The Kingdom in the Sky

The journey to the airport, Swaziland

In a place like Swaziland, it’s often easy to forget you’re in Africa.  Fortunately, travel has a great way of reminding you.  Last Saturday I headed off to Lesotho, but even before I left my house, the TIA moments started.  First, my driver to the airport overslept, so I had to wake him up to remind him to collect me.  Secondly, in his bid to get me to the airport on time, he was driving so fast that the back windscreen of the vehicle just popped out and flew away.  He didn’t even bother to slow down, such was his determination to make up for his early morning tardiness.  Finally, once at Swaziland’s International Airport I had a very déjà vu moment where I was told that my bookings had been cancelled.  Much like the last occasion, the time spent calling around to try and sort out the situation meant that I missed my proposed flight but, unlike last time, I did manage to secure the next flight out.  It just meant a 3-hour wait in Matsapha airport – an airport that’s about the size of my flat.

Maseru, Lesotho

Maseru, a city of 220,000 people and Lesotho’s capital, has just one main road with a whole lot of contrasts.  One end of town is clean and orderly with modern sandstone buildings adopting a colonial flair.  On the other end of town is the typical, chaotic, African dustbowl with concrete and corrugated iron shacks propped up tentatively.  Rows of roses are planted roadside allowing a sweet smell to interject the other aroma of urine (just remember to time your breaths correctly!).  Despite the overwhelmingly warm weather that saw me peeling off layers, the Basotho people remained cocooned in their trademark 100% woollen blankets.  The first evening and night in this amazing town was spent crashing a Halloween party with my beautiful friend, Emma.

Semonkong, Lesotho

After the brief interlude in Maseru, I was on the local bus to Semonkong.  As the bus left the bustle and bitumen of Maseru, it ascended into little more than a gravel track that wound its way past towering escarpments and the occasional stone homesteads.

Semonkong Lodge is Lesotho’s premier tourist attraction and it immediately becomes apparent why.  As I sat in my stone and thatch dorm room, overlooking distant mountains, open plains, and the small gorge below, the sound of nature flooded my senses.  A pony and foal stood neighing and munching on grass just three metres away, while the clip clop of their brethren and donkey cousins could be heard passing in the distance.  The crystal clear brook murmured below, as birds sang gloriously from their grass nests in the tree next to me, and a group of bald ibis clung to the gorge’s cliff face in front of me.  The sound of nature was interrupted only by friendly Basotho girls declaring their love to the solo female traveller, who sat silently sipping a chilled Maluti beer.

To say that I was the only solo traveller, however, was a lie.  I was fortunate to have met on my bus Nora, an ex-Peace Corps who proved a great companion over the next two days.  On our first morning, we joined local guide Johannes for a hike to Maletsunyane Falls, a 186m drop that gives Semonkong – ‘the place of smoke’ – its name.  Along the way we passed many Basotho folk making their way into town atop their ponies while dressed in the common Basotho uniform of a draped woollen blanket, balaclava and gumboots – I felt like I was in a scene from a bushranger movie.   After reaching our viewpoint of the falls, the plan was to head back to the lodge via the riverbed, but with plenty of time and energy to spare, we convinced Johannes to take us on a side trip.

Maletsunyane Falls - from above

Maletsunyane Falls – from above

This ended up being longer than the actual trip and provided us with many more views of the falls, from many more angles, as well as the strange sight of men doing their laundry – something that I had not seen for almost 2 years!  When I asked the guide why this was so, he replied that King of Lesotho says “women and men must be equal”.  Wonders will never cease!  We eventually caught up to the original riverbed track that would take us home, just as ominous claps of thunder threatened.  Sure enough, with 3km to go, the heavens opened and showered us with rain….and hail.  The rest of the afternoon, evening and night was spent huddling under the bed covers and stoking the fire, trying to dry our clothes and praying that the sun would shine for the following day’s adventures.

My prayers were answered as I woke up at the crack of dawn to get one more close-up view of Maletsunyane falls – from a rope alongside it as part of the world’s longest commercial abseil (204m).  After a couple of “training” abseils on a teeny 10m cliff, it was time to do the real thing.  As I lowered myself further and further, the sight was indescribable, but I will try.  Above me, I could see whirling white water leaping over the cliff edge and luminescing as the rays of the morning sun filtered through.  Below me, I could see little else except a sea of watery “smoke” rising from the collision between the falls and the pool.  Beside me, I was mesmerised by the wall of water’s changing patterns as it bounced from crag to crag with a booming thud.  Then, spinning myself around on the rope, I was privy to an expansive gorge that towered around me on all sides.  With a 204m descent, it seemed like the journey down would never end.  Then, when it did end, I wished it hadn’t.  The final 50m mirrored a ride in a waterpark as the ‘smoke’ saturated me in gusty bursts, followed by a scramble over slippery rocks to take in the less wet views, before climbing out of the gorge in my soggy jeans.

Maletsunyane Falls - from beside (see figure in red circle)

Maletsunyane Falls – from beside (see figure in red circle)

Thinking that this experience would be near impossible to beat, my afternoon’s activity quickly proved me wrong.  I rejoined Nora to partake in a community-led project – a donkey pub crawl.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I toured Semonkong village’s pubs aboard a donkey.  While I spent four hours crying with laughter, I think the sight of two white girls on completely directionless and stubborn steeds also proved highly entertaining for the locals.  Donkeys (and the less-than-elegant dismounts) aside, the afternoon was fantastic as we watched balaclava-clad Basotho boogie to African house, discussed politics and culture with a retired teacher, danced to Bojo Mojo on the street with a bunch of local kids, and sampled 1L of local Sorghum brew from a snuff container while being a wee bit over-handled by the inebriated comfort girl beside me.  Donkey pub crawl – my life is complete.

The final pub

The final pub

Malealea, Lesotho

The following morning, I caught the first bus out of Semonkong in order to join up with all the other Aussie vols from Swaziland and Lesotho for the business end of the trip.  Our annual AVI Country Meeting offered volunteers a chance to network, offload and unwind in the picturesque little village of Malealea.  Nestled among the mountains (which, let’s face it, describes every Lesotho village), Malealea features a lodge, hammocks, development centre, bar, hammocks, coffee shop, community garden and, most importantly, hammocks. It was a great place to while away a couple of days while attending the AVI workshop, and the free afternoons allowed us to take some Basotho ponies out for a spin.  While I managed to avoid blisters on my bum like some, my floppy helmet flap did prevent me from seeing much as my pony autonomously decided to gather speed and trot along rocky, unstable, hillside tracks while I blindly clutched the reins for dear life – a little disconcerting to say the least, but also vaguely exhilarating.

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Maseru, Lesotho

Back in Maseru for one more night, I caught up with some other Lesotho-based friends and crashed a few more ex-pat parties before flying back to Swaziland.  Yes, there is nothing like travel to remind you that you’re in Africa, and it’s a pretty good feeling.

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