A Long Way through the Malutis

Location

Destination: 

Maluti Mountains

Country: 

Lesotho
Trip Participants

Participants: 

Sanjay
Amit
Andrew Luke
Jono Heher
Marna Van der Merwe
Graeme Mcferen
Carry
Simon Donnaly

 … 2008-04-30, Wednesday, 05:00 … I stumbled in the dark trying to put on layers of warm clothing. Than I brushed, made my bed and said my prayers. I suspected I was going to need some divine intervention to keep us safe for our hike in the Lesotho Maluti Mountains. 05:30 we went to pick up Amit. Already there were many cars on the road, probably people going to work in Sandton, Fourways, Midrand and other outlying areas. Amit was busy cramming things down the 65 liter capacity backpack he had borrowed. In the end we discarded certain items and took what was required for ‘Life & Death’ situations. I don’t understand why he didn’t pack the Johnny Walker we had left over from the last hiking trip …

… the road on the drive up to the Bokong Nature Reserve was very windy and we had to be weary of fallen rocks. At more than 3000 meters above sea level, the reserve is one of the highest nature reserves in Africa. We were surprised to find a park warden waiting for us at the Mafika Lisiu Pass, the designated starting point of our hike. When we stepped out of the car to strectch our legs and admire the view we could already feel the chill in the air. 

… Thursday morning Jono was up first, followed by Amit and I. We wandered outside to be greeted by a clear blue sky. The sun was creeping over the ridge. Amit and I rushed back up the mountain, to watch the sun rise, and to see where we veered off the path last night. The sun was already shining upon the Bokong Visitor’s Centre. I had mentioned that possibility to Amit yesterday. We had a choice of sleeping in tents in the cold and watching the sun rise, or, staying in a warm hut and getting a good nights’ rest. We had made our choice. After getting some vitamin D we went down to meet the others by the waterfall view point. After breakfast we packed up and headed for the hills. Already I was falling behind, with Carey just ahead. The group was clearly separating into two groups, ‘The Fast’ who were constantly charging ahead, and ‘The Fossils’ who were huffing and puffing behind …

… along the way we spotted vaal rhebuck and were greeted by two shepherds herding their cattle towards greener pastures. Most shepherds we came across always greeted with a smile. Those that didn’t, seemed baffled by what 6 Caucasians and two Indians were doing in the Highlands, carrying everything but the kitchen sink and whiskey, while all they carried was a stick and a traditional Basuto blanket to keep them warm. Gumboots also formed an essential prerequisite of the shepherd attire, as well as those in the villages. It’s amazing how nimble and sure-footed the children and ladies are in their gumboots. More about that later…

… after some discussion about direction, we went down, and up again, down, and up again. I noticed an ominous pattern developing. My knees were none-too-pleased. Along the way we came across cairns which the shepherds constructed as markers. Where did they find the time and the strength? We plodded ahead and before long I got a chance to look back. Unbelievable! My knees may not be steady and strong, but my muscles were tough as titanium. I’m not sure how many ridges we climbed over but we came a long way from where we began our hike.

Lunch was a quiet affair. We had the usual, cheese wedges, crackers, mussels and dried fruit. I made it a point of starting off sooner than the others because I knew I was the slowest. We usually stopped in places of spectacular scenery. I only wished I had my camcorder to capture the moments better. Photographs are lovely, but both forms of recording are no measure for the experience itself. I was grateful and humbled by the experience. Again, I looked back at where we had come from. Our point of origin could not be seen, but I was amazed by how far my feet had brought me. Like the mountains and valleys, the human body is another creation of unbelievable strength and beauty. As the day drew on, clouds began swirling in. We had been walking for six or more hours. I was steaming ahead of everyone else when they whistled for me to stop while they went down into the valley. It looked like they were looking for a spot to camp. While they decided on a suitable location I sampled the snow. All that was missing was the Vodka. I would have triple distilled it in the snow myself … 

Soon it was time for a curry and rice supper. We ate early, to make use of what little daylight there was. As a result we wound up sleeping early too. Not that we got much sleep. We had set up tent on a slope of tufts of grass. Amit rolled over to my side and I rolled over into Simon. The tufts of grass were very uneven to lie on. To make matters worse, the feet end of our sleeping bags were ice cold, even though we had three pairs of socks on. We slept in the foetal position for most of the night due to the cold. That wasn’t very comfortable for my knees … 

… though we never got much sleep and rest, we were all up early Friday morning. As Simon put it, though the tufts of grass were not ideal to sleep upon, they did help alleviate aches and pains a bit. Again, I set off ahead of everyone else. Graeme directed me to stop when I came across a ‘Saddle-Back’ looking ridge. I made good time and it wasn’t long before Amit and I came across the said ridge. We stopped half way up at a cairn and waited for the rest to catch up. Marna came skipping along first. Amit and I saw a shepherd in the distance so we thought we’d continue up and make small conversation with him. As we got closer he and his flock of sheep disappeared over the other side of the ridge. Behind us we heard strange ‘Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!’ sounds closing in on us. It was a flock of vultures with long spans of wings. They circled us and than flew onto the rest of our group. We couldn’t see our entire group so we waited to see if we were headed in the right direction. A bit further up was the second highest ridge we could see. The two of us made our way up and found everyone else except Carey up there. The sights from there were beautiful and we took loads of photographs … 

… Carey had continued walking ahead and went towards the left of the ridge. Graeme caught up and directed her to the right. We followed and soon caught up. It was another day of up and down, up and down. There came a point where Carey and I were ahead of the group. I stopped at one of the ledges. You could see a steep path leading down into the valley. When I looked up I saw a huge bird soaring at eye level. It was graceful and majestic and swooped and soared relatively close by me. It was unusual and fascinating to watch a bird soar at eye level. Graeme was the first to join me, closely followed by Amit who was excited at the sighting. Than the bird distanced itself from our expanding group. We continued up to a set of cairns where Carey waited for us. It was a good spot for a short lunch break. We didn’t have very much further to go thereafter. It was mostly uphill though so Graeme, Carey and I lingered in the back. We took a group photograph before venturing into a bowl shaped valley again for the night. Andrew and Jono went to see where water could be found and where the best place to camp was. Carey and I took our time to hike down. My knees were 

… Saturday morning, our last day on top of the Maluti Mountains. I huffed and puffed my way up to the top. I didn’t go too far off because Graeme had said we were close to our G.P.S. point to go down the valley. Carey followed close by. While I took time out to admire the valley below I later noticed that she had continued walking around the ridge, following a horse trail. Simon, Amit and Andrew had caught up and followed her. I rushed towards them and than we waited for the rest. When we checked the G.P.S. we were not more than 100-150m of course. Jono did the running around to check which way to go down. We had two choices:- the Holome Pass, which was steeper but shorter, or the Solane Pass, which was gentler but longer. The Solane Pass was also more scenic with plenty of waterfalls. That was Amit and my choice though Jono suggested we go down Holome Pass. But since we had already come this far the Solane Pass became the chosen path. Jono and Graeme went scouting the mountain slopes to see which was the easiest way down. All the slopes looked steep to me. We passed some shepherds and their herd of cows. I wondered how the cows got up the 

 

… we clambered downwards and joined Andrew and Amit beside a tributary. It was an ideal place for lunch, to refill our water bottles and check the G.P.S. and Google map. We had climbed down a long way and it was too late to go back up. We did recall seeing a village and what looked like a road further down. The decision was taken to trek ahead. Marna lend me one of her walking sticks. It came in very handy. Especially when we came across a stream we had to boulder hop across. Thereafter we followed a tributary that led us to a little village. Everyone was indoors due to the rain. Gradually they came out to see what we were doing in their village. We tried to communicate with them. Only one adolescent girl spoke a bit of English. We inquired about Ts’ehlanyane or any other villages around. There was a village and a road ahead. The kids said they’d lead us there for two Malutes. We had to cross another stream. It did not have as many boulders to hop across. I wound up stumbling in the ice cold water and picked up a bruise on my shin. We were a sight for all the villages, especially the kids. They laughed at how cautious and clumsy we were at getting across the stream. They followed us most of the way and asked us for sweets, clothing or empty bottles we had. I gave my empty two-liter bottle away …

… I was glad to be walking on relatively flat land again, until we encountered another mass of water to be crossed. This time it was a 20-30m wide river. We had to boulder-hop diagonally across, upstream, because that’s how the exposed boulders were arranged. The children got across without much difficulty. Simon was brave enough to walk through bare-feet. Along the way we got pelted by hailstones. We were all frustrated and wet when we got across. Jono ran up to a hill close by to get some G.P.S. co-ordinates and to get some idea of where we were. A group of ladies, one young and two elderly, came down from the road we had seen earlier. They sang and danced as they approached us. The young lady spoke a bit of English. She was helpful, but the information she provided could not be taken as entirely accurate. There was a village ahead and the road we saw led up to it. But that was where it stopped ... 

… the next closest village was Motete. It was possibly 2-3 hours, or 8 hours or even three days walk from here. So we were told. From there we had to hike a further 40 odd kilometers to get to a place where we could get a taxi back to Bokong. The ladies were concerned about where we were going to stay for the evening. They warned us of more rain and snow to follow. That was information you could trust. 

Daylight was fading so we decided we may as well set up camp here. Crammed into our tent we discussed our dire situation and possible solutions. Jono was in favour of heading back up to the site we camped at the evening before and than making a dash down Holome Pass, weather permitting. It would be tedious, challenging and risky, especially with the weather closing in on us. We could get to the top okay, but the weather could get worse when we’re up there and we’d have to wait it out in the cold. The tendency when the weather turned bad, was for it to last a few days. That was a serious point of concern … 

… most of our feet and bodies were aching. Frustration was creeping in. Emotion was venting out. Cary was worried about her son. Amit and I were concerned about the scolding we were going to get from our parents. Others were also concerned about how people they knew would react. We had mobile phones but there was no reception so we could not get word out about our predicament and the subsequent delay. Another option, the safer alternative, was to hike to Motete Village and than onto Ha Lejone. It could possibly take us the better part of a week. We were not sure. The weather wouldn’t affect us that badly, but time and distance were a factor. We could follow the river, or the road, or both. Most of us thought that would be the best option. Jono made another suggestion that he and Graeme, being the fittest and fastest, could try and get to the top and back down Holome Pass. There was still an element of risk involved and we didn’t want to split the group. What if something happened to one of them? While the discussion was taking place, I warmed up some water for our supper. Everybody was weary and hungry. We decided to think the options over and come to a decision in the morning. As a precaution we rationed our food from this evening. But that little bit of warmth and nourishment was sufficient to boost my morale. At least we still had vegetarian curry and rice … 

… Sunday morning, the day we should have been returning home, it was still drizzling and we were lost in an unknown valley. Jono made another suggestion. We could hike up to the highest shepherd hut we saw. That was just below the snow line. If the weather was bad or if we were battling, we could camp there overnight and head for the hills next day, weather permitting. In my experience, whenever others got us lost, I would always trace my steps back to the last known marker or path and do a search for the next marker or path from there. It always got us back on the straight and narrow. We all decided to head back up. That meant having to cross the river again, and now it was flowing faster and stronger. 

… when you’re descending, it’s easy to fixate on a point and draw a path towards it. When you’re ascending it’s a bit more complicating. I found climbing strenuous and tedious. On prolonged down hills I have problems with my toes and knees. On prolonged up hills I have problems with endurance. And at altitudes greater than 2793m I tend to get a natural high. What made matters worse was the inclines we stumbled across. Yesterday our descent through the middle of the mountain was relatively gradual. I did have to put the gluteus maximus to use and a hop, skip and jump were required on occasion but it was not too tough. Today our ascent was steeper than anticipated. The highest located shepherd hut we saw yesterday was approximately 250-300m away. Today it was only approximately 75-100m away. We had climbed our way onto a fairly steep ravine. I thought we were going to stop but we just kept going, and going. As we got higher the air got thinner, the drizzle turned to snow flakes and the wind speed picked up. Gradually we found ourselves climbing up snowy ledges in a blizzard. I had trouble keeping up with the others … 

Jono kept telling me we were almost at the top. But the inclines kept creeping up. I recall seeing two shepherds but didn’t pay much attention to them as I ordinarily would. All I wanted was to get to the top and into my tent and sleeping bag … 

… just when I thought we had reached the summit another incline emerged. The snow blurred one’s perception of distance and height. Time as well, was a haze. I kept thinking, ‘ … a tot or two of whiskey would go down exceptionally well right now …’. Positive reinforcement, just what I needed. Eventually we reached the top. Now it was just a question of getting across to the valley we camped in before. I was so focused on moving ahead, I forgot to look back and see what a challenge we had struggled up. The top was smothered in snow. Our backpacks, shoulders and heads had also accumulated dustings of snow. Every so often we had to shake it off.

After having set up camp … some of the ice and snow from our clothing and boots began melting and formed a puddle at the entrance of the tent. My socks had to be used again to dry the area up. We heated more water. Amit and I had soup and Simon had a cappuccino. We had a bit more trail mix and than crept into our sleeping bags. They were freezing cold when we got in but the insulation trapped our escaping body heat and we warmed gradually. I checked on Amit and Simon to make sure they were okay. It was early in the evening but we were all worried about what our family and friends would be going through as time slipped by and we didn’t turn up. I said a little prayer to get us through the night, and hopefully down tomorrow. Simon told us he managed to get a small window of reception and sent two S.M.S.’s out. Hopefully the news would spread that we were safe, just a little ‘ice-solated’ ... 

… gusts of wind and snow kept us awake for a while but exhaustion lured us to sleep. The wind picked up through the night. The flysheet hook by Amits’ head came loose and flapped about. Fortunately we had tied it to the fiberglass pole as well. I was not going to get out of my sleeping bag for anything. Good thing I didn’t have too much liquids. Amit on the other hand required to alleviate some tension. So when he went out he re-hooked the flysheet. We all slept happily ever after … 

… we were the last to awake Tuesday morning. Graeme and Jono were out assessing the situation. They sounded excited. I lowered the tent window to see why. The ground was still white, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was rising over the mountain. ‘Everybody pack up and let’s get out of here!’, was the common sentiment. We had a quick breakfast and packed our backpacks. Some of the wet clothing we had discarded were frozen solid. We had to break chunks of ice off of them before we could fold and put them away. We took down the tents and headed for the hills one last time. I was last to get to the top. Jono had already run off to check if the path we were taking was the correct one. Some of the group felt the valley we were meant to go down was on the left side of the ridge. They all went to check while Amit and I waited for Jono to return. The glorious sun beat down upon us and dried the wet backpack and clothes we had on. An ice mouse also came out of its burrow to bask in the morning sunshine. Jono was taking unusually long and the others were out of our sight. After what seemed like 30-40 minutes Jono returned. It took him some time and effort but the path we were on was the right one. He was none-too-pleased to find everyone else had strolled off. So the three of us went in search of the rest of the group …

… we found some of them. Others were off scanning the ridges. Jono directed us which point to head for while the others caught up. Some of the snow was already melting and forming trickles of water. I even stepped in frozen puddles, some of which cracked and gave way. Andrew, Amit and I offloaded at the designated point and waited for the rest to catch up. We enjoyed the panoramic view one last time. When I stepped into a shaded part of the path I was reminded how cold it still was. I studied the path down the steep slopes. It did not look too safe or viable. I set off for the path down. Some of it was covered in ice. I took one step on the ice and could feel just how slippery it was. Past experience cautioned me not to take another step further. Looking down the sheer slope I had no intention of doing so. Some of us thought it was too risky and we should look for another path down. Jono came forward. Studied the path and skipped across effortlessly. He encouraged us to follow in his footsteps. Cautiously, we all did as he did … 

Snow on the Malutis

… On most hikes I usually find at least one porcupine quill. This time I found more than a handful. We all thought we had got to our destination and were home and dry. When I caught up with the rest I found we were blocked by a raging river. Across were the huts and civilisation. 20m was all we had to traverse to end our journey. Otherwise it meant hiking all the way back, across the previous stream and back onto a lengthy road to the huts, in the dark. There was a partially concreted crossing but that was under fast flowing cold water now. We were all dismayed and despondent ... 

… Graeme had had enough. He rolled up his pants and waded knee deep into the rushing water, searching upstream and down for a safe path to cross. One last time, we all unbuckled our backpacks, took off our boots, socks and plastic bags and braved the cold waters. At the other end was a steep bank and obstructive foliage that brought me to my knees, huffing & puffing and panting & ranting. What a way to finish off. Jono and Simon greeted us on the other side. They had to drive into the small town to find the park warden to get keys for a hut. We were all grateful they made the added effort so that we had a warm place to sleep in tonight. To top it off they had bought some Maluti beer and juice. After we had put down our backpacks, everybody cracked open a can and we celebrated. Thereafter I took off my yellow jacket and fleece top, dusted my feet off and got under the blanket. I was ready to get some shut-eye. Andrew and Amit cooked up the last of our curry and rice. I devoured it … 

… Jono told us he would take us 5km up the road where we could get mobile phone reception and call loved ones who must have been panicking. I gave Amit my phone to call home. I was too tired to go out again. Amit could ask his mother to pass on a message to my family. Unfortunately my phone does not have international roaming (I didn’t think we’d need it in Lesotho). But Marna kindly let Amit call home from her phone. I was lights out even before they left. Nothing was going to get me off the bed …

… that was our three-day-cum-six-day hiking trip in the Lesotho Maluti’s. ‘It’s a walk in the park.’, Andrew said. I’ve learnt to be more suspicious of his choice of words. Just when we thought we were all safe and sound, early Tuesday morning Jono woke up to check on Marna. She was not entirely coherent. Jono went out into the cold morning to get water to mix for her fructose. He tried to get her to drink the juice to get her sugar levels up again. Carey went over to help hold Marna up. Unfortunately all of us were out of sugar. I searched my bag for sweets. Amit also woke up and looked for sweets. I found some Halls and offered it to Jono. He had the situation under control and knew what to do. Gradually Marna came to. I put some water on the boil for tea, soup or cereal. Whatever we had left to mix with hot water. We were all relieved Marna was okay. I think her body missed the joys of skipping across ridges. 

… Graeme, Carey and Simon carried on back while Andrew, Amit and I hopped in with Marna and Jono to go pick up Andrew’s car from the Bokong Nature Reserve parking lot. Fortunately the roads had just been cleared of snow and ice, otherwise we may have had to spend more time in Lesotho. We transferred our backpacks to Andrews’ car. Had one last look at the Katse Dam and the Nature Reserve. Had one last handful of snow and were on the road again. Getting through the border post was quick. Once back in South Africa my mobile phone battery died so I couldn’t call home ... 

… now all we had to contend with were our worried parents. As it turned out, apparently two people died of cold on the Drakensburg during the course of the weekend. That news lit the red light in our parents’ heads and drove them into panic mode. They phoned all over the place. I warned Andrew he would have to explain the situation we had been in because our parents would give us a tongue lashing and beat us up before hearing a single word from us. And so it was that Andrew received the brunt of parental abuse. We explained that there was nothing we could do. We had to just be thankful that things turned out better than expected and appreciate the fact that we were all safe and sound. We all learned a few lessons about hiking, about ourselves, about how much others really care about us and the importance of carrying some whiskey on a hike …

 

 

 

Date: 

Wednesday, April 30, 2008 (All day) to Wednesday, May 7, 2008 (All day)
Activities

activity: 

Hiking