Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Remote Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho

Day 101: Malealea, Lesotho
Yesterday, we drove six hours to the border of Lesotho (pronounced li-soo-too), an independent kingdom the size of Belgium completely surrounded by South Africa. In the early nineteenth century, the king Moshoeshoe was successful at repeatedly defending his mountaintop villages from the forces of Shaka Zulu, the Dutch, and the British. Ultimately, Lesotho ended up becoming a sovereign nation. When we crossed the border, the contrast with South Africa was obvious: the level of development reminded me of Rwanda. Shabby shops constructed of corrugated metal lined the road as we drove through Mafeteng, one of the largest cities in Lesotho. We climbed through the picturesque mountains for about an hour before coming to the Gates of Paradise Pass, which features a commanding view of the scenic countryside. These peaks are part of the Drakensberg, the highest mountain range in Southern Africa. In fact, Lesotho is the highest country in the world – the entire kingdom lies above 1,400 meters (4,593 feet). The lonely shepherds leading their flocks through the rugged terrain wore patterned blankets to guard against the cold. Between the crisp air, the undulating landscape, and Lesotho's history of fiercely guarding its unique culture against South Africa, the mountain kingdom seemed like an African version of Tibet.

Sheep crossing road, Gates of Paradise Pass, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A herd of sheep cross a dirt road on the Gates of Paradise Pass in Lesotho.

It was only twenty minutes down from the pass to the tiny town of Malealea, where we would stay for two nights. The campsite had closed down the camping area for the winter, so we were able to stay in their bungalows for free. I dropped my bags off in the room and walked over to the nearby lounge while Chad cooked dinner in the adjacent kitchen. Many of the places we have stayed on the Nomad tour have nice indoor lounges with fireplaces, cushy couches and chairs, and electrical outlets for charging laptops and camera batteries. Although Lesotho wasn't as cold as we were expecting, it was still nice to warm up by the fire.

In the morning, I opened the door to the small bungalow I shared with Wesley, and sunlight illuminated the dark room. There on the corner of my bed crawled a gigantic caterpillar with long, feathery, stinging hairs. Luckily it never made it up to the bare skin around my face or neck during the night. A girl on the Oasis trip was stung by a caterpillar on her neck while she slept in her tent, and it caused a painful, swollen rash.

After breakfast, we went on a tour of the village of Malealea. We visited the small local general store to buy some candy to give to children at the school we were visiting later. We learned about home-made beer-brewing techniques, tried the local tea, and visited a sheep kraal (corral).

Farmland at sunset, Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
Farmland at sunset, Malealea, Lesotho

Shepherd in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A shepherd walks along a dirt path in Malealea, Lesotho.
Huts in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
Huts in Malealea, Lesotho

After two hours, we arrived at the school. All the houses and other buildings in the village are spread out, and there are few roads – we walked through crop terraces to get to the school. We met some of the teachers and students, and the school administrator told us about the hardships faced by the school. Some of the students wore uniforms. Many did not. Uniforms are a major expense for families in this poor region. Students become bilingual at an early age because classes are taught in both English and Sesotho, the language of Lesotho. In fact, Lesotho has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. We left just as the children began to eat their lunch of maize meal porridge provided by the school. Our last stop on the way back was at a preschool, where the children performed a dance for us, and the teachers joined in. The people of Lesotho are called Basotho, and they are among the friendliest I have encountered in Africa.

Preschool teacher in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A teacher stands outside a preschool in Malealea, Lesotho.
Female student in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A female student smiles in a classroom in Malealea, Lesotho.
Male student in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A male student stands outside a school in Malealea, Lesotho.

Classroom in Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A classroom in Malealea, Lesotho

After lunch, I set out on a long hike through the surrounding landscape. Most of the group chose to do the trek on horseback, but I rode a horse in Zimbabwe, and I also wanted to focus on taking photographs. We walked for ages from the hilltop where Malealea sits down into a river valley. The river at the bottom is unique – in certain areas, it runs completely through a channel of solid rock that has been worn into smooth, wave-like shapes by the flowing water. We had to cross the river numerous times as it snaked back and forth through the steep walls of the mountains, and each crossing was more treacherous than the last. We balanced on slippery rocks, jumping from one to another across the fast-flowing water. The river was not deep, but none of us wanted to get wet. It probably would have been easier to just wade barefoot to the other side. We finally made it to the waterfall, where we met the others who came on horseback. We admired the sheltered pool and the mossy rock walls while we refueled on cereal bars, and then we trekked back along the river and up the hillside to Malealea.

Waterfall near Malealea, Lesotho © Matt Prater
A waterfall near Malealea, Lesotho

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