Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Up to the Roof

Southern Drakensberg

It hurts to say goodbye to the beach, but if it means installing yourself at the foot of the most badass mountain range in the world for a few days, well, wounds heal fast. I speak of the Drakensburg, a crescent of mountains which spoon the northeastern edge of Lesotho. While unassuming on a map, the pure age of these mountains reduces us twenty-three year-olds to mere specks in space and time. In a day's walk one can find dinosaur footprints in the hills, Bushman rock art in the caves, rainbow trout in the rivers (introduced by homesick Scottish settlers, natch) and the firepits of marijuana smugglers hiking their loot overnight into South Africa – basically all of prehistory up until, let's say, fifteen minutes ago. Before passing into Lesotho proper, we stayed at a backpackers' called Sani Lodge just outside and, because we can smell a bargain when we see one, settled into a three-night package deal which included all meals and a couple guided tours.

And we're barely at the top!
The main draw of this corner of the Drak is Sani Pass, a frighteningly ill-maintained set of hairpin switchbacks that weave up the mountains to the Lesotho border at the summit. The route is 4WD-only, by law. We were lucky enough to have the tour to ourselves – just us, a beige 1970's Land Rover, and our guide Matthew. We gathered that he'd recently broken up with his girlfriend, and the day was nuanced with a subtext of loneliness and regret.

The drive to the base of the pass is scenic beyond comprehension, rippled velvet-green slopes topped with stacked plateaus of basalt and sandstone. Being proponents of self-guided travelling we came to understand the value of a tour guide – the amount of knowledge our man Matthew could emit in a single day was astounding. An evolutionary quirk, for example, dictates that the Drakensburg's foliage must burn up once every five years to stay healthy, as certain seeds won't germinate without fire.

The switchbacks of Sani Pass. There was a dead horse at the side of the road.

At the top of Sani Pass, vehicle and bowels intact, we crossed the border. Once again, the shift in scenery was abrupt: the lush grasses gave way to barren rock, and stark shrubby mountains extended into the distance at unlimited visibility. We were in Lesotho (le-su-tu), the most elevated country in the world, the so-called 'Roof of Africa.' The country is completely surrounded by South Africa, but maintains a distinct and unique culture. On a stop for lunch we were met by three Basotho shepherds (the Basotho being the people of Lesotho, their language being Sesotho). The Basotho are a herding culture, and boys as young as fourteen are sent into the mountains to graze sheep and mohair goats, working alone or in pairs and living in makeshift stone huts, hours from the nearest town. Their get-up is the instantly recognizable combination of balaclava, heavy wool blanket draped over the shoulders, and galoshes, all in drab grey or brown. We saw them throughout the country, out on the hills or mounted on ponies next to the highway, and they have a timeless air about them, both grubby and dignified. One of the fellows we met played a homemade musical instrument made from string, a stick and a tin can. From their looks, one imagines them confounded by simple kitchen appliances.

All that said, I am still not accustomed to poking cameras into the faces of strangers, so I'll have to (bashfully) rely on this poached photo from a photography blog, where you'll find another informative post about the area surrounding Sani Pass.

Thanks, young shepherd! Thanks, John Queenan!

On the same tour we also had the privilege of visiting a village and popping into a local home for some homemade bread (cooked in cast-iron over a sheep-dung fire, very tasty) and traditionally-brewed sorghum beer (think very watered-down bread dough and you're getting close). Because of the short shelf-lives of such items in a landscape without refrigeration, any household with a surplus of perishables will sell them off, signaling the sale with a coloured flag outside the hut: red for meat, green for vegetables, white for beer, and yellow also for beer.

The following day we set out on a hiking tour through the Drakensburg foothills, and were once again alone with our guide. We explored the scenery and learned about the Bushmen, the true indigenous people of the area who hunted and gathered for millennia until as late as 150 years ago, when they were rendered basically extinct by white settlers and emigrating tribes from the north. While the Bushmen, or San people, lived all the way out to Namibia, The Drakensberg shelters the largest and most well-preserved collection of their paintings, and is a World Heritage Site because of it. There occurs much speculation over the paintings' intent, but the reigning theory is that they're depictions of witch-doctors' trance-fed hallucinations. In keeping with early rock art elsewhere, they look to be hunt fantasies – fat, healthy animals, in this case eland, pursued by armies of muscular men. Being somewhat of a big-game enthusiast myself, I got hot under the collar just looking at them, and had to go dip my head in a creek.

On the hike we spotted three species of antelope, they all looked basically the same but our guide was excited.


The taxi rank at the foot of Sani Pass is a decomissioned trade station from when the shepherds would bring their wool down on horseback in exchange for goods. This occurred until the 80's, now the wool is transported directly to Durban, the nearest city.

For most people one trip up Sani Pass is enough, but we did it doubly – first in a Land Rover, spacious, and with snack breaks; and two days later, crammed into a rickety van with our backpacks and fourteen other people. While Sani Pass is a scenic and thrilling tourist attraction (I've so far neglected to mention the “The Highest Pub in Africa” waiting for foreigners at the summit), it is also a functioning border post and the most viable way in and out of Lesotho for many of its residents, who travel to nearby Durban for supplies. The minibus taxis running up and down the pass are outfitted with four-wheel-drive, but they do lack the turning radius of the SUVs, and we had to pull three-point turns around some of the switchbacks, reversing tooth-clenchingly close to the precipice. Through customs at the top, we were met with women selling homemade balls of bread and maize porridge. The summit of Sani Pass is barely a kilometer away from the highest point on the continent south of Kilimanjaro, and it was foggy and vaguely Mongolian.

We came to spend over a week in the country, for the first time relying solely on the local minibusses to get around. We slept everywhere from a local Farmer's Training Center to an prim thatched-roof guest cottage, to a puzzling B&B in a building that would have passed for abandoned had we not known otherwise. We did feel Lesotho lacks the tourism infrastructure of its lone neighbour, especially for those without their own transport. But who can blame them, as the country gets few visitors – many travelers opt to visit Swaziland, South Africa's other doughnut-hole country, instead. Accommodation was ill-marked and restaurants were scarce, and there was often just not that much to do for a couple of budget sightseers as us.

Sunrise over Mokhotlong

Morija Guest House

Though whatever Lesotho lacks in conventional sights, it makes up for ten-fold in its friendliness and its people. While we met many wonderful folk in South Africa, the country can't rival Lesotho in the almost unanimous warmth and openness of its citizens. From a bumbling tourist's perspective, the sight of a determined group of young men marching with conviction in your direction (in a large, dirty, overwhelming African capital city, no less) is supposed to be a signal to flee. But in Maseru, after we'd unveiled our guidebook to get our bearings, the men tromped up and proclaimed, “why are you looking at that book when you could so easily be asking us?” Each member of the group introduced himself with a handshake, and we received a set of clear and eloquent directions, and they offered their phone numbers if we happened to lose our way again. Each time we wore a lost look, someone would abandon their post to help us on our way, and all we had to do at the minibus ranks was show our pale Canadian faces and we'd be asked our destination and guided to the correct vehicle.

A Mokhotlong taxi rank, under one of Lesotho's spontaneous and short-lived storm-clouds.

The bad news is that I decided to abandon my camera on one such minibus, and, with Alanna's out of commission from water damage, we are short on photographic evidence of this pretty little country and the dinosaur footprints, crazy spiral plants, and god-awful breakfasts contained therein. It is depressing how much the lack of a little piece of electronics can hamper one's experience of a place, but at least we were without in Lesotho, a country that, while admittedly not all photogenic all of the time, left its indelible mark in other ways.

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