Africa · Southern Africa travel · Travel

Victoria Falls and Zambezi, Zambia photo roundup

A roundup of photos from Victoria  Falls and the Zambezi River, Zambia, and a little bit of Botswana.

                           

                           

At the side of the falls, left. Two men were crossing over, wading precariously through the rapids in the middle.

                           

Zambezi sunset booze cruise. Drinks flowed, but it was a placid scene otherwise.

     

Giant baboons strolled inside the Falls park, occasionally nonchalantly posing for visitors. Right, the ferry we took to cross the Zambezi into Zambia.

                     

Elephant at the side of the highway in northern Botswana. The further north you go, the more forested it becomes and thus, the more animals you see. At right, this is a zoo or wildlife park. This is a pond at the entrance into a gas station not far from where we drove over from South Africa.  

        This was at the watering hole at a hostel in Botswana. A small herd of kudu with one especially impressive male (hint- the one with the large curved horns).

Africa · Southern Africa travel · Travel

Southern Africa- Victoria Falls

In a few months, it’ll be a year since I went to South Africa. As such, it’s ridiculous that I was still lagging in putting up my posts on the trip so here is the final part of my trip to Victoria Falls- leaving Polokwane, South Africa and driving into neighboring Botswana and then Zambia for much-too-brief stays.

We got up early again the next day, continuing our trend of early starts, and TJ told us he wanted to try a different route to get to the Botswana border crossing faster. As such, we drove around a Polokwane township in the early morning, and I half wondered at times if we were lost. TJ was true to his word, and we reached the Botswana crossing at Martin’s Gate at the time when he’d promised. We drove over a bridge spanning a river where there was a large hippo resting on a bank in the center. Several locals were standing on the bridge looking at it and somebody threw stones which annoyed TJ. When we reached the border crossing, we had to get out on the South African side and get our exit visas stamped, then drove over into the Botswanan side where we got out and got entrance visas. Botswana is  a relatively wealthy (and stable and peaceful) African country and I thought this was perfectly demonstrated by the clean and newish interior of the customs station as well as the glossy and free photo magazines provided by the country’s tourism body. My male Australian fellow tour member was not similarly impressed, saying how the interior looked like it was 30 years old.
Botswana is wealthy because it has lots of diamonds and a small population (just over 2 million). It is also a decent-sized country, bigger than Spain or Germany, and this means wildlife is abundant all over it. It didn’t take long to make this apparent. A short distance from the border crossing, TJ pulled into a gas station for a snack and toilet break (for us all). Can you imagine then, right at the entrance, there was a pond with a duck family at the side and a hippo inside? A hippo in a pond. Thinking about it now just makes me chuckle. How it got there, TJ told me, was that it probably came up during flood season from a nearby river and then stayed in the pond after the waters receded. A short wooden fence surrounded the pond, though that was probably for humans’ sake and not the hippo, which could easily destroy it if it wanted.
We drove past Botswana’s second city Francistown and several small towns. Unfortunately the drive that day was so sleep-inducing that I dozed off in the front seat. We were driving through the dusty eastern part of the country along a highway that was fenced off on both sides surrounded by shrubs and small trees. There were even checkpoints to check on cattle to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. The scenery was one of the most dreary I’d seen because it was just bushes and fences, with some huts, goats and cattle from time to time. My fellow tourmates laughed at me as did TJ but later that night, I felt vindicated when travelers on another group also remarked on the boring landscape.
Botswana is a well-off African country, being blessed by sizable gold reserves and a stable government as well as a small and relatively homogenous population, with 80% being from one tribe. I sensed this first from the modern customs post, and then that noon, when we pulled in a strip plaza with several South African chain stores like Steers (BBQ) and Spar (supermarket). There wasn’t any sense of menace or apparent poverty (not that there isn’t), and I can’t explain it properly, but it just felt like this could have been somewhere in Trinidad. I went into the Spar to buy a pie and I wanted to buy a newspaper too but the ones being sold were outdated (I know this sounds ironic given I just talked about Botswana’s obvious economic wellbeing but I mean, it’s got a population of just over 2 million, South Africa has 50 million while Taiwan has 23 million).
We stayed that night at Elephant Sands, a backpackers located in the bush that was only accessible via a deep, sandy unpaved road off the side of the highway. There were some tense and bumpy moments on the sandy road, which required Bild, our van’s name, to struggle valiantly while TJ warned of being stuck. The hostel itself was a compound that had outdoor showers and had a restaurant situated next to a dry waterbed. Elephants sometimes came to the waterbed to drink (which we just missed) but we got kudu instead. The . That evening, after a fine dinner, we sat on the patio near the firesite and waited for the animals to come. As I said, we wanted elephants but they never came and we got a small herd of kudu (a majestic large antelope second only to the eland in size) which came to drink. As it got dark, a larger group of younger people came to sit around the fire and we talked a bit. They were coming back from Victoria Falls to SA, while we were going there. We were warned about the long vehicular lineup in the crossing to Zambia and we exchanged stories about animal sightings and they talked about the fun of going into Zimbabwe (from Zambia) and buying trillion-dollar bills, the unfortunate byproduct of that country’s economic collapse.
That night was a bit rough, not because I slept in a tent again, but because first I had to take a cold shower outdoors in their outdoor shower stall and then early the next day, I had to use the washroom and brush my teeth in the dark as this place had no electricity during the night. It ran on its own generator which was shut off in the night and turned on only in the morning. Actually, taking a shower under the stars was a bit nice, but getting up at 4 and walking in the dark to the washroom and bumping into a thorn tree that gave me cuts that took a while to heal was not cool. TJ actually told us not to get out and walk to the washroom in the night because of the possibility of elephants or even leopards prowling and this was in the back of my mind too, as ridiculous as it seemed. My hands also got cracked up due to getting dry in the cold weather and then having little cuts form during the day. This took a long time to heal, giving my hands a grotesque look as bloody cuts opened up daily for the next week.
So after one day and one night in Botswana, it was time to travel onwards to another African country. Still a little worried because of what the other group had said about long lines forming on the border crossing, I looked forward to Victoria Falls. This time, the surroundings were almost pure forest, meaning none of the dry, dusty, fenced off environment that had been so prevalent the previous day. Heading north, the land was much heavily forested and less inhabited. Soon we saw antelopes and even elephants grazing on the side of the highway. It wasn’t enough to make up for last night, but it was still cool.
Coming closer to the border crossing, there was a long line of container trucks that weren’t moving. These trucks waited for days to cross, but because we were tourists, TJ said, we had priority. It sounds kind of colonial, us from the developed world coming into Africa for vacation and being given automatic privileges, but on the other hand, we were contributing dollars. We were going to cross the Zambezi River by ferry, which seemed an archaic way to me, compared to say, a bridge. At the riverbank, we waited a short while for the ferry to come, along with a few dozen locals and I am a little ashamed to say I asked TJ if it was ok to take pictures. Because you know, being in Africa (Botswana) on a river amongst black Africans was not exactly the safest place to show off your valuables (sarcasm implied at myself).
The ferry was not exactly a rickety deathtrap, but neither was it something to inspire confidence in crossing the widest river I’d ever come across. It was an open-decked vessel which besides carrying people, carried trucks and our trusty Bild, TJ’s beloved van. The ferry was steady enough as we crossed over, and coming towards the Zambian shore, several mokors (dugout canoes) came alongside us. A few people offloaded their stuff, including what looked like cans of oil and sacks of groceries, which the canoemen carried off. When we reached land, we got off, went into the customs office to get our visas and then TJ left us for a while, during which time a stray dog came by us hungrily. An Australian woman in my tour gave the dog a potato chip and the wretch sniffed it, then haughtily walked away without so much as a bite. A damn picky dog, I thought whilst also feeling some respect too. A guard walked by us, an AK-47 slung across his shoulder. Damn, I thought, this is the first time I’ve ever seen that famous rifle in person. Zambia is a relatively poor country and the customs office was much different from Botswana’s, more earthier and less sleek. That wasn’t the only difference. Now that we were north of the Zambezi (and Botswana), it felt mercifully hot, making it ok to not have to wear a jacket for the first time since South Africa and Botswana.
From the border post, TJ drove us straight to Victoria Falls, along the way passing some really nondescript bush and forest which made for some monotonous scenery on the way to one of the world’s greatest natural sights. “Discovered” by the great Stanley Livingstone, for whom the nearby town is named after, the falls are called Mosi-o-Tunya or “the smoke that thunders” by the locals. This was an apt name as the mist from the falls could be seen from afar.
Be ready to get wet, TJ had warned, and luckily he had said so, because at times, the park trail was soaking wet. I covered my camera in a baggy and wore sandals but I forsook renting a raincoat, trusting in my jacket. Victoria Falls on the Zambian side is enclosed within a park, for which TJ paid our entrance fee of US$10. We entered through a booth, passed a bunch of vendors selling crafts and shirts, then went into the park proper. The park is mainly on a clifftop that overlooks Victoria Falls across a gorge. The park extends up along the riverbank of the Zambezi where it becomes Victoria Falls.
It was a magnificent sight, but it’s the noise that really strikes you. You first hear the falls before you see it. Then it materializes into a wide curtain of water (of which only about one-third can be seen from the Zambian side). I’ve visited Niagara Falls but I think Victoria Falls has it beat. Of course, the fact the latter is in the middle of a jungle while Niagara Falls is surrounded by tackiness and gaudiness, not that all of it is not good, may have something to do with this. It’s not the highest nor the biggest waterfall in the world, but in terms of the combination of height and volume, I believe it’s number one.
Anyways I walked towards one end of the park, overlooking the falls on one side and a gorge on the other. From there, you could see across into Zimbabwe, which was nothing special, just some trees and bushes. On the bridge between the two countries, there was a bungee jump in the center and I saw a person doing it. Needless to say, the part facing the falls was wet and several times, spray from the falls fell like rain. I took some pictures, trying to time when the spray stopped, and this partially worked. My camera got a little wet, and so did I, but whatever. I passed tourists, many of whom were white and wearing the yellow plastic raincoat that the park sold, for which I envied them a little. Being cheap, of course I had not bought it and I felt like a bum walking around with soaked pants and wet hair, trying to cover up my “baggy-enclosed”-camera inside my jacket. To cross to that end, you had to walk over a bridge and it was very wet and slippery. I did take a photo holding the camera inside the plastic baggy but it almost slipped from my grasp and in hindsight, was definitely not a smart thing. I also passed a few black visitors, who were probably locals and this was notable because it felt weird to see so few of a people within a place in their own country.
Walking back to the part where I entered, a group of American tourists, probably a family, passed me by. In a great example of American hospitality, a member of this party, a middle-aged lady, who had stopped to look at the falls, asked me when I passed her if I wanted my picture taken which I did. I thanked her then continued walking but instead of going back to the front, I turned towards the Zambezi. As I said earlier, there’s a section of the park that adjourns the Zambezi River as it approaches Victoria Falls. I walked along there, no guard rails or nothing, seeing people posing for pictures on rocks at the riverbanks, as well as lone visitors sitting close up to the water, probably contemplating the majestic river. I also spotted two black guys, wading in the middle of the river amongst some boulders, trying to make their way to the other side. I thought they were fishermen but maybe they were Zimbabweans who had entered Zambia illegally (I highly doubt that it would be the other way around even though Zambia is poor) and now were trying to sneak back so as to avoid crossing the border customs post.
By this time, I had to rush back because TJ had given us an hour and a half and the time had gone by. Near the entrance, I crossed paths with some baboons, some the size of a middle-sized dog. I almost got a heart attack when one walked right in front of me but the “brute” paid me no attention as he casually strolled across on four limbs. One of these guys went up to a tree trunk and sat down, sitting in a kind of obscene manner, while another posed gladly for tourists who were happily taking pictures. By this time, I had half a mind to pet one because they really seemed big and dopey. I rushed back out to the carpark where TJ and the couple were waiting for me but they didn’t mind at all.
TJ was really looking forward to the evening because he had booked us for a sunset cruise, except that instead of a quiet dinner enjoying the view, we were going to be drinking ourselves silly. This was the infamous “booze cruise” and TJ really was exuberant about it. This cruise would be later in the day and launched from where we were staying, a decent hotel/hostel/campsite located right on the bank of the Zambezi, with the towering mist of Victoria Falls visible in the horizon distance. This place was filled with tour groups like us, except that they were mostly large groups, traveling on giant “bus-size” vans. I was going to sleep in a tent so I pitched the tent next to TJ’s van and took a rest.
We met later at the dockside restaurant just before the cruise was to begin and by then, TJ could barely contain his glee. He was barefoot, and that combined with constant grinning and rotund frame, made him look like a cheeky schoolboy. True to form, we were the first passengers to board the boat and we made ourselves comfortable at the stern on the top deck. While we were there, the captain, a rather short and ruddy fellow, came by and he made it a point to greet TJ extravagantly, bowing and saluting him like if he was some military bigwig or something.
The sunset booze cruise, as opposed to the regular sunset cruise, soon took off in the opposite direction from Victoria Falls, heading west. There were a lot of young people on board, though mostly 20-somethings (at my age, 20-something is young). There was a Brazilian or Mexican group on one side, while around us were a lot of caucasians, young, fit and social. Along the way, we were told to look at the banks to try to see crocodiles and other large animals. While I saw a giraffe and some colorful birds, no crocodile were to be spotted. The drinks started flowing and we had some local lager, Mosi-o-Tunya, named after the falls. It was alright and we then had rum and coke and rum and sprite. Dinner was a plate of chicken and rice that wasn’t very flavorful. To be honest, though we had several drinks, it wasn’t like there was a full-blown drinking bachannalia going on, with people going wild and vomiting and carrying on like animals. I remember the sunset was nice and the feeling of being in a large, placid river in the middle of Africa with several other cruise boats (the non-booze ones) was peaceful and a bit surreal.
I then had the fortune of bouncing into a family of Trinidadians. Not only that, but one guy was an acquaintance of several former classmates of mine and he happened to be living in Beijing. They had traveled up from South Africa as well, through Zimbabwe and by themselves. This was also not their first World Cup, having been to Germany 2006 and Korea/Japan 2002. We had a little conversation, with the requisite “Wow, imagine us Trinidadians meeting up in the Zambezi in the middle of Africa” comments and then when the boat docked, they left for their backpackers.
At this point, I made my way back to the tent and decided to take an early night. Meanwhile,  a disco was underway for most of the night in a giant hut in the compound, with Akon’s Sexy B!tch/ Sexy Chick being one of the more audible tunes. For me, a morning helicopter ride the next day plus a noon flight back to Joburg meant sleep was a priority.
The next day, I got up bright and early, got picked up along with the couple for the helicopter ride at a nearby helicopter field that was about 5 minutes’ drive from our hotel. The ride wasn’t cheap at all, costing US$160 for 15 minutes, and it had taken me a while to decide on this the previous day. It was looking at a poster that showed that barely a third of the falls could be seen from the Zambian side that finally convinced me.  Normally, the cost would have been an insane amount for me to spend, but being in a part of the world I’d likely not ever come back to and never having ridden in a helicopter before, I decided to splurge a bit. Unfortunately things didn’t go smoothly at all after we got there. For some reason, the couple decided to pay for all the seats (5) in the helicopter ride so I couldn’t ride on the same flight. Then several groups came for helicopter rides, and because I was just one person, they took priority. As the flights were 15 minutes long, not including the time to descend, discharge and take on passengers then takeoff, and there were only 2 helicopters, I ended up waiting almost two hours. The staff tried to get me to switch to a microlight, which was a very tiny plane with an open cockpit, or compartment. It might have been cool but I turned it down because of the fact you couldn’t take your own photos, either because it’s risky or because they didn’t want people dropping their cameras and getting pissed. I was pissed at the couple because it was only when we were about to walk towards our helicopter that the guy told me I would not be on the same flight as them. The next flight turned out to be the next 5 flights or so. I felt offended because after all the camaraderie and shared moments during our tour, they didn’t tell me beforehand. When I finally got on the helicopter, it was with an Australian woman and her 3 small kids. As they all sat in the back, I got to ride shotgun and it was alright. Upon getting on, the noise of the rotors drowned out everything and I was handed a pair of headphones that looked like giant earmuffs. These dampened the noise and let the pilot communicate with us. Taking off, we headed over forest that was a national park along the bank of the Zambezi. Look at some elephants on the left, giraffe down on the right, said the pilot and indeed, we saw them. The pilot took us over the falls and flew in a wide circle around it, giving us great overhead and side views of the falls and then just like that, it was back to the airfield and getting dropped back to the hotel.
The chopper ride was cool and during my near two-hour wait, I saw a robbery take place in Africa for the first time. It wasn’t a human, but a baboon that was the culprit, which had dashed into the souvenir shop and grabbed a bag of chips. I was in the shop at that time and while looking at something, I heard a staff member shout and brandish a broom while something like a dog whooshed by the door. By the time we got outside, the baboon was in the bushes about 30 feet away, opening his bag of chips and eating them. Whe he finished, he had the nerve to toss the bag on the ground and amble away. “He always does that,” said the staff. And that was really an African moment for me.
The helicopter ride was the last thing I did in Zambia. TJ was good enough to drive me to the Livingstone airport, though I had waken him up, still sleeping off the revelry of the previous night, when I came back. The airport was a small, quaint and old structure. It had the most casual atmosphere for an airport I’d ever seen. How casual- there was a cat strutting around in front of the check-in desks. The flight to Joburg was good enough to pass by Victoria Falls, giving me one last look at the falls.

South Africa · Southern Africa travel · Travel

Lesotho-part 1

When you look at a map of South Africa, it might seem weird that there are two small circles within its borders that are colored differently. These small circles are actually sovereign countries; the one in the interior being Lesotho and the other, near the eastern coast and bordering Mozambique, being Swaziland. Both are former British colonies, as is South Africa, and the reason both are independent, is because they were kingdoms that fiercely guarded their freedom from neighboring tribes and the Afrikaaners and British. While they also became British colonies, they were governed as separate entities.

On a stay in KwaZulu-Natal’s Northern Drakensberg area, I went on a day trip into Lesotho, which borders the Drakensberg. While the Drakensberg is a spectacular mountainous area that spans over 1,000km and has many peaks that exceed 3,000m, Lesotho, being entirely mountainous, holds it own and boasts the tallest mountain in Southern Africa. Lesotho, as our guide told us, is the highest nation in the world as the entire country is over 1,400m. Unfortunately it is also one of the 3 poorest nations in the world. Its high altitudes and mountainous terrains are what helped its people, the Basotho, hold and maintain their kingdom after initially fleeing the expanding and mighty Zulus (KwaZulu-Natal is the homeland of the Zulus whose great 19th century king is commemorated by having Durban’s new airport named after him). Some Basotho live in South Africa as well, most in neighboring Free State province, and their language Sesotho is one of the country’s 11 official languages. Interestingly enough, the people of Botswana, a country that borders South Africa in the north, are said to be a related tribe and they are called the Batswana.

Getting to Lesotho requires driving up to and crossing border posts that are high up in the mountains. While we didn’t take the Sani Pass, which is a route that is well advertised by many tour operators with a highlight being the highest pub in the world, we traveled through a pass that was over 2,000m and took us into the North of the country into the Butha-Buthe region. First, we took a circuitous driving route that took us out of KwaZulu-Natal, passed the scenic Sterkfontein dam (SA’s third-largest according to our guide Sim), and through the Free State. The surrounding landscape was fascinating to observe, with its vastness, the yellowness of the maize in the surrounding fields and the distinctive flat-topped hills seemed reminiscent of the U.S. Prairies, Australia, and Arizona (the last being what my American friend said). The vast flatness of the land seemed to stretch for miles into the distance, broken up only by frequent flat-topped peaks, and save for grass and maize, devoid of much vegetation. This being winter in South Africa, the landscape seemed particularly arid.

We also passed a dusty but populous town with an incredibly difficult name that I can’t pronounce – Phuthaditjhaba. During the apartheid era, it served as the capital of QwaQwa, a bantustan homeland. Some parts along the side of the road were charred black from being deliberately set on fire, a sight that would be all too common in the next 2 days. This was a tactic to protect against raging wildfires, burning the ground to make it so dry that fires would not spread.

Phuthaditjhaba.

Coming close to the SA border post to Lesotho. Our van drove up the bumpy, unpaved road just a few feet from the edge.

One of the first sights after entering Lesotho.

Getting into Lesotho border-wise proved a relatively simple matter because there was no Lesotho border post. Once we cleared the South African post, we entered Lesotho just like that. We drove for a while on a bumpy, unpaved earth road, with roadwork actually taking place at some parts and cattle walking on the side, while the slopes on both sides were sparse and dusty. Eventually we entered a valley surrounded by mountains and actually featuring some semblance of vegetation. There were huts scattered throughout, most of them being rondavels and featuring the traditional round conical shapes and thatch huts, more cows and the occasional scrawny horse grazing along the side of the road and people walking around covered up in traditional woolen blankets draped over their upper bodies. Finally a crude, flat patch of earth that was clearly in the form of, and served as, a football field came into view and we disembarked. The area’s primary school was right at the side of the field and one of the teachers came out to greet us. Kabelo introduced himself while asking us to introduce ourselves in turn. We were a mixed group of Englishmen, Aussies, Americans, French, a Singaporean and myself.

We finally reached our destination, the school with the field in front of it.

Children start running to come see us.

As he gave us the lowdown about the school and village, some children ran over from the nearby houses, apparently wanting to greet us as well. Not surprisingly the requisite picture-taking of cute little black village kids started taking place, and I proved just as bad as some of the others. My favorite picture was of one kid carrying another on his back all while running across the football field though I also liked a picture I had taken of a guy taking a picture of a little angel wearing a red jacket and with two upright clumps of hair being oblivious and looking away from the guy’s camera and mine. Both pictures are below.

The primary school had grades one to seven and was made up of several small one-storey buildings. Not surprisingly the classrooms were crowded. There were some sobering facts about the school such as that many of the students were orphans due to their parents having mostly died from AIDS (This is a harsh reality in some poor and rural communities in SA as well). The village had no doctor so if somebody is sick, a car needs to be fetched or the person would just have to tough it out or die.  The nearest secondary school was two hour’s walk away and not many students go on to it. Most boys would be made to go tend their families’ cows and goats or work in the fields. In addition, most young people who go on to secondary school and even university did not return to the village to work, instead, in an echo of similar choices made by their peers in other countries, preferring the towns. This village-to-town migration plus the scourge of AIDS meant that “everywhere only the old ones (besides the kids) are left [in the village].” Life certainly seems harsh, but as Kabelo said, “it’s how we live, guys.”

The school was supported by the backpackers where we were all staying at, as well as the buying of crafts made by the community, which the teacher asked us to consider as he ended with a little sales pitch. Several people bought things but not me. At one point, when I walked up to him to ask him some questions, he thought I wanted to buy something and he clearly seemed disappointed when it was apparent I didn’t. I can’t say I didn’t feel a little guilty myself.

After the school visit, it was time for a hike to a nearby hilltop accompanied by laughing and screaming children who streamed out of huts along the way. The land seemed desolate and dry, especially since this was winter, with the grass yellow and what few trees there were mostly leafless, contrasting vividly with the scenic attractiveness of the mountains. On one side, the mountains looked like giant lumps of clay with folds pressed in on them while the mountains seemed to be coated with a sheer outer gold-black-brown surface. Those were where we going. By the time we got to where we needed to go, the children had become our “new guides,” as Sim put it, leading us while running up the trail effortlessly without any care as little children do. After stopping at the flat outcrop of rock that overlooked the valley, we started to eat our lunch, provided by our backpackers, which brought about an uncomfortable feeling over a typical development dilemma for me. As we munched on our cheese sandwiches and hardboiled eggs, the children played around us and I wondered whether we should be sharing our food with them, especially given their underprivileged statuses. Sure, they might have eaten already and their meal might have been much more sumptuous than ours, but maybe not, and besides, was it polite to eat in front of little children without offering them anything? But at the same time other thoughts went through my mind — our lunch wasn’t exactly much and also, there were quite a bit of kids so I shared with one or two, would the others feel jealous over not having any? Being the indecisive sap that I am, I decided to eat part of my lunch and put the rest away, while deciding to decide late on. This situation would resolve itself a little later on, which is a good effect of procrastinating in making decisions sometimes.

A lot of space, a lot of dirt, but too few trees and vegetation.

South Africa · Southern Africa travel · Travel

Lesotho-part 2

After lunch, next on the agenda was an anthropological lesson on Lesotho. Apparently this trip was also meant to have an educational purpose as Sim gave us an open-air lecture that brought me back to my university days, minus being outside of course. What started off seemingly as a short talk turned into an hour-long lesson on the history and culture of Lesotho. There was also an explanation of why and how the rondavels were used (tradition, the round shape makes them easy to build as all you need is a rope to design the base) with something about animist religion thrown in as well. One aspect apparently is that you don’t kill anything such as spiders or mice in the rondavel because it might be the spirit of an ancestor visiting you. Some people own both a rondavel and a regular rectangular hut because they practiced traditional beliefs in the rondavel. All in all, it actually wasn’t as dull as one might think though later on, my Singaporean pal John would tell me that I was probably the only one who was really paying attention. It’s funny because while I was trying to listen and taken down a few notes, I eventually got swarmed by several of the kids who took my notebook, scrawled incomprehensible words and scribbles in it and even hit me up for food, which I acceded. At one point, one boy, a serious-looking guy who had run up to me while we were walking up along the trail and stuck to me, held the notebook, stared at me intensely and said “mine.” I almost had to resist the urge to grab the notebook back because it wasn’t something I could just give away, having used it several times so that it had a lot of notes and contact info. I decided if necessary, I’d just ask Sim to get it back for me at the end and so I let the boy hold on to it. This same boy also asked me for food and as a result, he received a sandwich and a candy from me, as did another kid because I wanted to spread my offering as much as possible.

This little miss took some time to write in my notebook.

The way to the top. This was after our “Lesotho lecture.”

After the end of our “lesson,” Sim, our driver and guide who now was also our professor on Lesotho, told us to hike up to the top of the mountain we were on and after we came down, he’d show us some Bushman/San rock paintings. After waiting to retrieve my notebook from the boy and after Sim had taken a look at it because he was curious too, I went up too. At this point, the trail had petered off into a steep surface strewn with large rocks and hiking up to the top was really just scrambling through the boulders and trying to find the best way up, which even included having to cross a small stream. Reaching the top, I passed everybody else who were on their way down and I had the whole top to myself. Of course I couldn’t stay too long to enjoy this solitude because I needed to rejoin the group as well. The “top” proved to be part of a plateau that led to higher peaks in the distance while the edge gave a great view overlooking the valley and village below.

Looking down onto the village, you can see how dry and treeless the area is.

Further away, there were even higher peaks, more mountains and strangely, a batch of pine trees that I’m not sure it’s indigenous.

I could see Sim, in black jacket, and some of the kids and the other guys from on top.

By the time I came back down, something that proved trickier than coming up, Sim had started showing us the San cave paintings. These were actually not far from where we had lunch and they were, unfortunately, underwhelming. There were two reddish paintings in the shape of large antelopes (eland), one that was quite faded so that its outline wasn’t too clear and had been vandalized by white scratches marked over it. I had expected something more exquisite, based on what I had seen in other tourism brochures and ads. These specific paintings had not been preserved well as the people previously did not really know and appreciate their value, hence the vandalism. An attempt had been made to protect them as a crude earthen barrier had been built around the paintings.

The San cave paintings in red had unfortunately been scratched over but their shapes are very noticeable.

The San are the first-known inhabitants of Africa but their story is a sad one that contrasts sharply with their proud historical status. They are commonly known as Bushmen, but it is impolite to refer to them as that, Sim said as it was a little derogatory. Hunter-gatherers who moved around from place to place, they spoke in clicks, “not the one or two clicks like Zulu and Xhosa,” said Sim, but continuously. Ah clicks. The Zulus and Xhosas use tongue clicks, which sound like “tock,” in their language alongside normal verbal words, and it was impossible for me to understand or replicate how smoothly they can utilize a click in the middle of words without a break. As such, it is even more astounding how people could speak entirely in clicks. Sim, being quite the expert on local anthropology, gave us a few examples such as QwaQwa which has clicks before both Qwas, as in ‘click’ Qwa ‘click’ Qwa. He also was able to speak Sesotho and conversed easily with the locals for the entire time he was with us in Lesotho. He was from South Africa but I don’t know if he wasn’t Basotho as well.

Anyways coming back to the San and their cave paintings; these were quite famous and could be found across much of South Africa as well as parts of Botswana and Namibia. Done by smearing a kind of pigment made up of materials such as animal fat, fluids and plant juices onto cave walls, the paintings featured a lot of human figures and animals, especially the eland, a giant antelope that the San hunted and respected a lot. Earlier, Sim had told us how the San hunted with bows and arrows tipped with poison. Because you wouldn’t want to eat poisoned meat, the San only made their toxins strong enough to weaken and daze, not kill, their prey after being hit with their arrows. After this, the prey would actually continue moving on but gradually it would slow down, enough for the San to move in and kill it with knives or some other weapons, I presume. What was sad about the San were that they hardly existed in South Africa, having either been killed in clashes with Zulus and Europeans or died in European settler concentration and labor camps. Most San live in Namibia and Botswana but the number in South Africa is negligible, about 10,000. Their click-based language and their nomadic lifestyle made them barely human, in the eyes of Europeans, and a guide on another trip told us shockingly how in Namibia, it was even legal to “hunt” them up until the mid-20th century (1936 as the UNHCR says). Even now, San in other countries such as Botswana face a lot of hardships to maintain their lifestyle.

After viewing the rock paintings, we headed back to the village below, taking a different route from the one we had used to get up. This time we walked along a trail roughly parallel to the ground, passing several small caves along the mountainside. The kids, some of whom were as young as 3, followed us and because I took my time taking photos along the way, I ended up having to walk behind them and consequently I almost got lost coming into the village. More kids showed up and kind of pointed me to the path back to the school and one time a guy working on his land also told me where my group had gone. He also asked me if I smoked, gesturing that he wanted a cigarette but I don’t so I didn’t give him one. Sometimes people can be obnoxious or mildly threatening when they ask you for things and you don’t give them but not in this case as the guy didn’t seem to mind. Along the way, as I passed more huts and cows grazing in the yards whilst trying to avoid stepping onto manure, curious women and kids stared at me and I felt a little uncomfortable being the presumed center of attention as the idiot tourist lagging behind his group. By the time I reached the school where the group was, a little football scrimmage had broken out which went on for a while until Sim told us it was time for a drink.

We passed some caves on the way back down to the village.

Walking at the back of the group with the kids.

We were going to a shebeen, a village “bar” which in this village, is usually a hut with home-brewed liquor for sale. In South Africa, townships also had shebeens though in their case, it was more formal. Because the people are poor and cannot afford signs, they advertised their “wares” by flying a flag on a pole, Sim told us. The color of the flag denotes what kind of beer they’re selling. The shebeen we went to flew a yellow flag, which meant they were selling pineapple beer which we drank as a group by passing around a bucket of the whitish liquid. It went down alright and had a nice fruity flavor. After the drinks, we then ate some beef which someone else in a neighboring hut cooked for us. Having drunk home-made beer, it was time for the real thing. Cans of the nation’s beer Maluti, which is also the country’s name for the Drakensberg mountains, was brought out. Sold nowhere else but in Lesotho, several guys bought but I demurred, wanting to hold on to my cash. I did manage to get a little taste of it as John offered me a sip. Afterwards one of the guys who had bought a can told me it wasn’t too special. After the drinking, Sim took us to the Two Sisters, the neighborhood convenience store. More like a tuckshop than a 7-11, the store offered cellphone airtime, “scones,” “Russian boiled eggs” and “drink,” their handwritten blue sign outside advertised. It was a little brick structure that was linked to two adjacent shacks that had blue galvanize walls. A little further down the road was the “bus terminal” where a lone kombi (minitaxi) that already had some passengers waited to be full before leaving. I didn’t buy anything so I missed out on my chance to get Lesotho currency as a keepsake, something which I ever so slightly regret. By this time, it was mid-afternoon and we needed to leave as the border post closed at 4.30 p.m. Before we could start driving up the road to the pass, we had to wait at the bottom as a van struggled to ascend, its wheels raising a high cloud of dust as it tried to power up the winding, dusty road. Finally the van made it over and we started to drive. Having had no problems coming down when we came into the village in the morning, our van could barely go up and Sim told us we had to get out and walk it. Because three of us were in the last row, by the time we reached the door, Sim told us we could stay which we did. During this time, I could see cows grazing contentedly on the slope above the side of the road, even one at a steep angle not too far from us.

A rondavel, left, and the village shop.

The nation’s beer, left, and a horse munching on grass. Every single horse I saw had its head down grazing.

This van struggled to make it up, only succeeding after some stopping and starting.

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The rest of the guys walk up to our van because it initially couldn’t drive up the road while cows were grazing on the slope above us. After we cleared this road, it was only a short drive to the border post and then, we were out of Lesotho.