May 20th: Semonkong, Lesotho
The day began with an absolute chill; I awoke from my first night camping before sunrise because it was too cold to sleep. My 15°F sleeping was doing its job, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I stayed warm. I lay there for a couple hours waiting for the sun to show its face as I contemplated my day ahead of me. Frost and ice covered everything when I did manage to drag myself out of my tent. I had a quick breakfast of a frozen banana, some frozen cheese, and a tall bottle of ice water, compliments of the previous nights weather. I was set on seeing Maletsunyane Falls that day, which was my main reason for coming to Semonkong. Hiking would warm my bones, so I set out early on the slightly longer, more scenic route. The owners simply told me all I had to do was follow the river I was camped along, until I couldn’t follow anymore. I left on the northwesterly bank of the river so I could bask in the morning sun, and I quickly warmed up. The winter is the dry season in southern Africa, which made following the river easier because more of the bank was exposed so I could stay near the river instead of traversing cliff bands. The downside of the dry season also meant the waterfall on its way to its low point for the year. The views were exceptional and got better with every bend of the river, with ibises, ducks, rock pigeons, and a mélange of other birds always one step ahead of me. It is one of the few places I have seen “wild” pigeons. It seemed a bit odd at first seeing groups of them perched on rocks jetting out from the cliffs with bullet speed, instead of seeing them adorning statues and waddling around in the city parks. The rivers also boast some top-notch fly-fishing with the clean clear waters. I also suspect it is home to some nice swimming holes in the summer as well.
No sooner had I been lamenting the fact it wasn’t 90°F out and that I was missing out on some good river swimming when I found myself in the water anyway. I was not just dipping my toes in either. I was from head to toes soaking wet in the frozen river. I was climbing up a small cliff band when the camera took a slight knock, which so happened to be on the button that locks the lens cap. I could only stand and watch the lens cap tumble down the rocks into the river. The only upside was that it happened where the current was slow so the lens cap was not swept away, and I could see it laying there on the bottom. The only reason the water wasn’t flowing was because of its depth. The lens cap was at least two to three feet under the water, which meant I was going to get wet if I wanted it back. I made up my mind and quickly stripped down to my skivvies and long sleeve base layer figuring it would be about thigh deep, waist deep at the most. I left my skivvies on since they could use the wash, so a little dip in the cold water would do them well. I carefully made my way down to the water and felt the familiar chill of the morning air still in the icy water. I inched my way along until I had two to three more steps before I was in reaching distance of the lens cap. I knew the next step was the most important because I would be stepping down onto the slick rock on the bed of the river. Little did I know just how slippery it was. It was as if it was coated in oil, and my footing gave way instantly. Knee deep went to thigh deep and thigh deep simultaneously became chest deep. The whole sweeping movement that put me in the water also swept up the lens cap and conveniently placed it in the deep water I was now standing in. The good news being I was now in the deepest part of the pool, so things couldn’t get any worse. I tried, but with no success, to pick it up with my toes, a skill I can usually pride myself on. It was too cold and I couldn’t feel my toes gripping anything. It was too late to turn back now as I was already wet, and I decided my best bet was to dive under. I took a deep breath and plunged down into the freezing water. My downward force lifted the cap off the river bottom and I felt it knock against my hand as I went down. I blindly flailed around, grasping at bits of empty water hoping to feel the cap again. To my surprise and good fortune by my second or third swat I held the cap in my hand, and quickly surfaced. I was glad I got it on my first try and eagerly got out of the water to dry off. After wringing out my clothes and taking a break to warm myself in the sun I was back off.
I reached the top on Maletsunyane Falls, a huge single drop waterfall plunging 192m (630ft) into one of the most impressive gorges I have ever seen. This was the perfect backdrop for my well-deserved lunch after my 2-hour excursion through the morning. After lunch I began my next portion of the hike. I headed to the point opposite the falls so I could see the full drop. This hike took me through many herds of sheep, goats, donkeys, and horses. Apart from the main road coming into Semonkong, there are very few other roads. The main mode of transport is the horse, or your own two feet. It was a quick hike, about 30 mins, past the sheep-shearing shed, and onto the cliffs that overlooked the falls. There I met Moeretsi Nyareli from Teyateyaneng and his co-workers who worked for the Lesotho government. They were going to be in Semonkong for the next month working on adding to the sewage system there, installing toilets, pipes, etc. and they were taking in the sights as I was. I sat and absorbed the scenery as long as I could before making my way back via the trail that passed over the mountain. It was about an hour walk along the main road, which consisted to two eroded dirt tracks.
Walking along this main drag allowed me to practice some of the Sesotho I picked up. I made sure to greet the few and far between people I ran into with the proper greeting. I have noticed travelling in general that people tend to have a much friendlier attitude towards you if you speak to them in their language, or at least make an attempt to. My vocab was still very limited but it covered most passing interactions.
O pela jwang- How are you living? (how are you?)
Pela hantle- I am living fine (I’m fine)
Tsamaya hantle- Goodbye
Ha dio- I do not have any
Ha ke tsebe- I don’t kow
That night I met a group of older English speaking South Africans at the lodge with whom I hung out with after I ate my dinner. They were an odd combination about 10 people. 3 of them doctors, 2 SAS veterans (basically the special forces), and the other 5 an eclectic mix. The two SAS veterans were older guys in the late sixties, early seventies, who spent most of the night recounting war stories from countless conflicts they had been involved with throughout Africa. From the Rhodesian wars, to Somalia, and Zimbabwe, they had seen it all, and by their stories, lucky to still be alive. One of the doctors, Dr. Andres Dupressis, could trace his ancestry in South Africa back to the arrival of the French Huguenots who fled France in the 1600’s to escape religious persecution. He also happened to be from East London, which is were I was planning on passing through in a few days time, and he kindly offered me a place to stay. After we exchanged information I made my way back to the frozen tent I called my home. The night was not as bad as the first because I had prepared myself better this time. It didn’t however affect the frost that pilled up on the tent. The temperature dropped again to about 15°F and I put my gear to the test.
I opted for a slightly shorter hike heading to the small village of Polateng, northeast of Semonkong. I wanted to get out one more time and enjoy the mountains and also see if I could find the illusive spiral aloe plant that is endemic to the area. The freezing had taken its toll on the batteries of my cameras. The power in Semonkong only ran intermittently, and I didn’t really have much access to it, so it limited my usage. The hike up through Polateng was enjoyable, but also painted a harsher reality of life in rural Lesotho. It is a prime example of the tragedy of the commons. The land is communally owned by all the people of Lesotho, which provides for equal opportunity for grazing rights as the vast majority of the population grazes animals. It is also nice for hiking because there are almost no fences in the country and you can walk for days in any direction if you so desired. The downside of the communally owned land is that no one really takes responsibility for the stewardship of the land, and overgrazing is a huge problem. With only a little over 1% of the land protected, erosion and desertification takes a huge toll on the fertility of the soil. It is one of the huge problems facing this tiny nation if things continue the way they are.
Later that day, I again met up with the aforementioned group of people from South Africa. I had now found out were all part of a hiking club in the Eastern Cape, and had come up to Lesotho for their club’s trip. I spent the night picking their brains on my plans for hiking in the Drakensberg range later in my trip after I met back up with Sarah. They in turn delighted me with more tales of their adventures in the cape and throughout Africa. I also got interesting insight into what South Africa was like under apartheid for white people who were opposed to apartheid. They in turn had plenty of questions to ask me about the USA, everything from good places to hike and camp, crime, cars, and politics, to the Amish. At sunset I went with them out to watch the colony of rare mokhotlong, or more commonly known as Bald Ibis, come to roost on the cliff walls not far from my campsite.
I don’t know if they had taken a liking to me or just had sympathy for me out in my tent, but one of the Basotho women who worked for the lodge brought me a blanket for additional warmth that night. She also surprised me with a hot cup of tea in the morning while I was packing up my frozen tent. Either way, she made my last night there all that more comfortable.
The drive from Semonkong back to Maseru was definitely one I was not looking forward to. It was again an unforgettable ride for all the wrong reasons. The jam-packed minibus had a driver who seemed to be living out his dreams of a rally car driver, which made for a nauseating morning. The jaunt through the mountain passes seemed to last forever. The white-knuckle ride finally came to an end back in Maseru. I was in one piece, thanking my lucky stars, and rethinking my future mode of transportation. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Basotho folks who have to deal with this on a regular basis. Perhaps it is the reason everyone rides horses and walks! I was once again in the bustling city, and made the long walk across town to the Anglican Church to spend the night again. Along the way I could see sure signs of the coming election. People driving by shouting slogans of their chosen candidate, people plastering up election posters, SADC (South African Development Community) vehicles rolling through, and a definite increase in military presence with men in uniform casually strolling down the streets with AK-47’s slung over their shoulder. The next day I was on my way out.