After Semonkong, we were off to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. First, some Lesotho trivia. The country is located in southern Africa and has a population of over just 2m. It is an enclave (entirely surrounded by South Africa), only one of three such countries in the world. And no offense to the pope and fine residents of San Marino, but your “countries” bear an eerie resemblance to cities, unlike Lesotho, which clocks in at almost 13,000 square miles.
On a less sanguine note, the country faces grim economic and health prospects. 40% of the population earns less than $1.25 a day. Lesotho also has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world, with almost 25% of the population infected. Fortunately, the country is progressing and the spirits of its people seem high.
After one night in Maseru we were off to South Africa to see a Queen cover band perform at a local town’s 100 year anniversary festival and then head back into the mountains of Lesotho.
The cover band put on a good show. At the end, lead singer was so into the show that he tore his shirt off. This served as a strong reminder that some things are universal across all nations: middle aged men should keep their shirts on in public.
Downtown Clarens was picturesque, unlike the townships which surrounded the city. The visit starkly illustrated that while apartheid in South Africa was officially over, its legacy was not. The thousands of attendees of the anniversary festival were 99.9% white, while its various “service workers” were 99.9% black. Friends shared stories of previous trips to Clarens where Americans who were of Indian origin were refused service since they were considered to be “colored”. South Africa is a country of great potential, but also a very painful history to overcome, as the spate of riots and strikes that have recently plagued the country unfortunately demonstrate.
Next up: Maliba, a beautiful mountain lodge back in Lesotho. I’ll let the pictures below tell most of the story, but want to share one anecdote. Dinner was Lesotho trout, which was caught in Lesotho. However, it hadto be exported to South Africa for processing then re-imported to Lesotho. As a “fresh fish” fan, this struck me as a bit ridiculous; akin to exporting apples from Washington State to Canada for Canadians to make apple pie to be sent back to Seattle. Imagine the controversy this would prompt at in a US presidential election.
Mitt Romney: President Obama has allowed socialists (i.e. Canadians) to take control of an item vital to America’s national security: apple pie.
Barack Obama: If Governor Romney were elected, he would continue to outsource the production of apple pie to third world countries (i.e. Canada), eventually making apple pie only available to the 1%.
One final thought. Lesotho brought an new term that I had not previous seen in Africa: “humped zebra crossings”. At first I was excited about the prospect of spotting a new African game animal, a camel zebra hybrid of sorts. As it turns out, the term referred to something entirely less exciting: speed bumps.
Usually, but not always, they would have a warning sign. However, the signs were always at varying distances before the actual bump. A bit like TSA security: you never know exactly what you need to take out or take off. Always keep them guessing, I suppose, or the motorists will win.
That’s it for Lesotho (other than breaking a hospital strike line in Maseru, a story for another day). Next up: the Philippines in December.
If you want to continue to receive occasional updates, subscribe on the top right of the page. I will attempt to keep cross-posting to facebook, but no promises.
Until next time.
“Is that hail?” I inquired as the raindrops beating against the hood of our CRV suddenly started to sound like a stream of pebbles. “Since when does it hail in Africa?” Within hours of landing in Maseru, it became apparent that Lesotho was unlike any other African country I have visited. It is aptly called “Africa’s mountain kingdom” and is the only country in the world that lies entirely above 4,500 feet.
We were on our way to Semonkong, a small village in the mountains (elevation: 7,464 ft). My host, Jenny, was a good friend and former roommate from Dallas who was completing part of her pediatrics residency in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital. Our goal was to complete the world’s longest abseil, a harrowing plunge down the side of Maletsunyane Falls.
We woke up at 6:30am for practice 75 ft abseil. Few things in life would have motivated me to remain awake after a 35 hour flight and 10 hour time change, but the prospect of free fall down the side of a cliff was decidedly one of them.
The drive to the gorge was stunning: a verdant landscape, shepherds and herdboys tending their flocks, and the usual African massage from the “roads” out to the valley. Things became real once we walked out to the edge of the waterfall. It really set in during the eight minutes it took Jenny to make it 670 feet down the side of the waterfall.
A few hundred years ago having the gene(s) that would makes one willingly walk off a 670 ft cliff would definitely have put one at the shallow end of the gene pull. Clearly what is considered desirable or adaptable from an evolutionary perspective has changed over time.
After completing the rappel (faster than most, supposedly), our guides took a liking to us and offered to take us rock climbing. I asked if they had climbing shoes I could borrow; not surprisingly the answer was not affirmative. “No problem, use your hiking boots.” Not one to turn down an adventure, I acquiesced.
After climbing out of the valley, we went to another series of cliffs to climb. Our lead guide went first. Suffice it to say it was not pretty. My grasp of Sesotho is poor, but I am quite sure the one syllable four letter word that punctuated our guide’s laborious ascent translated universally. After about ten minutes he reached the top. At this point, I was willing to call it a day, but relented to the guides’ peer pressure. I somehow managed to make it to the top (“He’s winning!” our guide screamed from below; I did not realize we were in competition), but not without a solid set of war wounds.
Semonkong served as an excellent introduction to both the beauty and adventure of Lesotho. Next up, we were to head into the capital (Maseru) for a night and then off into the Free State, essentially the West Virginia of South Africa. More on both in the second post.