Tag: mountain

:: imbabura ::

Up.  Then up some more.  Then straight up.  That is roughly how I would describe climbing Imbabura.

By its very nature mountain climbing involves going up, but this mountain is not like the rolling inclines of Pichincha.  No, it is a knock you in the lungs, step by step, assault from the moment you get out of the car.  But it’s truly stunning and well worth the climb!

The weather was beautiful and sunny to start as we slowly climbed up through the paramo with sweeping views of the valley and Ibarra below.  However Imbabura is infamous for inclement weather on the top and before long the clouds rolled down the flanks of the mountain and grey misty conditions became our reality.

This didn’t deter us in the least, in fact it was rather magical to climb through the ever rockier landscape with swirling clouds all around us.  Sudden reveals of steep, rocky descents were slightly off putting to our good friend Matt with his fear of heights, but they did keep us on our toes!

The climbing got a bit harder and more technical towards the top and with an increasingly restless toddler on our backs, we took the wise and well-considered decision to cut short our ascent just shy of the peak.  It had been a good, but tough, climb and we all really enjoyed the day out on the mountain.

:: pasochoa paramo ::

It is abnormal to start a hike at almost 12,700 feet. The air is fairly thin, there are no trees, and the wind can howl like nobody’s business.  This is not terrain for a leisurely stroll, which was good, because we felt like a proper hike up a mountain.

Pasochoa is one of the smaller mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, but it is also one of the more accessible.  It is overlooked by the riches of the Andean Sierra, with seven higher peaks visible from its summit, including Cotopaxi and Antisana, both of which are close to a mile higher.  At a mere 13,800 feet, or 4,200 metres, it is a fairly easy, non-technical climb.

Instead of climbing from lower down the mountain, which most people do from the northwest side, we drove up through the fields, cattle gates and onto the paramo from the west side.  We had been staying on a lovely farm and this access point was just a few minutes up the road so it was ideal.  We didn’t expect to be able to drive as far up as we did, but we were grateful given the inclement weather and additional weight of our 16 month old on our backs.

The paramo is a universal ecosystem up in the high Andes and is evident from the tussock grasses, empty spaces and large birds of prey circling above.  It is kind of like moorlands and certainly without good visibility, one could easily get lost in the fairly featureless expanses.

It was a fairly cloudy day so many of the peaks were mostly hidden, but we still enjoyed being on the lookout for the larger peaks.  Really we just wanted to get out and stretch our legs and finally have the chance to summit a proper Andean peak. The open expanses in all directions were quite stunning, it is hard to believe that when you stand atop the summit, it is only about twenty or thirty miles from the centre of Quito.

Fog seemed to roll in from all sides, but especially up from the crater of Pasochoa.  An extinct volcano, it’s thrilling to see how previous eruptions have moulded the landscape and provided fertile ground for unique high altitude vegetation.

All four of us made it up to the top, though Piper was the only one really exhausted from the experience! As you can see – climbing mountains is hard work!

:: african snow ::

Sunglasses. Check. Hat. Check. Sunscreen. Check. Skis. Check. Not your typical list for a day out in Africa with these last items, but it’s exactly what we went through at AfriSki. Tucked underneath a 3200 metre high pass through the Maluti Mountains sits this great anomaly – an African ski resort. It isn’t large, but the snow and equipment are good and the experience is one that can’t be beat!

AfriSki is one of two functioning ski resorts in sub-saharan Africa and offers refugees from snowy climes and adventurous South Africans the chance to ski or snowboard without having to take a twelve hour flight. The slope itself is a mere 1000 metres if fully open, with a shorter beginner’s slope and snowboarding park on site as well. Those who have skied in the Alps or Rockies may not fully appreciate this as a resort, but to be able to ski down the side of a mountain in the blinding African sun is a pretty amazing experience!

It is perhaps ironic that the first time in nearly a decade for us to hit the slopes comes in Africa, even after living in the UK for that whole time and being two hours away from the Alps. It was a tentative beginning. We got our gear and headed to the beginner’s slope for a refresher of what skiing entails. CW was hesitant at first to do anything! Gone was the confidence to actually go down a run and he stood stock still on the top of a ridiculously short, shallow slope trying to remember how to convince his muscles to move the skis. Cora was outwardly patient, but internally fearful that we would never get off the beginner’s slope.  Two runs later things had improved markedly and before too long the T-bar trip to the top of the main slope beckoned.

The view from the top is a bit strange as you look down this ribbon of snow surrounded by a sea of brown rock and dead vegetation. The sound of a cow bell passes over the valley and herd boys in their colourful blankets dot the horizon. It isn’t always like this, but the winter has unfortunately been bereft of snow this year and so only the manmade stuff on the slope stands out from the brown landscape.

Our two half days of skiing were spent rushing down the slope with great enjoyment and very few falls. Cora did nearly have a spectacular fall as she actually skied too fast for her rental equipment, but she managed to just run out of her skis at the bottom.  Otherwise we dodged kamikaze kids, apprehensive adults and semi-upright snowboarders. It was great fun!

We couldn’t help but think about how this trip and experience were a great way to end our first year in Lesotho. Here was a quintessentially Lesotho experience that capped all of our other trips – Semonkong, Sani Pass, Maliba, Malealea, Katse, Sehlabathebe, Morija, Mohale, Qiloane and all the hashes. We have explored much of this wonderful country and still can’t get enough.

We are thankful to have another year left to fully experience Lesotho and the wonderful Basotho people, but also somewhat sad to only have one year left. This year has flown by so quickly and we can’t help but feel that this second year will do the same. That said, we know what experiences we still want to have and those that we want to re-live. Twelve months gives us the chance to see all the seasons once more, including the ski season at AfriSki of course!

:: reservoir in the sky ::

As the rain hammered down, we slowly picked our way through the twists and turns of the ribbon of asphalt winding its way up the mountainside. Regular flashes of lightning illuminated the towering peaks across the valley and cracks of thunder were so close the car shook. With the scenery thoroughly hidden by the elements our focus was on the road up and over the Mafika Lisiu Pass.

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At 3090 metres, the pass is the third highest road pass in Lesotho and not a road to be taken lightly. In just 30km the road goes up over 1400 metres! Leaving the hot lowlands behind, you quickly reach cooler high alpine pastures on the other side of the pass.

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The tarred road to Katse was built as part of the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and provided a key route between the dam and some of the outlet tunnels in South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an amazing feat of engineering, shifting copious amounts of water from the drenched highlands of Lesotho to the parched areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.

The dam wall stands 185 meters high and 710 meters wide at its top and is the second largest dam in Africa. Nestled within the mountainsides of the central Maloti range, it is very difficult to see the dam until you are almost right upon it, making the expanse of concrete all the more impressive. It took 22,000 people approximately six years and 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete to create this massive engineering feat.

The surroundings of the dam are startlingly beautiful, with the 50km reservoir following the twisting confines of the mountains that rise majestically above the water. Sitting well above the edge of the cliffs, it was fabulous to see the sheer scale of the place and lay back to watch the shifting clouds and fading light.

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We stayed in a small house built originally for the dam workers, but now tied to the lodge that overlooks the dam. From the terrace of the lodge you can sit, have a drink and admire the cross section of man made and natural beauty. Though we had a less open view from the house, we could still see the water and mountains from our back garden, perfect for relaxing breakfasts.

One morning we went for a hike and wandered along the Malibamatso River, below the dam. Following the lovely lazy river to the sound of birds and crickets made us feel miles away.  We only passed six or eight people, a surprisingly low number for Lesotho where, even in the most remote places, you almost always come across a surprising number of people wandering up and down the various hillsides.

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The walk itself had a little of everything – some rolling fields, rocky flood plains, small copses of trees and a little rock scrambling. If we had been inclined we could have gone for a swim, but we left that for our return trip to Maseru where we found a nice little place to swim in the reservoir itself. There we were joined by two boys who had been fishing nearby. One actually joined us in the water, while the other just smiled and laughed at us from shore. Mosa came in as well for one of her first proper swims ever, which I think really amused the boys!

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From there it was back over the Mafika Lisiu pass, this time in the clear sunshine.  We took advantage of the better weather and stopped at Bokong Nature Reserve. This small reserve offers fantastic views out over the Maloti Mountains as well as the opportunity to discover ice rats – a small rodent species endemic to Lesotho.

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The visitor centre is perched precariously over a 100 meter drop into the river valley below, but offers views of a waterfall and the river that take your breath away. A quick 30 minute hike takes you to the top of the waterfall and a perfect picnic spot along the babbling stream. Thankfully the hike is over relatively flat ground, as the 3000 metre altitude really kicks in, even for us who are used to mile high Maseru.

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Headed back to Maseru a while later, the good weather gave way to an amazing landscape with soaring mountains and waterfalls crashing down the sheer cliff faces. It was well worth going back the way we came, though the road was almost more scary in the daylight than in the pouring rain!

A few more snapshots of our weekend away…

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