Monday, August 16, 2004

No goats in the pool, please.

This installment has been long delayed by mountain ranges, cantankerous ponies, more stars than I could easily count, taxis running out of gas, and then finding myself suddenly transported from winter in the far south to summer in the far north (without a large temperature change, mind you). It was getting dark at around 5 when I arrived in South Africa and right now it's 8:30 and it's still bright here in Edinburgh.

I was explaining, some weeks ago, why it is that I have forsaken my native land to journey to antipodean wilds. Let me relate a few anecdotes that may provide some measure of illumination.

In Malealea, Lesotho, I got up on my first morning there and put some smoked mussels and crackers in the bag that the Sierra Club had kindly sent me and set off into the countryside, which was wide, straw-coloured, majestic, fence-free and inviting. Lesotho is called the Kingdom in the Sky because it sits in, or on, the Maluti mountain range and its lowest point is higher than the lowest point of any country in the world and higher than the highest of some. They grow potatoes there in the reddish soil, and maize and sorghum which they make into frothy beer, and when they make a fresh batch of this beer they hang a blue flag outside their house so that people on all the neighbouring hills will know that there's a fresh batch of sorghum beer and they will come and try some, once the goats are corralled.

I can't describe how good it felt to be aimless and mapless in such a landscape, with the whole day in front of me, and the ground and the air golden like a late afternoon in October. The only thing I had in mind was that there were bushman paintings nearby, thousands of years old, but I had not much idea where. I headed down a gorge which led me to the bed of a little river, which judging by the size of the gorge must be a big river in certain seasons. The river wound along the bends and tumbled down huge rocks and I followed, clambering or taking off my shoes when necessary. I came to a series of rock pools created by little waterfalls. Some of them were only puddles in natural basins, and some were round and several meters deep like a tub for a giant. The water was freezing the way only rock pools in the mountains can be, but the sun was warm so I couldn't resist going for a dip. I hadn't brought a swimsuit of course so I stripped and tip-toed into the biggest pool. Excrutiating. I had just finally gotten submerged to my neck when I heard bells around the bend. Before I knew it I was surrounded by a herd of bleating goats, jumping over the rocks with their clacking hooves and assembling by the side of the pool. I experienced an irrational paranoia as I sometimes do around animals, wondering to myself, what do these goats want from me? What are they thinking?

The goats were followed by a shepherd, of course, a Basotho teenager wearing a blanket (which is the multi-purpose Basotho garment), sweaters and jeans and a hat and yellow rubber boots with flaps in both the toes. His name was Alphonse, I learned. He didn't speak English, but understood pointing. We had a remarkably eloquent conversation anyway, while I shivered in the pool, thinking I'd much rather be sunning on the rock but wondering, in my natural state, when Alphonse might leave. He seemed in no rush.

Eventually he suggested that I might want to take a picture of him - he was clearly an old hand at this tourism business - so I somewhat self-consciously and shiveringly scrambled out of the pool, wrapped a towel around myself, and then took out my camera and snapped some pictures of Alphonse and his sheep. Then I gave him a few maloti (singular - loti).

I continued down the gorge, through the crevices between rocks the size of houses, along sandbars and through bamboo groves. The walls grew higher and eventually I realized I had no idea how to get out. So I continued until the river fed into another, wider and more sluggish river running through a stretch of farmland. The hills were covered with wispy yellow grass that came up to my waist.

When I got close to a village the kids would run out and say hello to me and ask for candy. Sometimes they would point and call out "lehoa!" which means "white person" and I would point back at them and say "masuto!" which means "black person." I gave them some sugar-free Dentyne and showed them how to look through my binoculars, which gave the smaller ones a bit of a fright. I felt a bit pied-piper-ish when I left the village with a crowd of kids aged 4-14 trailing behind me. A few of them managed to understand that I was interested in seeing the bushman cave paintings and led me up the steep sides of another gorge to three different sites with ancient pictures of yellow hunters and pink antelope. It was getting dark by then, and when I took a picture of my guides using the flash, the littlest of them was scared out of his wits. Or maybe he just did that because he knew all the other kids would laugh.

I climbed the hill and started to walk back in the direction of Malealea, and soon from the top of another hill I could see the lodge in the distance, with the sun setting over the mountains to the left. Magnificent. It was one of the most perfect, peaceful, and happy days I could remember having, especially because I was aware of its perfection as it was happening, and that's always better than realizing it years later.


Blogger Alison Wilderland said...

Hey there. Wow, I loved hearing about you in the freezing pools having this chat with the young goat hearder, or was it sheep?
My classes are almost over and so will be my trip soon. I wish I could just jump on over to edinburgh and hang with you guys. Love to Cat and Mike.
Big hug to you,
Abnormal load

5:54 AM  

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