Posts Tagged With: vacation

XV: Swaziland

Swaziland from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

June 22nd 2012

We were up early for one last foray down to the short boardwalk trail at sunrise to try and catch a glimpse of the hippos for one last time.  We were once again fortunate enough to find a group of about 10 in the water seemingly just waking as well.  We enjoyed not only their company but also the company of some Vervet Monkeys, and a whole gang or marauding Banded Mongoose.  We left after breakfast from St. Lucia and headed west to Mtubatuba to meet up with the N2 which we would take north to Piet Retief.  After Piet Retief our maps were a bit muddled when it came to the roads leading to Swaziland.  We had a rough direction in mind for getting to the crossing point we wanted, but little else.  Instead of finding the crossing we wanted, we ended up on a gravel road and finding our way to one of the much less frequented crossing point of Bothashoop/Gege.  It consisted of two small derelict buildings with a lady on a small seat manning the boom gates.  The three South African officials seemed surprised to see us, and proceeded to ask a lot of questions more out of boredom and curiosity then a purpose of national security.  We were the only people there and it didn’t seem like they were expecting more any time soon so things went pretty smoothly and quickly.

After the formalities at the South African post they lifted the boom and we drove a few hundred feet of no mans land to stop at the boom gate for the entrance to Swaziland.  The Swazi officials seemed equally befuddled by our presence, but were nice and eager to help us on our way across the border.  They even gave us directions, which as vague as they seemed when we listened to them they turned out to be very helpful.  He said “Go straight for about 5km and turn left at the big Gum Tree and then go straight again until it looks like you should turn right, and then stay on that road until you hit Mbabane.”  As I followed his directions it became pretty apparent as to just how difficult it is to get lost in a country the size of Swaziland.  If you drive 30 minutes to 1 hours in almost any direction your almost bound to come to a border crossing.  We continued on passing through the capital city Mbabane to Malolotja Nature Reserve about 35-40km northwest of Mbabane.  We camped in the park and fell asleep to the sounds of the prowling nocturnal animals.

Good Morning Swaziland

Good Morning Swaziland

Malolotja Nature Reserve

Malolotja Nature Reserve

June 23rd 2012

We were up early and prepared to hike.  The information I had about the park had been slightly misleading, its not that there weren’t over 200km of fantastic hiking trails, because there was, it was just the fact that only 2-3 trails were accessible in a 2 wheel drive vehicle.  It seems like this would have been an important piece of information.  It didn’t take away from the great landscape though as I am sure I could’ve spent a week backpacking through the park had I known what was in store.  We decided to cut our stay to only 1 full day in the park because of the lack of access and Sarah had been feeling well under the weather and wasn’t too keen on hiking all day.  She decided to tough it out and make the short few km hike to Malolotja Falls.  We drove there with the heat on and left with the A/C on.  The mornings were chilly, but once the clouds cleared the sun hit with full force.  It was quite brutal with the shady spots few and far between.  The trail did provide us with some great views of the mountains as well as a few Elands, Grey Rheboks, and a massive amount of Blesbok.  With one step in front of the other we trudged back to the car.

The two wheel drive roads they did have in the park could easily be classified as 4×4 roads anywhere else and I had to do a good bit of dodging and weaving to save the rental car.  On the drive back to our campsite we came across a bunch of soapstone.  Sarah was quick to spot it, which is one of the benefits of having a geologist with me.  Soapstone is easily carved and when wet it is like slicing butter, so we decided to try our hand at it, and make our own souvenirs.  For dinner we got a nice fire going and with some dried up shrubs and what little sticks we could find and roasted up some impromptu grilled cheese over the coals.

Malolotja Nature Reserve Boulders

Malolotja Nature Reserve Boulders

Young Blesbok

Young Blesbok

June 24th 2012

Sundays seem especially slow in Swaziland.  Most things are pretty deserted on Sundays in South Africa as the vast majorities are in church, but Swaziland seemed even emptier.  We made just a short drive, as you can only make a short drive if you want to remain in Swaziland, to Pigg’s Peak just north of Malolotja Nature Reserve.  We intended on going to Phophoyane falls and nature reserve just north of town but were greeted with an empty office and a locked gate.  The majority of the rest of the town was shut down, but we managed to find a nice guest house just out of town for a very reasonable price.  Malolotja was the last of our camping for the trip and the end of 8 days in a row in a tent.  The nice soft bed felt glorious and having a little yard allowed us the space we needed to air things out, clean them and re-pack for our remaining weeks in South Africa.  Upon further exploration around our little yard I found a couple avocado trees, and passion fruit vines, and with Sarah’s homemade avocado picker, consisting of two trekking poles, and some rope we were able to do some free grocery shopping.

Nonconformist Blesbok

Nonconformist Blesbok

Blesboks

Blesboks

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XIII: Hluhluwe-iMfolozi

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Bushbaby Bonus Video at Insinkwe Bush Lodge from Jordan Bierma on Vimeo.

Brown Hooded Kingfisher

Brown Hooded Kingfisher

Impala (Photo by Sarah)

Impala (Photo by Sarah)

Giraffe Legs (Photo By Sarah)

Giraffe Legs (Photo By Sarah)

June 18th:

We headed off early to make the 6 hour drive from around Bergville, and headed southeast along R74 to connect with the N2, which would take us north along the coast to Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve.  The drive took us down out of the highlands of the Drakensbergs to the more tropical coastline passing sugarcane farms, banana trees, and countless Zulu villages.  The warm air was a nice change and the humidity was very tolerable since it was their wintertime.  We stayed at the Insinkwe Bush Lodge & Backpackers that had an excellent location and facilities.  They also had some resident Bushbabies that crept around the grounds in the darkness.  On occasion they leave a few bits of banana out for them.  Only enough for them to “have a quick snack” so it doesn’t disturb their natural feeding habits.  It provided me a glimpse of an extraordinary animal I probably would never have gotten to see on my own.  The Bushbaby relies  on its stealth, and excellent hearing to avoid predators and the shutter of a camera was enough to make it flinch.

Zebra in the brush (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra in the brush (Photo by Sarah)

Sneezing Giraffe

Sneezing Giraffe

Buffalo Crossing the Black Mfolozi River (Photo by Sarah)

Buffalo Crossing the Black Mfolozi River (Photo by Sarah)

June 19th:

We got up bright and early at 5:15 A.M. and left in the dark along the sandy pothole filled road in order to make it to the gate of Hluhluwe-iMfolozi when it opened at 6:00 A.M.  We crept in the gate as the first light came over the hills, eager to find a Rhinoceros.  The park is a well known rhino sanctuary and might be our best bet to spot either a White or Black Rhino.  The biggest difference between the two is the shape of the mouth.  White Rhinos have a broader flatter lip for grazing on grasses while Black Rhinos have a much more pointed lip for eating foliage.  The first 2 hours of the morning we followed the banks of the Hluhluwe River in the eastern portion of the park with little to show for our effort except a few interesting birds and a couple shy little Red Duikers.  Just as things were beginning to look bleak we decided to check out one of the viewpoints overlooking the river.  Two turns in the short road Sarah spotted it from the car, while I, in disbelief, was slow to react.  I put it in reverse and pulled ever slowly backwards to see in a small clearing a absolutely massive male White Rhinoceros with a 2-3’ long horn to match just laying down.  Knowing how unpredictable Rhinos can be at times we were both a bit nervous.  We were about 300ft away or so, a distance that he could easily cover in seconds.  Rhinos can run up to about 45 mph over short distances despite their lumbering appearance.  We sat and stared in disbelief until the initial shock and nervousness dissipated and we could sit and enjoy his presence.  The rhino was clearly not threatened by our appearance as he remained on the ground, leisurely enjoying his morning while each exhaling breath out of his huge nostrils kicked up clouds of dust from the dirt he was in.  He finally rose, and ambled farther into the bush like a miniature tank until he disappeared from view.  It was only about 9:30 A.M. and our day had been made already.

Impala Profile (Photo by Sarah)

Impala Profile (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra foraging the burn (Photo by Sarah)

Zebra foraging the burn (Photo by Sarah)

Brown Hooded Kingfisher with worm

Brown Hooded Kingfisher with worm

We left full of anticipation for what else was to come and more then satisfied for what we had just witnessed.  As we continued along more and more animals seemed to come out of the woodwork: Nyala, Impala, Warthogs, and Buffalo.  Little did we know we were just getting our feet wet.  Being winter, and the dry season parts of the park were being burned to mitigate large wildfires spreading through the tall grass, so large patches of land were freshly black and charred.  It was coming up a hill through one of these patches that I spotted a head just above the crest of the hill even with the treetops.  A lone male Giraffe was just casually standing in the burnt landscape taking in the hot African sun.  Standing head to shoulders above the landscape, he wasn’t going to hide anytime soon.  This was one animal for which having a zoom lens was more detrimental then helpful, for if he were any closer I would have struggled to fit him in the frame.  Two Red-Billed Oxpeckers casually hopped up and down his long neck picking off insects as they went.  Sometimes even venturing to the top of the Giraffes head until they were shaken off.  The giraffe stood at least 15-20’ tall.  Our luck just never seemed to run out as we continued on, past another Giraffe, and own into a small valley that was a veritable feast of wildlife.  Impala, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Baboons, Zebra, and a large male Elephant all grazing in roughly the same area.  Needless to say we found a good spot and put the car in park and took it in.  During this time a passing car shared a hot tip on some lions they saw about an hour ago.  Before we could follow on the trail of the lion another White Rhino emerged out of the bush making the Baboons scatter, and the Impala shuffle over.  We couldn’t leave now, and got sucked into watching this rare sight.

Giraffe Tongue

Giraffe Tongue

Giraffe above the trees

Giraffe above the trees

Zebra roadblock

Zebra roadblock

The day was slowly beginning to close and we decided to use the last remaining time we had to get to where the passing car had spotted lions in hope that the napping cats hadn’t awoken and left.  We got to the viewpoint as the sun was just beginning to set and an absolutely massive herd of buffalo about 60 strong crossing the Black Mfolozi River.  It was not until the buffalo passed that I saw the two Lions, curled up on a little sandy island in the middle of the river not 300ft from where the herd had just crossed.  One young male lion and a female lion were lying partially hidden in the reeds.  One could not wish for a more perfect end to a day, the sun setting on a pair of lions sleeping on a sand bar island in the middle of the Black Mfolozi River.  I could have stayed all night but we had to leave the park by 6:00 P.M.  before the gates closed.  The drive back to the gate was far from ordinary though.  As I was coming around a bend in the gravel road I soon found myself face to face with another huge male White Rhino in the middle of the road.  Luckily he was just as startled as me and made a hasty retreat into the bush.  It did not end there.  We continued toward the gate and spotted another group of 3 more White Rhinos curled up together in another small clearing.   I wish I could’ve stayed, but was now under a bit of a time crunch with all the extracurricular activity.  It would have been a great note to end on but there always has to be one more.  We saw the last, and 7th rhino of our day in some tall grass no more than 200ft from our car near the banks of the river to finally cap off our thrilling day at Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.

White Rhino sleeping in brush

White Rhino sleeping in brush

Lions on the Black Mfolozi River

Lions on the Black Mfolozi River

White Rhino in the dusk

White Rhino in the dusk

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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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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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