October 18-21, 2008
I wrote the majority of the two prior blog posts while Pnina and I took a break from driving in a small town called Clarens. We didn’t know anything about that town – it just seemed to be large enough to have an internet cafe. It turned out to be a beautiful place and I’m sure that if Pnina and I return to South Africa one day then we’ll spend at least one night there.
While I was busy at the computer, Pnina wandered through the small shopping center and ended up in at the Helen Claasen Art Gallery. She struck up a conversation with the manager, Lali Mograbi.
Lali is also Jewish, and she told us a bit about how her family happened to move to South Africa. Her grandfather, who was a pretty religious guy, left Palestine more than a hundred years ago looking for another home. He first tried Argentina, but he rejected it because all that tango didn’t sit well with his conservative ways. Then he found South Africa and he stayed; I guess it was conservative enough for him. When we said that Clarens looks like a great little town Lali made a face. She said that it has a lot of recent transplants (mostly retirees) who are OK, but it also has a bunch of farmers whose families have been around for generations and who are still set in their old (Apartheid era) ways. Lali invited us to stay for coffee but we had to rush to reach the Lesothu border before it closed, so we begged off.
At the border we had to pull the car over and open up our trunk to show a policeman our stuff. When he gave us the OK we got back into the car, Pnina into the driver’s seat and me into the passengers seat. Before we took off, the policeman leaned in and said to me “you don’t drive?” I guess he found it weird to see the woman driving while the man sits shotgun. I think we surprised a lot of people with our unorthodox driving ways.
Driving in Lesothu is like driving in one big national park — there are beautiful mountains everywhere.
It’s also a bit of a challenge because the highway keeps going through small towns and in these towns people like to walk either on the street or very close to the street, so there are obstacles to avoid everywhere. Here’s an example:
I’m pretty sure there was some kind of protest going on.
In villages around Lesothu you will often see flags drawn up from homes. These flags (which are often just plastic bags) indicate what kind of products can be purchased in that home. Yellow means maize beer, white is for another kind of beer, green means vegetables, and red stands for meat. Here’s an example:
Our guidebook recommended a couple of towns in Lesothu for outdoor activities: Malealea and Semonkong. We reached a fork in the road and we had to make a choice – which of them would we head towards? We ended up choosing Malealea. It was a fairly random choice, but it was probably a good choice. The last 7 km to Malealea are a rough dirt road that takes you over a mountain pass, and we did all this after dark. By contrast, to reach Semonkong you need to traverse a 60 km dirt road that is supposed to be much rougher.
At the end of the dirt road we found Malealea Lodge, which is the only place to stay in this tiny village. Put bluntly, Malealea lodge is a kind of compound for white tourists in a black town. The tourists come mostly from Holland, America, or Germany, generally in big bus-fulls, and are often older than your average backpacker.
We didn’t have a reservation so we took the only accommodation they had to offer, which was a somewhat pricy ($40) bungalow. At least it was nice:
Also, the lodge has some cool funky decor, like this collection of hats from around the world:
The big attraction in Malealea is pony trekking. The idea is that you go on horseback from Malealea to one or more remote villages and stay the night in rustic huts with no electricity or flushing water. Along the way you see the scenery and learn about life in Lesothu. We were thinking about doing this kind of trip but decided to revise when we learned that it costs $30 per person per day, not including lodging or food. It’s not a giant sum of money, but we have a full year ahead of us and we need to conserve. So, we decided to do the same trip minus the ponies. In other words, we hired a guide and carried our own stuff.
Here are some photos from our trek…
The trek was pretty tough. It wasn’t as steep as the climb we did in Cathedral Peak, but the heat was brutal. Starting around 11 AM (maybe earlier) it became really uncomfortably hot, and it remained that hot until close to 4 PM.
We hiked about 6.5 hours the first day, then dropped our packs at the village where we stayed the night and continued another couple of hours with a different guide to see a nearby waterfall. In keeping with our Cathedral Peak tradition, we made it pretty close to the waterfall but not quite there — we ran out of daylight. Here’s what we did see:
On the second day we walked about 5.5 hours and then did a tough 3 hour detour down a canyon to look at some cave paintings done by a race of people called the San:
Our trail took us through various villages. Every now and then a random villager would tag along, walk with us for an hour, and then split off when he reached his destination. For example, this guy, Tuma, walked with us for a good couple of hours. He was on his way to another village to have his maize ground into meal. Most of the guys we met along the way were dressed in a similar way – rubber boots, warm hat, and a big blanket (despite the heat!).
Tsepo and Life in Lesothu
As mentioned above, our guide for the trek was Tsepo. Tsepo is 30. He has a wife, Makeneuoe (which means “gift”), and a son, Atang (which means “strong”). But they don’t live together. His wife works as a housemaid in the capital, Maseru, in order to help them save enough money to build their home (total cost $80!). Meanwhile Atang is being raised by her parents.
We asked Tsepo what his wedding was like and he said that they didn’t really have a wedding. Marriage is handled completely between the man and woman. He asked her to date him. Five months later he asked her to marry him. She agreed, and that was that. No ceremony, no paperwork, no ring, nothing fancy. By the way, around this time I noticed that I lost my own ring! Luckily, it’s not my real wedding ring, but a cheap substitute I brought along to the trip for exactly this reason. I have no idea where I lost it.
The terminology in Lesothu can get confusing. The country is called Lesothu (pronounced Le-so-too). The language is Sesothu. The people are called Basothu. Got it?
People in Lesothu don’t own the land where they live and work. The land is appropriated to them by the local chief, upon request. The chief also doesn’t own the land — the king does. Lesothu also has a Prime Minister, though, and he is chosen by elections. The PM mostly handles interior matters while the king handles foreign affairs. In each village there is just one chief, but there are also a bunch of sub-chiefs, and new sub-chiefs can be selected at any time. Tsepo said that he has no interest in becoming a sub-chief because it involves too much politics, e.g. convincing other sub-chiefs that soil erosion is a real issue that must be dealt with, stuff like that.
Tsepo said that the lodge has a rotation system for guides. There are two groups of guides – group A and group B. Each week they alternate which group gets to go. This wasn’t actually his week, but none of the walking guides on duty wanted to come along for our two day trip, so he filled in. Maybe those other guides wanted to avoid two full days walking in the sun.
Kids Want Candy
In every town we were greeted by young kids — they all ran up saying “hello” or “bye bye”. We soon learned that they all hoped we would give them candy. We had none. Early on (before we realized what the kids were after) Pnina gave one of the kids a sort of crystal rock she found along the way. You can imagine the disappointment on the kid’s face; it was hillarious in the most awful way possible.
The one thing we did bring to hand out was a couple of extra pens. But it was impossible to give those out because we were always greeted by a group of kids and we didn’t want to make any of them jealous.
At some point along the trail we were stopped by a woman. She asked us (via Tsepo) to give her some sweets. We were pretty surprised. It’s one thing to see kids asking for candy, but a grown woman? Well, we gave her the pens. About that time I noticed that she also had a cellphone, so I’m not sure how needy she was. It’s all very confusing.
At another stop, while Tsepo and I went off to get water from a spring, Pnina was approached by another woman. She asked Pnina for candy, then for her hat, then for her book. Letoshu’ans are pretty direct.
Our Overnight Stay
At the remote Basothu village, before it became too dark, Pnina and I played a game of dice with Tsepo outside. We flipped over a tin bucket to use as a table, which made quite a lot of noise and attracted a bunch of spectators from the village. Pnina made a huge comeback in the last turn to take the lead. Good times all around.
The stars were amazing that night. That’s what happens when you have no electricity and therefore no light polution. And I finally got a chance to see the southern cross, which I have to say is a little disappointing – it was upside down and not really all that cross-like.
Sleeping was a little tough. We kept hearing cowbell from the goats outside, our hut’s door swung open in the middle of the night from the wind, and around 4 AM a rooster outside crowed 8 times without pausing for breath.
Nick & Eve
During our overnight stay in the remote village, we met another couple traveling in Lesothu:
This is Eve and Nick. They are a Welsh couple, med students currently in their last year, and they are doing a hospital rotation in the capital of Lesothu (Maseru). We asked them what kind medical conditions they deal with and they said a lot of HIV/AIDS, a lot of TB, and a lot of accidents involving kids being kicked by donkeys or falling off donkeys. But no malaria – Lesothu is far too high for malaria. By the way, Pnina and I are both taking malaria pills though we’re taking different kinds. My pills (Doxy-somethingorother) is taken daily. They are cheap pills but they have the side effect of making me even more prone to sunburns, and in fact I got an annoying sunburn in Lesothu.
We met up with Nick & Eve again after we all returned to Malealea lodge, they on horseback and we on our (very sore) feet, and we met once again for dinner. We asked them how much they tipped their guide and they said about $3/day, which is roughly what we gave our guide. We said that our guide gave a very deadpan expression in response to the tip so we weren’t sure if he was pissed off or what. They said that it appears to be a very Lesothu thing to not say much in response to a gift. They had a few patients at the hospital who received a lot of attention for days, but when the care was done they just stood up and left without saying a word. Strange.
The morning after our hike we packed up, said good bye to Malealea Lodge, and headed down to Quthing. Our goal was to see some dinosaur footprints we read about in our book, supposedly the most well preserved dinosaur footprints around. It turned out the be a crappy experience all around.
I had my sunburn and I somehow always managed to be on the sunny side of the car. Pnina developed an upset stomach, which is a very strange thing (I’m the one with the weak stomach usually). When we reached Quthing we drove around for an hour looking for the dinosaur footprints and nobody could help us much because nobody spoke English there. Eventually we found it:
And the footprints were very underwhelming:
I think we had our hopes up because we saw photos that Nick and Eve took of some footprints elsewhere in Lesothu, and those prints looked very cool.
Driving to the Garden Route
We left Lesothu and headed southwest towards the Garden Route. We had a pretty long drive that we did in two chunks. On the first day we drove through thick fog around Seymour and made it as far as Port Elizabeth before crashing for the night at Lungile Backpackers. On the second day we drove the rest of the way to Storms River, our gateway to the Garden Route.
South African drivers are very courteous. There’s a standard game that plays out when one car wants to pass another. If there’s a shoulder, the car in front veers to the left and drives over the yellow line to make room. The car behind passes and then flips on the hazard signals brielfy as a way of saying “thanks”. The car in back then flashes its lights as a way of saying “you’re welcome”. This kind of thing happens all the time.
Along the way we saw some pretty entertaining road signs. This was our favorite:
Other good ones:
- caution – falling trees
- feeding of baboons prohibited
- traffic calming (another name for a speed bump)
- hazard sign with a cow and a phone number to call should you see a cow
All this driving meant we had lots of time to listen to South African radio. Things that I found interesting about that:
- There are stations that use local South African languages, and there are stations that mix English and Afrikaans. We found few stations that were all English.
- In a given area you’ll find several stations carrying the same signal, which makes you wonder whether you really pressed the seek button or not.
- There’s a lot of talk radio. Even the music stations take long breaks for talk segments.
- During our drive we heard the PM do a kind of state-of-the-union address talking about the government budget and how money will be spent in the following year. It was very refreshing to see the budget discussed so openly, while in the US the appropriations bill is an 11,000 page document that isn’t widely discussed at all, let alone by the president.
As an alternative to all this driving, some backpackers use the Baz Bus hen traveling in South Africa. This is a hop-on, hop-off, door-to-door bus service gearead for backpackers. By not using the Baz Bus I feel like we missed out on a lot of insider tips on where to go and what to do (though we did have an easier time reaching some out of the way places). When we stayed in Port Elizabeth we found a couple of free booklets (Coast to Coast and Alternative Route) that list all the backpacker hostels around South Africa and a few neighboring countries. These books are awesome and they really fill in the detail missing from our Lonely Planet guide.
I finally had a chance to catch up on the various blogs I read regularly, including the Redfin blog. That was when I discovered that Redfin laid off 20% of its employees roughly one week after Pnina and I left on our trip. The layoffs were spurred largely because of a sharp drop in home purchases, which in turn was caused by the troubles in the housing/mortgage/financial markets. Among the people who were asked to leave were a few engineers who I worked with. They are good friends and I wish them the best. Despite this layoff, I have a lot of confidence in Redfin and I wish everyone at Redfin all the best. I have to say that it’s a little weird discovering the news a week after the fact; I feel pretty disconnected, though I guess that’s part of the point of going on a trip like this.
Before we left on the trip Pnina took the MCAT (med school entrance exam). She just got her scores back and she is disappointed. As a result, she most likely will not apply to med school this time around. She is currently mulling over whether to take the test again soon after we return from the trip or whether to put that efford on hold.