(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.