Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sehlabathebe, Lesotho . . . “Dumela”

The Drakensberg National Park lies on the border of Lesotho, so we decided to make our entry into Lesotho part of the hike and walk in. We spent our last night in ‘the Berg’ camping in a cave watching baboons on the ridge below.

Most of the next day was spent walking to Sehlabathebe, a village in Lesotho. More concerned about the aesthetics of the hiking route than administrative hassles we decided against the route that went via the border post. Instead we hiked from the Drakensburg National Park through the Sehlabathebe National Park in Lesotho, ducking through a barbed wire border fence (guarded by a few random cows) and failing to get our passports stamped on the way.

The people of Lesotho (pronounced “Lee-soo-too”) are called Basotho (plural) or a Masotho (singular) and they speak Sesotho. Sesotho is a fairly tricky as it contains several clicks and other sounds in the place of certain letters. All this confuses most English speakers (including us) to such a degree one suspects it is payback for the numerous idiosyncrasies of the English language. There has to be some punishment for the silent ‘k’.

We met the first of these ingenious people in a bit of a state. We had not showered for longer than I care to admit and we had been walking for most of the day. The distance we had planned to walk that morning was about 6 km, according to the map. What we had not accounted for was the fact that the roads in Lesotho were obviously designed by a sadist whose aim was to make hikers suffer by picking the longest possible route between two points. Six kilometres ‘as the crow flies’ was almost three times that in fact.

Ranting aside, we arrived in Shelabathebe desperately searching for somewhere to stay. The village gave real meaning to the word ‘isolated’ and on arrival it looked like we would be camping at the back of someone’s hut . . . but all was not lost. We found a clean guest house (or perhaps the owner found us) that had hot and cold taps and electric lights. Joy.

This initial joy was somewhat diminished after we checked in and found that despite the taps there was no running water and despite the electric lights switches, lampshades and even globes – there was no electricity. We were not too disheartened. We had a bath with a bucket of water (Phil’s first bucket bath) and found later that there was a generator that was switched on from 7pm to 9pm at night. So we were clean, we had some light and clean sheets. Luxury after several days of camping.

Almost out of food we stocked up at the village store run by two Chinese men (there is probably a good story behind their choice of Sehlabathebe to set up shop but I didn’t manage to get it despite the probing of several locals). The store was stocked full of shelves of soya mince which we found strange. Given the preponderance of cows and the slaughter of a sheep we witnessed earlier in the day, we had the feeling we were unlikely to stumble upon any vegetarians. We were curious, but not curious enough to try it.

We arrived at Sehlabethebe on Saturday afternoon and found (amazingly) that there was a bus that would take us out of the village so we could continue our exploration of Lesotho . . . but (not so amazingly) it did not leave until Monday morning. We spent the next day or so reading and lazing around. Just as we were getting bored we discovered the local pub, a place named ‘Green House Restaurant’ - but with no food. We spent much of Sunday afternoon and evening at the pub where Phil was beaten at pool several times by two 8 year olds and I attempted to tactfully (and with as little lying as possible) fend off queries about my sex life from two local women- a 21 year old who was the Chief’s daughter and a 32 year old teacher.

From both: “Is that your husband?” “Why is he not wearing his ring?” “In our culture we do not have sex before we are married. No sex.” “We are not married. So, no sex.” “Do you have sex with him?” (We all look at Phil)

Me: (Nervous laughter)

The Chief’s daughter:“I would like to try it. But I can’t because of the culture.”

The teacher: “I want to have children but I am scared of sex. I don’t want to have sex.”

Me: (Seeing the opportunity to make a comment confidently) “Well, it will be very difficult to have children then.”

The Chief’s daughter: “I would like to try the sex. But the culture . . . also, I have heard it is painful at first. Do you find it enjoyable?”

Teacher: “Yes, please tell us sister, is it enjoyable?”

Me: (More nervous laughter. Several beseeching looks at Phil to leave his pool game and help me. Ignored by Phil. More nervous laughter.)

And so on . . . until the pub’s generator failed. Saved.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Drakensberg, South Africa . . . No greetings here. You see more baboons than people

Drakensberg National Park is described as “South Africa’s premier mountain wilderness”. The plan was to spend a few days there hiking and camping. There were some tense moments during packing. Phil became particularly distressed when forced to purchase cask wine due to weight considerations. Oh the horror . . . the horror. He regained composure by repeating the mantra: “Cask wine is better than no wine. Cask wine is better than no wine”.

As a group (Phillippa, Francois, Felix and two of their friends, Bridget and Dave) we were probably carrying the combined weight of a couple of sumo wrestlers. At least that is my excuse for the fact that it took us a day to complete a hike that, according to the guide book, could be completed in half a day.

Despite the weighty packs hiking and camping around Cathedral Peak was definitely enjoyable. We managed to cover the full range of hiking experiences in a few days: we crossed rapidly flowing rivers, showered in waterfalls, fell into a river at night losing shoes and some clothes (Francois), saw a snake (Felix and me), spilt some blood falling on to a rock (Phillippa), hiked in the sun and the rain (it is wet season), experienced vertigo and the feeling of certain-death-by-cliff-face-fall (me, Phillippa and Phil) and acquired the self-satisfied feeling of someone who as just climbed up something.

After Cathedral Peak the others went home and Phil and I did more of the same, further south in the Bushman’s Nek area of the Drakensbergs.

The trip to Bushman’s Nek was an experience in itself. We stopped on the way there at Underberg, where we spent the evening talking cricket and doing tequila shots with the locals. We then took a four-wheel drive trip up to Sani Pass. It was a typical ‘tourists’ day out’ with our guide talking us through the local sites as if we were barely out of kindergarten: “There are some goats.” “Over there you will see a man with two donkeys”. “This road we are on has many bends”.

I shouldn’t complain, as I have been proven to be an idiot in several conversations so far. They tend to go something like this:

Local: “You speak English in Australia? You speak English?”
Me: “Yes.”
Local: “What other language?”
Me: “Just English.”
Local: “Not Zulu, not Sesotho, not Xhosa, not French?”
Me: “Nope. Just English.”
Local: “But you speak Afrikaans.”
Me: “No. No Afrikaans. Just English.”
Local: “Oh. [Sad faced]. That is very bad.”
Me: [Also sad-faced] “Yes. It is very bad”.

Anyway, after being treated like an idiot by the guide and proven so by a local, we visited a village, had lunch at ‘the Highest Pub in Africa’ and returned to Underberg. From Underberg we hitched to Bushmans Nek. It took four rides and about as many hours but we managed to get there. Our first lift was from an elderly lady in a Merc and our last was in the back of a tray truck sitting on (thankfully sealed) bags of manure.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Mbabane and Mlilwane, Swaziland . . . “Sawu bona”

After a few days in Maputo, we started making our way to Swaziland. The trip can be described by the following three words: three separate combis.

It was late in the evening when we arrived in Mbabane and we didn’t see much of it as we left for a small wildlife sanctuary in Mlilwane the next morning. At Mlilwane we managed to squeeze in horse riding, mountain biking and swimming all while watching the wildlife: zebras, wildebeest, impala, a couple of wart hogs and an array of birds (much to the delight of Phil who I think is becoming a ‘bird nerd’). There are no ‘dangerous’ animals in the reserve (although I was think a wildebeest was giving me the evil eye) so you can walk, ride etc very close to the animals.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Maputo, Mozambique . . . “Bom Dia”

Maputo, being the capital of an old Portuguese colony is described as having a ‘Latin-party atmosphere’. Anticipating some major festivities we set off to celebrate New Year’s Eve there. Too disorganized to get a ticket for the 7 hour bus ride we embarked on a 12 hour overnight train ride from Jo’burg to the border of Mozambique. Arriving at the border at 6am on 31 December we haggled our way on to a ‘combi’ bus for a few more hours journey in to Maputo.

Oh the joys of the combi. For those not familiar with this method of transport, I should explain that the ‘combi’ (known throughout Africa by different names) is a minivan with seats for 15 people that typically carries up to 20 or more people (and sometimes the odd goat or chicken) anywhere from around the corner to a neighbouring country. Combis to various destinations can usually be located in at least one place in any city. They have no set schedule and leave when they are ‘full’. Combi drivers are particularly talented and, on occasion, have managed to drive: while collecting the fare from and providing change to passengers; while shelling and eating peanuts; while talking on the mobile phone; without a driver’s license; without a steering wheel (don’t ask); without half the floor of the van; surrounded by mist and rain; without windscreen wipers; and (most shockingly) without a fear of death. Despite the obvious brilliance of these men (and they are always men) we have decided to avoid combi travel whenever possible.

After the combi trip, actually arriving in Maputo was cause enough for celebration. Our mission was to find somewhere to celebrate that and the New Year. We spent the rest of the day scoping out our evening. We thought a good place might be Costa do Sol, a restaurant renowned for its seafood and for staying open through Mozambique’s 20 year civil war (now over). I had planned on a 45 min walk to get there but, somehow, it took us 3 hours. [Note to self: Damn those maps can be misleading]. We arrived in the late afternoon to find that Costa do Sol was closed for New Year’s Eve, apparently more concerned with the wild parties on the beach than the previous civil war.

New Year’s Eve in Maputo was quite a night, as we expected. Unfortunately we didn’t actually experience it. After our long walk and a seafood dinner elsewhere we were so exhausted that we barely stayed awake to hear the fireworks. Our only assessment of the New Year’s Eve that the rest of Maputo enjoyed was from the debris left in the streets the next day.

Still, we loved Maputo and would visit again. Next time making a more determined effort to stay awake.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Maputo and Swaziland Photos

Mlilwane Game Park, Swaziland
Mlilwane Game Park, Swaziland
Mountain Biking in Mliwane Game Park, Swazliand
Can't seem to be able to delete the duplicate....
Mlilwane, Swaziland
Mlilwane, Swaziland
Mlilwane, Swaziland
Mlilwane, Swaziland
Mlilwane, Swaziland
Downtown Maputo, Mozambique, New Year's Day

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Johannesburg and Groot Marico, South Africa . . . “Sawu bona”

The “24 hour” train journey from Cape Town to Jo’burg took 31 hours. Thankfully, Francois (my sister Phillippa’s husband) and Felix (their son, now 6 years old) were there to pick us up from the Parktown station in central Jo’burg. A notoriously sketchy location, it did not live up to its reputation – I have been more afraid at Waterloo station in London. Despite the absence of muggers etc we were needed the lift. We couldn’t have gone far on our own with the 12 bottles of wine we were carrying, picked up while tasting wine in the Cape. So much for traveling light.

After catching up with Phillippa, Francois and Felix and joining in their Christmas Eve party we packed the remaining bottles and headed for Groot Marico on Christmas Day.

Unlike the seedy (in a cool way), urban and industrial (mining town feel) of Jo’burg Groot Marico was a very quiet place. The primary occupation of its few visitors being hiking near or swimming in the Marico River and reading stories by the local literary hero, Herman Charles Bosman. A favourite swim was in ‘The Oog’ or ‘The Eye’ of the river – a very deep (there were scuba divers) clear water spring partially littered with lilies.

At Marico we spent some time with Phillippa’s friend Erika, now living in Botswana, who was also in Marico with others from Botswana, one of whom had the inspired foresight to bring two Ipods and some speakers. Strangers quickly became friends over shared wine, shots of mampoer (local ‘fire water’ that tastes like it will kill you if drunk in excess) and drunken singing and dancing (some of it performed in the jacuzzi on the wooden patio).

After a few days in Groot Marico we returned to Jo’burg via ‘The Cradle of Humankind’ where an Australian born anthropologist discovered fossilized skeletal remains of ‘hominids’ which lived in South Africa up to 3.3 million years ago. The hominids were recreated in the foyer of the Cradle and they looked much like I felt after a few days of mampoer.