A Long Walk Through Lesotho

It’s taken me far too long to post this one, but the telling of this story was important to me and I didn’t want to muck up the details.  I’ve enjoyed every stage of brainstorming, jotting, and editing on this one as it allowed me to reflect on and relive the journey again and again.  So here it is!  The tale of three hikers, five days, 50 miles (or so), 11,000 feet (or so), two lightning storms, one hail squall, and the adventure that became the perfect metaphor for the Peace Corps volunteer experience.

Pre-Journey: Christmas Day or “Learning to accept, and roll with, last-minute changes”

My phone blipped with the received text message as my friends loaded the table with the steaming dishes we’d spent all afternoon preparing together.  Thousands of miles from home, different groups of volunteers gathered in each district of Lesotho to celebrate our friendships and take some of the sting out of the inevitable homesickness during the holidays.  It was also a time of preparation, and meeting up with travel companions, as most of us would take advantage of the slowness of the season and leave for vacation destinations on the 26th.  A large group of volunteers were headed to the beaches of Cape Town and an epic New Years party on notorious Long Street.  Looking to experience a little more of the country I was still getting to know, and wanting to save some vacation days for my sister’s upcoming arrival (what up, Laur!) I decided to join a group of four volunteers, and one Masotho guide, who were making the legendary trek from Sehlaba-Thebe National Park in southern Lesotho, through the Drankensberg mountain range (or Maluti Mountains), and down the infamous Sani Pass into South Africa.  After seeing the photos in my district’s resource center of past volunteers on gorgeous mountain tops, walking through fields of wild flowers, carrying large packs, and smiling next to the “Sani Pass” destination sign, the hike was somewhat of a right-of-passage in my mind.  I was geared up and ready for views of a lifetime, but the blinking red light on my BlackBerry was about to throw a wrench in my plans.

Amidst the merriment and glow from my comrades, I let out a sigh (and maybe a minor profanity…) and caught eyes with Philip, one of the four other volunteers who was up for the Sani Pass extravaganza.  One of our other future hiking buddies had fallen ill, unable to leave in the next few days, and the other two volunteers, who we were supposed to meet up with the following day, had followed suit.  They suggested that we postpone the hike… indefinitely.  It took Philip and I all of two minutes, looking at our packed bags, assessing the equipment we’d borrowed and all of the food we’d bought and had already packaged, to decide that if there was any way to still do it with just the two of us, we’d “what the hey” go for it.  While it was a happy night, and a Christmas I’ll never forget, in the back of my mind I was distracted with the hope that my vacation plans weren’t ruined.

In agreement that, either way, we should postpone the trip by one day to assess our options and make a new plan, Philip and I travelled to the camptown of Qacha’s Nek to meet the Qacha’s Nek native, Ntate Nkhooa, who had previously agreed to be our guide through the Malutis.  We wanted to first see if he was still up for the adventure with only two lehooa (that means “white folks” in Lesotho) instead of five.  Ntate Nkhooa had an infectious smile, and was the first relief in our debacle.  A counterpart to another volunteer in Qacha’s Nek, he worked as a martial arts specialist and was the owner and manager of Lesotho’s only Snake Park.  Hmm… the man who was offering to lead us through the hike of a lifetime was a trusted companion of our friends, trained in defense AND the management of deadly creatures one might encounter in the wilderness?  We were sold!  His enthusiasm for the adventure was just an added bonus, and we happily re-wrapped our minds around the upcoming trek.  It was time to head to the real starting point, Sehlaba-Thebe National Park.

Day 1:  Public Transport to Sehlaba-Thebe or “Laugh off minor inconveniences, and allow them to make you that much more appreciative of life’s little luxuries”

While we expected the start of our journey to be in Sehlaba-Thebe, the road to get there will always be considered the beginning (and maybe the foreshadowing) of what was to come.  In previous blogs I’ve described a typical bus ride through Lesotho.  I’ve also given a description of the dirt road that stretches from Qacha’s Nek camptown to Sehlaba-Thebe; the same dusty path that leads past my village and serves as my running trail.  Combine these two ingredients and you get one heck of a way to spend five hours.  I’ve often giggled at the site of the Sehlaba-Thebe bus, crawling and coughing it’s way up the steep and narrow road from town to the national park.  It resembles an all-too-giant caterpillar as it awkwardly creeps past village after village, stopping at pre-determined, but unmarked, “bus stops” to drop off and pick up passengers along the way.  Becoming a passenger on this bus, especially during the holiday travel season, provoked an all-together different kind of laughter; the kind that results from tried patience and the recognition of the sheer ridiculousness of a situation.

The vehicle was packed, and not comfortably so, with people upon people upon people.  Every seat, standing space, and leaning crevice was occupied.  It was a struggle to stay upright, let alone not to encroach on the personal space of anyone around us.  In fact, there was no personal space.  Noses in armpits, awkward brushes of hips against groins, and the inescapable odor of those who could not hold their bladders for the duration of the trip were just a few highlights of the experience.  But enough of those details… we were eventually lucky to get seats and enjoy the sun setting over the mountains, which were noticeably larger in size and grandeur as we got closer to our destination.

We arrived after dark, and were greeted by Bruce and Lin, a married Peace Corps couple living in the remote Sehlaba-Thebe area (they had to ride that bus every time they wanted to go grocery shopping!), and the intensity of our relief at being off of that bus was matched only by the height of their hospitality.  With head lamps, they led us confidently through the darkness to their cozy rondavel.  A full course Indian meal, complete with hot tea and brownies for dessert, was accompanied with our hosts’ unforgettable warmth, friendship, and conversation.  We pitched tents in their front yard and admired the panorama of stars before we rested up for the beginning of our hike the next day.  After a warm shower (hallelujah!) and a breakfast equally delicious as the dinner we’d experienced the night before, we were fresh, happy, and on our way.

Day 2:  The Hike in to Sehlaba-Thebe National Park or “Hey you! Get over yourself!  Burdens are lighter when they are shared, so stop acting like a rockstar and ask for help when you need it.”

As if they hadn’t already shown us enough kindness, Bruce and Lin arranged a ride for us from their home to the gate of the national park, and we set out towards the lodge, in the center of the park, where we’d arranged to camp for that night.  The first hour was easy.  I felt free and adventurous, taking in the already spectacular beauty of our surroundings, and was still feeling strong from a good night’s rest and the shower (a PC volunteer will never again under-appreciate a hot shower…).  But, when our guide insisted he knew a shorter way to the lodge, we ventured off the beaten path of dirt road used for vehicle access.  Walking over steeper inclines and uneven ground, I began to feel the full weight of my pack.  The real hike hadn’t even begun!  This was the “easy”, warm-up, wander through the park, and I was already hurting?!  Panic set in.  Maybe I hadn’t thought through this adventure!  Maybe I wasn’t up for the challenge of the days ahead!  Or…maybe my pack was just to heavy.

As I lagged further and further behind, it was obvious that the two men in my party were reading the worry and exhaustion on my face.  They kept asking “How’s it going?” or “Do you think that pack is too heavy?”, but stubborn and determined to not be branded “the weakling” of the crew, I spent the next hour insisting it was fine and I just needed to get used to it.  But when we stopped for a rest, and I noticed how exponentially more wiped out I was than the other two, I accepted the fact that I was out of my league.  “Um…” I forced out the words through gasps as I was still catching my breath, “…so…maybe my pack is…too heavy.”  Ntate Nkhooa just gave a “no problem” grin, and we redistributed my load.  This was my first indication of just how strong our guide really was.  He loaded his bag with most of the food Philip and I had brought for ourselves, and Philip took most of our cooking equipment.  Relief!  I put my pack back on and instantly felt more confident.  If the guys were okay with taking more of their share of the load, which they graciously never complained of in the many steps to follow, I could do this.

Headed into the park with a lighter load.

Headed into the park with a lighter load. Photo credit: Philip Drew

We took our time, and still arrived at the lodge with much of the day left to set up our tents, relax and dip in the gurgling stream near our campsite, and explore the astounding rock formations, greenery, and Khoi-Khoi houses of the area.  We even took time to stalk a pair of large, ostrich-like, birds from a great distance, believing for too long that they might be the elusive baboons we’d heard often hid in this part of the country.  It was during this time, wandering over grassy knolls and sitting in the sunshine among wildflowers, that we settled in as a hiking team, getting more comfortable with the idea of relying only on each other for the next few days in a wilderness somewhat unknown.  Yet on that day, if I had had any idea of what was to come in the trek ahead, strong hiking companions or no, I think I would have taken a few extra minutes to savor and appreciate the majesty of the scenery…and pack up my stuff to head home.  At that point, on that night, as I was lulled to sleep by an acoustic guitar and Bob Dylan lyrics (sung with a slight Afrikaner accent by fellow campers) I never would have imagined myself capable of the what we were to accomplish tomorrow.

Ntate Nkhooa, our trusted guide, enjoys the afternoon in Sehlaba-Thebe National Park. Photo credit: Philip Drew

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A Khoi Khoi house!  Built into the sides of caves and rock formations, ancient natives of Lesotho used these structures as shelters.  Sehlaba-Thebe National Park has preserved many of these still-standing homes.

A Khoi Khoi house! Built into the sides of caves and rock formations, ancient natives of Lesotho used these structures as shelters. Sehlaba-Thebe National Park has preserved many of these still-standing homes.

Chit-chatting inside a Khoi Khoi house

Chit-chatting inside a Khoi Khoi house

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

Sehlaba-Thebe

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Ntate Nkhooa climbs one of the many rock formations in Sehlba-Thebe National Park

Camping spot in Sehlaba-Thebe

Camping spot in Sehlaba-Thebe

Evening at campsite.

Evening at campsite.

Day 3:  Devil’s Knuckles and The Six Slopes of Sabotage or “You are capable of more than you imagined”

I woke up early with an anxious buzz that made it difficult to force down a complete breakfast.  I watched horses, against a backdrop of purple and orange tinted mountains, eating their morning meal as I ate mine.  The sun was rising, illuminating the first leg of our journey which had been pointed out the day before by Ntate Nkhooa.  For some reason, while the majesty of the three peaks overlooking the park’s outer limits was not lost on me the day before, the idea of difficulty in hiking over these mountains, renowned as “Devil’s Knuckles” was… until the time came when we were to pack up our tents and walk towards them.  I took a deep breath, gripped my pack, and put one foot in front of the other.

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Good morning!

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Morning view of Devil’s Knuckles

View from campsite of Devil's Knuckles

View from campsite of Devil’s Knuckles

Ntate Nkhooa looks over the start of our journey, Devil's Knuckles.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Ntate Nkhooa looks over the start of our journey, Devil’s Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Before attempting Devils Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Before attempting Devils Knuckles. Photo credit: Philip Drew

We hiked through the park again, passing the same stone structures we had rambled through before, and arrived at the base of the “knuckles”.  My heart beat faster, more from anxiety than from physical exertion, as we started our ascent, but as the terrain grew steeper and the grass grew higher, relief set in.  This was not so bad!  I was doing it!  The guys remained ahead of me, but I was keeping up.  There was no path carved out in our climb, and I often gripped grass above me in the steeper parts to help steady myself.  When we reached level ground, and worked our way around the first “knuckle” my inner monologue said something like, “Booyah, tough girl!”, and I was able to look up and realize what was in front of me.  An ocean of endless mountains and valleys stretched and reached out around us, overwhelming all that we could see with shadows and shades of different greens.

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Stopped for a rest in the green.

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

Walking over Devil's Knuckles

Walking over Devil’s Knuckles

View from Devil's Knuckles

View from Devil’s Knuckles

Photo caption:  I was ecstatic to realize, early on, that we had a guide who felt the need to stop and appreciate what we were seeing as much as I did.  I was not only grateful because I could catch my breath and rest, but because I never once felt, during the entire adventure and struggles, that I had missed or under-appreciated anything we had the opportunity of a lifetime to see.  Before we began the descent of the first “knuckle”, we took a minute to rest and do some such admiring.

After the first “knuckle” had been tackled, I still felt strong and relieved at the ease with which we’d hiked, but my back and ankles ached.  As we were doing much of the hike on a sideways slope and on a non-path terrain, it felt as if I was turning my ankle a bit in the same direction, and putting weight on it at an awkward angle to steady myself over and over again.  The idea of doing two more peaks was daunting, but doable.  By the time we’d finished all three of the “Devil’s Knuckles”, I felt accomplished and buzzed, the way a person feels after a good hard workout.  I was exhausted and relieved at the open, slope-less field of wild flowers we were now hiking through.  Ntate Nkhooa pointed out the various cattle posts and herds nearby, and it struck me how incredibly far away we already were from anything resembling civilization, and how remarkable it is that men live out there for months at a time to watch and graze their livestock.

Flatter ground and open fields near cattle posts.

Open fields and wild flowers

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Wild horses grazed and barely noticed us with slight skepticism

We walked a good deal more without stopping, and although it was fairly level ground it was still a challenge to keep up energy after all the slope conquering we’d already done that morning.  I was grateful when we decided to stop for lunch, and I remember comparing the jelly-like feeling in my legs, and the satisfying burn in my lungs to that of the feeling I’d had after running my first half-marathon.  I also realized, as we sat and ate, and then laid down for a brief snooze, how incredibly close to the sun we suddenly were.  I was thinking we had covered a great deal of ground, and had to be somewhat close to the place where Ntate Nkhooa had planned for us to camp that night, when our guide sat up and told us it was time to get moving.  He then pointed over to the land in front of us, and casually mentioned that we had the hardest part of the entire hike to complete before we could camp.  Philip and I looked at each other with unease… hardest part?  Wasn’t what we just did kind of hard?  And weren’t we already feeling like we couldn’t do much more?  Then I shifted my gaze to the masses beyond his pointed finger and let out a hopeless gasp.  Six monstrous slopes lay before us, and had to be passed by sundown.

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This was a daunting view… The six slopes we had to conquer before the end of the day. Photo credit: Philip Drew

It was on this leg of the hike that it began to occur to Philip and me that maybe Ntate Nkhooa had either overestimated our physical capabilities to be closer to his own (the man was a mountain dominating machine!) or had understated the difficulty of the hike to make us worry less… As I watched him float across the treacherous terrain ahead of me, I was both frustrated with his lack of guidance and astounded by his speed.  It wasn’t long before he was out of my sight range, behind the curve of the next slope I had yet to even start.  I was in a rough place.  The heat beat down on me as I became painfully aware of how far I had to go and how little ground I’d covered.  My right ankle protested every step as I trudged on across the slant, and it wasn’t long before I felt as though I couldn’t put my full weight on it.  The ridge was so steep that I could grip clumps of tall grass above me to help pull myself along, without bending over too drastically.  I started to count the number of times I fell down (9!), optimistically hoping I’d be in the right frame of mind to laugh about it later.

Philip was a true blue friend as I struggled and swore my way across one slope and then the next; keeping me in his sights and checking in every so often to make sure I was still moving on.  On the second slope (as I was beginning to wonder how close the nearest helicopter pad might be…in case I needed to be air-lifted out of the “Six Slopes of Smack-downs”) he shouted back, from the other side, that he had finally spotted Ntate Nkhooa.  He was on his way back towards us, pack-less.  It was then that I realized our guide’s strategy and was grateful for his previous abandonment.   Awaiting my arrival to the third slope, the guys shifted packs.  Philip took mine, the lightest, and Ntate Nkhooa carried Philip’s.  When our guide had carried Philip’s to where he had laid his own, he came back to pick up my pack from Philip.  In this way, he ferried all of our bags, one by one, across the six peaks and invariably did the whole leg about 2 1/2 times in the same amount of time it took me to do it once!  He was endearingly worried about our condition and did everything he could to make the hike easier on us.  My trust was officially restored in him, and I was grateful to have him as our guide.

Thinking back on that one leg of the trip, it feels like it took the entire five days.  In fact, it only took five hours…but after an entire morning of hiking, it put our total trek time up to about eleven hours in one day.  By the time I came off of the last slope and on to level ground, I could barely stand, and I was using a walking stick (affectionately carved by Ntate Nkhooa) to support my over-turned right ankle.  Now, looking at pictures, the land we settled on to after the “Six Slopes of Suck” wasn’t level at all, but the slope was so much less than what we’d conquered that it felt like stepping on to a bowling alley.  I assessed the rest of my condition.  Achey limbs, sun blisters, and what seemed like a mild case of heat exhaustion.  In the morning I’d be able to appreciate the magnitude of physical challenge that I’d just accomplished, but at that moment I just needed food and rest.  The guys were princes that night.  Though they themselves were wiped out and also in need of recuperation, they set up the tents and cooked dinner, monitoring me closely to make sure I was simply just exhausted.

The tents were set up in just the nick of time.  It wasn’t long before we heard the not-so-distant rumbling of thunder.  The skies darkened beyond their early evening color.  We had gotten to low ground and were in the least dangerous place possible as the summer storm crashed in a panoramic symphony of light and sound around us.  Usually terrified of lightning, I think I may have been too exhausted to be afraid.  Or maybe fear was engulfed by the once-in-a-lifetime experience of sitting front row in nature’s own spectacular arena, watching something I didn’t feel like I was supposed to see.  As the expanse of mountain and valley, shadows, and light, changed shape with each burst of lightning, it wasn’t the first time on that trip that I realized how small I was in an overwhelmingly large world.

I stayed warm and dry in the tent, and the storm quickly passed.  While I drifted into much needed sleep, Philip approached the tent flap from outside and said something along the lines of, “I know you’re exhausted, but you’re going to hate yourself if you don’t see this”.  I mustered the energy to come outside to see the most majestic post-storm rainbow stretching over the mountains of Kwa-Zulu Natal province of South Africa (the region we had been gazing into all day from the cusp of Lesotho’s most outer-limits).  It was the perfect ending to the first-day hike that had nearly kicked me into submission.  “If it means I get to sit on the edge of the world, and view Earth’s hidden splendors like this,” I said to myself, “I can totally do this again tomorrow.”

Finally finishing the Six Slops of Sabotage!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Finally finishing the Six Slops of Sabotage! Can you find me? Photo credit: Philip Drew

End of day rainbow.  Photo credit: Philip DrewEnd of day rainbow. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good night, moon. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Day 4: Watching the (hail) Ball(s) Drop on New Years Eve or “Put your trust in your counterparts to do the job you’ve asked them to do”

I awoke on New Years Eve (we had to remind ourselves of the date!) with the same resolve with which I had gone to sleep: “I will do this”.  But the first few steps out of the tent were cautious as I wondered if my ankle would agree with my mental commitment.  I took a few uneasy strides and noted the mild stiffness and soreness, but was relieved that it had significantly improved from the night before.  If I didn’t repeatedly step on a downward side slope for another day, I was confident it’d carry me to Sani Pass.  Oatmeal was followed by hot tea, and then we were up and at ‘em!  Buzzed from the notion that I was not a limping, invalid weight for the guys to have to drag along, I was ready for a fresh day of walking.

We had slept at the base of the daunting pass we were now supposed to climb.  It was no relief of intimidation from the previous day’s slopes, but tackling it first thing in the morning on fresh legs, I am now certain, is the only way I would have made it to the top.  I was also relieved to now be climbing straight up a mountain, instead of along it’s side.  Motivated by Ntate Nkhooa’s reassurance that this was the last leg of “the hardest part”, and the reward of what we were sure was going to be an unreal view into South Africa, we pushed on with fervor.  We were not disappointed when we reached the top.  From here, we were even able to look back towards the ridges in Sehlaba-Thebe and gape in astonishment at how far we had come the day before.

First thing in the morning, we ascended this from our camping spot on the far right plateau.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

First thing in the morning, we ascended this from our camping spot on the far right plateau. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Reaching the top!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Reaching the top! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

We descended into a valley, and soaked up the relief of flatter ground.  Taking in the majesty of the surrounding mountains walling us in, we were bombarded with a surprising sight.  Covering ground at a startling speed, two hikers were barreling down the back of a nearby mountain, headed our way!  After what felt like a week (though it was one day) of seeing nothing but back country and each other, we were slightly taken aback to meet the family of Afrikaners who were friendly, talkative, and maybe a little more sure of where they were going than we seemed to be.  In talking to them about where they had been and where they were headed, Philip and I realized that maybe our guide was not as sure of the route as we thought he’d been.  The family pointed in the direction of “Bushman’s Cave,” the destination we thought we had been trying to reach, and we discovered we were neither walking from or towards the same course they were pointing. Ntate recognized our skepticism and promised us that though there was some confusion, we were certainly headed towards Sani Pass.  Convinced of his good character and reliability, I put my full faith and trust in his guidance.  Besides, far from any civilization, and faced with the impossibility of going back the way we’d come (there was no way I was going to do another round of the Six Slopes of Satan!), there was no option but to continue forward.

Ntate’s promise, that the first steep ascent of the day was the last of “the difficulty” in our journey, was another overestimation of our physical capabilities.  We conquered not one, but two more upward mountain climbs that day, before we started looking for a place to stop for lunch.  It was just after noon when we reached the top of our most recent climb.  Breathless and sore once again, I noticed the calm, assessing, concern on Ntate’s face as he looked across the expanse of mountain and valley.  I saw his source of contemplation.  Moving clouds.  Mountain mist.  Thick and gray, it seeped and swam it’s way over the mountains ahead of us, blanketing their peaks from our sight.  I was surprised, but not disappointed, when Ntate decided, “I think we need to start looking for a place to stay for the night.  This mist is going to be a problem.”  After an already six hour hike, I was pleased for the chance to rest up, but I wasn’t sure why Ntate Nkhooa was so worried about a little bit of fog.

Stopping for water, halfway up a slope.

Stopping for water, halfway up a slope.

Mountain mists creep in...

Mountain mists creep in…

Headed downhill once again, light rain started to sprinkle us, and I noticed all of a sudden how drastically the temperature had lowered with the incoming cloud cover.  Ntate Nkhooa spotted what he believed to be “Bushman’s Cave” and we set up our tents in the crevice, cut along the side of the rocky ridge.  After our discussion with the other hikers, Philip and I were not convinced that this was actually the infamous “Bushman’s Cave”.  We were, however, amazed again at the site of one of Earth’s hidden vistas, and happy to be warm and dry, no matter what the accommodation’s name.

Our feelings of content changed to enormous relief when, not long after our tents were set, sleeping bags unrolled, and lunch cooked, the mist moved in among the rocks around us.  Realizing what an impossibility it would have been to hike through this ground-level fog with no visibility or sense of direction, I suddenly understood why Ntate had been in such a rush to find our sleeping spot.  This was not the first or last time I would be reminded of what an asset our guide was to this trip.  As if to further verify that we were in good hands and doing the right thing by hunkering down early that day, the fog soon brought with it a torrential hail storm!  Safe and restful in our tents, we watched yet another show from mother nature from the view of our little hole in the mountain-side.  As an added perk to our rest stop, Philip collected some of the marble sized hail balls, and I now had ice to put on my still-sore ankle!

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

View from our camping spot during the hail storm.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

View from our camping spot during the hail storm. Photo credit: Philip Drew

It was the strangest way I have ever spent a New Years Eve.  We found small ways to acknowledge the holiday, like eating chocolate pudding (a real treat after a couple straight days of oatmeal and beans!), making resolutions (we WILL make it to Sani Pass!), and accomplishing a few personal firsts (when you gotta go, you gotta go… whether or not you’re on the side of a cliff in a hail storm!).  While we all managed to sleep right through midnight and the first few hours of the new year, it still felt like we had properly celebrated.

Our New Years Eve camping spot!  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Our New Years Eve camping spot! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Day 5: Walking on the Wild Side or “Integration and immersion is invaluable”

Whether it was the promise of a brand new year, or the extra full evening of rest we’d had the day before, we awoke the next morning before dawn and started the day’s hike with a calm confidence.  Any doubts about our ability to make it the whole way to Sani Pass were erased, and we settled in to a nice pace up and over passes once again.  I lost count of how many mountains we had scaled (or how many times I continued to fall down…), and was able to enjoy the stunning scenery of the uninhabited wilderness of Lesotho.  I was doubtless that many outsiders, like us, had been lucky enough to experience this side of the country.

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good morning! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Good morning! Photo credit: Philip Drew

We made up for some of the time lost the day before, but after two consecutive days of thunderstorms, we weren’t positive that we’d have a clear afternoon to continue.  Our fears were confirmed when we reached the top of a pass and caught a glimpse of the incoming afternoon mist.  Unwilling to lose more progress if we could help it,  Ntate Nkhooa looked towards herds of cattle in the valley below us and made the decision to enlist some outside help.  Not only were we going to experience Lesotho’s back country scenery, we were going to meet some of it’s back country natives as well!

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Cattle posts and incoming mists. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Cattle posts and incoming mists. Photo credit: Philip Drew

The Basotho herdboy is a commonality in all parts of the country.  The younger men of the family leave their houses early in the morning with the family’s sheep, cows, or goats, and spend all day in the fields to supervise their grazing.  They return with the herds before sundown.  Yet after the three days it took us to arrive to these certain valleys, it was clear that these herdsmen had a different daily experience than most of the men I’d met in my own rural village who had the responsibility of watching their livestock.  These men were days journeys away from their own homes, often spending weeks away from their own beds, families, and regular meals.  They lodged at cattle posts and lived on small supplies of maize meal and eatable plants they could find in the fields.  The herds they watched were often not their own family’s wealth, but one of many droves owned by someone else, wealthy enough to have others do the shepherding.  With their worn and weathered clothing and their obviously over-worked bodies, these herdsmen carried with them their own subculture of Lesotho.  They even used a different language.  Our guide, having worked as a herdboy in similarly remote areas of Qacha’s Nek when he was younger, knew the dialect.  While the shepherds greeted us with genuine smiles and friendly ease, asking them for help would not have been easy, or even safe, without Ntate Nkhooa and his familiarity with the traditional culture.

Herdboy.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herdboy. Photo credit: Philip Drew

For three hours we walked through heavy fog, unable to see more than twenty feet ahead of us.  The herdsmen, jovial and talkative, knew the way without seeing the terrain ahead, and for once we were following something resembling foot paths.  We were even escorted by the shepherds‘ dogs who were protective of their masters and,  upon seeing our acceptance by the Basotho, flanked us all like secret service men.  Though we were damp and tired when we finally stopped for lunch and conversation, I was able to relish in what a different kind of traveling I was doing than at any other point in my life.  No sand, ocean, or real relaxation, but I was certainly seeing the world.

Herdsman in the mist.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herdsman in the mist. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Misty trekking.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Misty trekking. Photo credit: Philip Drew

Photo credit: Philip Drew

A roll in the muck and mist! Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herding through mist.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Herding through mist. Photo credit: Philip Drew

When we had reached the other side of the cloud we’d been walking through for so long, we could finally see the expanse of valley around us and our friendly shepherds said farewell.  We could also see, unfortunately, the dark thunderheads covering the sky.  Our afternoon thunderstorm was right on time, but we weren’t in the best place for stopping. We were on a steady downward slope and were surrounded by cattle posts whose herdsmen may not be as welcoming of squatters as our helpers had been to guide us through and away from their land.  Ntate worked his magic yet again, and made friends with the herdsmen of the territory, but we spent too long looking for an ideal place to camp.  Before we’d set up our tents, the rain was upon us.  Sheltered on lower ground, we made camp in the middle of the storm.  We spent the night soggy and (for remarkably the first time!) grumpy.  After previous nights of good conversation, laughter, and new friendship, little was said before we all drifted off to uncomfortable sleep.

Day 6:  Arrival at Sani Pass! or “At the end of the day, brush off every frustration and celebrate every victory!”

The morning brought with it clear skies and welcome sun!  We took some time to lay our belongings out to dry, and it wasn’t long before we were able to pack up our things without the added weight of water.  With the brightening of day came the brightening of our moods.  We knew today would be the day we would arrive at Sani Pass!  Following level footpaths through more pastured valleys, we had an easy morning walk.  We crossed a small river, and I dawned my socks and shoes to feel the cool water over my bare and battered feet.  Ntate pointed out the few peaks before us that stood between us and our destination.  The final push was upon us, and though we’d be at Sani by early afternoon, we had the last and largest ascents to do before we got there.

We met a pair of younger herdboys who were walking to Sani Pass as well.  Quiet but friendly, they agreed to show us the clearest way.  It seemed again as though every time Ntate would tell us we only had “one more climb”, we’d reach the top to see yet another peak before us.  When we finally reached the top of our highest mountain, an ascent of 1500 ft, we took our last break to enjoy the splendor of the wilderness over which we had just walked.

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Largest slope conquered!

Largest slope conquered!

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Approaching Sani!  Last few climbs with herdboys.  Photo credit: Philip Drew

Approaching Sani! Last few climbs with herdboys. Photo credit: Philip Drew

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We conquered one final, smaller slope and descended down to a wide pasture of grazing goats, sheep and donkeys.  Hallelujah and Yahoo!!  Across the damp field we could see the small town and border gate, as well as the infamous Sani Lodge where we were sure we’d find a celebratory drink and a warm meal.  Elated, we ambled our way across easy grass and gravel road, taking pictures and enjoying the final steps of our long and  laborious adventure.  The value of, not only what we’d just accomplished, but what we’d had the rare opportunity to experience, was not lost on me in that final simple stretch.  In over 50 miles, all at elevations over 9000 ft, in 5 days, we’d seen the most beautiful and remote parts of Lesotho.  We’d walked with the people who had made the mountain wilderness their home, and we’d gained invaluable understanding of their culture.  In my first six months of service I’d already accomplished the task of making my village in Qachas Nek feel like home, but this hike across Lesotho’s best kept secret was like getting to know the true and genuine colors of a new friend.  It gave me a more complete understanding of the country that I had agreed to serve.

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Last few strides to Sani! We passed grazing animals… little ones too!

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Last few strides to Sani, we passed grazing animals... little ones too!

Last few strides to Sani! Photo credit: Philip Drew

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Photo Caption:  The best burger and fries I’ve ever eaten, and a can of hard cider from the highest pub in Africa (true story!), solidified the completion and celebration.  We’d made it!

2 Comments

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2 responses to “A Long Walk Through Lesotho

  1. Leah H.

    You are an inspiration! Thanks for sharing your adventures!

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