Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Vacation to the Drakensburg Mountains

Leah and I’s epic adventure started before we even reached our destination. After eight hours crammed in a small corner of a bush taxi we were more than excited to see our first stop on the horizon. I started to panic that the taxi might not be so accommodating as to drop us off where our bus was going to pick us up. This posed quite the conundrum. Not only was this city quite large but neither of us had been there before and we would be walking targets with all our backpacking gear. I quickly called the bus company who transferred me to the bus driver who I begged to talk to the taxi driver to coordinate a meeting point for the ignorant Americans. So as the taxi driver is swerving down the highway he seemed to have made a plan with the bus driver. I assume all is well but I couldn’t hear a word of the conversation due to the speaker blasting smooth jazz for the over 40s being inches from my ear. I ease back in my seat, or rather the lap of the sweaty, morbidly obese elderly woman I’ve been sitting on all day, in the comfort that I now have multiple people coordinating their routes on my behalf. About ten minutes later the taxi stops on the side of the highway. Since there isn’t a shoulder, he was still half in the lane where cars had to veer around him. He then told Leah and I to get out. I politely remind him that he had just made a plan with the bus driver in reference to our transport debacle. Dropping off two malungus on the side of the highway is the plan?! I assured myself that the bus must be coming any minute. Two minutes into our wait for the elusive bus rain starts to come down in sheets. We’re both soaked in ten seconds flat and I realized, too late, that when it was still dry I had put my backpack into what was now a rather large stream. We’re still waiting. I clearly had a little too much faith in the plan. I finally call the bus driver who’s fuming that the taxi driver dropped us off on the side of the highway. He goes on a ten minute tirade. I pleasantly explain that, though I appreciate his empathy to our situation, the best thing he could do to help us was to get off his soap box and to pick up the two drowned rats with purple lips. At last, we met up with the bus after walking down the exit ramp and huddling under a bridge. Car after car would slow to an idle to gawk at the scene we had become while quickly locking their doors and rolling up their windows. We were taken out of our misery not a moment too soon.

We eventually made it to our destination in the Southern Drakensburg. On our first day we decided to go on what was slated to be a four hour day hike. On the now infamous bus we met a delightful Irish/Scottish woman working in Hong Kong and we invited her along. There were blue skies on a crisp morning, all signs pointed to a rejuvenating jaunt in the mountains. It was quite an enjoyable morning, the hike wasn’t challenging, the views were picturesque and we chit-chatted the whole way. We stopped to swim in a beautiful natural spring where we met a couple of Lesotho Peace Corps Volunteers. We had forded the river a few times after that but the current was strong. Since there was a contingency plan in our directions for when the river was high we decided to take it. (We were warned by the owner of the hostel we stayed at that it would probably be necessary to take the alternative route so we didn’t hesitate). The directions vaguely described ‘scrambling up fifty meters at the waterfall where you’ll find a fence that you can follow back to the path.’ We ended up rock-climbing without the reassurance of a belier for almost an hour and a half…and still no fence. Sue started to panic at this point and exhausted a lot of energy in a series of extensive lateral movements that led her back to where she started. Leah had lost her water bottle downstream when we were back at the spring so we were now sharing my tiny water bottle that had about two inches of water left. We continued to climb higher under the assumption that there had to be a fence somewhere. The thing we didn’t quite think through in our one-track-fence mind was that if we didn’t find it we would have to climb all the way back down. We stopped to re-evaluate the existence of the fence countless times but the farther we got the more committed we were. At this point we were six hours into what we anticipated would be a four hour hike. Sue’s freaking out. We’re sun burnt, exhausted and dehydrated and though we can see where we need to go we had no way of getting there. We called the owner of the hostel we were staying at who said he hoped we weren’t on top of the exact cliff we were on top of. He had no suggestions. Sue took that opportunity to tell us that she would share her full two liter bottle of water with us but she’s worried about germs. Minutes later she poured some over her head. We continued to blindly try to find the trail for a while longer when we collectively decided that we needed to get down from the mountain. We abandoned all hope of finding the trail. Leah gave a convincing argument to slide on our butts down a not-as-steep part of the mountain. Sue was not assured by the descent grade which was still quite steep. I didn’t feel that I had enough hiking experience to make an informed decision either way. We debated for quite some time. After it got good and tense we went for it. I was on the brink of tears. We all made it out alive. I even sang a wonderful acapella rendition of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” complete with moves from their music video where they’re crawling out of the ocean in their tattered Army fatigue bikinis. After I finished rolling around in the grass we continued onward and upward. We saw a bush taxi in the distance and we ran like wild women flailing our arms, begging for them to stop. I’m sure we were quite a sight. We got back to the hostel eight hours after we first head out, not too worse for wear and with plenty of stories to tell.

I woke up the next day with muscles I didn’t even know I had sore beyond comprehension. We decided to vegetate for most of the day, only venturing out to hike a trail I’m convinced was designed for toddlers. Even so, I attempted to persuade Leah of the necessity of leaving a trail of popcorn like in Hansel and Gretel but with signposts every 20 meters she thought it was a little overkill. The hostel was chock full of fascinating people so the fact that we were avoiding the scary mountains like the plague didn’t dampen our experience. We had an absolutely delightful Christmas Eve dinner that night complete with crowns and crackers like in the British movies. As an aside, I got a ring in my cracker both on Christmas Eve and Christmas which I’m pretty sure means I’m going to get engaged this year. After our meal I started a game of charades in which I was, by far, the most active participant. Lucky of me, there was a charismatic Alaskan who helped carry the momentum. Soon our little model UN of international travelers were all in on the excitement. It was a great way to end the night.

We were driven up the Sani Pass to Lesotho on Christmas by the owner of the chalet we were going to stay at. It was fitting seeing as though he looked like Santa Claus though perhaps after the popular figurehead had endured a round or two of rehab (which we found out later this pseudo-Santa indeed had). He had rosy cheeks, a pot belly and was quite jolly though was pretty rough around the edges. The actual Sani Pass road would not fit any road definition I’ve ever heard rather it was more of a collection of boulders that ended in a destination. Oh and this road was on the side of the cliff. And it was raining. If you get to the South African border post and aren’t driving a 4WD they turn you away, it’s too dangerous. Needless to say I was a little weary but this is Africa after all and somehow entire countries seem to function solely on roads exactly as this one so I knew we’d be okay. As we crawled up to Lesotho Santa told us his life story. Though unsolicited, it was fascinating. This was actually the highlight of our entire trip for Leah this guy was such a character.

When we get there our destination looked like how I would picture the last place on Earth. It’s mountainous, rocky, cold and desolate. The villagers are swathed in blankets and I could see young shepherd boys herding the sheep in for the night in the distance on horseback. There isn’t a clinic, school or shop as far as the eye can see. Huts are made of the boulders which seem to be the only thing in great supply and electricity is still something for city folk. When we got to the chalet it was immersed in a cloud. We could see only white out of the picture windows when we ate Christmas dinner by candlelight.

The next day one of the shepherds took us pony trekking through the mountains. He’s 22 and in fifth grade with the ambition of being an engineer. He said the closest school is a full day’s walk away so he sleeps there. Though it’s difficult to manage his responsibility of his herd with his studies he hopes to go to college one day.

We had a chance meeting with a PCV couple the next day who drove us to Bergville, our next destination in the Northern Drakensburg. They even rented a real car, so we were riding in style. We took complete advantage of our luxury and made a pit stop along the way to see Cathedral Peak. We grabbed a drink at a beautiful resort but I immediately felt uncomfortable in what felt exactly like a flashback to the old South. We were in a tropical paradise surrounded by poverty with all patrons White and all staff Black.

We then went on a multiple day hiking trip with a few more friends. A guide took us to the most beautiful sliver of untouched land I’ve ever seen. Our last night we slept in a cave, on the side of a cliff, next to a waterfall. Baboons were racing up and down the lush mountains. On an especially hot day, I bathed in the river on our lunch break and it felt like I was the only person in paradise.

01/05: So even after I got rid of the papers and crossword puzzle books ruined by the flood the daily rains created, my room still has a damp, mildew-y smell to it. I thought I was going to lose my mind as the flies went on a relentless spree of facial dive bombs. Do they not sleep? Have they coordinated shifts so that I will get no reprieve? How can they be unfazed by poison? It’s like they become more determined the more powder I throw at them.

1/6: Today we found out that the application Tshengie wrote two years ago to the US Embassy Small Grants Program was being followed up upon. There was plenty of hand waving and God praising.

1/7: So I had a wonderful afternoon with my host sister. I was shocked when she told me without really telling me that she was HIV positive. She had found out last month and hasn’t told anyone. She doesn’t plan on telling anyone even though she has multiple boyfriends. How will she get her new clothes or have minutes on her phone? We talked for several hours about what’s really happening in her body right now and how she can help slow the disease. She’s still not convinced it’s not a death sentence but hopefully I at least persuaded her of her HIV education class’s inaccuracy in blaming the American government for bringing AIDS to Africa in an effort to kill all the black people.

1/8: Today Nomkosi visited me. Her younger sister, Ayanda is on our daily meal program. Nomkosi is 23 and is the oldest of six orphans. She wasn’t asking me for money but help with her ID documents so she can get a grant from the government. They’re currently surviving on $100/month. She’s friends with my host sister who gave her out-grown school uniforms so her siblings can go to school next week. She knows grant process but she was convinced that if I got involved I could put her on some I-know-a-White-person fast track. I sometimes wish people didn’t come to me to solve their problems.

1/9: Today I was put on speaker phone at the church I grew up in so I could lead an Adult Education class on my experience thus far in South Africa. It was so wonderful and cathartic to take time to reflect on what I’ve done and what I want to do next year. It was such a great boost to feel people back home supporting me. I was on cloud 9 all day.

1/10: Today I wrote the constitution and policy and procedure manual for my organization in a vain attempt to guise our project as one that is halfway functioning for when the Embassy funders come next week.

1/11: I left work early to let my eleven year old host brother wire my new room with electricity. I kept stalling, convinced someone a bit more competent was going to come along any minute, nobody came. Since we didn’t have electric tape I now have a maze of duct taped wires going every which way hanging from posts and taped to walls. After about three hours of shamelessly using Lindo as my human shield, neither of us got electrocuted but my electricity is still not working. I’m convinced I’m in far worse shape than where I began because of the amount of wires he cut at random and haphazardly taped back together.

1/12: Today was the big day when the Small Grants funder came from the US Embassy. She broke the news that the US Embassy was no longer funding stipends so it was a day full of mourning. The fact that they fund quite a few other things was really beside the point. That list was full of programs needing to be implemented or to put it simply, work needing to be done.

1/13-1/15: I travelled twenty hours round trip to go to a meeting for the library committee at the Peace Corps head office that our staff liaison didn’t show up for. All three items on the agenda needed his input to move forward. All three were tabled till our next meeting. On a positive note, I started planning my trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

1/16: Today I was made aware that I booked the wrong week for 100 girls to go to Camp GLOW. The correct week is now booked. No amount of care package goodies could give me any solace.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Alena, I can't believe the confusion for Camp GLOW. What's going to happen?

    I'm proud of you and your adventures on your vacation. I found them thrill-seeking, but you already know I'm crazy like that, :)

    Will "righty-tighty, lefty loosey" help you get any electricity? No? Oh.