Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Drakensburg into Lesotho

(Time is running out at this internet cafe so I'm posting random picts at the end of this, including hippos from St. Lucia. Sorry for the bad formatting, too.)

Despite the crappiness of the Amphitheater Backpackers Hostel a few good things came from the stop. We spent a wonderful day hiking through Royal Natal National Park to two gorgeous waterfalls (because what trail in South Africa is complete without one?). The fog and clouds were too dense for us to actually see the infamous Amphitheater rock formation for which the hostel was named, but it was still excellent. The next morning we met three Dutch students who were headed down to the Sani Lodge, just like us. They offered us a ride in their tiny, tiny little car. We were thrilled about the prospect of being crammed into a vehicle headed straight to our destination instead of to multiple towns between here and there. As we looked at the clown car-like prospects of this hitch a Brazilian guy said that he too was headed there and offered us free passage in his car instead. What luck! Two hitch offers at once! We climbed comfortably into his car then met up with the Dutch kids at the next hostel.
Together we concocted a scheme to do a three day overnight hike into the Drakensburg Mountains and camp in caves. Alex, the Brazilian, was a very experienced hiker who even brought his GPS along. We were certain he would be a good companion. As for the Dutch group, we weren’t so sure. One of the women didn’t have a sleeping bag, and none of them had proper hiking shoes, just sandals and cheap sneakers. But, they were determined. They borrowed blankets from the hostel (it’s COLD there!) and packed up to come with us.
The first day of hiking was beautiful. It included many uphill climbs, but the fabulous, dramatic mountains with sheer rock faces above grass-covered slopes made up for it. We easily found the large cave behind a waterfall and set up camp. Everyone slept comfortably and woke the next day anticipating another smooth day. The trail was clearly marked on the map and wouldn’t include many steep climbs, unless you wanted to climb up Hodgson’s Peak. We found our first trail with ease and followed it to the trail up to the peak. It took me less than three milliseconds to decide I was not hiking straight up a muddy trail to steep rock only to get a beautiful view of what I already could see. Jeanette agreed. The two other women joined us in trying to find the next trail while the guys tried the peak. Then it started to rain. Then it became clear that the trail wasn’t exactly easy to find. We eventually found a trace of a trail heading in the right direction and followed it along the river and as it headed up the edge of the mountain ridge.
This is the point in the story where it needs to be noted that Jeanette is the most patient, wonderful, level-headed human in the universe and probably most people should worship her. We got to the top of the ridge, consulted the map for the umpteenth time, and concluded that the cave was on the other side of the other river. From our vantage point there was a pretty sheer drop on both sides of us and the river appeared to run through a narrow rock gorge right where the theoretical trail theoretically ran. In front of us was yet another massive rock formation. Alex went ahead to see if the way down was on the other side of the rocks. Someone said that we should follow. We never should have listened. So here’s an important fact that most of you who didn’t live with me in Unalaska don’t know: I have a very deep-seated fear of extremely steep, slippery things. To the point where I have panic attacks and will stop in the middle of a snow and/or tundra-covered slope and refuse to move without coaxing. Combine this fun-fact with our location. The only option, it seemed, was to skirt around the rock on a grass-covered, very, very steep slope that didn’t stop until the river bed well over 200 feet below (probably more, though Jeanette doesn’t quite agree). Jeanette was awesome. She took my pack and held my hand and told me where to put my feet and got me across. Then Alex and the others broke the news: there was no way down and we had to turn back the way we came, especially as it was getting dark. That’s when I finally lost it. I figured that if I could just break my ankle then and there, we could justifiably call the mountain rescue team. We’d just camp up top in the wind for the night. Luckily, Jeanette convinced me that this wasn’t necessary and calmed me down enough to walk back. We ended up walking back down to river level, crossed the stream, and found a place to camp. Apparently we weren’t the first group to lose our way to the caves. We could see marks from three other tents that were previously set up at that spot.
The next morning Johannes and Jeanette went ahead to look for a way through the stone gorge. Johannes figured out that if we crossed the stream multiple times and hiked through the bushes we would eventually make it. It took two and a half hours to walk only 1.2 kilometers. When we finally arrived at the intersection of the two streams we still couldn’t find the cave, though we did see another tent site of another lost hiker. The rest of the day was on well-defined, mostly flat trail. We did 22 km in about seven hours. We were exhausted but all made it back safely. The Dutch kids didn’t even freeze without proper sleeping bags. In the end, it was a fantastic hike, but it definitely taught me to always be prepared for the worst.
The next day (Friday) we did laundry then hitched-hiked up Sani Pass to Lesotho. Our lift was a white couple from near Durban. The woman was glad to have us in her car so she wouldn’t have to make excuses to black people who also wanted lifts. Racism runs strong in the older generations. I’ll never get used to that. But, it was a stunning drive up a very steep, rutted dirt pass. We camped at the top and it was freezing. Below freezing, actually, and my midget-length sleeping bag did not cut it. My feet push against the bottom and were frozen all night. Even Jeanette was cold in her 15 degree bag. The next morning we had to get to Mokhotlong to get more food and to sleep in a bed because Jeanette was starting to feel sick. This hitch was with a younger white South African couple who were traveling with a caravan of friends for a few days. It turns out the road between Sani Pass and the next town was dirt, rutted, and rough, so it was nice to ride in a comfortable truck instead of packed into a minibus. (Not to mention that we didn’t even see any minibuses on the road because they are few and far between on Saturday s on that route.) By the time we got to Mokhotlong Jeanette was pretty sick. Luckily the six blankets on each of our beds kept us warm. The town itself was much smaller than I expected. The two grocery stores were run by Chinese women and sold a strange hodgepodge of products. The town’s one internet café didn’t have internet that day.
On Easter Sunday we took a minibus through even more winding, masterfully engineered mountain roads to Liphofong Caves Historic Site to see San rock art and finally stay in a rondeval – a round building with a thatched roof that is the traditional dwelling style for the Basotho and the Zulu. Almost every hostel offers them, but we never can afford them. By this point Jeanette was really sick and just needed to sleep. Because of her fever, we thought the next day we should skip the park we planned to visit and head straight to the city. Now we are in Maseru. Jeanette is feeling better, but we’re still deciding what’s next. It’s a shame all we saw of northern Lesotho was a driving tour, but you can see a lot from the roads. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Party hostels suck

Party Hostel
Here is a brief recap of some noisy “party” hostels we had the displeasure of staying at last week.
St. Lucia
We stayed two nights at a backpackers in St. Lucia where they were having a special on dorm rooms, so we decided to splurge instead of camping because it was right in the city and we thought it would be quieter.  Turned out the hostel is right next door to a karaoke bar.  Weird thing was there was just one guy singing for about an hour or two each night and his repertoire did not vary much from night to night.  His entertainment lasted from maybe 8-10 PM and then the boom-boom-boom-shaboom party music kicked in until long after I fell asleep.
This hostel was nearly deserted on a Thursday afternoon when we arrived, and we passed a fairly eventless evening here.  There were two other women staying here, one who worked in the coffee shop of the adjoining hotel and one who had a very rough, unfriendly demeanor and I never asked what she did.
The next morning we went to a museum and had a guided tour with a great guy.  He was very interesting to talk to and invited us out for the evening to hang out with his friends.  Our plans were still undecided for the day as we anticipated leaving that afternoon.  Back at the hostel to figure things out, we started talking to the caretaker and one of the cleaning staff.  They said it was too late in the day to get to Drakensburg and it was best to leave in the morning.  While talking about our plans, the caretaker said there was an awesome backpackers in Northern Drakensburg so we decided to head there in the morning.  That night we went out with our tour guide and his friends and girlfriend.  They walked us back to our hostel and came in for a drink.  There was a big bar attached to the hotel and a small unattended bar in the backpackers.  Our tour guide knew the caretaker so we got our beers and went back there to chat.  The two other women were also there and our tour guide referred to the one unfriendly woman as a sangoma (witch doctor) which helped to put her personality in perspective.  The race vibe was very prevalent here as she (white) unabashedly told our guide’s girlfriend (black) to go to the bar and get her a beer. 

It was a late night and we went to bed at midnight.  At 3 AM I awoke to loud, drunken arguing and loud, obnoxious music coming from the small bar by the backpackers.  I gave it about 20 minutes and it didn’t quiet down.  Anne didn’t stir during this time, but I was completely unable to fall back asleep, so I got up to ask them to quiet down.  I walked into the little bar and was surprised to see that it was the caretaker and hotel staff making all the ruckus.  I asked them to turn the music down since we were tenting so close.  They actually did turn the music down but somehow this only made their voices louder.  We’ve all heard how loud drunk people can be, especially drunk people at 3:45 AM, and since we were camping 50 feet away it was just ridiculous to me because these were the people whose salary I was helping to pay by staying there.  Anne was still sound asleep but I knew she’d be on my side, so I got up again to tell them to quiet down because I couldn’t sleep.  The caretaker said I had two options – 1) I could just deal with it and 2) I could get a room.  I took the free room, woke Anne up at 4, and said we were upgrading.

Northern Drakensburg
We arrived at the backpackers in Northern Drakensburg on a Saturday evening after a nearly 8 hour journey via taxi (including wait times).  We were tired and ready to set up camp and relax.  The hostel was bustling with activity. More people were staying at this one hostel this night than probably ten of our previous hostels combined.  It was a big setup with cabins, rondavels, dorm rooms and camping.  The weather was overcast and raining.  The hostel was grossly understaffed to deal with the amount of people arriving when we did so we had to stand around and wait for about 15 minutes before we were helped, this was partly due to a group that just checked in coming back to complain that their accommodations were incorrect.
Upon check-in before being shown where the tent sites, kitchen, bathrooms, etc were, the staff member helping us prioritized going over all of their tour options in excruciating detail and asking what we wanted to book.  We said we wanted to think about it.  We finally set up our tent, cooked dinner, and talked about what to do the next few days.  The tours were quite pricey and involved either going on the cultural tour (which in our experience amounts to forced paid interactions, not to mention that it was described as visiting a village in Lesotho were the kids were so happy to see the tourists because they give them stuff. Yeah, that’s a healthy version of “development.”) or hiking up the escarpment to a beautiful waterfall (remember it was completely overcast and raining so views would be impossible). We read up on a National Park nearby and went back to ask about a shuttle there.  The shuttle was 30 Rand per person each way, so we asked about one-way shuttles so we could camp there.  The employee’s response was “what’s wrong with our campground?”  I said we wanted to do a few days of hiking so it would save on shuttles expenses, so he responded “just take one of our tours” and we said we didn’t want to pay that much money to hike up a mountain where we would have no views and did he know anything about the campsites at the park.  He said he’s never stayed there and “Well, I shouldn’t say anything, BUT I heard there are a lot of whiskey-sippers there.”  At this point we decided this hostel was a joke, more about making money than any other operation we had been to.  It was obnoxious, and we wanted to leave but rather than the 8-hour taxi journey being for naught, we opted to take the shuttle to the park, do some day-hiking, go back there to sleep (mostly so we didn’t have to pack up a wet tent and there was no other option for transportation to the park).  That night the bar was in full swing.  There was a huge grass lawn for camping and we purposely set up our tent as far from the bar area as possible given our experience in Eshowe the night before, but to no avail.  The music was cranked up and the party was hopping.  Anne said she got up at 3 AM to use the bathroom and the music was still blaring.  I was very grateful for my earplugs that night.  It dawned on us sometime this evening that we ended up here on the recommendation of the guy who woke us up drunk at 3 AM the night before.  Mental note: know your source.
The next morning, while waiting for our shuttle, a large group was checking out and arguing with the staff about their tour the previous day.  What we gathered from the conversation and other guests is that the weather, being cold and wet, was not agreeing with some of the tourists and they were getting hypothermic and asked to return.  Other patrons on the tour wanted to continue so the guide decided they would all continue.   Further confirmation that paying a lot of money for a hike was not the smartest thing we could have done.  So, we went for a lovely day hike in the park and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  It was Sunday evening when we returned to the hostel and were surprised to find it nearly deserted compared to the night before.  Being on vacation you tend to tend to lose complete track of days of the week, and it turns out weekends at party hostels are a big deal.  That’s not to say that the music wasn’t cranking that Sunday night to humor the four people in the bar drinking.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Travel by taxi (minibus)

This is my (Jeanette’s) first major trip where travel has been primarily by taxi/minibus/combi (different name depending on where you are, who you are talking to, and what you are reading).  Basically it’s how the locals travel cheaply, or rather, it’s how the black locals travel.  And us.  And two other white people that we’ve seen so far.  Apartied is not so long ago and white South Africans are still significantly wealthier than black South Africans and therefore have cars.

Most cities have a taxi rank or two where trips originate and terminate, but you can also pick them up on most roads, the catch being that you have to know where you are going and where the combi is going, neither of which we ever seem to have a firm grasp of.  We’ve gotten by fairly well by asking locals how to get to our next destination.  We’ve asked numerous hostel owners or managers, but as they are almost always white, they tend to have no idea whatsoever.  Other hostel staff has been very helpful though, as they actually use the combis.

Some taxi ranks are big, some small, some bustling with activity and people, some mellow, some are well-marked with the destination city, some completely devoid of any information.  Once the proper taxi has been located you get in and wait.  The taxis have 13-16 seats and leave when full.  Our wait times have varied from a few minutes to a few hours.  Our longest being 2 ½ hours for the taxi from Nelspruit, South Africa across the border to Mbabane, Swaziland.   While sitting and waiting in the taxi you are constantly approached by people coming to sell you things.  Some taxi ranks have fruit stands or take-aways you walk up to, but all of them have people walking around with various items to sell – candy, cold drinks, perfume, cell phone air time, cooked corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, fat cakes (fried dough), passport holders, etc.  Some vendors are pushier than others, and we’ve both gotten very good at avoiding eye contact and just reading our books.  We seem to get approached in particular, again most likely because we are white.  One guy even told us to just give him 10 Rand instead of buying something.   He was pretty persistent too, but we didn’t budge.

Other than the wait times and uncertainty about where we are going and where to get off, the only major hassle is our backpacks.  We did not pack as lightly as we would have liked but with this long of a trip through this many seasons with camping gear, our bags are big and the taxis are not built to accommodate luggage.  We often get looks of disgust from the other taxi patrons who have to deal with our bags taking up lots of room.   Some taxis have an empty space near the front where we can put them but many don’t.  The seats are quite cramped to have them on our laps, but it’s been done.  There is a little extra room in the first row of seats  but unfortunately these are always taken first and we’ve only  scored the good seats a few times.

As with most trips, the journey is the destination. Besides, Anne tells me that in Tanzania “full” isn’t when all of the seats are taken, it’s when you can’t possibly shove another person inside, so I have that to look forward to.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Intimate Encounters (for real this time)

Scratch all of that last post. I wrote it on Monday morning then tried to send it from a now non-existent internet café in a weird, maze-like shopping center at a sugar town near the park. When our internet venture produced only two goofy looking belts and a great meal of pap (aka ugali aka corn mush) and beans, we went back to the park and checked out the nearby water hole. That’s when the elephants who failed to materialize during our game drive showed up to drink. Three elephants, three hippos, and six rhinos all just hanging out right by camp. So we parked ourselves there for a while and eventually the rhinos moved closer to camp. And then closer. Then closer still. We were seriously about 5 feet away from three very large white rhinos. They clearly didn’t mind people. They grazed so close to the electric fence that their horns poked on our side. We could have touched them, but, out of respect for their theoretical wildness, we elected not to. They only wandered away when one of them accidentally hit the fence and got zapped.
White Rhino - 5ft

We decided to just hang out by the waterhole with our books for the next few hours. The ostrich wandered by again and we smiled at her goofy, long-legged walk and clucks. Some impala fought and grunted in the corner of camp. Finally, after sunset, we moseyed back to our tent to cook dinner. That’s when we discovered that the schmuck of an ostrich destroyed most of our food! Since it’s not a good idea to leave food in the tent and we didn’t have a car, we had to leave it on the picnic table. When we were away, the ostrich grabbed our bag of soup, fake cheese, and other stuff and trampled it, and she ate our bananas. Add to that the fact that our most of our veggies went bad (sun apparently doesn’t keep things fresh) and we had a few skimpy meals.

Now we’re back in South Africa in the very touristy town of St. Lucia. It took five different minibuses and four hitches to get here (some hitches were arranged by the minibus drivers, actually) but we arrived safe and sound. Turns out we didn’t pick the busiest border to go through. Today (April 12) was also the scheduled day for protests in Swaziland. Many people want to go from a monarchy to a multiparty government. Because of the scheduled protests we endured multiple police checks everywhere we traveled during the past week. That meant hauling our huge bags out of each kombi, getting patted down, then loading back in. We also learned that the reason all of the kombis/minibuses in South Africa are so very, very nice and fully functional is because the government let people trade their old ones in for free to get nice new ones to impress tourists during the World Cup last year. Anyhow, random facts.

Intimate Encounters

Thus far our most intimate encounters with wildlife have been with ticks. The dark brown, round little bugs started attentively waiting on us while hiking in Blyde River. Groups of two or three perched on the ends of the tall grass and flung themselves onto our pants as we passed. They stayed with us when we went to the first park in Swaziland as well, apparently attracted by the glow of my now-stained khaki pants.

One would think the herds of blesbok that wandered through our campsite at Malalotja in western Swaziland would have trumped the significance of the tick, but they never got in as close. When we hiked through the grass-covered mountains that were eerily similar to the tundra-covered land around Unalaska, especially when the fog rolled in, the blesbok stayed near the entrance of the park, but the ticks came with us.

After hiking in Malaotja we hitchhiked, took a minibus, and hiked to get to Mlilwane Park. Carrying our excessively heavy bags to the hostel in the park we passed small herds of brown, deer-like inyala with thin white stripes and massive ears and placid groups of grazing zebras. We were too tired to take any photos or to notice if our constant tiny companions still accompanied us. In our tent that night we heard loud grunting, like a very angry pig, and assumed it was a dangerous hippo walking near our tent. It turns out it was just an impala. Who knew such lithe, graceful animals sounded so gruff? During our six-hour long hike the next day up Execution Mountain, we hardly saw any animals, but the ticks never failed to appear. Maybe they got a taste of the blood from the people who used to be pushed from the top of the mountain by warriors for wronging the king, but I doubt it. I think they were just opportunists looking for action.

The next day we took minibuses to Hlane National Park. After setting up camp and washing some clothes, an ostrich ambled by our tent and tried to eat our laundry soap. Personally I was glad she didn’t go for my drying underwear or the bag of plums, though, after reading all the “ostriches are dangerous” warning signs, I would have gladly sacrificed my khaki pants to her had she tried. I finally thought our intimate animal relationships were changing. While waiting for our evening game drive to begin, Jeanette decided to walk over to a small pond near the camp and quickly came to get me – three hippos and five rhinos were hanging out not far from the electric fence around the camp.  The only rhino I ever saw in Tanzania was so far away I could barely identify it. When the game drive started, the group of rhinos walked across the road. We were about 20 feet from them; close enough to see their tiny eyes and the scratches in the mud that coated their hides. That felt very up-close and personal, and we finally thought perhaps our buddy-buddy relationship with the ticks would be supplanted, until the guide stopped to teach us about local culture.

White Rhino - 50 ft

He stopped the truck and cut a small branch from the Swazi tree. He explained that during an annual ritual in December, young boys went and cut branches from these types of trees. They used the branches to dance before the king. Those whose branches were still fresh and green were said to be true virgins whereas those with wilted branches were not. Our guide said that a similar dance took place with the girls in September using reeds. No reeds grew nearby, so, to simulate, he plucked a blade of grass. Perched on the tip, waiting for us, was our good friend, the tick. It’s a shame I accidentally destroyed our bottle of bug spray.       

 We have seen other animals on this trip. Last night we saw a few elephants, but they were too obscured by trees to get any good photos. Plenty of warthogs have trotted by with their babies in tow and tails flying straight in the air. This morning we saw a few wildebeest and two giraffes, though the giraffes always seemed to be on the opposite side of the fence that divides the park into sections so we never got any good photos. Also on our list are crocodiles, a baby crocodile, waterbucks, one kudu, a bazillion impala, vultures, herons, starlings, and a mongoose. No predators yet, but soon, maybe. We’ve also met many nice people at the hostels and campsites.


Something Something Vulture

White Rhino - 25ft

Monday, April 4, 2011

It's true what they say about doxycycline...

Things have only been on the upswing since the failed mugging attempt and the 3-week booking schedule of the huts in Limpopo.  We’ve been based out of Graskop in the Mpumalanga region for the past week staying at a great hostel.  We did day hikes our first two days then went on a 3-night backpacking trip on the Blyde River Canyon Trail, followed by a short day hike this morning and then back to the hostel in Graskop.
It feels good to get out hiking and the backpacking trip was very easy as our packs were light (we left stuff at the hostel) and it wasn’t too far in between huts.  The trail was fairly well marked, but not well maintained.  It was very overgrown and there were various intersections that were confusing.   As opposed to the huts in Limpopo you had to book three weeks in advance, we had the trail and huts entirely to ourselves (and possibly the ghost in the third hut).  Our views were wide open as we traversed open prairies with huge rock outcroppings.  The second day we slept right next to an awesome canyon complete with waterfall.  We got to the hut just before a big storm and it was nice to watch it rain from a dry locale. 
Last night we were at Old Miners’ Hut, and again had it to ourselves.  We got there early in the afternoon and had a leisurely afternoon reading about Swaziland and Namibia (trying to plan ahead).  We went to bed early and were awoken sometime in the night by a massive thunder and lightning storm very close by.  The hut we were in had quite a few other rooms and the wind from the storm kept slamming the doors; that sound combined with the loud thunder and eerie brightness of the lightning strikes through the windows made for the perfect situation to lie awake and let your imagination take hold with thoughts of ghosts or other guests were didn’t know about.
This morning we did a short day hike into part of the canyon.  The trail was steep and slippery after all the rain last night so we opted not to go all the way to the bottom.  We got back to the hostel in Graskop before the rains hit again, and tonight we splurged on a room instead of camping, and I’m happy for it as it hasn’t stopped raining since we got here.
The weather overall has been quite nice with lots of sunshine.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s been downright HOT.  Luckily this area is high and seems to have a relatively constant cool breeze.  We started our days here in short sleeve t-shirts to accommodate the heat, but our bodies are not coping well with the sun.  Doxycycline (malaria meds) can have many, many side effects, the first of note being increased sensitivity to the sun.  I got an immediate bad burn to the back of my neck; possibly I’m still not accustomed to my short hair.  We both got burns on our arms.  While on a 4-hour day hike we applied sun screen before leaving and then twice more on the hike and still ended up with burns on our arms and hands.  We left for the backpacking trip worried enough to switch to long sleeve shirts despite the heat. (Anne’s side note: Yeah, I wore full-fledged khaki shirt and pants and looked like a moron to keep the sun off and I still had horrible side effects. Of course, it could have been my body rejecting the khaki…) On the second day my bottom lip was sunburned and swollen.  I was getting weird, severe headaches for days at a time.  We were both drinking a decent amount of water, yet were hardly peeing (and anyone who’s been on a road trip with me knows this means there is something awry).   Back at the hostel we googled side effects of doxycycline and sure enough, we have them all.  This kind of sucks since we have a year’s supply each...  I may give it another week and go from there.
We left for our day hike around 7:30 this morning and on the way to the trail we saw about 10 different baboons ranging in size from big male to tiny baby.  It was awesome!!!!  Then we saw some vervet monkeys later in the day.  My first wildlife beyond lots of frogs, lizards, one snake, and a mongoose.  Also we saw a blue tailed swallow, which is a rare and quite lovely bird. (And should qualify us as highly skilled birders.)

Tomorrow we head to Swaziland!  Unless the minibus connections don’t really work out and then who knows!