, motorcyclists, quad bikes and cyclists - going UPhill!

Without any major incident, we crossed back into South Africa and continued onwards towards the Central Drakensburg Mountain, aiming for a campsite for the night.

For lunch, we stopped to dine in a cozy little tavern restaurant.

See pic of Matt and his roasted pig's leg.

It was enormous, and we finished the rest of it for breakfast the next morning.

After a few mis-leading routes, we arrived at the White Mountain Lodge.

See pic of the imposing Drakensburg Mountains, around dusk.

Exhausted from the long driving day, we pitched our tents, scrubbed ourselves clean and settled in for a nice long sleep.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

On top of the African world

After a rather uneventful night in Roma at the Trading Post Guest House , where we dined local-style at a chicken 'n chips eatery, we drove the northern circumference of Lesotho for the better part of the day.

We went through Maseru, Teyateyaneng (place of quicksands), Leribe (a famous market hub), Butha-Buthe (Lesotho's 2nd largest town), Oxbow (equipped with a ski lift and slopes - in winter), Mokhotlong (the 'wild west' of Lesotho and the source of the Orange/Senqu River).

Passing some more stunning scenery and mountain passes, it gets fairly chilly up on top but we made good use of the Basotho blanket we had purchased earlier on.

Lesotho's trademark blanket is a thick, fireproof, square-shaped heavy material providing insulation in the heat and cold.

Draped around one's body, it is seen as a symbol of status and first introduced by European traders.

With a variety of colours and patterns, it is a common sight to see people walking wrapped up in their blanket.

We bought the maize cob pattern, a symbol of fertility. In truth, it was the only one with the colours we liked.

See pic of us sharing the blanket at the top of Sani Mountain.

We eventually winded our way up to our day's destination: Sani Top Chalet. See pic of the entrace, clouds hovering in mid-air!

Famous for being "the highest pub in Africa" (see pic of Anice sitting at the bar), we had a quick drink and headed straight to bed in the dormitories.

The next morning we embarked on a 9-hour hike to Africa's highest peak after Kilimanjaro : Mount Thabana- Ntlenyana.

At 3482 m, it is an arduous hike, requiring us to cross several valleys, rivers and finally, a gradual climb up rocky mountain terrain.

See Matt pointing to our destination with his walking stick.

It is advised that you take a local guide on the hike; a few years ago, a group of German tourists decided to navigate the course themselves and almost ended up spending the night on the mountain!

We had Adolf as our guide, a local shepherd who also leads tourists up the mountain for extra income.

Wearing simple rubber boots, a baseball cap and of course, his blanket, he kept up a constant pace for us to follow.

He was a man of few words, but then again, we were too busy huffing and puffing uphill to contribute to much intelligent conversation.

See pic of us and Adolf taking a break on the hillside.

Just as we were nearing the summit, dense fog rolled in, significantly dropping the temperature.

See pics of us walking into a big wall of cloud, dragging our tired legs for the last few hundred metres.

At the top, there wasn't much to see due to the fog.

See Anice taking a picture of the foggy view.

Nevertheless, we celebrated by eating our lunch behind a pile of rocks to ward off the strong wind.

Our descent back to the car only took 4 hours and we were back at the Chalet in time for a hot meal.

See pic of me very happy to see the car!

It was definitely one of the toughest hikes i've ever done but they don't come more satisfying than that. I don't need to mention we slept like babies that night :)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

sky, mud, rain, mountains, streams and the inevitable tumble

Lesotho is not nicknamed "kingdom in the sky" for just any reason; it is truly a little slice of heaven, with sky and clouds that seem to extend beyond infinity.

It is a fascinating place to visit and witness firsthand.

A tiny country of 2.1 million who managed to somehow escape the Boer invasion by seeking sanctuary in the Drakensburg and Maluti mountain ranges.

Basotho people, as the people of Lesotho are called, are a breed of survivors who possess a refreshing sense of pride and casual attitudes.

Perhaps it is the fact that many people still travel by horseback and foot that make it a haven for travellers who are also not in a hurry.

Interestingly enough, I also felt much more safe just by crossing the border.

The only real harassment we encountered was from children shouting "GIVE ME SWEETS!!!" which, to be totally honest, got quite tiring (and very worrying) early on.

Kids would run alongside our car for several hundred metres shouting with all their might to give them money or sweets.

Fortunately, they seem to grow out of this habit by adulthood.

Throughout our entire time in Lesotho, I only ever saw one group of tourists, parked along a dirt road, giving out slices of pineapple to a small circus of children.

At least it wasn't chocolate or chips.

It seems the dream for every man who is eligible for work, which basically means anybody from pre-adolescent to grandparent age, is to get a job in one of South Africa's mining towns.

The lucky men who have "gone abroad" have come back with a small fortune.

Once upon a time, labour exports to SA were as high as 60%!

However, since the early 1990's these numbers have dropped by half with the restructuring of the gold-mines, making it extremely difficult to obtain a work visa.

Imagine, being unable to leave the boundaries of your country when you are surrounded by one entire mega-machine that makes it next to impossible for you to enter!

I wondered on many occasions if the Basotho knew just how stunningly beautiful their country was, on all levels.

But if you dig just a little beneath the surface, you find out that Lesotho isn't all about beautiful mountains, robust horses and friendly folk; the unemployment rate is estimated to be at an outrageous 45% today.

Add to that the fact that the HIV/AIDS rate is about 30% of the population, and you are left with a bleak future for a tiny country.

Our first stop was at Malealea Lodge, a cozy backpackers' lodge started by a dedicated British couple over 20 years ago.

They have managed to integrate their lodge into the community, providing locals with consistent work, and helping build and develop schools, clinics, arts and culture within the community.

After watching the locals sing and dance and play their (homemade) musical instruments (see pic), we spent a pleasant night meeting other travellers around the fireplace following a scrumptious chicken dinner.

While Anice slept in an en-suite hut (which we made good use of as well), Matt and I rolled out our tent and spent a peaceful night under the stars.

Early the next morning, we set out for our 2-day pony trek. Our guide, Malealea, was a 26-year-old chap with a deep attachment to his country - and to his cell phone. We soon worked up the nerve to ask him who he was texting all the time.

My initial hunch was right: his girlfriend ;) She was living in Maseru, the capital city, and throughout the whole trek, they were exchanging lovey-dovey calls and messages. Very sweet. Just a shame none of us could speak Sotho!

See pic of Malealea receiving yet another loving call, oblivious to the breathtaking beauty around him!

We had a very eventful first day. It rained on and off, and the scenery we passed was spectacular.

We did some river crossings, navigated our way down some very steep and very rocky terrain, and galloped (not by choice either!) through gorgeous valleys.

The exciting part of the day came when Anice's horse, appropriately named Peppy, got spooked by something and flung her off sideways to the right.

She landed with an incredible THUD on her side but unfortunately her left foot got caught in the stirrup.

So, as Peppy darted down the rocky ravine we were traversing, she was dragged along as well.

Matt and I were watching all this from behind in absolute horror. Malealea was in front of all of this and just as Peppy was overtaking Malealea, Anice's foot came loose - luckily - or it would have been a pretty terrifying impact.

For the rest of our two week trip, we monitored Anice's enormous bruise on her thigh, its changing shape and morphing colours.

Well, it could have been worse.

I managed to fall twice myself, but it was only because my horse, Selena, lost her footing on the loose rocks or muddy slope and couldn't get her hind legs upright again.

No hard feelings though. Each time she kind of gently laid me down into a bush or the mud. Very considerate of her, i think.

Matt managed to stay upright on his sturdy horse the entire trip, thanks to all his childhood horse holidays with his family!

Needless to say, when we arrived at Ribaneng village around 5pm that day, we were relieved and very sore.

We were greeted with some of the locals who were already getting quite into the festive spirit.

Techno dance music was blasted from their ancient speakers, and it didn't stop until late into the night - only to start up again in the morning!

It was a bit surreal; in the middle of nowhere there was no peace and quiet where you would most expect it!

See pics of dancers and the (extremely inebriated) man with the solar panel and crackly speaker.

This same man later offered Matt some of the local brew.

A bit milky in colour and foamy in texture, I just couldn't stomach sipping even a little bit.

I'll just have to believe Matt when he said it tasted like granola flavoured mildew, with all sorts of mysterious bits thrown in for free! See pic of the stuff.

Along with the music, dancing and drinking, we came upon a very animated woman, dressed in torn pants and a hot pink tuque, who was wailing and flailing her arms around.

Suddenly, she plops herself down on the hard ground with a great thud, opens up a little container and takes out a pinch of white powder... only to raise it to her right nostril and snort it like her life depended on it.

Shocked, we didn't know what to say, but happy she never offered some of it to us. Anice, on a mission, asked her to do it several times over just to get the perfect shot. Here's one of them.

In Ribaneng village, there are about 10 huts and when there are overnight tourists, the family just moves out for the night and lets us take over.

Every hut is equipped with a gas stove and some pots and pans.

And so that night, Christmas night, we whipped up a delicious concoction of curry, beans, sardines and canned peas.

See pic of the dish and Matt relaxing outside our hut.

The next morning, as we all awake to the roosters and techno music, I was surprised to see the horses were all ready and saddled up to go!

A much drier and sunnier day, we managed to cover the distance with only some minor scrapes and scratches from tree branches.

Oh, and I fell once. Into soft mud.

After one more river crossing where we had to take our packs off the horses and walk along the bridge while the horses waded through the river (see pic), we stopped quickly to eat our lunch by the riverbank, and then it was homeward bound!

Our horses knew they were going home and so kept competing with one another to stay ahead. See pic of our 3 horses neck and neck - and neck.

An adventure, an unforgettable experience, memories for a lifetime!

I enjoyed it so much, next time I would love to do the 6-day trek.

With perhaps some extra bum padding.