Kingdom in the Sky

Day 690 – 19 January, 2017

Beginning my third leg of the Baz Bus transfer, from Durban to Johannesburg, I would pass the Drakensberg Range of the Great Escarpment. I skipped the southern region, secretly giving myself a reason to return in the future, and went directly to the Northern Drakensberg from where I could see Tugela Falls and enter Lesotho from the northern border.

I rejoined with Judith, whom I had met in Coffee Bay, on this leg and we were dropped off at the renowned Amphitheatre Backpackers Hostel in the middle of nowhere. I was expecting to be in the mountains, but instead we were in a wide open prairie with the mountains just cresting the horizon. The hostel was nice enough with a fully stocked bar, swimming pool, wifi (for a fee, of course), a communal kitchen, and a dining room offering a 3 course meal every evening (never mind if you didn’t want to eat or pay for 3 courses – it was the only food available for miles). The dorm rooms were cramped and dark for 6 people, but each had a private bath and was more than adequate.

Judith and I took a short walk around the property, but the trail was overgrown and buggy and didn’t appear to be taking us anywhere special. Judith was not a fan and begged to turn around; no arguments from me. Aside from the tall grass, the surrounding area was so flat and bare that we could still see our hostel complex several hundred meters back the way we had come. We both were expecting mountains.

Since there was not much activity to be had on the property, Judith and I signed on to do a trek to Tugela Falls with several other guests from Amphitheatre. Tugela Falls is widely accepted as the second tallest waterfall in the world at almost 1km from top to bottom. At times, it is even considered the tallest anywhere, but it all depends how you choose to measure. Because I lost the ability to be easily impressed by waterfalls quite some time ago, I had to see this monster for myself.

We drove to Royal Natal National Park and parked a hop, skip, and a mountain behind the falls. We couldn’t see them, but we could see the massive plateau that we would need to climb up and over. The work ahead of us was clear. We were just on the edge of the escarpment so the landscape consisted mostly of undulating green mountains and the parking lot was already higher than most of them.

The trail switch backed in a relatively easy ascent toward the plateau. When the rise became too steep to continue on a trail, we scrambled straight up over boulders that seemed to be stacked just for this purpose. Some of the trekkers were completely beat up by the scrambling. No doubt it was tough, yet it was mostly shaded on an otherwise exposed heap of rock and I felt rejuvenated (and sweaty) at having reached the summit. It was the perfect place for a rest with a view and nearly everyone collapsed on the rim before digging in to their egg and cheese packed lunch.

After sustenance, the remaining walk to the top of the waterfall was relatively flat. A moderately flowing river disappeared over the edge, dropping all the way down 948 meters. And that was it. Approaching Tugela Falls from the top, it was almost impossible to grasp the scale until you looked over the edge. There were three pools at the top, just before the ice water cascaded down the rock face. Let me tell you how exhilarating it is to take a dip in a pool with water that ultimately plummets off a cliff 1 km below you. It’s kind of one of those things that you just have to do…

For the return trip, we made a wide loop on the plateau to descend on two narrow chain ladders. For someone with an aversion to heights, they would be a little scary, but I thought it was fun. The wind started whipping up to add even more excitement to the climb; the chain ladders gently rocked from side to side while we waited for our turn. The rest of the way back to the Sentinel Parking Lot was easy except for a bit of water that had pooled on a rather treacherously steep part of the rock that we had to leap over. All in, this was a highly-sought after trek and I felt lucky that I was able to complete it.

The following morning I joined a different group that took us to Lesotho for the day. Lesotho, known as the Kingdom in the Sky, is entirely surrounded by South Africa. About 40% of the population lives on less than $1.50/day and falls well below the international poverty line. It gets its name of Kingdom in the Sky because it’s lowest point, 1400 m, is higher than any other country’s lowest point. It is entirely consumed by mountains, making life here very challenging. Their economy is sourced primarily from agriculture and animal husbandry. Many of the men attempt to work illegally in South Africa for at least part of the year to obtain a higher wage.

Technically, I was on a tour to Lesotho, but mostly we were just on an exploratory adventure with someone who happened to know the area well. It was very informal and all the more rewarding to interact with the local communities. We visited a school that was not in session, but got to meet the teacher and see the kind of projects they were working on. There was a letter laying on the desk, addressed to the government, requesting a birth certificate for a student. We hiked to the top of a lookout, aided by several boys that were curious why we were there. One German girl from our group brought a bag of apples to pass out. The children tore through that bag faster than I’ve seen any American child tear into a bag of candy. They methodically shared with each other to make sure everyone had an apple and to divvy up what was left if there weren’t enough to go around. Some of the boys wore blankets draped around their shoulders which is a status symbol of any that had come of age. The younger ones gave an unambiguous display of respect to the older boys that couldn’t have been more than 10 years old themselves.

The land was untouched and vibrantly green. The air smelled of cow dung, but was otherwise fresh and invigorating. After lunch (that we mostly just gave away to those hungry big brown eyes), we trailed back down to the scattered farmhouses that were meant to make up a village. One house was full of men and a couple of women, who were passing around a communal mug with the same sour unfiltered homemade beer that I had tried in Coffee Bay. The “mug” was the size of your face and out of politeness, we had to finish the mug before we could go. Approximately thirty people sat in this circle as the mug was passed from one person to the next; the local men were happy to take man-size gulps to complete the ritual.  

Lesotho was so far off the beaten path that it was easy to get lost in the romance of this simple life. No one I met in this village seemed sad about what they didn’t have; they were content with what they did have because they didn’t know what they were missing. It was a truly special place with wide smiles and warm hospitality.

On the way back, we passed through immigration at the Lesotho border, located in a dirt lot about halfway up a mountain pass. This was a place where the outhouses were wooden shacks with concrete blocks for toilets. When you shut the door, it was pitch black inside so you had to figure out your aim before closing the door. The hole cut into the concrete block was located in such a way that I had to stand and straddle this crudely cut hole and hope for the best in the dark. I digress….one day earlier, the news had reported that there had been rioting and protests in Chicago during the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. The immigration officer in this remote post on the Lesotho/South Africa border noticed I was from Chicago and asked me if I had heard about it. I was thankful that I had no idea what he was talking about. Chicago and the inauguration certainly seemed a million miles away from that concrete block toilet.

My final stretch of the Baz Bus took me to Johannesburg, widely proclaimed as the most dangerous city in the country…in a country that I had been repeatedly warned as being dangerous everywhere I went. I would only be there for one night before I joined a camping safari to Botswana and Zimbabwe the next day. The bus had been good to me, but I was glad to be done. Much of the forward planning required to book reservations in advance had cramped my style.

I was dropped off at Shoestring Hostel right by the airport. I had reservations at a boutique hotel in an upscale neighborhood halfway between Joburg and Pretoria, but the Baz Bus wouldn’t take me there. I was dropped off at this hostel because I planned to stay there in a couple of weeks after my tour so the owner was kind enough to let me use wifi to arrange an Uber. All of my experiences with Uber drivers in South Africa were positive with well-dressed, professional and courteous drivers. It was about 25 mins to my hotel and when I saw it, I was ecstatic.  

It was beautiful, a huge treat for someone who hadn’t stayed in such a nice place in more than three months. I never would have stayed there had it not been for the inconvenient departure location of my tour, but the decision had been made and the money had been spent so I decided to enjoy it by going for a swim in their resort pool. I had also noticed that the neighborhood was gated to include a few other boutique hotels and private homes so I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask….would it be safe if I went for a run here? The owner seemed amused that someone would want to run, but his answer was yes. Yes??? Yes! He advised me just to stay off the horse trails because the riders get mad. And so for my last night before the camping safari, before lighting some candles and taking a shower with legit water pressure, I went for a run alone on quiet suburban streets in the most dangerous country I had visited so far. It just goes to show that even the places with the worst reputation still have safe havens left somewhere.