Monday, December 17, 2012

Southern Africa Land Cruise 3 - Lesotho

For those who need a map to understand where things are. Richards Bay is northeast of Durban along the coast in inset map. On the big map, Sani Pass is in the southeast corner of Lesotho near the "g" in Mokotlong. Maliba lodge is near Mahobong in the north. Mamohau, Mahlefekane, and Katse are north of Thaba Tseka. Semonkong is shown.

After our visits to the game parks and battlefields we returned to our boats in Richards Bay to do some boat work and relax and then it was off to Lesotho for our second 'land cruise'. Lesotho is a tiny country that is completely surrounded by South Africa. It is sometimes called the 'kingdom in the sky' because the lowest point in the country is about 3200 feet above sea level and most of the country is mountainous with some areas over 10,000 feet. It is a very beautiful and very poor country with a huge AIDS problem, with more than 20% of adults HIV Positive. After I retired from teaching in 2006 I went to Lesotho to volunteer so to some extent is was a chance to revisit an old stomping ground.

Lesotho's lowland area is on the northern side of the country and accordingly that is where most of the border crossings are. We decided to enter on the south side over Sani Pass. Our first day took us near the border in the Drakensberg range of mountains. We stayed at this self-catering spot on a farm near Underberg. We had this entire house with two large bedrooms and a huge living area in-between that even had a ping pong table. Accommodation in South Africa tends to be pretty cheap and quite high quality.

The South African police do not allow you to enter Sani Pass unless you have a 4 x 4. Here we are in our Mitsubishi Crew Cab on a fairly typical part of the Pass. We even used the low range of the 4 x 4 in a couple of places. It was a real stump puller. Soon after starting up Sani Pass we were into the clouds. We rose above them just before we got to the Lesotho border at around 10,000'
You never know what is around the next bend of the road in Lesotho.
This guy was much more curious than most sheep. June keeps telling me about the lovely white sheep in Wales. He would not qualify. It was sheering season and we saw a lot of bald sheep too.

What you don't expect in Lesotho, a five-star hotel. Maliba Mountrain Lodge is located in a national park and has a new paved road with 30 speed bumps in about 15 km. They meet you in the parking lot with hot towels which is a nice touch when you have been driving on some pretty crummy, dusty roads.

We did not stay in the main part of the lodge which was a bit pricey for our budget, if not our tastes. Instead we had this chalet which had four bedrooms, three baths and two decks over the river right behind the house. The price for the four of us was less than $100 and it was self-catering which saved us the cost of restaurant meals. Lonely Planet consider Lesotho to be one of the best value destinations in the world.

These girls are students at Mamohau High School, the residential school I taught at in the Highlands. The school was not in good shape with many broken windows that still had broken glass on the ground. When I was there the principal was rarely present since he was busy running his private businesses. It appeared that things had gotten worse, at least in the repair of the buildings.

Thee are the two classrooms that I taught in most often at Mamohau. The vice-principal disappeared for two weeks and he taught the Form E (like grade 12) English classes, so I had two of those. The Form E math teacher was away sick (not a good thing to hear in Lesotho) the entire time I was there so I taught those two classes. At the end of Form E the kids write the Cambridge overseas exams at the English CSE level. If they pass they can go to the country's university or its college and the government pays. Most students do not pass, with math being the killer subject. Remarkably, the country spends more on education as a percent of its GDP than any other country. They are really trying but there is much room for improvement in teaching.

I was really looking forward to seeing this building at Makelefane Primary School which was even higher in the mountains along a 4 x 4 road to a diamond mine. When I was there, two classes were held in a tent (think wedding reception tent) even though it snows up here pretty often. The local people decided to do something about it and started building using only a shovel, a long steel rod to dig rocks out of the ground, a hammer for shaping the rocks, and  a long string, made of woven grass, that they used for the layout. The problem was that they had no money for doors, windows, or roof. Our charity, Help Lesotho, agreed to buy these and it was my job to figure exactly what to buy (at a good price) and get it delivered to the mountains. Here is the result (we did not buy the blue paint).
In contrast to Mamahau, Makelefane showed real civic pride. Everything was impeccably clean and in good repair and since my time there, a new kitchen building (kids are given breakfast and lunch) and new latrines had been built as had a water line from a nearby spring. The principal of this school was a real force of nature and demanded the best from her teachers. Unfortunately she was killed in a car accident a few years ago, but her legacy appears to be in good shape.

Inside the school building. My innovation was the purchase of some fibreglass panels for the roof. They have the same profile as the corrugated metal sheets and make the interior much brighter. Walls are plastered with mud. Don't know who gave them the Canadian flag.
This is the Katse Dam, the second largest dam in Africa (185 m high). It is the centre of the enormous Highland Water Project which diverts water to South Africa and generates most of Lesotho's hydro power. So far there are two dams and three diversion tunnels. A third dam and another tunnel have been agreed on and there could be more in the future. The  next picture was taken along the little platform to the left of where the water is coming out.
Hard to take this picture since the dam overwhelms your perspective and it curves in two directions. We were lucky enough to get a tour inside the dam wall. There is a lot more to it than just a concrete wall with many walkways, stairways, control structures and a laser survey system to determine if the structure is shifting in any direction. Unfortunately they do  not allow photos inside.
This is the water diversion tunnel for the Highlands Water Project. From here a 12 m diameter tunnel goes 48 km to the north to a hydro-electric plant. From there another long tunnel takes the water into South Africa. Eventually the water is used in the rapidly growing Gauteng (Johannesburg) area.

This is the Katse highway just where it starts its descent from the Highlands toward the lowlands and South Africa to the north. You can see the road in the lower right corner and snaking back and forth along the right side of the photo. A good highway was needed for the dam construction because trucks with ready-mix concrete came on average every 40 minutes for several years. Once the concrete pour started it could not be stopped until it was done. The whole project was most impressive. It generates quite a lot of money for Lesotho but unfortunately not many jobs.

We stayed in these 'rondavels' at Semonkong Lodge south of Maseru, the capital city. These are modern versions of traditional houses. The people of Lesotho are wonderful stone masons. The road to Semonkong was very much under construction as a new, fully-paved road was being built. A much needed paved road is also going to be built between here and Katse. This is much needed as east-west travel in the Highlands is very hard. If the architecture makes you think of the Lord of the Rings, it should/ Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein which is not far away.

Inside our rondavel. The fireplace was much appreciated since the nights were chilly.
We visited Semonkong on the busy shopping day of the week. People ride their horses or lead their donkeys for as long as  4 hours each way to do their shopping and meet their friends. Most are shepherds who sell their wool to Chinese buyers.

Lew showing a picture in Semonkong. He is not that big. Most Basuto people, and especially men, are quite slight. The wearing of blankets is traditional although today they tend to be polyester rather than homespun wool.
Many, many stores in Lesotho are owned by Chinese people who come here to make some money with every intention of going back to China. I bought 99 pairs of school shoes for kids at Makelefane from a woman from Beijing. The store is still there, but has been sold to new owners. The older man here owns quite a large, mainly food store  in Semonkong. The other store, which is more of a general store is also Chinese-owned. He told June that he would like to hand the store on to family members at some point and retire to China, or he may just sell the store. The younger fellow is his nephew. He came to Lesotho for some adventure and has no interest in staying very long.

We rented horses and went for a trail ride at Semonkong. Lesotho 'ponies' are famous for their stamina and sure-footedness over difficult terrain. June had a very nice horse. Mine only had one (slow) speed. I asked the guide if mine was old and he said, no, just lazy.

We rode our horses to this, the tallest waterfall in southern Africa. You can rapel down the cliff to the left of the waterfall. It is supposed to be the highest commercial rapel in the world (204 m)

June was fascinated by the women carrying things on their heads - in some cases even their purses. When we bought a large bag of cheesies at the store in Semonkong she had her chance and did very well walking about a half mile on a rough road and down a big hill with only a couple hand corrections. She wasn't interested in trying a bucket full of water for some reason. By the way, South African cheesies are much superior to those in North America - good flavour and some substance to them. You can actually chew them.


Rhys said...

I like the visual non-sequitur of "giant dramatic waterfall" followed by "June with giant bag of Cheesies on her head".

Very interesting stuff, Bruce. Did you pick up any of the native languages when teaching?

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