Tag: Southern Africa

:: visions of namibia ::

For two weeks we ventured through the vast expanse of Namibia and though we covered around 5000 kilometres of the country, we still don’t feel like we really saw the place.  This is a country that takes your breath away at nearly every turn and will leave your brain desperately trying to make sense of the awesome size, beauty and richness of the environment.  Two weeks, two months, two years, none would be sufficient to truly experience this vast country.  All we really know is that we will find a way back here to find new adventures out in this awesome wilderness.

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Search our blog for keyword Namibia to read about some amazing adventures in this gorgeous country.

:: basotho blankets ::

If clothes make the man, then blankets make the Basotho. Men and women, rural and urban, summer and winter, blankets are a constant sight in Lesotho. Vividly colourful with intricate meanings and hierarchies, these blankets are a common cultural thread in Lesotho and beyond. Yet, their beginnings come from the cultural collisions of European missionaries and traders with Basotho, the people of Lesotho.

In the 1830’s French missionaries coming north from the Cape Colony came across King Moshoeshoe I and his newly formed Basotho people; an amalgamation of many different tribes and clans uprooted by conflict with the Zulus and brought together under the benign rule of Moshoeshoe. The King welcomed the missionaries and became an early Christian convert, thus providing access for missionaries and traders to move freely around what was then known as independent Basutoland.

In 1860 a British trader presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, or kobo, and he immediately took to wearing it around his shoulders. Within a short period of time, Basotho started wearing animal skins, colourful cloths and blankets over their shoulders. Noting this new trend, an English trader called Donald Fraser introduced a specially made blanket for the Basotho which became an instant status symbol. The wool and mohair blankets were perfect for regulating body temperatures and staying dry and warm in the variable climate of the Mountain Kingdom.

It was the launch of the Victoria line from the trading store Frasers in the late 1890s that really kicked off the insatiable demand from the Basotho. This first specially made blanket resembled leopard skin and was made for royalty, but its popularity quickly led to an expanded line of designs and common Basotho bought the blankets in droves. Each year for the next century they produced 100,000 blankets and demand always exceeded supply. The Victoria label had become a symbol and everyone wanted one.

Today the blankets are no longer made by Frasers, but by blanket manufacturers Aranda in Johannesburg. Several traditional styles are still available while they work to introduce new designs each year to accommodate the changing tastes of Basotho.  Vivid colours, iconic symbols of Lesotho and two or three pin stripes running through the design are the key identifiers of the traditional Basotho blanket.

These beautiful Basotho blankets often have special meanings, and many designs are designated for specific occasions like funerals, weddings and initiation ceremonies.  There are also special blankets for royalty and the different traditional clans.  Most recently, Aranda has honoured Semonkong, where they shoot their blanket advertising campaigns, with a new design made to celebrate Maletsunyane Falls.

It isn’t just the iconic blankets that are ubiquitous here in Lesotho. Drive out into the countryside and you will see blankets hanging out to dry in every village. Simple ones, tatty ones, new ones and yes, traditional Basotho blankets made by Aranda. Fastened with a special blanket pin, there are many different ways to wear the blanket, but you’ll always see them worn prominently.

Women wear blankets as an extra ‘skirt’ layer in winter, around their middle to keep babies close on their backs as they work the fields or town, or draped over their shoulders for warmth and protection.

Herd boys make, and fix, their own blankets out in the mountainside pastures, or use those given to them by their family or initiation ceremony.

Older boys can be seen cloaked in traditional blankets as part of their initiation ceremony in which they become men.  Throughout the country, men and women of all ages wrap themselves in a warm blanket to fight against the frigid winter morning cold, strong wind, harsh sun or driving rain.

In recent years, Basotho blankets are even becoming high fashion couture. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Thabo Makhetha, a Basotho designer in South Africa, who is turning these quintessential cultural icons into jackets, dresses and shawls. Other designers are creating men’s jackets, while other sources in Europe and America are adapting or stocking these blankets, including Anthropologie.  Some claim that even Burberry took their inspiration from the Basotho blankets when they sent some of their models down the catwalk cloaked in wool blankets earlier in the year.

Perhaps imitation is the ultimate form of flattery but it is unlikely that these new converts to modern forms of the Basotho blanket will truly understand the influence they wear on their shoulders. After all, how can a trendy New Yorker or Parisian fully comprehend “bochaba ba mosotho ke kobo” – “the nationality of the Mosotho is the blanket”? Maybe they don’t have to, but we hope they at least become aware of this fantastic little mountain kingdom and the beautiful local cultural importance of the designs they choose to wear.


:: 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!

:: dogs of lesotho ::

It goes without saying that we are dog people. We love dogs and we have a very close bond with not only our black labrador Mosa, but many of our friends’ dogs both here in Lesotho and further afield.

This emotional connection to any dog caused us to bury an unknown dog yesterday near our house. We don’t know how she died, she may have been hit by a car or perhaps just died of old age, but we found her lying in an abandoned and overgrown area at the end of our road. Along with our gardener, who owns several dogs, we dug a hole, buried her and laid a stone and some greenery on top of the grave. It was a hard thing to do, almost as if the physical act of digging a hole was a form of closure we never had with Guinness more than two years ago. The whole unexpected encounter made us think about dogs and their lives here in Lesotho.

We of course have a very western view of dog ownership, one that allows dogs to be in the house and part of the family. Here, the Basotho have a very different attitude towards dogs. Like many cultures around the world, the Basotho treat their dogs in a much more functional way, using them for security, livestock control or simply as companions out in the countryside. Basotho frequently ‘collect’ dogs, so that it’s not uncommon to see one person with four or five dogs trailing beside and behind.

The dogs are not necessarily healthy, but generally they are fairly well treated. That is not to say that Basotho can’t be cruel to their animals, as they definitely can from our perspective. Their actions towards animals are however borne out of a mentality of them serving a function and not from the same type of emotional bond that we maintain with our pets. This means that throwing a rock at the dog to control it or hitting it with a stick to make it listen are instinctive.

The dogs are of course the same as dogs anywhere – loyal, playful and potentially mischievous. A knock to the side with a stick is better than starving and as I said, the dogs are usually treated well. These are hearty dogs after all. They sleep outside at all times, frequently chained up, and endure the drastic daily temperature swings and fierce sunlight. They don’t have soft donut beds or toys to chew on, but rather each other to fight with and animal bones to eat.

For all the hardships endured and administered, dogs and Basotho are inexorably linked. On almost every hike in the countryside or walk in Maseru with Mosa, someone asks us: “give me your dog”. We shake our heads and say she is our dog, but you can see the respect for a beautiful dog that so many Basotho have. Perhaps it is a view of dogs as a commodity, one that can be bartered or sold if needs be, but I prefer to see it as a love of these loyal companions.  Hopefully some day Basotho dogs will have a few more creature comforts!

:: a royal ampitheatre ::

The jagged teeth of rock rose into view. Still far on the horizon, they foreshadowed a return to home climes. Gone was the humidity and salty air of the coast we had just come from. In their place was dry, fresh, clear air and endless blue skies reaching over the soaring peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains.

We came off the motorway and back onto the lovely two lane roads that snake through the golden fields and undulating hillsides of the foothills of the Drakensberg. It’s a similar landscape to that which you find in the Free State running along the north-western border of Lesotho, but from this side the mountains rise straight up. It is an impressive sight to behold as pinnacles of sheer rock reach for the sky like freshly planted trees searching for the sunlight.

We were heading for Royal Natal National Park in the Northern Drakensberg, and more specifically for the Amphitheatre. Named due to its likeness of a concert venue, this prodigious geographical feature stretches approximately 5 kilometres across and rises more than 1200 metres straight up from the base of the Tugela River Valley. From the top, the Tugela Falls cascade close to 1000 meters down the cliff face, making them the second highest falls in the world, behind only Angel Falls. There is little that can explain the sheer awesomeness of this place. It is truly something that needs to be experienced on foot, up close.

We arrived just as the late autumn sun sank behind the foothills, with the last rays of golden sunlight striking the awe-inspiring walls of rock. Suddenly reds and pinks and oranges danced over the sheer cliff faces that stretched in front of us. Heads on a swivel we tried to take it all in and quickly realised that the one night we had there was not going to do this place justice – not by a long shot!

The morning light on the rock wall was different, but equally mesmerising. The only problem was the cold, even with cups of tea and many layers, our hands started getting rather cold and ineffectual after a short time sitting watching the sun rise. Luckily for our hands, but not for our photos, the light quickly changed as the sun rose and we retreated inside. Staying at Thendale Camp inside the park was ideal for being able to see the sunset and sunrise. Right out the back door of our cottage we had an unencumbered view of the entire Amphitheatre. It was spectacular.

It goes without saying that this is hiking territory, and so we laced up our boots and headed up the Tugela River Valley directly towards the cliffs. It was a lovely walk slowly uphill the entire way, but it included little patches of forest that have grown up along the water courses coming down off the hillsides. Tucked into the clefts of the hills, these waterfall fed trees are home to troops of baboons. We heard them more than we saw them, but a few showed themselves for fleeting glances through the branches.

The trail was easy enough, but towards the end it offered some nice boulder hopping and a chain ladder up a small rock face. We were short on time, so we unfortunately couldn’t follow the trail all the way to the cliff face.  It would have surely been an amazing sight, staring straight up at the crushing amount of rock tower over us. Still, with low river levels there probably would have been very little water in the falls so we will just have to return in spring or summer for a more thorough exploration!

All in all, it was lovely to spend even a very brief amount of time in Royal Natal. It was in many ways a homecoming for us. Returning to the mountains after ten days along the coast re-enforced just how much we crave landscapes that feature mountains, hills and plateaus. If there is something to clamour up, then chances are we are happy to make the attempt!

:: 1500 hashes ::

How many Sundays do you wake up early to go for a hike? Once a month? Once a year? Never?! For thirty years people in Maseru have gotten up, driven out to the countryside and then walked around following clumps of shredded paper. Why? Who knows, but to celebrate the 1500th run of the Maseru Hash House Harriers, we organised a Hash to Qiloane Falls.

We visited Qiloane with a group back in November, but this time it was an 80 strong group that traipsed over the hills and into the river to reach the falls. The water was lower this time, which was good for the collected masses, and we brought beer, also good for the collected masses! It wasn’t a normal hash as the route was not dotted and there were no false trails, but it was a challenging hike. The true blue hashers were decked out in the special 1500th edition t-shirt, designed by Cora herself! They feature a lovely representation of the Hash, with adults, kids and dogs all walking amongst mountains to the falls.

The reward at the end of the hike down was sun-drenched rocks, swimming under the falls and lots of hashers enjoying the special day out. People hung about, swam, slept, drank, ate and generally enjoyed a place not regularly visited. The return journey is always harder, but the whole day out was a wonderful celebration of the essence of the Hash in Maseru – getting out into the beautiful Lesotho countryside and exploring what nature has to offer!