By Gregory Bruce
Well, we’ve discovered how difficult getting a visa can be at times of need. Our plans were to take us to Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, this past weekend. However the prices were skyrocketing from what we were originally quoted so we opted for a bus trip to the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Masvingo. Unfortunately, when traveling by bus you must have your visas arranged in advance because the bus will not wait for you at the border to get the visa. So instead of allowing ourselves to be stranded at the Zimbabwe/South Africa border we opted for a 4 day trek into the remote mountain villages of southern Lesotho.
The next morning, our friends, Ben and Sara, picked us up at about 7:30 a.m. and they drove us out to Malaelae Lodge where we began our trek into the mountains. Once at the lodge, we sorted out a guide to lead us on our way and said our goodbyes to our friends as we headed out.
The guide happened to be the drummer from a musical group we had seen perform at the lodge a few weeks back and we recognized him instantly. His name is Tumelo and he is 23 years old, has short dreadlocks, and comes from Malaelae village. Tumelo comes from a large family, but recently had to shave his head, as is the custom here when a family member dies, because his sister passed away. We didn’t ask what the cause was, however the odds may lean towards AIDS, as the estimates range from 25-33% of the population have HIV/AIDS.
The first day of hiking took us through several villages, where all of the children would come running to us yelling ‘lawhowa’ (spelling is questionable), which translates to white person. They often would say ‘give me some sweets’ or ‘give me some money’, no doubt a product of the years of people passing through to the first village we were heading to. That day saw us dropping into two separate ravens, hiking back out the opposite sides, across a valley and over a plateau and then up the adjacent valley wall to our first village of Ribaneng. All of the homes were made of mud-brick and thatched roofs and we settled into our own little rondavel. There were no beds, running water, or electricity and we had to boil our water to drink it. After we settled a bit, we went with another guide to Ribaneng Falls, which was a tough two-hour roundtrip hike along some steep mountain walls, down into the river canyon below and finally underneath the falls themselves. It was absolutely amazing and worth all of the tremendous effort it took to get there. We sat and washed and just admired the beauty of the place for some time. The falls were about 300 feet high and fell to a pool about 40 feet in diameter before making there way through a series of pools and falls into the lower valley. Once back at the hut, we cooked and shared our meal with Tumelo as the sun began to set and then turned in for the night at about 8 p.m.
The next morning we headed out about 7:30 a.m. after a light breakfast and some coffee. We hiked up a steep climb and this was to be the pattern of the day as we made our way up, down into, and then back out of numerous valleys. The hiking was exhausting, yet the scenery made it all worthwhile as we hiked over and past high peaks and into even more remote terrain. The deeper we went into the mountains, the more friendly the people became and the less the children begged. As we approached Ketane village, set high upon a mountain pass, we were greeted by the chief of the village who showed us to our hut. It was similar to the night before, just a bit bigger. However the view from here was spectacular and looked out over the Ketane River Valley. After dropping our bags we headed off again in search of the falls and had a great old guide to show us and Tumelo the way. This hike was probably even scarier then the day before, yet only a short distance from the village. We made our way down an embankment over boulders, and finally out onto a rock slab which overlooked the falls. The edge was a sheer drop of about 1000 feet and made for some adrenaline rushing as we made our way down the rock. Talia found herself a nice perch and stayed there as Tumelo, our guide, and I made our way to the edge. The falls were at least 400 feet and fell in two stages. First to a huge rock outcropping and then down to the pools and rocks at the base. As we sat there all alone and reflecting back on yesterday’s falls, I could not help but feel thankful for the choice we made to take this journey.
Back at the hut, again we prepared our meal and ate with Tumelo and had a bit of wine and beer. The wine we brought in a plastic water bottle and the beer the chief’s wife had gotten for us. We also played marabraba, which is a local game similar to an advanced version of Tic-Tac-Toe. As the sun went down we admired the amazing stars and then turned in for another early night.
The next morning, we again started early and found ourselves hiking into and out of two separate high mountain valleys, of which there were only a few shepherd’s huts and corrals for their animals. Outside of that, there were no signs of life except for the springboks, lizards, and some beautiful birds flying about. As we made our last climb up to Sekoting village, we nearly all collapsed of exhaustion upon arrival. The hiking was taking its toll and we were beat. Thankfully, once here there were no side hikes today and we arrived early enough to relax for many hours before the sun went down and we had to make dinner. Here the kids were the most curious and friendly, because it is also the most remote. We were the center of attention all afternoon and many kids and adults went and put on their best clothing for photos. We were then asked to send them copies, which we will happily do. One group of young girls came out in traditional clothing and it was just amazing.
This village being the remotest was also the poorest. The kids had holes in all of their clothes, if they had any on at all, and most had no shoes and what they had were full of holes. The people are all subsistence farmers and depend on their crops and livestock for survival. Yet, with all of these hardships they endure, they are the kindest, friendliest, and least begging of all the villagers we have met.
The last day was a grueling six hours of climbing where we saw an equal amount of elevation gain as there was loss. We made our way across a number of valleys again and then into two deep ravines, which meant we also had to climb back out of them. As we finally reached the last of the big hills, we were just about out of gas. We had one last long stretch of gradual ascent, which finally placed us back at our original departure point. The energy was gone, but the memories will last forever as we have both already come to the conclusion that this has been the highlight of our time here in Lesotho.
The trip home was a bit of a nightmare as we missed the direct bus back to Maseru and had to make our way on a series of mini-taxis. Two of the three we were ripped off on and the last was the most ridiculous, as they took us in a loop around the taxi rank, where all the taxis gather, and dropped us at the other side and told us to take the taxi from here. As we demanded our money back because we knew what he had done, he ran back to his taxi and took off. Unbelievable, but in the end not worth getting too upset over considering it was only 5 rand, or $0.90 for the two of us.
Overall, we’ve been in Lesotho for eight weeks and have truly enjoyed the experience. We are staying in Maseru and volunteering at the American International School of Lesotho and have found a tremendous circle of friends while living here in the city. It is home to a small number of ex-pats who tend to be very social. The local population is also generally very friendly, even amidst the reports of crime being a serious problem here. It does happen, but as with anywhere, being aware and vigilant goes a long way! So, when thinking of whether to come to Lesotho or not, know that the country is very poor and benefits tremendously from tourism and there are some beautiful hiking destinations here. The infrastructure, in terms of roads, is fairly well developed because of all the dam projects and there are a number of guest lodges that arrange for hiking and pony trekking into the remote villages where you really get a sense of what life is like for most of the Basotho people.