Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Drakensberg and Lesotho Part 2

Part 2 (read part 1 first, find it here)

After an incredible day exploring the town near our awesome hostel yesterday, today we ventured to the mountains to climb the top of the Amphitheatre. Although we had seen pictures of what it might look like, we really have no idea what to expect, or how huge these mountains might be. 

We hoped in the bus at about 7.30am and drove for 2 hours, past thatched-roof homes, past beautiful scenery, past huge townships, past runners/ walkers participating in what seemed to be some type of fun run and finally up the mountain to our starting point. 

The bus ride up the mountain was quite interesting. We really should have been in a 4WD but in fact we were in a minibus. The road was unsealed and had many large rocks in the middle of it. I was seating at the back, so every time we went over a rock I jumped a foot in the air. It reminded me of our many wonderful bus rides in Nepal. Luckily this one was only bad for about 20 minutes rather than 12 hours. 

Now that we were all warmed up from our bumpy ride up the mountain, it was time to start walking. Our group, consisting of nearly 30 people began the big climb at about 10am. We had been told that we should get back to this spot at about 4pm, only time will tell if that happened. 

The gang going for a stroll
The walk started off quite easy. We were following a man-made path while trying to see the views of the mountains through the low-lying cloud. Sometimes the clouds broke and you could see the massive cliff faces above you, but only for a few seconds as it got cloudy again.  

Sentinal Peak, what we had to walk around
As we climbed higher and higher we could see more and more little specks of snow, until there was snow all around us. After about an hour of walking our feet were getting covered in snow. Us girls were not prepared for the amount of snow that we saw nor that we would need waterproof shoes. Our runners did not suffice at all. After about 2 hours of walking my feet were quite wet. The only good thing was that the water in my shoe become warm the more I walked (gross I know!), until I stepped into a big patch of snow, then it became cold again!
Emma and her snowball
Oh hello there snow!

The walk also became increasingly difficult the more snow we encountered. We had to carefully walk through the snow and the sludge and make sure we didn't fall over. The rocks that we were walking on became a little bit slippery as the snow melted when the clouds parted and the sun came out. Unfortunately for us that wasn't too often as we climbed up to the Amphitheatre mountain. But little did we know that our hardest challenge was still before us, and it came in the form of a 20m long ladder. We had to climb this ladder to get on the top of the plateau that was the Amphitheatre. I'm not afraid of heights, but climbing this ladder did give me the shakes. It was a metal ladder that was attached at the top the plateau and at the bottom, but not in between. So image you're climbing a pretty unstable ladder more like 2500m above the ground, up the cliff face of a mountain. Just a little bit scary. Oh and it's a bit wet because of the snow. Gosh was I relieved when I reached the top.  

The ladder begins!

Or at least I thought it was the top. But low and behold, there was another ladder. Luckily this one as only about 10m long and the views were definitely worth it when we reached the actual top! Sophie and Gaelle are a little afraid of heights so it was quite an amazing feat that they accomplished, walking straight up a cliff face, on a rickety ladder for 30m. Well done kids :) And we all made it up, fortunately we didn't lose anyone on the way up!

We made it! Emma and Marion
 Once we reached the snow covered plateau (it would have been at least 30cm deep), we ate our lunch. And it was a lunch with a view. We could see out onto the Drakensberg rangers, onto a dam and onto the houses that looked like little specks from the height that we were at. I think our guide said that we were at about 3200m,, crazy town!

Sophie reaches the top, with a lovely view in the background
On top of the world, almost!

I thought that we had nearly finished the walk because by this time it was about 2pm and we were supposed to be back at the bus at 4pm. But if I have learnt anything here, time is not a very structured concept. T.I.A baby (this is Africa). So after a quick lunch, we set off once again, through the snow to our destination which was the Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world and the highest in Africa. The snow was getting remarkably deeper and I had given up trying to keep my feet at all dry. I was also towards the front of the pack so that mean the snow had not been broken into as much. I was trying to follow the footprints in front of me but the snow was getting in the way. It took us about an hour to walk what was probably 1.5km across the top of the mountains.  

Lots and lots of snow!
But after much trudging, me falling over while trying to cross a little creek (thanks Marion for getting a photo), getting wet feet, the water warming inside my shoes then getting cold again from the snow, we made it to the Tugela Falls! Phew! Five hours later we were there! The view was pretty glorious. Imagine you are standing on a 1km high cliff, and below you is more mountains, just before those mountains there is a drop of 1km. Well that's we were, at the top of the cliff/ mountain.  

At the top of the Amphitheatre Mountains
The view..

We stayed at the top of the mountain for only a short time because we had to get back to the bus before it got dark. It took us nearly 5 hours to reach the top, but we had to be quicker on the way down because it was already 3pm. We couldn't be walking at 7pm and onwards because it would be dark, and we could possibly fall off the mountain.

 The walk back across the plateau and to the ladders was a lot quicker and easy than before. The almost 30-strong group had created a path through the snow, much like a pack of animals would create a migration path. That's what first sprang to my mind walking back across the plateau. And when I looked across the snow covered mountain top, I did indeed see some animals (no not other humans). I saw baboons! Crazy to think that baboons could be living so high on a mountain top, but there they were. We couldn't get that close to them because the snow separated us, but I don't think I would have wanted to because I hear they can be quite feisty.

What took us nearly one hour to get across, took us 20 minutes to go back. And back to the scary ladders we were. Going down was just as bad as going up, or perhaps even worse, because you could see down the cliff when you looked at where to put your feet. But after what felt like a lifetime my feet hit solid ground, and off down the mountain we went. Down over the slippery rocks, through the sludgy snow, past the rocky terrain and across the beautiful landscape that is Drakensberg.

The sun coming through the clouds

Luckily for us the clouds had cleared and we were able to see the setting African sun, saying goodbye to us behind the Drakensberg ranges. It was such a beautiful site that I think I stopped at least 10 times to take a photo, even though the picture hadn't really changed.  

The view on the way down 

Can you see the people? The scale of how big the mountains were

Finally at just before 6pm we arrived at the buses! It had taken us 5 hours to walk up the mountain and 3 hours to walk down! A total of eight hours! But what a day. The scenery was so amazing that it's hard to describe in this blog (but I hope I've done it some justice). Everyone that walked up the mountain made it down again, even if we did have only two guides for the group of 30. By the time we made it back to our hostel it was almost 8.30pm, and time for dinner! After dinner Marion, Gaelle and I relaxed in the spa (in the middle of the bar), resting our weary feet and warming our bodies from the cold snow. Oh, and we had a cocktail or two in there as well.

It was another glorious day of our Drakensberg and Lesotho adventures. It's amazing how much you can fit into one day, and climbing a mountain in the snow is a fair effort.

Next up we travel overseas (again), well not literally but into another country, that of Lesotho! The country inside the country of South Africa, and the highest country in the world. I'll explain in the blog. Keep reading.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Drakensberg and Lesotho

Part 1

Whenever I asked people what I should do or where I should go in South Africa, Drakensburg was a place that was said by many people. I had heard that the mountains were beautiful and a great spot for hiking, something that I love to do. So when the girls in our exchange group decided that we wanted to have a girls weekend, Drakensberg was number one on the list. I was pleasantly surprised that this hiking and mountainous area was on the top of the lists of all the other girls of Sophie, Emma, Marion and Gaelle.

So Drakensberg for the weekend it was!

Again trying to spend as little time at Uni as we could, we hired a car and left for Drakensberg on Thursday afternoon. A few hours before we were about to leave, Joburg was hit with one of the biggest storms I had seen. The thunder was so loud that it sounded like it was on top of us, the hail was like snow and the lightening was massive. Fortunately the storm settled down a bit so we could drive the 4 and a bit hours to Drakensberg.

Emma took the driver's seat first, with Sophie as co-pilot. They navigated the wet roads of Joburg city very well, and the highway with ease. Unfortunately we had forgotten to buy an AUX cord which allows you to play your ipod through the car radio, but we had a solution. I had speakers from good old Kathmandu and I plugged my ipod into them so we could still listen to my sweet tunes. I was DJ so everyone was forced to listen to Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Ben Howard etc..but I didn't hear many complaints...or everyone had fallen asleep to my easy listening music..

After a few hours Marion took the wheel and I became her co-pilot. For those who don't know, Marion is from France and therefore normally drives on the right hand side of the road. I had to remind her as we left the petrol station that she had to go right rather than left onto the Highway, but she was already onto it so we were sweet.

Marion mastered the Highway driving, going at about 130km which is probably slow compared to what they drive in France. However, after about 30 minutes of driving from Marion we turned onto one of the worse roads I've ever seen, and at this point the sun was setting so I could hardly even see the road. It had no street lights, was 80 per cent gravel, lines that could barely be seen, many potholes and was only one lane. Marion ended up driving on the right side of the road because there was no left lane, ironic hey! Oh and did I mention that we didn't have any high beam lights? This made for difficult driving.

As co-pilot I had to navigate Marion around all the potholes, patches of gravel and to direct her to which way the road was going. Sometime I was a bit slow with my direction and we all jumped a few inches of our seats as we hit a pothole. I would let out a little yelp as this happened which freaked out Soph, Emma and Gaelle, but this yelp was one more of excitement than being scared. This road went for about 50km, and it took us about an hour to do that, so you can imagine how bad the road actually was. But we made it through and onto the other side to a paved and lined road, but still no street lights. Then it was about another 20 minutes until our backpackers.

We arrived at the Amphitheatre Backpackers and Travellers Lodge at about 9pm and as soon as we walked into the reception we knew that this was one cool place. The light shade at the front desk looked like it had come from Nepal, the wallpaper was old beer and food labels and there were traditional ornaments randomly placed in the room. It was hands down one of the coolest places I'd ever stayed at, possibly the coolest!

We hadn't really organised anything past the backpackers but we knew that we wanted to go on a hike in Drakensberg and go to Lesotho, the country that is within South Africa (sort of like Canberra, but not). Lucky for us, this amazing backpackers had it all organised! They ran walks to the Amphitheatre Mountains as well as day trips to Lesotho so we were set! The lovely receptionist showed us what the walk would look like and told us all about it. It looked amazing, so as a team we decided that it was a must! And who doesn't want to visit a country within a country? We do, and decided that we would!

If we thought that this backpackers couldn't get any cooler, we thought wrong.

We arrived at our room to find that it was in fact an old silo that had been converted into an 8-bed dorm, complete with a thatch roof and a toilet. It was very cute! Sophie and I got to share the double bed which was up a little ladder, in the roof of the room. The ladder was a bit hazardous, especially if either of us needed to go to the toilet in the dark during the night, but we survived the 3 night stay with all bones intact.

Our thatch roof silo

As we arrived quite late on Thursday night, we decided that Friday would be a relaxing day where we could hang out at the hostel and see the sights of the surrounding towns. We had a very lazy morning consisting of sleeping, reading, eating and exploring our awesome backpackers. In the afternoon, it was arranged that we would go to the local town, check out the local medical clinic, meet a traditional healer, taste some locally brewed beer and visit an orphanage. We weren't expecting too much from the afternoon but I can say, and I think the other girls would agree that it was such a worthwhile experience where we felt that we had actually arrived in Africa rather than being a little bit caged up at Monash. I learnt more in the 2 hours of meeting and talking to people than I had in the past 2 months of being here. That's not to say that I haven't learnt some amazing things, it's just the knowledge from the people we met was so interesting and insightful.

At the medical clinic we visited, a lovely Sister showed us around and told us the things that they can do there. It is a free clinic for everyone who needs assistance. It's not a hospital but more of a consultation clinic. The Sister was telling us that her and the other sisters (nurses) can administer, such as checking someone's BP, heart rate, give injections for infants, children and adults, try and fix ailments that patients come in for as well as being able to deliver babies. It seemed like such a well-run clinic, and especially because it was free. We were pretty impressed that you could get free health care in a rural part of South Africa, and from such lovely nurses!
Gaelle getting her blood pressure checked, it was normal. 
Our next stop was the traditional healer called a Sangoma. She was the cutest, most interesting and energetic old lady I had ever met. She told us the story of how she became a Sangoma in Zulu, which was translated to us by our guide. The story of becoming a Sangoma is relatively the same for each one. They are born a sickly child, never fully healthy and always needing medical attention. In one point of their lives they will get very sick where they will require help that no one can give them. For the Sangoma that we met, her name was Beauty, she became sick at 15. She went to the doctors who couldn't do anything, she went to a traditional healer and they didn't know what to do. She was so sick that people thought that she was going to die. At last she went to a Sangoma that knew what her problem was. She was being called by the ancestors to become a Sangoma herself. The sickness was a sign that she could have the power and connection with her ancestors to be able to heal sick people. It was now the job of the Sangoma that has recognised her illness as a calling so taught Beauty what she had to do to become a traditional healer.

Traditional Sangoma Beauty in her traditional get-up (with a Springbok jersey underneath, classic!)

When Beauty was telling us her story, I couldn't help but think of Indigenous Australians and their connection to their ancestors and how they use this connection as a source of power and healing. Some people call this magic or sorcery, but to me it's culture at its finest. We European Australians are so pragmatic when it comes to culture that in a way we are lacking so much. Our history is so immediate and short, we don't seem to have a connection to something bigger than ourselves (the Monarchy doesn't count). I suppose you could call religion our ancestors, but for Beauty her ancestors could give her so much more than religion could. They could tell her what natural medicine to give to a patient, whether something good was about or happen, or whether she should avoid something because only bad things would come of it. One example she gave was when she wanted to go to the shops to buy something, but all of a sudden her legs started to cramp up and she couldn't move. The ancestors did not want her to go to the shops for some reason. She resigned to the fact that she was not going to the shops that day. After that her legs were no longer cramped and she could move.

Despite the medical clinic just up the road, people do still come and see the Sangoma because western medicine can't fix everything. As much as people would love to believe that it can, and believe you me, western medicine has done some wonderful things and the power of technology is amazing, sometimes a simple pill or injections just won't help you. That's where a Sangoma comes in. She is able to help people with epilepsy, TB, chronic pain etc with natural medicines that she makes up herself. Oh and did I mention that she is also a mother of 8 children? All in a day's work for this Sangoma!

After that lovely visit, we headed off down the road to taste some local beer called Umqombothi, which comes for the Xhosa language. When you pronounced the name of the beer, it has a click sound in the middle of it because when you say a q in Xhosa  you have to click. Every time our guide pronounced it I would give a little gasp at how awesome it sounded! The beer was quite nice and tasted more like cider than beer. It is made out of corn, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast, water, and a very small amount of alcohol, only about 2 per cent.
Tasting some local beer, yummo!
We then visited a lovely church which had been built by the locals, as well as an orphanage which had been set up by and funded by Belgium people. Then, unfortunately it was time for our amazing afternoon to end, and we made our way back to our awesome hostel. Our first day in Drakensberg had been amazing, and was capped off with a lovely Madagascan style dinner thanks to Gaelle, which was made up of spinach, duck and rice, as well as cocktails by the bar and a dip in the spa!

We needed a relaxing night for the big day that was to follow; hiking up a mountain in the snow. That is Part 2 of our Drakensberg/Lesotho adventures! Click here to read it!

Saturday, 15 September 2012


Let's go to the beach....beach

Following the trend of trying to get away from Monash each weekend, myself, Sophie, her friend Jarred and his friend Daniel headed, a couple of weekends ago, to Shaka's Beach, about an hour's drive from Durban, seven hours from Johannesburg.

We headed down on Thursday afternoon (we all had 4-day weekends!), into the glorious afternoon sun and made our way to the Indian Ocean.

Living by the beach at home, I was very excited to be able to put my feet into some salt water once more, smell the salt in the air and feel the warm sea breeze on my face. This is something that I have missed living in Johannesburg, but the salt plains nearby sometimes give a false sense that you are near the beach.

We arrived at Shaka's Beach at about 10.30pm, after Jarred and Daniel drove for over seven hours, going at about 130km most of the time. As soon as we got near the beach there was a distinctively different smell to that of Joburg. It was more humid yet somehow fresher. We were getting close to the ocean and we could feel it!  

The view from our apartment, the Indian Ocean
When we woke up in the morning we were greeted with a lovely view from our apartment balcony of the Indian Ocean, ready to be swam in. The sun shining down like a normal summer's day, although it was actually spring. It would have been over 30 degrees, perfect beach weather!

On the way to our swimming spot (in between the flags), I was looking out to sea and kept seeing these massive splashes about 800m out to sea. At first I thought it was the waves hitting rocks, but then I realised it was in fact a WHALE!! I couldn't believe it! I'd never seen a whale in real life (IRL) and it was sooooo cool to see this one jumping up and landing on its back, making lots of splashes. I kept watching it for about 15 minutes, so impressed that it was able to lift all its body weight out of the water then spectacularly falling back into it. It seemed like he/she was having a blast!  

Shaka's Bay

Our time in Shaka's Bay consisted of driving, sleeping, reading, running, watching movies, swimming and relaxing. We also took some rad underwater pictures in the swimming pool at the apartment complex. It's great having a waterproof camera!

Jarred, Sophie and Daniel

On Saturday the weather was not so nice, more like a winter's day in Melbourne, so we decided to venture into Durban, about an hour's drive away. When we got there we had a walk around on the city, mostly along the foreshore. We stopped for some lunch at a nice Indian restaurant, but the food was so so spicy that I didn't eat too much, just lots of naan! There wasn't too much to see in Durban so after lunch we headed back to Shaka's Bay for our afternoon naps or reading sessions. 

Of what we saw of Durban, it felt like we had been transported back in time to the 1970s. Most of the builidings were big concrete buildings, painted a salmon and grey colour, some were rundown and only a few looked like they had been built in the last 10 years. It seemed like a strange city but we only spent a few hours there so I'm sure there are nicer parts. 
Durban: still living in the 1970s

Sunday was another perfect day in paradise, with the temperate probably about 27 degrees. Jarred and I went on a 5km in the morning, which was tough but so great to be running along the beach again! Shaka's Bay and surrounding areas is quite hilly so it was hard running up and down all the hills but we both felt pretty good by the end of it. We then all headed to the beach, bathed ourselves in nice warm sun and ventured into the rough seas of the Indian ocean. I always forget how rough the ocean is. The waves have the ability to throw you around like a rag doll in a baby's hand, even when they look so calm. On a few occasions I nearly lost my bathers which was a bit awkward, but I was able to hold onto them so the waves didn't take them out to sea! Again when I saw sitting on the beach another whale came to show off his/her splashing skills, this time with its tail rather than its body. It was about 500m out to sea and I think there could have been more than one because there were a lot of tails flying around the water. I was again so impressed and instantly fell in love with all whales! I couldn't believe that I was seeing a whale and kept exclaiming this to Sophie, Jarred and Daniel.

Dusk at Shaka's Bay 

Unfortunately on Monday morning we had to make the long drive back to Joburg and leave the loveliness that was Shaka's Bay! It was so great to be able to rekindle myself with the beach and the glorious sea breeze that goes with it. It was also great to relax, read a book or two, watch some hilarious TV and movies and just relax. Thanks to Jarred (and your uncle) for letting us stay in the apartment and for a very fun weekend! Sophie and Daniel you were great company too :)

Next up is our girls weekend in Drakensburg and Lesotho, so much fun!