Going up Africa’s Alps

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Copy of NM A river in Sehlabatebe. Photo taken by Andrew de Villiers . This leviathan is the longest river in both South Africa and Lesotho and winds its way down the steep mountain. Pictures: Andrew Denis de Villiers

Maseru - Historians tell wide-eyed listeners that less than 200 years ago, cannibals roamed Lesotho. In fact, some of them even ate the first king of Lesotho’s mother. One of the main reasons for cannibalism was the country’s harsh environment – with the world’s highest average altitude, cold winters, volcanic soils and summer storms.

It’s into this dramatic, unforgiving and remote landscape that 10 of us ventured with the hopes of following Lesotho’s Great Snake: the Senqu (or Orange) River before it changes forever.

This leviathan is the longest river in both South Africa and Lesotho and winds its way down the steep mountain, finally succumbing to gravity some 2 000km away between Oranjemund and Alexander Bay on the West Coast.

The Orange River (named after the Dutch Prince of Orange) was the border between the Dutch and the British in the colonial days of South Africa. It draws its massive volumes of water from towering mountains and deep valleys. However, despite its size, this water monster is going to change.

Another beast (the Vaal triangle) taps into the Senqu’s life blood, and it wants more. Plans to build the second biggest dam in Africa (storing about 6.6 trillion cans of Coke worth of water) are under way. The Polihali Dam (pronounced Po-di-ha-di) will result in a smaller Senqu downstream and we wanted to see the river in all her glory before the dam.

We entered the Mountain Kingdom at Sani Pass. This scenic, zigzagging and precarious pass is a prologue to what roads await in the clouds above.

Copy of NM Rugges roads and passes. Photo taken by Andrew de Villiers Rugged roads that lead up. .

From Sani we ventured up the even higher and ominously named Black Mountain Pass (a staggering 3 253m above sea level). On this dizzyingly high treeless plateau with peat bogs, thick mist and bubbling streams of clean water, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in the Alps.

We pulled into Mokhotlong, a regional capital in Lesotho, and the site of the proposed Polihali Dam. This hustle-and-bustle little town was our supply post and we stocked up on whatever we needed for the next few days.

After a forgettable stay in Mokhotlong Hotel, we made our way down to the Senqu’s edge.

The bright green landscape was sprinkled with quaint rock and clay rondavel hamlets. It seemed mandatory that each homestead have a peach tree, a stand of mealies, a timid flea-bitten dog and a smiling old Basotho man outside (with a hat matching the shape of his roof).

Being down at the river was wonderful. Bald ibises looked down at us from basalt cliffs as we swam, frolicked and caught fish in the cool waters below. The water was so cool and so inviting that after a while, we decided to strap on lifejackets and go down some rapids – this is highly recommended. The cliffs added grandeur to the scene and rendered us silent as we floated down the river with only the sound of water lapping against our lifejackets. Out here it was impossible to sweat the small stuff as we got lost in thought and scenery.

Between river visits, locals would often pack around us in villages as we sat and drank our coffee or made our plans for the day. On one occasion, the fire in our storm kettle didn’t want to start and we thought some ethanol would help the cause. We weren’t alchemists and apparently aren’t good at guessing concentrations needed to get a fire going.

Copy of NM Rush Hour on a pass in Lesotho. Photo taken by Andrew de Villiers Rush hour on a pass in Lesotho. .

Our amount was a little too high (apparently) and the struck match resulted in an explosion with people scrambling from the epicentre. After the commotion subsided we realised that the unplanned explosion gave us some peace and quiet and we drank our coffee with shaking hands – this is not recommended.

Staying in villages next to the river made us appreciate the little things in life: running water, a bed, privacy, a well-designed long drop and no flies that visit said well-designed long drops and then visit your face. Needless to say seven out of the 10 of us got sick.

The crescendo of the trip and one of Lesotho’s finest gems was the Sehlabatebe valley in the east. After lamenting the state of many of Lesotho’s overgrazed catchments and the associated muddy rivers and dongas, we were blown away by the valley’s beauty and intactness. The lush green valley greeted us with clean streams and healthy livestock. The clouds headed our way played with sunrays to make the vista even more impressive.

This was a perfect spot to have coffee (compared to some of the villages) and instead of flies, heat and ogling villagers; we had cool, clean water and the only ogling eyes were ours. It was hard to leave and I kept looking for places where we could stay on our next visit (Sehlabatebe National Park accommodation is the answer).

The rest of the trip would put a dampener on the story (read: never go to Quthing unless you love mosquitoes, dirty streets and no running water). So here we leave Lesotho, looking back at the cool and mighty Senqu, the stunning valley and vistas, and the picturesque Sehlabatebe. We look back and start planning our next trip: a trip to Africa’s Alps filled with happy people, harsh landscapes and a really big river.

 

If You Go...

You will need a 4x4 to get up Sani Pass and do the trip from Mokhotlong via Sehlabatebe to Quthing.

Accommodation is generally quite pricey compared for what you get.

Take plenty of water as shops are few and far between.

Where to stay: Mashai Lodge in Mashai – Single rooms are R180, double rooms are R260 and camping is R100 per tent.

Sehlabathebe Park Lodge in Sehlabatebe.

Nthathua Hotel in Qacha’s Neck – Bed and breakfast is R470 (however, a better spot in Qacha’s Neck might be Anne’s Place). - The Mercury

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