VII: Graaf-Reinet & Camdeboo National Park

May 31st: Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

Packing up a frozen frost covered tent is never fun.  Winter has seemed to set in a bit earlier here.  I again had a short drive of about 140km (86 miles) to the town of Graaf-Reinet.  The town itself is set inside Camdeboo National Park, and is one of the oldest European settlements in South Africa.  It is filled with tons of old colonial Dutch buildings.  It is a town I would call quaint, despite its population of over 30,000 people; it often seems more like a town of a few thousand.  I got settled in at an equally quaint home turned guesthouse called El Jardin.  An extremely nice old Afrikaaner couple, Terrence and Nita, ran it.  The rest of the day was spent running errands to the post office, grocery store, permit office, and bookshop, where I found a cheap used copy of a Drakensberg hiking book for later adventures.  The book I was looking for, and subsequently purchased was recommended to me by one of the guys in the Eastern Cape Hiking Club I met in Lesotho titled Around Africa on My Bicycle.  Riaan Manser of South Africa wrote it about his amazing adventure circumnavigating the entire continent of Africa on his bicycle by himself.  The book made an excellent companion on the many lonely nights of camping, and I highly recommend reading it.  I also took the time in town to stop by a couple museums as the town has a good bit of history, both recent and ancient.  I first went to Die Ou Biblioteek (The Old Library) museum.  Half of this museum is home to a nice sized fossil collection of dinosaur bones found in the area.  The other half features exhibits on Robert Sobukwe, a native of Graaf-Reinet, and one of the founding members of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).  The second museum I stopped by was Die Ou Residensie (The Old Residency) museum.  This was basically a large collection of old photographs, old cameras, and also a rather huge collection of old guns.  My interests lay in the photographs but I enjoyed the rest as well.  When I came back to the guesthouse Nita told me Terrence had gone to the boys club and would be home at 6:30 and that she would have tea and homemade rusks for me in the morning before I left to go hiking for the day.  Nita was also kind enough to pass along the recipe before the end of my stay, so I thought I would share it with everyone.

Nita’s Delicious Homemade All-bran Buttermilk Rusks

Melt 500g (17.5 oz.) Margarine.

 Add 2 cups of brown sugar; 2 cups buttermilk; 2 eggs beaten;

1kg.(2.2 lbs.) self rising flour; 1 dessertspoon (2tsp.) of baking powder;

 5 cups all-bran.

Mix well.

Place in greased baking pan.

Bake 1 hour at 150°C (302°F).

Cool.

Cut into squares.

Dry out in oven at 60°C (140°F) for 1 hour

Graaf-Reinet

Graaf-Reinet

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

Top: Ancient Elephant Femur, Middle: Modern Elephant Femur, Lower: Modern Horse Femur

June 1st:  Graaf-Reinet, South Africa & Camdeboo National Park

After a quick cup of rooibos tea, a few rusks, and an orange I was off to the trailhead on the south end of town.  The first part of the Eerstefontein Trail, just over 2½ km, takes you between the north ridge of Spandaukop and the south ridge of the Valley of Desolation.  From there I would head in a huge loop of about 9½ km skirting my way along the edge of the Valley of Desolation, and then through the open plains of the Karoo, and back between the two ridges.  I set off from the trailhead about a quarter to eight at a brisk pace to warm myself up in the chilly morning air, taking in all the splendid scenery.  It often felt as if the dinosaurs had left, but all the plants remained.  I had just wound my way between the two ridges and had followed the trail down into the thicker, denser foliage when I first heard the odd noises up ahead.  The sound was a mix between a grunt and a bark, similar to the sound of a choking dog about to vomit.  I was perplexed, a bit tense, and excited.  There are no large predators that could eat me here, but the park is home to a plethora of other animals, one of which I was determined to find out about very soon.

I proceeded slowly unsure of what I might find around the next bend.  To my surprise it was three large Kudu, and to their surprise, a human, which caused them to go crashing through the shrubs next to me.  The distinctive calls soon became commonplace as they were always one step ahead of me for the first half of the trail.  It was a whole new experience getting to encounter the African wildlife on foot, I got a small taste in Dwesa, but here in Camdeboo I felt much more at ease with the lack of big predators, and the wide open spaces.  The animals were much more skittish when approached on foot and my only glimpses tended to be their rear ends while in flight of the unknown intruder, me.  The only creature I managed to sneak up on was a roosting owl that seemed just as startled as I as I unknowingly approached him.  On foot you get a much better sense of scale as well, not only with the kudu, ostrich, zebra, and steenbok, but of the landscape as well.

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Giant Aloe Plants of The Karoo

Spandaukop

Spandaukop

At around the halfway point the signage became less frequent and the trail began to thin.  I kept following it until it was just a whisper of a line in the tall grass. From the right angle it appeared to be a trail, but as I soon found out these were often more deceptive than informative.  The signs were also poorly thought out from the beginning, using green signs on a green pole that was roughly the height of the surrounding green grass.  The hike soon turned into a huge game of I, Spy.  The game began easy enough in the open rocks and grass where I could easily climb atop a large rock and pick out the next sign or cairn telling me where to go.  I would then bushwhack a few hundred feet, and repeat, until I made it to the sign.  The trail ebbed and flowed with a few hundred feet of good trail that either ended abruptly or split into four or five other games trails.  I continued with this way finding for about 2km or so until I hit the bottom of the valley I was in.  The next 2-3km was crossing the flat arid valley floor.  The signs seemed to all but disappear, and there were no more rocks to get a good view.  I was fortunately not lost at all, as I could clearly see the two ridges I needed to get back between; it was just a matter of getting there.  I was able to pick a sign out here and there with the help of my camera lens and binoculars, but in the in-between I went with the good old fashion walkabout.  These misadventures often led me to find interesting animals and places, with the most notable being stumbling upon a past nesting area of an ostrich.  The ground was littered with bits of ostrich eggshell, which were astonishingly hard and thick.  I finally came across a dried up riverbed as I was nearing the ridge I needed to cross.  Remembering my previous crossing of the same dried up riverbed on the way in led me back to the trail I need to be on, so I could get out easily.  I carried on through the heat of the midday sun the remaining 2½km back to the car feeling quite beat as I added plenty of time and distance to the original mapped trail with all my extracurricular activities to find my way.

The previous night Nita had also tipped me off about the basaar happening at the large Dutch reform church at the center of town were a bunch of people bring homemade food to sell to raise money for the church.  I had worked up a mighty appetite and hadn’t had a good home-cooked meal in a few weeks.  Nita had recommended the pancakes.  I left the trail with pancakes on the mind and made the short drive to the church.  It was packed with people but I managed to spot the sign that read pankoek and bee lined it to the stand.  It turned out their pancakes are more or less crepes, regardless I wolfed down three of them and a can of ginger beer, which provided me with the energy I needed to finish off my day.  From there I soldiered on, driving up the road to the top of the Valley of Desolation to stumble my way through another 1½km of much better marked trail to get to the overlook point of both the entire town of Graaf-Reinet and the Valley of Desolations huge dolomite pillars.  I then made my way back to the guesthouse feeling accomplished after hiking somewhere between 17-20km.  I was in desperate need of a soak and found relief in the tub as I washed away the day of hiking from my skin.  As I scrubbed away with soap I could taste the salt in the bathwater from my sweat and I felt more like an olive in brine then a man in a tub.

Giant Grasshopper

Giant Grasshopper

Valley of Desolation

Valley of Desolation

Mountain Zebra National Park/ Camdeboo National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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VI: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

May 29th: Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

I slept in, getting up at half past six.  I had a short couple hour drive about 200km(125 miles) north to Cradock, and just beyond that Mountain Zebra National Park.  The drive was one of the more fun roads I had driven with bending turns and rolling hills that seemed to last forever.  During my drive I worked my way from the lush coastal forests to the arid Karoo.  I made a short stop in Cradock to re-fuel, buy more food, and use the Internet, which unlike most of South Africa was surprisingly quick.  This dusty computer in the corner of a small electronic shop finally gave me the opportunity to get the plane tickets for Sarah and I to fly from Cape Town to Durban after we met up.  I was then off to Mountain Zebra National Park. I set up my dust-covered tent and went for a short hike to get my legs moving again.  In the vast majority of national parks and reserves in South Africa you have to remain in your vehicle when you are in the park, with a few designated areas where you can get out.  It is understandable from a liability perspective for the parks because there are a number of dangerous animals most people wouldn’t want to run into on foot.  It was hard for me to get used to at first since I am used to the freedom to explore in the parks and forests of the USA.  Mountain Zebra National Park was a good mix of the two.  It had cordoned off hiking areas that contained no large predators, and the largest area of the park containing roads for viewing from your car.

After dinner I took a short drive on a couple small loops to watch the sunset, but I found much more to keep me occupied.  Lo and behold about 15 minutes into the drive I found a pair of the elusive Cape Mountain Zebra grazing on the edge of the mountainside.  The Mountain Zebra were hunted into near extinction in the early 20th century with as few as 100 remaining but through conservation efforts after the 1930s the population is now just over 2,000.  The mountain zebra are generally shorter and stockier then Burchell’s Zebra and are built for climbing steep terrain.  They also have a reddish nose and a dewlap, which is a loose fold of skin on their neck, which aren’t found on Burchell’s Zebra.  The rest of the drive the sightings were sparse with a few Kudu and Eland.  The mountains are different then any I have seen before with grassy slopes interspersed with giant rolling bald sections of smooth barren rock.  The sweet thorn that grows everywhere makes the environment seem all that more harsh.

May 30th: Mountain Zebra National Park

One of the most spectacular sunrises yet, I was up at six and was able to get to the top of the plateau that overlooks the park just as the sun poked its head out from behind the mountains.  From the plateau I was able to head out on some short drives to spot animals in the morning light.  I was not disappointed and saw herds of black wildebeest and springbok.  The highlight of the day came around 10 a.m. when I came across a group of about 10-15 buffalo.  The huge, but often shy creatures were packed into a dense thicket and it was hard to get a clear view, but I did spot a few little ones who would occasionally get away from their parents and poke their head out to see what hubbub was all about.  During the heat of the day I relaxed in the shade of my tent to enjoy the mountain views and the smaller creatures of the Karoo.  My favorite being the small mice that would constantly be popping up on rocks checking if the coast was clear.  They also had the amazing ability to navigate up and into sweet thorn trees to munch on the seedpods.  With unbelievable speed they would weave their way through the tangle of massive thorns on the branches.  The tree also provided them cover from hungry birds with the large thorns preventing a safe landing spot.  To cap off the remaining hours of daylight I took a short hike to watch the baboons from afar chase each other around on the giant rocks.  I returned to my campsite for another redundant meal, one which I had the last four meals, of bread, cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, sun-dried fruit and buttermilk rusks.

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V: Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

Addo Elephant National Park from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

May 28th: Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

I could hardly sleep with the anticipation of a child on Christmas Eve.  I was up just past 6 a.m., had a quick breakfast and was off.  I ended up arriving at the gates about 10 minutes early as I watched the groggy employees start their Monday morning.  I am sure the last thing they wanted to deal with was a wide-eyed American guy raring to go at 7 a.m.  There were hardly any other cars, which gave me the opportunity to better dictate my pace.  There was a heavy fog that had settled in the low-lying areas, which kept my visibility to a minimum.  This added to the experience, keeping me on the edge of my seat as I took each bend in the road hoping to see something pop out of the bushes.  I was treated to the first sighting of the morning with a small group of Kudu grazing off in the shrubs, and I was hooked!  The Kudu is one impressive ungulate, standing probably 5-6 ft. tall to the shoulder with distinct white stripes.  The males are all the more impressive with their large twisted antlers adding another 2-3 ft. atop their head.  As the morning continued, so too did the animals: Caracal, Ostrich, Zebra, Duiker, Buffalo, Warthog, and more.  By about 10 a.m. I had covered only about a quarter of the small parks roads, and I needed a breather so I could take in all that I had seen already.  It had been quite the introduction.

I was far from done for the day though.  I still hadn’t seen any elephants, the namesake of the park.  Fortunately I did not have to wait long, about an hour later I came upon a watering hole where they all seemed to be at.  There were about 15-20 elephants all congregating around a small dirty pool of water.  It was very surreal at first approaching the elephants in my car.  They are so massive they often look out of place in the landscape; everything around them is dwarfed in comparison.  As I inched my way closer the secure feeling of being in a car disappeared as the adult elephants were easily twice the size of my vehicle.  The herd was made up of elephants of all sizes, with the smallest ones often getting lost in the tangle of legs they weaved through.  I sat parked for a while enjoying the chaotic watering hole scene.  Elephants jostled for position and warthogs with their little ones scurried around looking for any opening they could duck into before having to dodge a swinging trunk shooing them away.  After everyone had their fill the group split in two, with half heading south into the thicker vegetation, and the other half crossing the very path in front of me, feet from my car.  I at first sat clenching the steering wheel, foot on the clutch, ready to make a speedy exit lest one of the elephants decided my car would make a perfect toy.  A couple passed so close I would look out the front window and only see legs and a hanging belly.  I was soon at ease, as they seemed to fall into perfect formation. They proceeded in front of me, heading north, into a thicket for a feast of foliage.  I was left quite stunned, unsure of what I should do, wondering if perhaps the whole scene in front of me had really just occurred.  I double checked with my camera to verify, and then decided to plunge into new territory I had yet to explore.

The rest of the drive I passed more of the animals I had seen in the morning along with black-backed jackal, mongoose, red hartebeest, and a countless number of birds.  Each time I passed an animal I was captivated by their presence, and with some of the looks I got in return it is quite possible the feeling was mutual.  The ostrich is one animal that could make the hardest man smile.  Its presence and everything is does seems unnatural and awkward but it’s a joy to watch.  I spent 9 hours in the park and left satisfied, exhausted, and my battery drained on my camera.  I retired to my room for a shower, and a dinner of bread, cheese, green olives, apples, oranges, and granola while preparing for my journey north to Craddock, home of Mountain Zebra National Park.

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IV: Dwesa Nature Preserve, South Africa

Dwesa Nature Preserve from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

May 23rd: Maseru, Lesotho to Bloemfontein, South Africa

Again my early start was thwarted by the inefficiency of minibus taxis.  I was up by 7 a.m. and made the 5km trek to the border, and walked back across to South Africa.  I was across the border by 8:30 a.m.  The fate of the rest of the day was in the hands of the minibus game.  I knew it would be a long wait as I peered into the 21- seater with only 2 spots occupied.  For the next 4 hours I patiently waited in the minibus taxi as each seat slowly filled.  The only upside to the ride was the driver was much more competent behind the wheel then my previous drivers.  It had become a reoccurring theme that relatively short distances, which could be covered quickly under normal circumstances, turned into daylong adventures, a 1½ hour drive into a 6 hour excursion.

I finally arrived in Bloemfontein around 2pm and splurged a bit on a room because I couldn’t find anything in my price range. Bloemfontein itself was a nice city, nothing special to see, but it seemed to lack the underlying racial tension found in some other areas of South Africa.  I couldn’t complain too much though as I took advantage of the nicer accommodation.  It allowed me to re-charge in a variety of ways.  I had a bed for the first time in 4 nights, and felt the warmth of a hot shower for the first time since I left Cape Town.  The downtime I had gave me an opportunity to reevaluate the rest of my trip.  I decided on giving up the useless public transportation and renting a car.  Having a car would allow me to get to national parks, and other out of the way areas of the country which I really wanted to see, and which would be next to impossible to see using public transportation.  A car also provided me with a way to get to slightly cheaper, more out of the way places to sleep, and I would now be able to carry more food and self-cater more often then on foot.

May 24th: Learning to drive…again/ Bloemfontein to East London

When I went to pick up my rental car in the morning I received unexpected but excellent news.  They were out of the basic models of cars, so I was receiving a free upgrade.  I soon was sitting comfortably in my brand new looking white Volkswagen Polo Vivo.  The night before I had plotted my exit route out of the city, so I could make as few turns as possible to get out of town.  I got it down to two turns.  After squaring away all the paperwork I threw myself into the fires of left-sided driving.  To my surprise it came quite easily and I was soon comfortable.  The most difficult things to get used to were: shifting gears with my left hand, backing up looking over my left shoulder, reaching for the seatbelt over my left shoulder, and coming around blind turns in the road, while fighting off that feeling of impending doom that bubbles up from your belly.  After making my two turns I was cruising on the N2, which would take me from Bloemfontein down to South Africa’s only river port, the coastal city of East London.  As soon as I was cruising down the interstate it was as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and it wasn’t because my backpack was in the boot, but because it was my eyes peering over the bonnet.  Having a car meant freedom, and endless possibilities.  I was no longer at the mercy of the fickle minibus taxis.  I could stop anywhere, if I was hungry, or if I had to go to the bathroom.  I wasn’t clutching my backpack in front of me anymore in case I needed to deploy it as an emergency airbag.  A 6-hour drive had never been more enjoyable.

The landscape opened up soon after Bloemfontein into vast plains predominantly dotted with cattle and sheep.  The metric system also gave me a nice mental boost along the way.  I kept imagining the kilometers being miles and it made me feel as though I was traveling further and faster than ever before in the USA.  Upon my arrival in East London I contacted my friend I had recently made in Lesotho, Dr. Andres Dupressis, who had insisted I spend the night at his place when I passed through.  He lived in a cozy coastal villa perched up on the bluffs overlooking the Nahoon River flowing into the ocean.  I was quite spoiled for the night, and was extremely grateful for his generosity.  It was a good rest that I needed before another stretch of camping.

May 25th: Dwesa Nature Preserve

After a short bit of way finding to get myself out of East London I hopped onto the N2 headed north.  It was a relatively short drive to Dutywa and from there things got a bit hairy.  The main thoroughfares were well signed, and I made the mistake of thinking the smaller roads would be consistent.  From Dutywa I headed southeast to Willowvale, the last decent sized town on the way.  The tarmac ended in Willowvale.  The only directions I had, was that I should continue on the lone gravel road past Willowvale, and look for signs.  It was a much different situation when I arrived.  When I got to the end of town there was a split of two gravel roads, with no signs.  I consulted the maps I had which only showed one road, and decided on the road to my right, since it seemed in better shape, and seemed to be headed more in the direction I wanted.  It was slow going over the unpaved road in my rental car.  After about 10km the road split again, and again with no signs.  I now was just going by my gut and picked the more travelled looking road.  This continued as the road split about every 10km.  After about 30km of slow mazy driving I started to get the sinking feeling I had gone wrong somewhere.

This area of the Wild Coast is home the Xhosa people, and also a stone throw from the birthplace of Nelson Mandela.  It was a designated homelands area, or Bantustan, during apartheid.  It is similar to the establishment of Indian reservations in the USA, an area specifically designated for a single ethnicity.  The people here are predominantly black and much less English is spoken compared to the large cities.  I knew I would be in for a treat getting directions as my Xhosa vocabulary was greatly lacking.  I flagged down the next oncoming truck I saw and played the usual game of charades that occurs between two people who can’t fully understand each other.  It slowly became apparent I was indeed heading the wrong way.  I was on the road to Qohora’s Mouth, not Dwesa.  I had, according to the man in the truck, made the wrong decision at the first split in the road at the end of Willowvale.  I slunk back into town trying to not gain any attention, but it was all in vain as I lapped the main drag of Willowvale searching for any sort of sign to point me to Dwesa.  I finally stopped by the police station to see if they could point me in the right direction.  I was reluctant at first to go after hearing mixed stories about the police in South Africa.  There were 3 officers standing outside the station who could not have been friendlier.  They deliberated awhile about which route was the best to take before telling me about a tiny little turn off by the gas station that I had missed.

My constant driving through Willowvale had not gone unnoticed, and by the time I stopped to talk to the police I had amassed quite a following of curious people.  Everyone was interested to where I could possibly be headed, and many were hoping to hitch a ride if I was headed their direction.  Willowvale is the only grocery store for all the villages, so a good deal of people walk or hitch rides up to 60km if they need to get into town.  Once my final destination had been found out a great deal of chatter erupted among the following cohort of mine, until I had four people standing at my side.  Before I had finished getting directions from the police officers the group had already delegated who would be riding along with me if I chose to give anyone a lift.  Now under most circumstances I would never pick up people hitching, especially alone in a foreign country, but I made this one exception.  The four people who had been chosen consisted of two very elderly gentlemen each with 4 bags of groceries, and two middle-aged women each with arm loads of belongings.  I was reassured by the police officer saying that they would be able to give me directions since they all lived along the route to Dwesa.  I went from a lone traveller with an empty car to a packed full South African bush taxi in the blink of an eye.  I was also now equipped with a phenomenal four person Xhosa GPS to guide me through the maze of gravel roads to the coast.  The drive progressed, as did my Xhosa, which caused riotous laughter from the backseat as I struggled with the clicking sounds of their language.  It was about a 60-70km drive to get to Dwesa, all of which was unpaved, so it made for slow going, and one by one my passengers left me.  Each one giving directions for the next few turns ahead before offering money for the lift.  I refused the money, and thanked them for the help in guiding me on my way.

I finally had found myself rolling up to the gates of the Dwesa Nature Preserve late in the afternoon after what turned out to be a very action-packed day.  Dwesa is really the epitome of the wild coast and is one of the few places where the camping is open, and part of the reserve.  It is a relatively small chunk of land dedicated mainly to the preservation of coastal marine life, but it is home to a plethora of other species as well.  I made a quick dinner of apples, bread and cheese before I set up my tent near a troop of vervet monkeys.  I figured if anything big and scary came during the night the monkeys would make a commotion and alert me to it.

Young Vervet Monkey

Young Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey

Vervet Monkey

Male Bushbuck

Male Bushbuck

Vervet Monkey Snacking

Vervet Monkey Snacking

Dwesa Coastline

Dwesa Coastline

Kormorant

Kormorant

May 26th: Dwesa Nature Preserve, South Africa

I opened my eyes to a starry night sky and high hopes at about 5:30 a.m.  As I waited for the sun to rise I packed up all the gear that I needed for the day.  I set off at first light in hopes of catching some of the wildlife on the beach at dawn before they went back into the labyrinth of forest that covered the hillsides.  The only thing I found was a fantastic bright pink sunrise, which made the early morning start worth it either way.  I followed the coastline to the Kolobo river mouth and turned inland along the banks of the river until it became too narrow for my comfort.  There are crocodiles, Cape buffalo, rhinos, and leopards here that I did not want to encounter in any tight spaces on foot.  I had made a pretty conservative plan for my hiking for this same reason.  I was a stranger in a new land and unfamiliar with the terrain.   I predominantly stuck to the coast, and only went inland to follow the route curving along the bluff that overlooks the ocean.  I did end up finding a few bushbucks, and a medley of birds and insects to keep me enthralled throughout the day.  I did not run into a single other person the entire day and I had the coast all to myself as far as the eye could see.  I made the most of it until a strong Antarctic wind blew in after lunch.  After dinner the local vervet monkeys treated me to a fine show for the second night in a row with a special encore presentation by a bushbuck and her little one alongside grazing at dusk outside my tent.  If I was more well versed in hiking through the bush I could have easily spent another few days exploring the preserve.

May 27th: Dwesa à Addo, South Africa

There was an awful argument between vervet monkeys as I awoke before my alarm to the bickering, chatting, and frolicking in the tree above my tent.  I was unable to get back to sleep, so I threw on my headlamp and started packing up camp as the sun was rising.  I then creaked and crawled my way back through the maze of rough roads testing the limits of my little rental car, which was now caked in dust.  The car and I exalted a collective sigh of relief when we finally hit the tarmac back in Willowvale.  From there the short journey north to Dutywa were I took the N2 west back towards East London and beyond to Addo Elephant National Park.

Dwesa Nature Preserve

Dwesa Nature Preserve

Dwesa

Dwesa

Hornbills In Flight

Sacred Ibis In Flight

Kite Spider

Kite Spider

Mass of Insects

Mass of Insects

Unknown Butterfly

Unknown Butterfly

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III: Lesotho: Part II

Hiking to Maletsunyane Falls in Semonkong, Lesotho from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Early morning ice on the Maletsunyane River

Early morning ice on the Maletsunyane River

Maletsunyane River

Maletsunyane River

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.

Interesting pinecones

Interesting pinecones

Basotho Sheep

Basotho Sheep

Basotho house in Semonkong

Basotho house in Semonkong

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.

Useful Sesotho:

Dumela/lumela- Hello

O pela jwang- How are you living? (how are you?)

Pela hantle- I am living fine (I’m fine)

Tsamaya hantle- Goodbye

Khotso- Peace

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.

Maletsunyane Falls

Maletsunyane Falls

Maletsunyane Falls & Gorge

Maletsunyane Falls & Gorge

May 21st:

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.

May 22nd:

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.

Donkey in Polateng

Donkey in Polateng

Out for the daily grazing in Polateng

Out for the daily grazing in Polateng

African Red-Eyed Bulbul

African Red-Eyed Bulbul

Mokhotlong, or more commonly known Bald Ibis

Mokhotlong, or more commonly known Bald Ibis

Endemic Spiral Aloe

The Endemic Spiral Aloe of Lesotho

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II: Lesotho: Part I

Map of Lesotho

Map of Lesotho

Lesotho: Horse Racing from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

May 18th:  Maseru, Lesotho

I once again was early to rise, enjoying the frigid mountain morning while the sun rose.  Around 7 a.m. I headed into town grabbing some delicious local flatbread for only three maloti, about $0.45, while I sat and waited for the Internet café and grocery store to open their doors.  I was taking it easy for the day, stocking up on food, and giving myself a mental break from dealing with minibus taxis.  After breakfast a guy approached me who was about my age.  Assuming he was the usual hawker trying to get me to buy something I casually exchanged pleasantries waiting for the business pitch to come.  The business pitch never came.  His name was Tumelo Moshoeshoe, a 21 year old that just wanted to practice his English.  I had done a pretty good deal of reading and research prior to my trip, and the Moshoeshoe name rung a bell.  I couldn’t resist the urge to ask him if he was related to the distant King Moshoeshoe I, the founder of modern day Lesotho.  To my surprise, he was!  His grandmother was the 16th wife of King Moshoeshoe II, but with the amount of wives the previous kings had, and the size of Lesotho, there is probably a decent chance of meeting someone related to the king distantly.  Tumelo accompanied me on the rest of my walk since we were both going to the same place.  I was headed to the market to find out were the minibuses leave for Semonkong, and he was on his way to drop off his father’s luggage for his trip home to visit their family in Leribe, a short ride north of Maseru.  He insisted I meet his father, and with no plans for the day I decided to tag along.  After meeting his father he proceeded to show me the minibus taxi stand were I needed to go the next day.  I then bought a big plate of chips to share with Tumelo that were covered in every possible condiment drizzled on top: salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, chutney, hot sauce, vinegar, and a couple others I didn’t know.  It was unexpectedly one of the most delicious things I had eaten so far on my trip.

On the walk back I found out Tumelo was working as a baker selling cakes and bread on the street, and only had the day off to help his father.  Tumelo was well versed in the history and politics of Lesotho, and was patient enough to provide me with an opportunity to practice speaking and learning Sesotho, the national language of Lesotho.  The language learning would come in handy outside the big city as many fewer people spoke English in the rural lands.  Before we parted ways, Tumelo insisted I take his fathers phone number incase anything came up on my travels through Lesotho, and gave me one of the most important tidbits of information I needed.  He told me Lesotho was having their elections for prime minister on May 26th.  Elections in Lesotho, like many African countries unfortunately, have been a source of conflict.  The 1998 election were the most turbulent, with widespread riots and violence in Maseru.  It caused the election to be postponed 4 years until 2002.  After that things had gone well until the 2007 elections, which led to strikes and protests, but nothing as bad as 1998.  Fortunately the chaos was very localized and only took place in the capitol, Maseru.  Not wanting to find out first hand how the 2012 elections would turn out, I decided to cut my trip through the country a little bit short.

The next day, May 19th, I rose before the sun about a quarter to six to ensure I got the earliest possible start to my journey.  I was headed from Maseru, southeast, to Semonkong in the interior of the country.  I had read that the 114km (70 miles) journey could take anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, so I wanted to make the most of my daylight hours lest anything go wrong.  My day had an auspicious start with good fortune finding me just as I left.  The sun was just peaking its head over the horizon, and I had only walked a couple blocks of the 2km (1.2 miles) to get to the minibus stand when I was picked up by a police officer.  He was leaving the station as I walked by, and wanted to know where I was headed.  Under many other circumstances the last thing I would want would to be stopped by the police, but the friendly officer gave me a lift as I was headed his direction.  My good fortune continued after the officer dropped me at the minibus stand.  The minibus taxi headed to Semonkong had one seat left open, which meant, one, I had a ride, and two, the minibus was now full and would depart right away.

The Basotho beats were bumping in the 16-person minibus, and I was feeling good, and optimistic about my journey ahead.  These feelings seldom last and it wasn’t too long before I came crashing back to reality.  About 35km (22 miles) into the drive the gearbox decided to quit on one of the steep grades going up into the mountains and we came to an abrupt grinding halt.  No one looked too surprised as we all got out of the minibus to hang out on the side of the road while a replacement was sent from Maseru to take us the rest of the way.  On the plus side we hadn’t made it too far from Maseru, so it wouldn’t take too long for a new minibus to arrive.  The hour or so wait on the side of the road did allow me to meet the other passengers I was crammed into the minibus with.  One of those people was Malaka Alex.  He was currently studying agriculture at the university, and was headed to Semonkong to visit his grandparents.  The company made the time pass quickly, and before I knew it I was back on the road to Semonkong.  The road itself is only paved from Maseru to Roma, and semi-paved from Roma to Ramabanta.  The rest of the 70km (43 miles) is basically a 4×4 road, and we were not in a 4×4.  There were however, odd stretches on the 4×4 road that were paved for a few hundred feet, and then back to 4×4 road.  This made me wonder how they possibly ended up there.  These odd stretches of pavement also allowed the driver to accelerate as much as possible before slamming on the brakes right before the pavement ended.  As if those short bits of acceleration would cut hours off the trip.

The scenery along the drive was phenomenal.  As we wound our way over some of the higher mountain passes you could see Thaba Putsoa, one of the higher mountains in Lesotho at 3096m (10157ft) above sea level.  The whole country is located on a huge plateau, and it has the highest low point of any country on earth, with its lowest point at 1400m (4593ft).  The mountains are ancient, and are also home to minwane (dinosaur footprints) preserved in the sandstone, but I unfortunately didn’t get to see any.  There are many spectacular gorges and huge sandstone cliffs that have been slowly eroded by the wind and rain to create very smooth and curvilinear faces.  The hillsides are dotted with small villages clustered with rondavels, the traditional style Basotho house, which is a round single room with a thatched roof.

The second minibus taxi, despite its creaks, and moans rolled into Semonkong around 11:30 a.m.  Semonkong could easily be described as a one horse except for the fact that there are more horses than people living there.  My friend from the ride, Malaka, kindly showed me the way to the lodge, the only place to stay in the village, and we parted ways.  The lodge is perfectly situated in a small gorge between two cliff faces on the Maletsunyane River.  Not long after I arrived I set up my tent for 80m ($10) a night.  The owners of the lodge were extremely nice, and they stopped by after I was done setting up my tent to let me know that I had picked an excellent day to arrive, as there was going to be some traditional horse races that day.  My luck had returned and I was quick to take them up on their offer to take me with them.

Basotho boy waiting for the races

Basotho boy waiting for the races.

Old man at the races

Old man at the races

The races were held on a flat plateau not far from the lodge, and it seemed as though the entire town had shown up for the event.  There were no set races, and each race would start with one of the horse’s owners parading the horse and jockey around shouting out where the horse was from and all of its exploits.  He was putting the challenge out to other people to race his horse.  This meant the races could consist of practically anywhere between 2 and 6 horses.  The jockeys were kids probably about 10-16 years old with some of them seemingly quite well known.  Betting was rampant but I decided it best to hold on to my money.  The betting works the same way as the race.  There were no bookies, it was up to you to find a person willing to bet against you and then find a third uninterested party to hold the money during the race.  I figured if I bet I had a pretty good chance of losing my money either way.  The racetrack was probably about 5½ furlongs and was arced around a cornfield on a well-trodden path.  The starting line across the cornfield was marked by a few standing cows.  The finish line ended in a crowd of people with two older men sitting on rocks acting as the “photo finish”.  The races were wild and rowdy with little or no rules, and more then one or two exciting finishes.  If the race was determined to end in a dead heat by the two older men, then it was simply rerun and the horse with more stamina was the victor.  All this put an eventful end to my first day in Semonkong as I prepared for my first night of African camping.

Cheering for the horses

Cheering for the horses

Coming down the final stretch

Coming down the final stretch

Sporting the muck boots, blanket and balaclava everyone seems to wear

Sporting the muck boots, blanket and balaclava everyone seems to wear

The winner making his victory lap through the crowd

The winner making his victory lap through the crowd

Parading around challenging other horses to race

Parading around challenging other horses to race

Little kid at the races

Little kid at the races

Traditional Basotho hat

Traditional Basotho hat

Bonus: Walk through Maseru, Lesotho from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

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I: To Cape Town and Beyond

Cape Town and beyond from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Oude Molen Community Garden

 

Sarah and I arrived tired and exhausted from our 20 hours of travel from Chicago to Amsterdam then from Amsterdam to Cape Town.  Passing over the Alps we were treated to clear skies and great views of the French Alps.  We continued into clouds over the Mediterranean Sea, the Sahara, the Sahel, and the tropical jungles of the Congo before descending into darkness for the rest of the flight to Cape Town.  After getting off the plane we parted ways, each of us off to our respective destinations. Sarah went off to her geology field camp, and I was taken swiftly to a mental hospital, to be clear, an abandoned mental hospital on the outskirts of Cape Town, which had been repurposed as an eco village.  Oude Molen Eco Village contains living quarters, a farm stall, restaurant, guesthouse, and a working farm.  I awoke the first morning to the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster in a new and different world and was presented quite the welcome as I stepped out the door.  The clouds had just broken, the rain stopped and the sun emerged to create a spectacular rainbow stretching from the top of Table Mountain down to the heart of Cape Town.  My first morning got off to a slow and gradual start.  The night before I had been picked up from the airport by Helen, one of the two owners of Oude Molen, and discussing my previous farming work back in the states at Growing Power in Milwaukee.  She told me about her partner, John, and his ambitious plans to add a large aquaponics system to his permaculture garden.  Helen had told John about my arrival, and he was eagerly awaiting me with tea in the morning and a number of questions about installing and running aquaponics systems.  A good deal of my first morning was spent with John, which was nice as I could help him with what I knew and pick his brain a bit about Cape Town and South Africa before I set out on my own.  In the afternoon I made my first foray into the city of Cape Town, catching the train for 6 rand (about 75 cents) into the city.  It was a bit of an information overload, like the first time in any unfamiliar city, and I spent the afternoon running errands, and finding a cheap cellphone to keep in touch with Sarah so we could meet up easily in 4 weeks time.  Not normally being a big city person I am usually keen to get out as soon as I can after flying in, but Cape Town is definitely one exception.  It is as if you took the mesas of western Colorado and put them in San Fransisco, and then added it’s own unique landscape.  It is a city for everyone, and probably one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to.

View of Table Mountain from the east

View from Table Mountain

The next day in Cape Town I made the most of being a tourist and got an early start to ride the cable car that takes you from the base to the summit of Table Mountain.  From the top you get an excellent view of the city and the surrounding bays, and is a good point to start hiking.  Table Mountain is over 3500 feet above sea level, which by mountain size seems pretty small, but it shoots straight out of the sea making the sheer rock faces look all that more daunting.  The cape peninsula also provides the perfect microclimate for the fynbos, which is the name of the biome found in the area.  The fynbos is home to its own unique floral kingdom and has over 9,000 different species of which over 6,000 are endemic, existing only on this little sliver of land in South Africa and nowhere else in the world.  Needless to say I spent the whole day exploring the unique landscapes on and around Table Mountain.  Scattered around on top of Table Mountain are little dassies, also known as rock hyrax.  They are about the size of a guinea pig, and are very interesting creatures with their closest living relative being the elephant.  They have very rubbery pads on their feet with sweat glands to help them stick to rocks while climbing almost vertical pitches.  They also seem to be one of the lazy animals I have ever seen, and on a nice sunny day you can find tons of them sprawled out on rocks just soaking up the sun.

Looking down on Cape Town from Table Mountain

Lionshead from Table Mountain

Proteas on top of Table Mountain

Lazy dassie sunbathing on top of Table Mountain

The next day, May 17th, I awoke early, stopped to say my goodbyes & well wishes to Helen & John, and then took the quick train ride again from Pinelands Station to Cape Town.  My original plan, based on the routes shown on the map above the ticket window, was to ride the rails northeast from Cape Town to the city of Bloemfontien, and from there venture into the small mountainous country of Lesotho.  To my surprise, although I caught on very quickly afterwards, all the routes on the map had been cut except one, Cape Town to Johannesburg.  After some deliberation I decided to purchase a ticket to roughly the halfway point, which would take me to the city of Kimberly.  Kimberly is a diamond-mining town and was home to Cecil Rhodes, and the De Beers Company.  It is about 80km north of Bloemfontein, and was my best bet for a jumping off point.  I bought the ticket and then waited for about 45 minutes as it was “processed” by the lady behind the counter while I waited on the benches.  I finally got the ticket and lugged all my gear down to sleeper car 11H and found myself across from a short, stocky Afrikaans man. He repeated the same routine of drinking a beer, snacking, and napping for the first 8-10 hours, which was then followed by a lumbering sleep with a snore that put the train whistle to shame.  I on the other hand spent the first 8 hours pretty much glued to the window watching the landscape slowly change from the capes fynbos, to the vineyards of Paarl & Stellenbosch.  The train stops as we passed through the wine lands were filled with hawkers selling fresh grapes to the passing train cars. I was easily won over by the one vendor’s shouts of “get the sweetness! 5 rand! Taste the sweetness”. I got 2kg of grapes and was not disappointed as the sales pitch lived up to its name as I mowed down the fresh grapes.  The vegetation slowly thinned out into jagged peaks covered in thick shrubs, and eventually into the sparsely covered karoo with its rocks, shrubs, and prehistoric looking succulents.   It was a dream come true, at least the daylight hours, as the train acted as a never-ending safari, with the only downside being I couldn’t stop when I wanted to take a picture.  Passing through the wine lands I was fortunate enough to spot a caracal not far from the track lurking in the brush. When the land gave way to the karoo it was open season as I spotted a number of springboks, ostriches, and elands.  As night fell I began to prepare myself for my arrival in Kimberly.  It was a 17 hour train ride with a projected arrival time of 3:30am, a tricky time indeed as nothing is open and I couldn’t very well go meandering around town in the dark alone with all my belongings.  I went to sleep around 8pm and was up about a quarter to three.  As 3:30 came and went, and the train hadn’t made a stop I began to feel a bit uneasy.  I set out to find a train employee to find out where we were.  I finally found someone who told me the train was running late, although they had no idea how late.  Afraid to go back to sleep and miss my stop I stayed up until we finally arrived in Kimberly 3 hours late at 6:30am.  Being late was actually beneficial though, as it now made my 3:30 am arrival dilemma null and void since the sun was now beginning to rise. However, it did cost me a bit of time I could’ve spent sleeping had I known the actual arrival time.

Upon leaving the train station I found no taxis, and no buses. Figuring I was perhaps too early I decided to set out on foot to find a place to stay.  I headed about 3km northeast to where a reasonably priced place was supposed to be, only to find out it was another 5-10km outside the city.  With only my feet to carry me I found it too impractical to be so far out of town because it would’ve been about a 20km round trip walk if I needed anything while I stayed there.  I backtracked the 3km I had already walked and continued south down the main drag another 2km, all this while carrying my 40-50 lbs. of gear on my back.  The weight I was carrying and the fact I had only eaten grapes for the last few meals, albeit vast amounts of grapes, on the previous days train ride was taking its toll.  I ended up heading into the tourist information center another half kilometer south for a break, and to see if I could get a better map and find some more information.  While I was in my last ditch effort to find an affordable place to stay, two backpackers stumbled in looking as worn down as myself.  They were Lance & Kristi, a couple from Illinois who were on their last leg of a 4-month trip through southern Africa.  They had run into the same problem I had a couple days ago, and had settled on an overpriced under construction guesthouse on the south side of town ironically named “Stay a Day guesthouse”.  They only intended to stay a day but had become virtually trapped in Kimberly and were on their third day of attempting to leave.  It became increasingly apparent that public transport had suffered some major cuts since 2010 when South Africa hosted the world cup.  Guide books, ticket offices, websites, everything lists all these trains, buses, taxi routes, etc. but when you enquire about them, or worse, when you assume they are functioning, when in fact they don’t exist anymore.  The only public transport left are mini bus taxis, which are unreliable, inefficient, and can be dangerous.  This is why the couple from Illinois was on their third day of attempting to leave Kimberly.  They were headed the same route I intended to go on the next day departing from Kimberly to Bloemfontein, and on into Lesotho.  The catch with mini bus taxis is that it must be full, completely full, every seat must be filled and are often times beyond the recommended capacity to depart, otherwise you just may not go that day.  This is what happened to them the previous two days.  Fearing this was a distinct possibility for me since I was planning the same route out I made a executive decision to join Lance & Kristi.  Whether I was the weight that tipped the scale in their favor or if it was just their lucky day, the mini bus taxi filled up for the hour and a half jaunt to Bloemfontein.  I learned two important things on my first mini bus taxi ride.  The first being that there is no place to stow baggage (although some do occasionally have little trailers) so everything you have must fit on your lap.  The second is that, seemingly, all the South Africans like to ride in the jam-packed mini bus taxis with the windows up with no airflow. As I soon found out when I was politely asked to “please close the window, the air is getting in my nose”.  Confused and now uncertain about where air was supposed to go and the function of the nose on my face I held tight for the short drive to Bloemfontein.  After the first success and with no real reason to stick around in Bloemfontein, and luck on our side, we found a mini bus taxi headed to the border of South Africa and Lesotho with 3 seats left.  We all squeezed in and headed to the border town and capitol of Lesotho, Maseru.  After the border formalities and a taxi ride around Maseru we were finding accommodation to be quite tricky again.  The one affordable place we found happened to be booked with all the 40 beds taken up by a church group.  The owners were kind enough to recommend us to another place, which ended up being nicer, cheaper, and closer to the city center.  It also happened to be an Anglican church with whom the owners were part of. We arrived and told the people at the church who had sent us and they fixed us up with rooms in the priest training center next to the church.  Maseru contains about 400,000 people in its massive sprawl, which is almost 50% of Lesotho’s population.  Lesotho is one of the poorer countries in Africa, and has an extremely high percentage of its population with HIV/AIDS, somewhere around 25%, and with the life expectancy of around 40-50 years, the majority of the population is quite young.  In stark contrast to other poor nations though, it has a literacy rate of about 85% and from my brief walk through the city that afternoon people were extremely friendly and welcoming.

Sunset over the karoo from the train

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Gianaclis Caldwell

Cheese, Cheesemaking, and Small Dairy

Around the world with Weston & Dana

One big adventure around the world!

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