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April: Easter Vacation
Lots of things, a great time; I'm going to write a lot. Bear with me.1)
In essence, we had training, followed by about a week of vacation. A group of us2) had decided a while back to do a backpacking from Tsehlanyane (a national park) to Afriski (a ski resort - the only one in Lesotho.). We (optimistically) figured about 3 days, even though most of us had never done a long-distance backpacking trip before (including me, to my shame). We didn’t plan to spend any nights outdoors though, we had a stop with a rest day at Kyle/Chelsea’s, and thought we could power through the rest. Hmmmmmm….
Phase III ‘Training’(Or, ‘super boring reading time’.)
This all began with what they call Phase III training, with Phase I being the 2.5 months of training on arrival from the US, and Phase II being 3 months of living at site. These trainings are all quite nearly useless, with a kernel of information that could have been presented in 5 minutes being painfully dragged out over endless hours. Interestingly, though we’re all going to teach, and most of us have never taught, they spend almost no time teaching us how to teach. Go figure.
We went back to the training village where we first arrived, which for most probably wasn’t a big change in living conditions, but for me meant no showers and no gym. And no electricity, much less internet.3) Naturally, got sick within 24 hours of arriving - hurray local cooking. Whine whine. Anyways, it was tedious but at least I managed to get a whole lot of reading done! Finished four books in 3 days. And they gave us free pizza at the end of it, so it was all worth it.4)
The last day we went to the camptown (TY) for the free pizza, we left directly for Catie’s house, which was on the way to our starting point for the hike.
Our first stop, the same evening after my two pizzas, we spent the night at Catie’s as a decent place to start for Tsehlanyane (a national park5)) the next day. K+C and I slept outside on my tarp (which I’m very glad I brought), while everyone else crammed into Catie’s tiny little hut. We left around 7 the next morning. Oh I nearly forgot the only thing worth mentioning about Catie’s. We left TY in a nicely packed taxi (meaning elbows out windows until they forced us to close the windows and stifle), but for some reason they transferred us to another taxi about halfway there.6) It looked like a normal taxi, with some fancy design on the roof, when suddenly, as dusk deepened, PARTY TAXI! The fancy ceiling lit up like a disco and they played house music at an earsplitting, chest-thumping volume. Normally I abhor anything at all like this, but for some reason it suited the mood, and no one was trying to make me dance, and no one was drunk, and it didn’t last long. So it was pretty great.
As I was saying, we left the next morning with the sunrise to go onto the next town where we hoped we could catch a taxi to Tsehlanyane -TSE from now on.
Not very interesting except to hikers, but I find it fascinating, so here it is. I calculated that I'd need about 5000 calories/day in order to maintain caloric balance, but that absolutely didn't happen. Food is heavy. And for some reason, I don't get that hungry while hiking - probably because I'm distracted.
Food: 18 energy bars that I very fortunately got from my dad in a care package just before we left, and about of peanuts. Plus slightly less than half a gallon of water. Oh, and some weird Chinese 'beef'7) jerky that tasted like powdered teriyaki sauce..
Clothing: a pair of synthetic long underwear (not as warm, but quick-dry and much lighter than wool) - made in Lesotho, coincidentally -, a jacket, shorts, shoes, sandals, a couple of shirts, and a couple of pairs of synthetic underwear8)
Misc: I dropped a lot of stuff at Kyle/Chelsea's to go ultralight for the last Motete-Afriski leg but mostly it was a GPS, some food gear, and other camping knick-knacks.
Day 1 - 7mi, of climb, 6 hours.
We woke up at Catie's at around 6 or so, got on the road at 7, passed through a couple of cities, and - very luckily - found a taxi willing to take us directly to TSE (otherwise we would have had to go to one more city and lost a couple of hours. We made it to TSE at around 11, but it took us about half an hour to get going, due to SOME people buying beer.9). We finally got going (by this time I was fairly dancing with impatience), and 10 minutes later stopped at a nice rock pool for a quick dip. The water was refreshingly icy. So it took us about an hour to actually get started, but I do love that rock pool. There’s a nice place to jump in from, and it’s such a great system shock; you can almost feel the hypothermia right away. It’s amazing.
After the rock pool we finally got in gear and walked at a smart pace for a few hours, not really climbing yet, just following the valley. Towards the end we did gain a few hundred feet, heading for a trip waterfall in the distance. I’d say around 4 we reached those, and went down for a swim (again.). This whole time I’m eating as much as I can stomach just to get rid of the weight. I was very, very tired of peanuts at by nightfall. Sometime before the waterfalls tragedy struck - I lost my nice headphones.10) That has no bearing at all on the story, I just wanted you to know - to feel my pain.
We got back in gear and started walking. The view by now is pretty incredible, looking down and along this golden valley, with the lengthening shadows turning everything orange, and the air brisk and chill. By this time John (who was our most inexperienced and therefore suffering the most) starting flagging and lagging behind. I’m pretty indifferent to the pace of the rear, and like to be in front 11) so I’d often be a quarter mile or so in front of the rest, which meant that every now and then I’d have to sit and wait. We kept walking as the afternoon wore on, following a trail that, after an intense, gasping, sweating, thigh-burning climb where Jeff and I raced (very slowly) to the top, carried us up onto a ridgeline, for once letting us look down into the next valley. Not our destination, but it felt good to be up high and look down on the world. The path then followed a contour line around the eastern side of the ridge.
Kyle was as much of a guide as we had, he and I had spent a couple of minutes looking at maps so we were SUPER prepared. We had been going north-east for most of the day, and we knew we had to get up on the ridge so we could go down south-east to Motete (Kyle & Chelsea’s village, our first planned night.). However, the path continued to go north, so we decided to strike out over the ridge to our west, aiming for a low point. We had talked about making it to Motete no matter what, a zombie march by moonlight if necessary, but I started having doubts. The sun had already disappeared over the ridgeline as we started climbing. There was no path, which makes any hike at least twice as difficult, when you have to fight through brush for every yard, and place every foot carefully for the rocks are loose and treacherous. All of this while climbing straight (or as nearly as your stumbling legs will allow) up a 45 degree slope while wearing a 40 lb bag. It was glorious. I would climb for about ten seconds, and rest for twenty. Of course, the altitude at this point was nearing 10,000 ft, which also played a role. Not only were my legs exhausted, but it seemed like my heart would burst out of my chest with the effort of getting oxygen. The slope seemed eternal, yet I was drawing ahead of the rest. Foot by foot I fought for the top, and finally, after about half an hour of sheer willpower, reached the top, and laughed. Our goal of reaching Motete had been revealed for what it really was - a foolish dream. For before me was a nearly vertical cliff, and on either side were rocky outcroppings that to attempt at night were suicide. I dropped my pack and waited for the rest. As I cooled, I changed into dry, warm clothes, for with the approach of night the temperature was dropping, and there was a strong breeze. About 20 minutes later the rest started to arrive, though it was a full hour before John made it.12)
Nobody took any convincing that we weren’t going any further that night. Fortunately Cassie and I had tarps, and it looked to be a dry night. The brush in the area, aside from brambly bushes on the slopes, consisted largely of tall, wheat-like clumps of grass, that we proceeded to cut and lay down in a flat-ish spot13) we designated as where we would bundle together. All of us except K+C had sleeping bags, and most of us had pads, so we managed to fit everybody sandwiched in between the two tarps, building a rock wall on one side and a bag wall on the other to shield us at least a little from the wind.
We set watches to prevent any problems with the local herd boys who are found everywhere where in the mountains. Though Lesotho is sparsely populated, it’s difficult to find any large truly uninhabited areas. The herd boys take the animals up in November, and stay up in the mountains for the good grazing until winter comes, in April. They stay in rock shelters, poorly thatched with the local grasses. Essentially really badly built versions of rondavels. Not at all watertight. In the more remote regions of the country where we were hiking, they make even the corrals out of stones, lacking the funds to purchase barbed wire. They race up and down the mountains with astonishing ease, dressed in kobos (traditional blankets) with their molamu (herding sticks; or slang for penis. Kyle and I bought some in the last town before we started hiking, proved invaluable in the uphill and downhill stretches.) and gum boots. Not a comfortable existence it would seem to us, pampered by sofas and hot water, but most of them know no other.
We didn’t really expect any problems, but sometimes they get a little crazy, spending so much time away from society. Kyle at any rate was slightly worried, since he had often encountered them in hikes around Motete. I had first watch, because I called for it first. I knew I wouldn’t sleep for a while anyways, and wanted to take advantage. The night was warming as the wind died down - what is called an inversion. The cold air sinks into the valley, while the warm rises up the sides to the ridge. The moon was nearly full, but hidden behind a curtain of clouds and so provided only a ghostly silver light that concealed more than it revealed.
I sat in the dead night and burped. Yes, burped. Loudly and at length. Something I had eaten disagreed with me in a strange way, causing me to bloat and fill with gas. I could poke my stomach and it was like poking an inflated balloon. Very strange. At any rate, I burped the hours away, eventually taking or joining all watches but the last, where I finally deflated enough to catch a couple of hours of sleep.
Day 2 - Bivouac to Motete (Kyle and Chelsea's house)
13.4mi, negligible climb, 11 hours.
We rose long before dawn, though we (or the rest, at least) had been fairly comfortable and warm, packed and headed north on the ridge, easily climbing what would have likely been fatal the night before, though it was still a about a half mile and maybe 500 feet to the top. It was kind of annoying, from the bottom we could see only one ridge, but then we reached and there was another. And then it happened again. And again. And then we were finally really and truly on top. We walked on the ridge for about half an hour when a valley opening up before us.
Now, we knew we had to go south a little ways before we started to descent, so we checked the GPS to see where we were in relation to a checkpoint we had determined. The coordinates checked out, and going down sounded really good, so we clambered down the goat paths into the valley. Kyle was looking for reference points to compare, since he had been in the area before, but couldn’t find any definite ones, though he did see a few that could be what he was looking for. This should have set off alarm bells, but we didn’t really think about it. We didn’t want to think about it.
We reached the bottom of the valley, where we found a cattle post and a herd boy from whom we learned that this was not actually the valley we needed to be in. Joy. We had two options : we could climb back up to the ridge, or we could follow the valleys until we got back on track. It didn’t sound too far, and no one wanted to climb, so we continued on. A mistake; though one I’m glad we made, since it took us through possibly the most remote valley in the entire country.
So we went north along the valley, following the S-bends of the river on cow paths, sometimes disappearing through brush and bog. It took us the better part of 3 hours to finally come around the corner into the valley that would take us south; in large part because people kept wanting to take long breaks. It seemed every hour they would call for a 20 minute break. Extremely frustrating. When you’re sitting, you’re not moving, your destination is not getting any closer. Plus, getting up and starting walking again after the break is much harder than to just keep moving.
Once moved into the second valley, heading south, we started picking up the pace. The paths were better, and we were all eager to get home and rest. We were under the impression that we were fairly close, but the distance perhaps was lengthened by lack of sleep and already being wrung out from the previous day. At any rate, we followed a larger river south along what seemed to us to practically be a highway halfway up the mountainside. With this, we were able to reach the last valley, where we would go east, by sunset. As dark fell, we were finally able to see Motete. Our sore legs breathed a sigh of relief.
We walked through the semi-darkness provided by the clouded moon, and finally reached their house around 8. We had been on the road for around 13 hours, walking at least 11 of those. A long day. And then Kyle and I went to fetch water! A hundred yards of agony.
We made stew with veggies and hot dogs, and it seeped into our bones and warmed our muscles. Sit and food. The best thing after a long day. Sit and food. And then sleep.
Days 3-4 - Rest days
We originally planned to march straight on, but it was obvious this could not happen, most of us were dead tired and could hardly walk to the latrine without moaning.14) The weather was looking rainy, and group tensions had risen during the previous day, since we had assumed it was going to be much shorter hike. Apparently some people don’t handle the unknown very well. There had been temper flares, and whine fest galore. At any rate we decided to stay for at least a day. The weather was perfect for staying inside and eating and playing board games. Which means we got to wash clothes! And eat lots and lots of pancakes. We spent the morning making pancakes and coffee. Jeff and I are the only coffee fanatics in the group, but Kyle and Chelsea had a ton of coffee left from previous volunteers, and a French press, so Jeff and I went to town. I think we made about 5 or six batches, each with about two cups of coffee each. I actually got sick from the caffeine overdose. But back to laundry.
This is the most fun I’ve ever had doing laundry in my entire life, and I think it will be hard to even come close. We piled everyone’s clothes into a couple of buckets and headed down to the river.15) I sat down on a rock, threw waay too much soap in my bucket, and went to town. The water was cold enough that I lost sensation in my fingers and toes almost immediately. Handwashing is an interesting skill, you basically rub the clothes together ferociously for a few dozen seconds, changing grips on the shirt (or whatever it is) every so often. It wears out clothes faster than you’d believe. But boy are they clean - if you do it properly. At home, I usually just try to get the smell out. Here, however, with infinite water, I scrubbed and scrubbed until the clothes were spotless and my hands were raw. Then I changed to rinse duty, where I stood in the middle of the river and held clothes against the current. Again, sooo much easier to wash clothes with infinite water, and they get so much cleaner.
We finished after an hour or so. As we were climbing back up to the house, there was another temper flare-up for unexplained reasons, which resulted (as in the previous night) in one of our party members stomping off not to be seen again for a few hours. Unsettling. This decided things, in our mind. Some people had to go were we to continue. Kyle and I went hard at psychological warfare the rest of the day, trying to convince some that the next stretch of the hike would be much worse, since it was about the distance of the two previous days combined.
We got back to house, and pretty much played Agricola for the rest of the day. If you don’t know Agricola, let me be your guide. It’s the most complicated board game I’ve ever played, and likely one of the most complex in existence. It makes Risk look like Go Fish. In essence, you have a board that is a farm, and you’re trying to build up your farm with animals and fields and houses. It’s turn based, with cards that determine what you can and can’t do. It’s a fine balance between improving the farm, while simultaneously making sure your people don’t starve. There’s a scarcity of resources you need in order to do all the above, and if somebody does (say planting) what you wanted to do, it’s likely that that move is taken, so you have to have backup plans A, B, and C, and they’re constantly changing. Needless to say, I lost horribly and enjoyed myself immensely. Not for everyone, I don’t think.
That was pretty much it for the first day.
On the second rest day (engineered to give people a chance to leave, plus the weather still wasn’t great), as luck would have it, one of our tripmates got sick, and so all those that were mentally and physically done, left.
With almost half of the original group gone, the rest of us did a little walk to the local watering hole, where I once again swam in the chilled water. I think this was the coldest yet, or maybe it was just the full body immersion. There was a place to swim against the current, but I could hardly swim for a few seconds before my limbs just wouldn’t move fast enough, and I had to get out. It was interesting, being rendered nearly immobile just from the cold. I jumped in a few times, Kyle a couple, and we headed back to play Agricola for the rest of the day.
Stew again for dinner. Still delicious.
Day 5 - Motete to Afriski
(‘afri-ski’, not like ‘a frisky dog’ as I pronounce it)
, of climb, 9 hours.
We wanted to get to Afriski with plenty of daylight, and we knew it was a long hike, so we got up at 5 and headed out by 6, with the dawn just barely beginning. The previous day we had looked at the maps and asked around, so we had a pretty good idea of our route, it seemed to be a ‘straight’16) shot up a long north-northeast valley.
We followed the road for a good ways, making excellent time, except for the fording. Occasionally we had to ford the icy rivers, a total of 3 times of the tedious process of removing shoes, painfully feeling our way across, then dancing on rocks in an attempt to keep our feet clean while drying them and putting our shoes back on. Still, we progressed until the road finally started to climb to the diamond mine. We reached the raw cut of earth, with the heavy machinery seeming incredibly out of place in these remote reaches of the country, where they were cutting into the mountainside to prepare the site for a new mine. Shortly after, the road ended (as we had expected), and we switched to paths, though these were fairly heavily traveled and therefore easy. We continued to make excellent time, barely stopping - just for water and food.17) The path climbed very gradually, following the S-bends of the river, until finally around noon, we reached a point we could identify on the map. It showed us being more than 3/4 of the way there, with only a few miles left. Here we climbed fairly steeply (though not nearly as much as the first day) up a mountain side, and caught our first glimpse of Afriski. We finished by climbing up on the highland ridge we’d been on the side of this entire time, an area that looked like what I imagine the Scottish moors to look like: hidden bogs, grassy plains opening up to sudden small, fast streams of dark, cold water. The area was very nearly crowded with herd boys, standing up on the ridges with their kobos streaming out behind them, or huddling in shelters from the stiff breeze. A few hours later we were in steaming hot showers.
Afriski is a strange place, after living as we do. So many white people! I honestly don’t know how to act around white South Africans any more. You don’t want to assume camaraderie just because you’re both white. I dunno, it’s a bit awkward. I was not alone in this feeling. Plus, it’s so luxurious. Just like the ski resorts in the States. Food was pricey (to us), but we indulged anyways. The waiter knew how to make delicious cappuccinos, which was honestly the best part. Oh and I had a hot chocolate so thick it was like they just melted a chocolate bar into a tiny little cup. Delicious. This also happened to be the highest restaurant in Africa. Just so you know.
We stayed a night in the backpackers ‘suite’ - essentially a one story warehouse full of shipping containers with beds crammed in them. 5 stars it seemed to us. The next day we breakfasted (cappuccino again, of course, and salmon eggs), and then Kyle and Chelsea walked back to Motete, and Julie, John, and I went back South and East.
Almost done, I promise
We decided to try hitching, and after an hour or so of waiting, an employee left Afriski - an Italian of all people. An old, slightly bitter man. He called his children wimps, and called Obama a communist (not tooo far off the mark haha) and said he preferred Putin. Then he went on to complain of the Italian government. I really enjoyed talking to him, oddly enough. At least he was honest. He was actually going in the opposite direction we were, but since it was a holiday he very kindly dropped us off in Butha-Buthe camptown, which was about two hours east of Afriski. He showed us his pictures from Africa - he’s worked as a road construction project manager all over Africa. An interesting guy.
Leaving BB we got a hitch with the most educated Basotho we’d ever met, a college professor at University of Lesotho in the Geography department. He also complained of the political state of Lesotho, and gave us a bunch of insight into the psychology of the elite of the country. A funny and intelligent guy. Spoke English better than most Americans I know.
He dropped us off on the outskirts of Maseru. We took a taxi for the first time into town - I wanted to buy coffee and coconut oil, but the store had closed half an hour before. Ugh. It was too late to hitch, so we took the last taxi to Mohale’s Hoek, which stopped in Mafetang and transferred us to another taxi - full of PCVs coming from Durban18). Talk about coincidence. Finally made it home at around 9 and passed out.
And that was my Easter Vacation. One of the best vacations of my life.
P.S. You know what I hate? Cobwebs in my oatmeal.