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!

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