Hiking in Lesotho

In a continuation of poor planning, I bought a plane ticket from Bloemfontein to Cape Town,  which only left me 2 days to go to Lesotho. I tried to make the most of it, but I wished I could have spent at least a week in the country. Unfortunately, I had a cargo ship to catch in Cape Town, and some things to settle with the fishing company which had chartered the ship.

The Lesotho adventure really began at the border post. I would have taken pictures, but authorities frown upon that in most countries. I drove to a gate, but there was no booth or agent. I saw someone across the street and he told me to park my car there and walk to a counter about 25 meters away. To be clear, this was a two lane road, so my parked car effectively closed the border for traffic coming from South Africa! A guy in civilian clothes then looked at my passport and told me to go see a uniformed lady behind a desk. She made me fill a immigration form and stamped my passport. She then told me to go another booth, where another uniformed gentleman who would collect the border fee. I paid him the equivalent of 3 or 4 dollars, and then yet another person opened the gate so I could drive through with my car. All in all, at least 5 people worked there, and I never saw another “client”. To be fair, I crossed there to avoid the border post near the capital, which I was told sometimes has significant delays. Nevertheless, the culture of “make work” was obvious.

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You know you’re in a remote place when the road to an international border post is unpaved (surprisingly, it’s paved on the Lesotho side).

Throughout Southern Africa, including very modern areas of South Africa, you see a lot of overstaffed businesses. The jobs don’t pay much (minimal wage for domestic staff is less than $200 a month in South Africa) but there doesn’t seem to be a desire to diminish the size of the payroll. I spoke to a few B&B owners and they told me they employed more people than they really needed, but that it was the thing to do. Every small B&B I stayed in had a gardener, a maid or two and the owners. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine more than one employee being truly required in these places. In a country with nearly 25% unemployment, where people on government assistance live on a fraction of minimal wage, these jobs are very welcomed no matter what the motivation.

I used to avoid renting cars outside North America and Europe, but I am getting a little less shy in that department. Lesotho was not so bad. I did cause a little chaos driving through the capital though. I saw a large bump on the road painted in white stripes, large signs reading “Pedestrian crossing” and people waiting on the side of the road, looking at the oncoming traffic. Obviously, I stopped. After a few moments of hearing cars behind me honking, and pedestrians not crossing, but rather staring at me, probably wondering if I had run out of gas, I got it. While the signs suggest otherwise, Lesotho uses the universal traffic rules: smaller yields to bigger.

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Upon arriving in Malealea, I hired a guide through my lodge owner to go hiking in the valley towards a place where ancient cave paintings can be seen.

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Dividing farmland in plateaus helps fight erosion and crop rotation helps get good yield with limited use of fertilizers. Both of these things also happen to create incredible landscapes for the very few passing tourists to enjoy.

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I love it when the clouds cooperate :-)

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The valley; a great place for hiking. My guide was called Malealea. Yes, his name is the same as the village’s name. Apparently a common name in the area. I joked that if he shared the village name, he must be the king of the place. He answered that he was actually related to the King… of Lesotho! I opted not investigate any further.

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I mainly took the picture for the clothes. I hate the cold and I prefer to dress warmly. However, the valley was quite hot and I was very comfortable in a t-shirt, especially hiking. Malealea is not a hunchback, but he looks that way because he is wearing about 6 layers of sweaters and jackets. In the morning, I saw the lodge’s night guard. Admittedly, it gets chilly at night (maybe 10C – 50F), but the guard was wearing snow pants! Anyways, the point is the locals really don’t like the cold and their clothes just cracked me up.

Malealea is also a professional photographer (weddings and other special occasions). Discussing his business was very eye opening to the local realities. His biggest recurring cost is the bus fare to the nearest city where he can get his pictures developed. Bus fare is the equivalent of $9 (one way or each way, I forgot but it’s a lot of money either way by local standards). The process cannot be done online, as there is no internet access at all in Malealea. He was considering buying a printer to produce the photos himself and asked my opinion. While I don’t know anything about shopping for electronics in Lesotho, I suggested he look carefully at the cost and availability of ink. The printer might be cheap, but not the ink. Since he did have access to a computer (without an internet connection), my suggestion was that he buy a memory stick and mail it to town with return postage for the printed photos and stick. He said he would look into it next time he went to town. I think he didn’t know how cheap memory sticks had become – in fact, less than bus fare!

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The cave paintings. They are 450 years old, made by the San people (better known as Bushmen) at a time when they occupied the area, which they no longer do. Malealea had a printout made by some expert describing the art and its significance, but I was far more interested in the lives of the current inhabitants of the area.

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Malealea taking a break while I explore a cave. I’m certain he didn’t need a break; he was just not interested enough in the cave to walk in some sort of animal poop like I did.

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A dried riverbed. With only a few feet of earth over the bedrock, you don’t need to be an expert to understand that erosion is a big concern for the local population, who mainly live of subsistence farming and small scale cattle ranching.

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A traditional house, round with a thatched roof. Some villagers now make them rectangular, with cinder blocks instead of stones and a metal roof, so the villages are a mix of old and new. The stone structures on the right are elevated gardens in which vegetables are grown. The elevation and the fencing are to protect them from grazing animals, as the village is not fenced. The villages around Malealea are very small, only a few tens of people live in them, but there are many villages. I think the requirements for lots of pastures for cattle prevents large concentrations of population in traditional areas.

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You can see why elevated, fenced vegetable gardens are required!

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Late in the afternoon, a villager with a dozen cows. Those few cows certainly provide for several villagers. While watching that, I remembered something I had read a few years ago about North American pig farms, which have thousands of pig heads on average, but only a few workers. To think that someone, or possibly more than one person, takes care of 12 cows full-time is certainly a very different reality.

#Lesotho

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