Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom

I recently went to Lesotho in vacation. Lesotho is a country that is totally within the borders of South Africa. The lowest elevation in Lesotho is higher than the lowest elevation of any other country on earth. It is sometimes called the "Nepal of Africa." (And interestingly, it is home to the only ski resort in Africa).

The trip involved going hiking for 5 days up into the mountains, staying in remote villages, and then returning to our lodge. I greatly underestimated the distance we would be traveling and how rough the terrain would be. The trip is typically done on horseback, but to save on cost, we decided to hike it and only have a pack horse. In 4 days of hiking, we traveled over 80km (50 miles). 

The first day started out relatively flat and we crossed a river over a small bridge. After stopping for lunch, we continued on through several small villages. In each village children would run excitedly to the path and some even walked along for a while. After hiking for 6-7 hours, we stopped for water at a spring. We were near a village and someone asked the guide how much farther we had to go. He pointed at a mountain in the distance and told us we were going to climb it and that the village where we would spend the night would be just beyond it. My first thought was "Surely he must be joking." We had been hiking all day and done some pretty rigorous climbing. As it turns out, I was wrong. Our guide wasn't joking. We climbed the mountain, go over the other side and found the first village we would be staying it. It was a brutally long day but the little village we stayed in was great. It was perched on the side of a hill and was made up of maybe 2 dozen huts. It was also isolated. To get food or other goods, the villagers have to hike over the same mountain we did and then back again.

We got up the next morning around 5:30 to prepare breakfast, pack up, and hike to the next village we would be staying in. As we passed by a house on the edge of the village, several people came out and began talking with our guide. He translated that they had just bought a generator and a television but couldn't get either of them to work. The manual for the generator was in English and none of the people understood it. We had our guide translate the manual and then got the generator going. We plugged in the TV and the DVD player and everyone's eyes lit up and they smiled when we put on a DVD. I guess its possible no one in that hut had ever seen a TV before.

The days were spent hiking through beautiful, rugged terrain. Some of the paths were quite steep and there was a lot of hiking down one side of a gorge and then right back up the other. My legs were beat. Then we would get to the village where we were going to stay the night and I got to sit down and take my shoes and socks off. Words can barely describe the joy I felt removing shoes and socks after hiking for 8+ hours each day. 

We stayed an extra day in the last village to get a chance to rest and also to go on a short hike to see a waterfall. After all the walking, it was nice to rest my legs and the waterfall turned out to be worth seeing. We hiked for about an hour to get to a point where we could see it. Some of use decided to hike up to get underneath the waterfall and go swimming. The weather was cloudy and cool and the water temperature could not have been above 50 degrees but I still jumped in for a few seconds. Its not everyday I get to see a waterfall.

The last day was another long hike out and was pretty uneventful until the last 2 hours. A large thunderstorm moved in and it poured cold rain on us the rest of the way back to lodge. Everything I had got soaked and I was shivering. The wind blew so hard the rain seems to be falling sideways. We got back to the lodge and I took a nice hot shower and tried to wash a week's worth of filth.

The trip was exhausting, but well worth it. Lesotho is a fascinating and beautiful place and the villages we saw remain virtually untouched by tourism. It was also refreshing to see large mountains and grass after living in the desert for 20 months. It is a trip I would do again in a heartbeat.