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Rizzo, this is Louise!

– Gonzo

I squeezed a lot of breasts today, and finally settled on my favourite pair. They belonged to a young lady named Louise. Well. at least that’s what we called her anyway. And she doesn’t seem to mind.

We awoke shortly before sunrise with two objectives in mind. One, to get to Marojejy National Park before the hottest part of the day. And two, to buy the final item on the grocery list for our hike – a chicken.

After breakfast, I enlisted one of the delightful ladies who work at our hotel in Andapa to come with us to the market to assist inthe purchase of our new hiking companion/final night’s meal. Evidently up for a little Saturday morning entertainment, she agreed and guided us down the streets of Andapa, already bustling in the bright early morning sunshine to look for the chicken man. After a few minutes, her face brightened as we turned a corner and spotted a young man walking a bicycle down the a dirt road. Balanced over the bike’s back tire sat a large thatch basket of roosters and hens.

We flagged our man down and he was soon yanking out various birds by the feet for our inspection. All of them looked generally annoyed but otherwise quite healthy. Like any good business man, the chicken vendor started with his best bird, a brilliant black, green and red rooster.

But at 11,000 Ariary, or 8 bucks, this champion was too far out of our league. “Besides, he’s too pretty to eat,” stuffing him back in the basket with a squawk and a flutter. While Janine snapped photos continuously I examined various other hens and cocks (shut up), looking carefully beneath their wings, ruffling their feathers, squeezing their muscles and generally trying to look like I’d bought a live animal before. My second most pressing concern was to avoid getting pecked, which I was pretty sure would result in me dropping the chicken and screaming like a girl while the rest of the market goers (growing more concentrated around us by the minute thanks to Janine’s photojournalism) laughed their asses off.

Finally, we settled on a plump, docile looking female, mostly brown but with pretty lines of white along the undersides of her feathers. She seemed to be the right size and at 8000 Ariary she seemed to be the right price. I could picture her stewed, baked, fried or just as someone to talk to in case the trail chat with Janine grew stale.

As I handed over the money and the vendor tied our purchase’s feet with a little twine, Janine giggled with delight. “I have a name picked out!”

she said happily. “Remember the chicken in ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’

named Louise? Let’s call her that!”

“But your mother’s name is Louise,” I said mildly.

“Well, it’s the only chicken name I know,” Janine replied resolutely.

And she had me there.

So the chicken’s name is Louise.

***

 

We hitched a free ride from Andapa to Marojejy with some friendly staff from the park office. We’d travelled this road 2 days previously in a filled-to-capacity taxi-brousse. At the time, it’s narrow, twisting shape didn’t bother my stomach much as the mini-bus engine’s power was more accurately measured in kittens than horses. Now, however, in the backseat of a new Nissan 4×4, with a young driver eager to show the tourists just how closely he could court death, I hung on to the handles above the door and my breakfast with a quiet and grim determination.
Louise, who doubtlessly regretted the vigour with which she’d pecked at the cupful of rice I’d fed her just before our departure, was similarly silent in her kennel – an old vodka bottle box wedged into the rear baggage compartment.
When we arrived at the park office half an hour later, I exited the car slowly and barely avoided kissing the solid, unmoving ground in relief.

Louise’s reprieve was briefer as she was promptly removed from her box and tied by the feet to one end of a thick bamboo pole. Our other groceries were attached in two equal bundles to either end of the pole, and slung over the shoulders of a stout young porter. Louise was obviously unhappy with her situation and fluttered vigorously until she was sitting right side up on top of one of the bundles, directly over, ironically enough, a carton of boiled eggs.

In the meantime, Janine and filled out paper work, paid fees and met the rest of the team that would accompany us on the trail. We were immediately happy with our group. Our guide, Moses (and really, what better name can you ask for in a guide, assuming you can look past the namesake getting lost in a desert for 40 years?), is chief guide for the whole park and comes highly recommended by Bruno and Eric. A father of seven with a quiet and professional air, Moses introduces us to his colleague and our chef, Primo, another man highly recommended by our friends in Andapa. Also a little older, Primo smiles and shakes our hand genially before making his way over to the groceries to assure himself we won’t starve to death.

The sun isn’t getting any cooler. So we shoulder our daypacks, slather on sunscreen and follow Moses down the dirt road towards the few villages that stand near the entrance of the park. Our food porter tuts at Louise, who was just getting comfortable on the egg carton and firmly swings her back to the underside of the pole. There, she glares at us, dangling and jangling as we march, no doubt wishing that she were back in the bicycle basket in Andapa with her buddies.

***

We’ve been in Madagascar for 5 days now, but within fifteen minutes of entering the park, we start to get a real dose of the magic that draws people to this island.

We walk slowly through the little villages fronting the park entrance, picking up a few last minute food items for Moses and Primo. People speak to us and wave with genuine warmth. The kids call out “vazaha!” with genuine excitement and no cheek. Old men and women smile and nod “bonjour” as they pass. Not a single person asks us for money. In short, you feel like a welcomed visitor and not like an ATM, as has so unfortunately been the case in most other small towns we’ve frequented.

It’s a farming economy and the harvest is coming in. Boys are cutting golden sheafs of rice in the fields. Mats full of coffee and vanilla dry in the sun. The smell of the latter, permeates the air deliciously.

We can’t resist asking Moses if it would be possible to get some fresh coffee for the trip. He smiles and nods then stops in to talk with a woman, who agrees to pound us a batch spiced with fresh vanilla and send it up to our camp the next morning with one of our porters. Starbucks eat your heart out.

Moses, sporting a large red and blue backpack and a long yellow umbrella can talk, it seems on just about anything. And our questions about farming in this area soon have him going on a lengthy deposition about the hardships faced by farmers. Here, as elsewhere in Africa, we can see firsthand the mounting crises threathening modern society. The skyrocketing price of oil and food is now directly impacting the world’s poorest people. At the same time, global warming is reducing the bounty of the vanilla crop in concurrence with a 5 fold decrease in vanilla prices over the past three years. It’s a disaster not waiting to happen.

Moses points to several abandoned vanilla fields – many farmers are cultivating fewer cash crops and returning to subsistence farming.

Leaving the rice fields, coffee and vanilla plantations, we finally enter the forests of Marojejy itself. These are some of the oldest forests in the world and you can sense the age and majesty in the thick silences and the serene green light filtering through the high canopy.

Massive ferns unfurl lofty fronds towards the sky. Buttress trees 500 years old and more stretch up to 40 meters in height. Vines of untold varieties writhe and corkscrew around and through everything, looking like God designed them with a spiroscope.

There are more than 2000 varieties of plant in the park and it’s easy to believe Moses when he says more are being discovered all the time. We’ve been in rainforests previously on our travels, but this all seems fresh and exciting. Riddling off scientific and Malagasy names, Moses points out corosion resistant trees used for building salt water boats, another whose sap cures scorpion stings, a strange giant palm that can hold enormous quantities of water for harvesting during seasons of drought, a vine that turns itself in intricate knots that cannot be replicated by hand and that is worshipped as an abode of ancestral spirits by Malagasy, a wild unedible banana, the seeds of which protect edible banana trees from a fruit-destroying disease. The list goes on and on.

All the time while Moses speaks, we walk slowly, swivelling our heads cautiously to take in as much as possible. Altogether it feels like we’re walking through some kind of Jurrasic greenhouse. Staring at another giant palm that spreads into a fan of dark emerald leaves 20 meters off the ground, I half expect a brontosaurus to emerge from the greenery and chomp off the top.

 And then there’s the animals. From what we saw today, it seems that Madagascar’s fauna generally prefer to live under the radar. Primo stops at a stand of mottle-trunked ficus and asks us if we can see the chameleon. We stare at the trees intently and see nothing but white and grey trunks. He chuckles and delineates a smaller area for us to look at and we still see nothing. He points to the exact tree and tells us length of the creature and I’m still unable to perceive it. Finally, Janine gives a little yelp of joy and, sure enough, with her tracing the 5 inch body out for me on the branch within a foot of my nose, I can see it. A chamelon defining the concept of perfect camoflauge. When I look away and look back again I can barely see it again. What’s even more amazing is that Primo spotted it on the hoof.

“How do feel about snakes?” Moses says archly, turning on us a few more meters down the path. When we tell him we are absolutely unafraid of the absolutely harmless ones, he gives a satisfied nod and says, “Then, look.”

Once again, I have to wait a few seconds for Janine’s happy little yelp of discovery before I see it – a gorgeous green serpent with a yellow diamond back neatly coiled around a branch just above Moses’ shoulder.

Three inches thick at the middle, stretched out it would be at least a meter long. Coiled up in the branches, it is as big as a dinner plate.

In eastern Africa, most of the snakes we saw quickly slithered away at the sight of us. But, like the chamelon, this lizard’s trick is to sit tight and sit still. Though the constant clicking and flashing of Janine’s camera ought to have told it that its cover was blown.

The forest continues to give little as well as big gifts during the 4 hour wak to our first camp. Endemic frogs hop out of the way of our stomping boots. Colourful dragonflies flitter amongst the scarlet buds of wild ginger flowers. A elegant bamboo forest shoots up before one of the dozens of gurgling brooks that run down from the high peaks.

It’s almost too much. Too much new information, too many new sights and smells. Too much cultural and sensory overload. But just when we think we can’t handle anymore, Moses shoots up a hand to halt us in our tracks and points to a small dark face staring at us from the trees.

Our first lemur sighting. No bigger than foxes, two brown bamboo lemurs chirp at us and each other, twitching their long tails nervously. Janine gets several shots with the zoom lens and an hour later at our camp, we’re still talking about the encounter excitedly while Primo dices vegetables and Louise pecks contentedly within the circumference of the small piece of string that is tied from her left foot to the bottom of a nearby picnic table.

It’s only day 1 and we’ve already seen more species of flora and fauna than we might pick out on an entire week long trip in many other environments.

Before dinner, we grab a quick soapless bath in a stream just a few meters from our camp. The banks are lined with giant ferns, bamboo and a dozen other plants I’ve never seen before. The water is freezing, but pristine and pleasant after the long walk.

“I can’t believe we’re here.” Janine says.

Jason

 

 

 

 

 
 
 

 

 

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“Well, you could always buy a chicken.”

– Eric

In North America, shopping for a hiking trip is a rather laid back affair, usually consisting of a couple in nylon-polyester blend clothing carefully perusing the pasta section of their local grocery store and debating the relative merits of their preferred noodle and sauce blends.

There may be a discussion over soft vs. crunchy granola bars and some worried huddling over just how much chocolate they can reasonably eat on one trip. Besides this, it’s pretty boring.

In rural Africa, the shopping for the trip is almost as big an adventure as the trip itself.

We’re in Andapa, Madagascar, a remote town nestled picturesquely into green mountains about 100 km inland from the island’s northeast coast.

Andapa lies only 40 km from Marojejy National Park and is thus the perfect staging ground for our 5 day hike in that UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to its convenient location and pleasant scenery, Andapa is also home to Eric Mathieu and Bruno Lee, who we’ve been told know the park as well as anyone and love to help hapless tourists.

We were told right. This morning at Bruno’s restaurant, Le Regal, over a coffee thick and syrupy enough to lubricate auto parts, the two men genially walked us through absolutely everything we needed to know to enjoy our hike. While Eric spoke excitedly about trail conditions and wildlife, Bruno busily filled out a homemade form that detailed, in additionto exact distances walked and elevation gained each day of the hike, exactly what we’d have to pay in park fees, porter fees, guide fees, cook fees and accomodation fees for our entire trip. Within a half hour, our entire trip was planned in detail.

Except for the food. No dodging responsibility for that one. In fact, as a cost saving measure, we even agreed to buy food for our guide and cook.

“They’ll need about a kilogram of rice each per day,” Eric said.

“And bredes,” added Bruno, explaining that this was the local term for the greens that Malagasy like to eat with their rice.

Sounds easy we thought, not really bothering to ask what bredes looked like, whether they came in different varieties or how much we should buy.

As we completed our grocery list, we had our friends review it and asked if there was anything we’d forgotten.

“Well, you could always buy a chicken,” Eric said thoughtfully, looking at Janine’s scribbled text. “It would be really nice for your last night. The cook will kill it for you.”

I’ve packed some weird stuff and a few luxury items on my hiking trips before. But I have to admit, live poultry is a first. “Great!” we said gamely. The idea of a desultory looking hen dangling from my backpack next to my water bottle and map case seemed like a good, and hopefully tasty, one.

Our first task was to buy the non-perishables. Bruno helpfully sold us a bunch of basics directly from his shop and then Janine and I , under his intructions, set out to find the local convenience store to get the rest.

We couldn’t find it, coming across only a small hardware and auto parts store a little ways down the road. Chagrinned, we walked back to Bruno’s and asked for help again. This time, he left the restaurant and guided

us personally to the convenience store.

It was of course, the hardware and auto parts store. A Malagasy Wal-Mart, if you will.

While another customer ladled petrol into an Evian bottle from a small oil can, Janine and I ordered tuna, biscuits, tomato paste and mayonnaise from the dusty shelves behind the counter. The Chinese shopkeeper diligently took each requested item from the shelf, blew or wiped the dust off it, and put it in a neat pile next to the till. His

3 or 4 young Malagasy assistants looked on curiously as he tallied the bill on a calculator and, after we paid, saw us out of the shop and back out onto the dusty street with a friendly murmurred “bonjour”. My only disappointment was that, upon handing me my purchases, the shopkeeper did not look up and ask me with a smile whether I required any spare sparkplugs or carburator oil with my groceries today. Not quite Wal-Mart yet.

For fruits, vegetables and rice, we headed into Andapa’s busy market, spread over several packed earth roads. Here, from rickety wooden stalls or upon tarps and blankets, women sold everything we needed to feed ourselves for 5 days. I pretended to know a good bean when I saw one and bought a small bag from a young woman watching over a sleeping infant.

Further down the road, Janine felt up wizened potatoes and carrots and bought bunches of each to the delight of the woman on whose tarp they were spread. Children stared at us with open curiousity and whispered “vahaza!” (white man!) with a giggle or a wave. They were almost all friendly and good natured. The only exception was an older boy who followed us from stall to stall with a small entourage of younger children, mocking our speech with a slack jaw and an ugly smirk.

Finally, I stopped and patiently explained to him and his friends in French that he was wearing a girl’s blouse. We didn’t see much of his rose-lapelled smart ass after that.

We bought bunches of lychee fruit, tangerines, peppers, potatoes, something else that looked like potatoes and bananas. Most vendors spoke little French beyond being able to quote prices. And even those were in the old Madagascar Franc and not the new currency, the Ariary. This, combined with the thick accents had me handing over at various times either too little money or enough to buy someone a new house. On both occassions the merchants were exceedingly honest and good natured, laughing as they shook their heads and took the corrected amounts of cash.

Then there were the bredes. Madagascar, like most African countries in this region, is pretty green. It therefore produces a fair number of green leafy produce. I stopped at one blanket where several different bunches of spinachy looking things were laid out.

I picked up one variety. “Are these bredes?” I asked in French to the old woman sitting beside the blanket. “Oui,” she said, “1500 Francs.”

“Bon!” I said delighted, picking up several bunches. Then I pointed to another kind of greens. “And what are these?”

“Oui,” she said, “1500 Francs.”

Uh oh. “And what are these?” I asked, pointing to another bunch.

“Oui,” she said, “1500 Francs.”

Shit.

So we left that stall with enough of what we hoped was not donkey food to feed, well, a rather large donkey actually, and hoped for the best.

Then it was off to the rice lady to buy enough rice to draw a sizeable crowd of onlookers. Of course, the rice lady didn’t speak any French whatsoever. This provided a vast source of amusement to both her, her fellow vendors and the onlookers. But eventually we did a deal and trundled back to our hotel with a large box full of produce and a canvas sack full of rice.

It had been a long, chaotic, noisy, stressful, and at times embarassing experience. We weren’t sure if we had enough food and we weren’t even sure in all cases exactly what kind of food we did have. But it had been a hell of a lot of fun. We’d been a little too intimidated to try and buy the chicken, but resolved to do so tomorrow before we left town on the crowded mini-bus at 7 a.m.

It seemed rather ironic after hearing so many travel stories about “chicken buses”, that the first livestock we’d see on African public transportation would be our own. Walking back to the hotel, we felt as if our adventure in northern Madagascar was already well under way.

“Maybe we’ll get a pig too.” Janine said, eyeing a little porker snuffling at tangerine peels on the roadside.

I liked the idea. Anyway, the chicken might appreciate the company.

Jason

 “This is too much like work.”

– No one really, just a general sentiment

I think we’ve been spoiled.

For one thing, the red tape of travel in Africa and the Middle East is remarkably thin – flash a passport at the border, pay a little cash for a visa and you’re in.

For another, things are well set up for tourists. Egypt’s been hosting and ripping them off for 4000 years and has a pretty good infrastructure in place for them. Tanzania’s economy relies almost exclusively on foreign visitors so they’re similarly well suited for off the cuff travel. Malawi may be dirt poor but with some time and patience you can pretty much arrange anything there. And South Africa is so much like the Western world in so many ways that organizing things there is a breeze.

Now – Madagascar and Asia – bit of a different story.

Visas for China and India are what we call in French, a royal pain in the ass. You need to fill out long forms, give in photos, leave your passport with bored looking officials for days on end, show return tickets (God forbid if you want to leave the country by land), show hotel bookings, Olympics tickets, letters of invitation and, if possible, a framed 8×10 photo of you shaking hands or playing golf with the head of state.

Of course, I’m just joking about the last bit. A simple autographed headshot of the head of state is more than sufficient. If that fails, try a bribe. We’ve already been approached for one.

Madagascar’s an easy country to enter, once you pay the stupendous visa fee of $88 (the highest yet). But with us being on a schedule here we need to move around the country quickly and efficiently, which means arranging private transport, internal flights and guides ahead of time so as not to have too many lag days between the various segments of the trip.

Conclusion – the last 2 days have been spent on the phone, at car rental agencies, finding embassies and researching things on the web. This has all felt a lot like work, which, of course, we’ve forgotten how to do.

But we’ve made progress. And while we may not have visas in hand yet, we’ve got a plan to obtain them (one may require a small international

incident) and an itinerary for our month on this big red island.

As I write this, I’m sitting in the Antananarivo airport, preparing to board a flight for the northeast coastal town of Sambava. From there, we will catch a minibus ride to the interior town of Andapa, jumping off point for a 5 excursion in Marojejy National Park. It’s a rugged UNESCO World Heritage Site of towering granite peaks, rainforest, lemurs and a cast of various other famous Madagascar flora and fauna. After we hike there, we’ll spend a couple of days touring the so-called vanilla coast, where a good portion of the world’s vanilla beans originate, before coming back to Tana. Then it’s off to the West for a 3 day dug out canoe trip down the Tsiribihina River and a visit to the famous rock forests of Tsingy de Bemaraha, another UNESCO site, and a promenade down the Avenue of the Baobobs. Finally, we’ll rent a car and speed down south, hitting as many more parks as we can, hopefully scaling the second highest peak in the country, seeing the picturesque spiny forests and meeting up with our friends Cyril and Caro from France along the way.

It could be a bit of work to squeeze it all in. But this is the kind of work that we enjoy doing.

***

 

So far my favourite thing about Tana is the food.

There’s good stuff everywhere. You start with crispy golden baguettes and butter with strong coffee in the morning, In the afternoon, sample you buy a bag full of fried goodies – samosas, shrimps, sausages, potatoes – all flavoured with fresh eastern herbs and spices. Then, in the evening, treat yourself to a perfectly grilled zebu fillet, a fruity Malagasy wine and, for desert, ice cream flavoured with real vanilla and served on a freshly fried crepe.

I could go on, but I’ll close by saying that, wth its blend of far eastern and gallic influences, Madagascar is easily the most diverse and interesting place our stomaches have yet been.

Between errands and internet research, we did manage to find a bit of time for the city and it, in turn captivated us. Antananarivo is different from any other capital we’ve yet visited. It has the business of Cairo without all the filth. In contrast with bland Dar Es Salaam, it’s vibrant, colourful and somewhat orderly. And unlike Johannesburg, you feel completely safe in any part of the city, though normal precautions need to be taken after dark. The people are civil – drivers don’t drive with one hand on the wheel and the other constantly and firmly down on the horn, and even the touts can be waved off with ease and some dignity. The blend of cultures, races and languages is fascinating. And did I mention the food?

In the cobblestone streets, 50 year old Renault and Citroen taxi cabs rattle about looking for passengers. Along the innumerable staircases leading up and down over the two opposing ridges on which the city is built, vendors sell fresh strawberries, rubber stamps and carved wooden toys. Women in broad rimmed straw hats offer you vanilla, handmade paper products and spices. A boy plays a small guitar and sings in a loud, high but pleasing voice in Malagasy. Beside him sits a beggar with a horribly twisted leg, nearly toothless, but smiling as he gestures towards his bowl. In the market there’s the usual blend of good smells and bad. Fresh parsely and old piss. New flowers and long dead fish.

Sitting with microphones next to tall speakers, pretty girls are trying to convince passersby to purchase cellphones and stereos.

My favourite part of the day remains its end. As the sun goes down, Tana’s red roofs, brick homes and rusty clay glow with all the enhanced warmth the yellow sunshine can give. For a few moments, the city and the sky meld seemlessly on the colour spectrum and the church towers, hills and clouds are one. Just as twilight fades, a trumpeter begins to play Taps.

And then; stars.

Jason

 

 

 

 

My first overall thought is, we shouldn’t have bought a return ticket.
We’ve only been in Madagascar for one afternoon, but I’m already starting to understand how people can come for a month and get lost here for 3 or more on this “eighth continent”.

Jo’Burg may only be a few hours from here by plane, but it feels like we’ve truly been transported to another side of the world. The language, the faces, the cuisine; everything here, at least on first impression, seems so different. Are we still in Africa?

With the amount of time (joyfully) spent in South Africa, and the desire to see China and Mongolia still burning strong, we have only left ourselves a month for the red island. So for most of today, including the entire plane ride here, I’ve been scribbling notes furiously in my diary and guidebook, putting together an itinerary that will hopefully let us see parts of the North, East and South of Madagascar. We really want to do it all – the diving, the trekking, the paddling, the cultural tourism. The only question is whether we have enough time, or failing that, enough money to buy time with quick flights instead of hour-eating overland travel on this country’s notorious roads (I know, I know. I say the words “notorious” and “roads” a lot on this blog. But you have to believe me – even seasoned African travellers say Mad’s roads are really in a league of their own.)

So place your bets people – will we figure out a way to go hell for leather and cram all this stuff into 30 days? Or will I be getting in touch with South African Airways shortly about changing that pesky return ticket date?

There was lots of planning to do today. But once we were settled into our little hotel room, we couldn’t resist taking a few hours off to get a little feel for our new city. It was late in the afternoon, and from our room’s balcony, we had a wonderful view of the city rippling out before us in the red light of the setting sun. Red tiled roofs, churches, markets all laid out in seemingly chaotic fashion. The streets were crawling with Malagasy people, their faces an exotic blend of Malay, Creole and African. We walked from our hotel into the narrow streets and found our way to a colourful market of food stalls, vegetable and fruit hawkers and trinket sellers tumbling down a steep flight of stairs to the main square on Ave. de l’Independence below. We browsed the goods and hungrily bit into delightfully spicy fried potato paddies bought from one vendor.

At Ave. de l’Independence, the market widened into an even bigger array of small shops, butchers, poulterers and small restaurants. Our stomachs and curiousity led the way, taking us into a busy shop crowded with locals buying samosas, sausage rolls, deep fried shrimp and strips of rump steak. We ordered a little bit of everything, crossed our fingers and got our fingers even greasier as we strolled the market with our bag of new goodies.

In the fading light, women sold shoes, fresh spices and sticks of vanilla. Ancient paperbacks and university textbooks,their covers bleached almost beyond recognition save for a few words in German or French, sat on another table, as neglected as they looked. The streets teemed with people coming home from work, kids returning from school and the merely idle, joshing or play wrestling to escape from boredom.

There’s nothing as exhilerating as this first taste of a new culture. We stopped again and again on the way back to the hotel, haggling for fresh bread (divinely golden, light and gently crispy on the crust as only the French can do), fresh strawberries (small and just the right blend of sweet and tart), tangerines (perfect) and lychee fruit (why not?). It was the best dessert I’ve had in ages and I think it cost us all of a buck.

“This is going to be amazing.” said Janine happily, strains of French, Malagasy and other languages floating from the vendors and their passing customers.

I agreed, and mentally added “call airline re return date change” to my “to do” list for tomorrow.

Just in case.

Jason

 

 

IMG_5547

We may have found the cutest shepherd boy in the world.
Hai Tony Soprano! Hai! Hai! …. Whoa Tony Soprano! Whoa! Jesus! WHOA!
– Jason

All good things must come to an end. I guess.

One last time, we saddled the ponies, clicked “hai” and trotted towards the last mountain pass separating us from the completion of our 4 day circuit into the Thaba-Putsoa range and back to the Malealea lodge.

It was a full day’s ride back to the lodge and I have to admit that it was a little anti-climactic, the main drama coming from Tony Soprano’s last minute decision to become a race horse. I’m not quite sure what happened, but one moment I was trying to urge him into a trot to keep up with Janine’s horse (who had literally seen the barn and was completely focussed on getting back to it) and the next moment the back of my head was bouncing off my vertebrae as he jolted into a fierce gallop. It only lasted for a few seconds. But it was enough for me to lose both my hat and my dignity.

Otherwise, it was a peaceful ride. We passed through villages that grew increasingly modern as they got closer to Malealea. The river stone rondavels with their neatly thatched roofs became diluted with square homes, made with cinderblocks and roofed with tin sheeting. Gone were the little toddlers wearing their traditional blankets, miniature rubber boots and little shepherding sticks. Now the children wore western clothes – second hand t-shirts and sweaters featuring Nickelodeon cartoon characters or sports team logos from far away countries they’d never see. There was more garbage, vehicles belching dust and fumes, noise and begging. Is this “development”? If so, give me the undeveloped traditional villages any day. Those places had a dignity and beauty lightyears beyond their more “modern” counterparts.

But the downsides of returning from a beautiful trip couldn’t keep us down. There were still those gorgeous mountains to gaze at from the gently swaying backs of our ponies. They won’t be mondernizing anytime soon. Then there was always the antics of the harried goats, the chipper herding dogs, the belligerent donkeys and the amorous cows to keep us entertained. And if animal hijinx wasn’t enough, there was the more high brow diversion of the ancient bushman paintings that we stopped near for lunch.

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A Bushman painting showing the arrival of the Afrikaners.

By late afternoon, our new sure footed friends had us back at the lodge.

Janine and Softy/Pony Stark shared a tearful farewell, while Pony Soprano and I discussed football and shared a manly hand/hoof shake. Our guide, Vincent, was thanked warmly for his great service before he left the lodge at a brisk trot of his own to get home to his wife and little boy.

The sun had started to set by the time we had our things out of our saddle bags and resettled into their normal homes in our backpacks. We were tired and, while better than previous days, a little sore after the 7 hour ride. Still, after a brief discussion, we both agreed to press on and drive back to South Africa that night. 4 days seemed a pitifully brief time in such a beautiful country. But it had also been idyllic.

And maybe we wanted to keep our memories of the Kingdom of the Sky as pure as possible. So we didn’t strive to peel back the layers and understand Lesotho’s difficulties with poverty, AIDS/HIV and corruption as we had in other African countries. Instead, we just talked about how wonderful it had been. And we drove.

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Move along little doggies.

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Georgina
“Fermented grapes.”

 

– Jason

Georgina along with her husband Mathias, is the chief of Ha Hlalele, the small village we stayed in last night.

It has just been dark a little while when she knocks on the door of our rondavel and enters, dressed in rubber boots, a thick blanket and a wool tuque. She’s just come back from a funeral, she explains, still huffing from the 3 hour walk. She wants to know all about us – where we’re from, what we do, how old we are. But soon she reveals, shall we say, a deeper thirst for knowledge.

“What church do you go to? she asks. We tell her Roman Catholic and she’s delighted. “Me too!” she says with a clap and a smile. Then she asks seriously, “What are you drinking?”

I look at my little mug of wine and sigh. “Fermented grapes,” I say with little hope that semantics will avoid me having to give wine away. I’m right.

“Ah,” the old woman says sagely. “I would like some.”

Render unto Caesar. We pour Georgina a healthy mug of Shiraz and she chugs it in three large gulps. Placing the mug down on the table with a neat little clink she sighs and smiles. “Thank you!” she says brightly.

“You may take my picture now.”

My first instinct is to tell her a picture will cost her a beer. But she is the chief, and anyway the light is terrible. So we make a date for tomorrow and Georgina gives us a cheerful goodnight. Obviously, a little nip before bed brings out her grandmotherly side. She pats us fondly and before closing the door to our rondavel, looks dubiously at our sleeping bags and asks if we are sure we’ll be warm enough. We assure her we’ll be fine and she closes the door with a chuckle.

“Wow, she really pounded back that wine,” Janine said thoughtfully afterwards. “Guess she really is Catholic.”

In the morning, Georgina was true to her end of our bargain and showed up promptly before we left for her photo shoot. She conducted Janine to her small rectangular home and sat primly in a gorgeously patterned blanket for pictures that took in, not only her, but her tiled floors, collection of plates and array of stuffed animals, all of which she was quietly but noticeably proud.

And why shouldn’t she be? Prior to this, we’ve only seen packed earth floors in rounded huts and the nearest thing to a luxury item was a battered old radio at the centre of a group of intensely listening herdsmen. One of the many nice things about this corner of the world is that a stuffed monkey and some matching plates are worth a picture.

***

We started our day with a hike to the imposing Ketane waterfall, which plunged uninterrupted for more than a 100 meters from a precipitous ledge boxed in by sheer green and grey cliffs on all sides. As we stared at the roaring water from a precipitous viewing point of our own,Vincent tried to convince me that the rivers in this area are known to harbour crocodiles. But watching my breath puff out in little clouds on each exhale, I told him that only furred crocodiles could live in this climate and he spent the next half hour doggedly and laughingly trying to convince me that any number of shepherd boys had been eaten by crocs and that that this was part of the reason why he’d never learned to swim.
The morning was cool. The sky had turned the colour of dirty dishwater after a clear night when the nearly full moon had rendered flashlights superfluous. Now we mounted the ponies wearing hats, sweaters and even gloves in the face of a brisk southerly. We worried about rain, but the sky never truly followed through on its threat. By mid morning we were cresting our first mountain pass in sunshine, though the breeze continued strongly enough to keep us in our warm clothes.
Maybe it was the Advil speaking, but after yesterday’s bruising ride, we felt better and stronger today in the saddle. Janine rode confidently, straight backed, guiding Softy easily through the scrubby bush and over the rock-strewn paths like she’d been riding all her life. Pony Soprano and I were getting along famously, no doubt aided by my singing to him a variety of songs which substituted the word “pony” for a key word in the title (“Oh Pony Boy”, “Three Ponies in a Fountain”, etc). I interpreted his snorts, head flicks and ear shifts as signs of appreciation and serendaded him mercilessly. When the ponies wanted to drink, we let them drink and they carried on after a few sips without further coaxing.

When they got hungry, they’d nip at a facefull of grass or a withered maize stalk in mid step without breaking much stride. When we said “whoa” they whoa’d except for one time when I tried to pee with Pony Soprano’s bridle still hooked under my arm. That experiment came to an unsuccessful and rather damp end.

Today’s ride may have been the most enjoyable for both it’s ease and scenery. We maintained a high altitude, skirting ridges and passes that afforded magnificent panorams of Lesotho mountain ranges, speckled as usual with an assortment of grazing cattle, roaming dogs, idle herd boys and their run down little riverstone shelters.

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By the end of the day we surfed one final rocky crest and descended to the little village of Sekoting. Behind its small collection of rondavels sprang two tall, cylindrical peaks nearly equal in height to each other.

In the opposite direction, repeating waves of serrated mountains made for the bottom edge of the sky.

We must have been getting better at riding, because after a cup of tea, we found ourselves spry enough to climb the tallest of the cylinders.

“Hope the ponies can’t see us,” I gasped to Janine as we scrambled to the top. “They’ll be mad as hell if they know we can do all this kind of shit by ourselves.”

At the top, we wheezily enjoyed one more superb 360 degree view of mountains, valleys, rivers and villages in the amber twilight. Far beneath us, the grazing sheep looked like grains of rice scattered on a rumpled green tablecloth. In the distant west, we could once again see the faded gold of the foothills. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be back in Malealea. I wondered again if we shouldn’t have booked a week long trip.

Maybe 10 days. Maybe we should live here for a year. I could learn Sesotho and Janine could make blankets from sheep wool.

“Do you ever look at all this,” Janine said quietly, “and wonder if you’re really here?” Somewhere below, a group of villagers was singing and laughing. Their voices drifted up to our perch in the cool Sunday evening air.

“Yes,” I said.

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Jason

 

 

 

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Basotho herd boys. No, you can’t have my watch.
“How the hell did Clint and the Duke do this?”

 

– Jason

After 2 long days on the trail, I have gained several practical insights into the world of the cowboy.

For example, I have learned that key to being a good cowboy is not having a good gun, a trusty steed or a limber lassoo.

No, the key to being a good cowboy is having top notch ass calouses.

I mean it. My posterior is positively whining right now. It doesn’t help that 10 months of hiking and paddling have decimated my once pudgy butt cheeks. By late afternoon, as Pony Soparano bounced and jangled down the last steep incline to our village stopping point, I fantasized about being tubby, a little pear shaped, downright obese even. Anything to put another layer between me and that relentless saddle.

“How the hell did Clint and the Duke do this?” I thought to myself, wincing at each clip and clop.

***

Last night, we slept at the small village of Horong, a collection of about a dozen rondavels high above the Ribaneng River. Each hut was made from colourful riverstone and snugly roofed with thick thatch. As we arrived in the late afternoon, the animals were being herded back into town for the night. Sheep and cows were herded into stone pens whilst the herd boys moved from animal to animal relieving it of the heavy rattling bell worn while out to pasture. Two pigs snuffled noisily through a pile of chaff while a couple of large roosters and their respective harems and broods hopped and fluttered to the top of a raised platform coop made from willow sticks.
Several mutts, yellow and grey, showing characteristics of everything from wolfhound to bull terrier, watched over the scene and occasionally sent up a chorus of barks at imaginary jackles lurking in the growing shadows. Our horses were put in a pasture far away from the town’s last unharvested field, which they had eyed a little too obviously on their way in.
As darkness fell, all grew quiet quickly and for a little while the only sound was the river and the only sight the lantern lights from other huts on the opposite bank. Then a near-full moon broke free of the clouds overhead and the whole valley was coated in silver. It was a beautiful pastoral scene; the image of rural Africa as many of us cherish it in our minds. Only the growing cold and the brisk wind blowing down from the higher mountains drove us into our own snug little rondavel to sleep.
***

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Lesotho Alarm Clock
We awoke in darkness. Well, to put it more accurately a rooster woke us in the darkness. One started cackling at 4, was joined by the other half an hour later, and by 5:45 both were too much together to ignore. We didn’t mind though – we had a hike to do.

After breakfast we tramped an hour on foot up the Ribaneng river valley to view the impressive 122m Ribaneng Falls. Our guide was a petite Basotho named Bofana Bofana who, draped in a tattered blanket and smoking homemade cigarettes rolled in old newspapers, spoke English only to the extent of being able to say “Let’s Go” and to express undying love to Janine.

The narrow path to the falls was too insubstantial for the ponies, but it was nice to be stretching our limbs after the previous day’s long ride and before mounting up for an even longer trip today. Along the way, we passed a remote hut for shepherd boys. Three of them piled out of the little house to wave to us and pose for a picture. They only asked for Janine’s watch in return. Charmed, we gave their outstretched hands a high five and continued on.

The falls themselves were lovely, plunging over a series of smaller ledges before making a final unbroken tumble into a deep pool at their base. The water looked cold, healthy and inviting. But it was too early to swim and we’d seen too many sheep (and too much sheep poop) in high places to risk a drink.

“Let’s go,” said Bofano Bofano, heading back to the village.

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***

Today’s ride was a parade of dramatic reveals worthy of one of those reality t.v. “Redo My Bedroom” shows. We summited 6 passes of varying sizes, each one special and different from the last. It began with a high climb to a plateau overlooking the entirety of the Ribanang Falls.

A narrow finger of rock stretched out from the plateau and, resting the horses, we clambered out to stand and be awestruck by both the plunging waters and the craggy grey-topped peaks that surrounded them.

Ahead of us lay another pass, the highest of the day. When we arrived there, a little past noon, we were treated to another view of two worlds. Behind us, the green fringed mountains stretched back and melded into the maize riddled foothills we’d been travelling through for the past day and a half. Ahead, more mountains stretched on to the jagged black line of the far horizon, those nearest to us terraced here and there with wheat fields, dotted with the odd shepherd’s hut and grazed by herds of sheep, ponies and donkeys.
We lunched near the pass rim and savoured the sights. The ponies munched noisily on the spiky tufts of grass that speckled the rocky hillside.
Janine and I sipped tea and wondered aloud whether 4 days would be enough to really enjoy such magnificent countryside.
We cantered on for another 3 hours after lunch, dipping and rising through a series of valleys and complementing passes. Through fields where boys cut wheat stalks with hand held sickles, past grazing animals watched over by solitary singing boys and sharp-eyed dogs and alongside burbling spring fed streams that seemed irresistable to the ever-parched Pony Soprano.

Sometimes a herdsman would wave to us or sometimes a dog would bark an insolent challenge as we went by. But otherwise, we felt like travellers through a monumental and imperishable land. We could have been here in 2008; we could have been here in 1508. Besides the rubber boots on some of the herders, it didn’t feel like much had changed here in a long time.

And that was fine with us.

Jason

 

 

 

 

 

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“I think that’s okay!”

Vincent

(Author’s Note: With apologies to our readers, we’re going to catch you up on our wonderful South Africa trip a little later. Right now we’re in Lesotho and thought you might enjoy hearing from us “live” as we pony trek across the mountains. J and J)

Lesotho, a 30,000 sq. km landlocked kingdom in the middle of South Africa, often goes by the nickname “Kingdom of the Sky”. And when you’re here, the moniker doesn’t feel far off. The country rises up from the rest of South Africa in a dense circle of mountains, many of which climb above 3000m and none of which lie below 1000m. It’s beautiful, rugged and culturally distinct from the rest of South Africa.

Count us in and mount us up.

Riding on sure-footed Basotho Ponies is the preferred (and certainly the most fun) way of exploring this mountain kingdom. So amidst a great shuffle of hoofs, cinching of saddlebags and rubbing down of soon to be sore bottoms, Janine and I set off this morning on a 4 day ride into the scenic Thaba-Putsoa Range near the trading post town of Malealea.

Janine and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary yesterday. And perhaps it was the afterglow of this special day, or the fact that we hope to start a family after these travels, or some combination of the two that made me believe Janine was being genuine when, just before setting out on the trail, she leaned over,clasped my arm gently and whispered “I hope today won’t be too hard on your balls honey.”

Call me sentimental, but I was touched. Me too sweety. Me too.

***
Our guide is a smiling, friendly young Basotho named Vincent and he quickly had us feeling at ease in the saddle. Janine was mounted on the encouragingly-named brown mare Softy. My steed’s name is Robben Island, which I quickly change to the far cooler sounding Pony Soprano. Tickled by my own wit, I rechristen Hadio, Vincent’s black mare, Pony Stark in homage to the hit movie Iron Man, and call the pack horse Pony Danza.
We start our ride from the Malealea Lodge in the foothills of the Thaba-Petsoa. It’s a glorious morning. The sun has risen red over layers of misty bald peaks. Harvested maize fields terrace the low lying hills.
Children sing and shout to us as they walk to school through the dried and withered stalks. We canter down a narrow road and pass herders, bundled in traditional Basotho blankets and sporting broad-rimmed hats or toques, bringing sheep and cows out to pasture.
We’re barely out of town before the mutiny hits. Softy is already homesick and wants to cancel the trip. She dallies, grazes insolently, snorts and finally just plain stops despite a flurry of pleas, clicks and kicks from Janine.
Finally, Vincent calls us to a halt and I reign in Pony Soprano as our guide switches mounts with Janine, placing her on Hadio. This creates a problem for Pony Soprano and I as Hadio likes to lead. With a few well placed nips on my trusted steed’s posterior, Hadio makes her point, takes the point, and then begins an ongoing game of “Let’s see if I can gently edge Jason’s horse off the side of this cliff”.

Softy is no more cooperative with Vincent than she was with Janine. But after a half hour, the pecking order seems to be established and we fall into a steady gait behind Hadio and Janine and up into the foothills.

The trail passes neatly laid out villages composed of pleasant looking Basotho round huts, made from multi-coloured river stone. Each hut is obviously well cared for, topped with a neat thatched roof. and set amidst tidy gardens, cattle pens and chicken coops. It’s the picture of what you think a rural african village should be.

The Makhaleng River flows quickly below us through a deep narrow valley.

During the rainy season, it can be deep and vicious. But now, in the dry Lesotho winter, it’s barely more than 3 feet deep at its middle. Still, it lies between us and the mountains and must be forded.

We descend to the river via a series of steep switchbacks. Here, on narrow, boulder-strewn paths, we put as much faith as we can in the Basotho pony’s reputation for steadiness. But as bowling ball sized rocks are kicked and squirted beneath hoofs, I can’t help but look down and wonder just how greasy a stain I’d make after careening down to the valley floor beneath several hundred pounds of Pony Soprano.

Of course, it’s in the middle of these ruminations that Hadio decides to pioneer a new route down to the Makhaleng. Ignoring Janine’s reign tugs and Vincent’s shouts, the black mare rambles off the established track for several dozen meters before coming to a sudden halt at a smooth shelf of rock and looking around with a distinctly confused expression.

If horses had hands I’m sure she would have reached into the saddle bags for the topo map muttering “now I just KNOW that I was supposed to turn right at Break Your Neck Road. But that should have put me at Smashed Rider Avenue by now…”

Of course, Pony Soprano had followed Hadio right into this fix. He cleverly covered his concern with a nonchalant graze.

Suddenly, Hadio snorted and moved forward down the sheer sheet of limestone as if saying “Oh that’s right! I took the Crumpled Vertebrae Exit Ramp. I’ll just scooch down Throw Whitey Lane and be back on the highway in no time.”

From behind me, Vincent first gave a startled grunt at Hadio’s route, but then quickly shouted “I think that’s okay!” just as Pony Soprano took his first cautious step onto the shelf in Hadio’s wake.

I looked back at our guide quickly. “What does he f#&king mean ‘think’!?” I thought. Pony Soprano now had his two front hoofs out in front of him like a cat that’s been pushed off the top of a park slide.

And then, with one final Bambi-on-Ice moment, we were down. Back on the main path like nothing happened, Hadio and Pony Soprano bobbing their heads as they clip clopped the final few hundred meters down to the river and I silently thanking Janine for convincing me to pack all of our spare underwear in the saddle bags.

***

I can’t help it. I have to sing a country-western song.
It’s just too perfect. The scenery on this trek is straight out of a cowboy movie. After the horses stop mid-stream to drink in the pale blue waters of the Makhaleng River, we climb out of the valley to the last of the foothills for lunch. There, looking one way, spread the faded gold of the fields, the deep cleft of the river valley, the grazing cattle guarded by the solitary blanket shrouded men. Looking the other way, the true mountains begin; green fringed at their bottoms, but quickly reaching up to imposing 2000 meter + craggy grey summits.
They could be the Rockies, minus the glaciers. At the foot of one peak sits a primary school, its playground full of children playing on what must be the most beautiful soccer pitch in Africa. Janine and I smile at each other over the rims of our tea mugs as we survey the scene. We’re going to be spending the next three days among these mountains with their waterfalls, remote villages and intrepid ponies. As good as today’s been, it’s just the beginning.
When we remount, I break into “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”.
Though, quite frankly, I can’t see why they shouldn’t.

Jason

 

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“Don’t Go There”

– Che’Chewa translation for Sipitwa Peak, Mount Mulanje

Following our canoe trip up Lake Malawi, we took a long 12 hour bus trip to the southern city of Blantyre, reputedly the country’s most pleasant, to visit with two lovely friends met during our Egypt travels – Tina, an ex-pat British teacher, and her son Thomas. They quickly come to rue the day they met us as we settled into their home for a 5 day orgy of resting, eating and cleaning before setting off for a climb of the country’s highest mountain, Mulanje.

The long delay in leaving Blantyre had me excited to be on the road again. So I was forgiving of our cab driver’s lateness (only half an hour plus an additional ten minutes to gas up once he got us) and tolerant of the mini-bus driver’s strenuous efforts to wedge an obscene number of passengers into the vehicle before setting off on the 1.5 hour drive for Chitikala at the base of the massif.

It was simply a lovely drive. Leaving behind the hills of Blantyre, is the nicest looking African city we’ve yet seen in our travels, we entered a beautiful stretch of country marked with tea estates and pine forests. Against the backdrop of rolling grey bouldered mountains, stiff-backed women picked tea in well-ordered green fields, placing the leaves in large woven baskets strapped to their backs.

Slices of Malawi life went by the window as we rattled down the winding two-lane highway. A herd of cows sauntered by the pumps of a small town gas station. A little boy bicycled down the road with a 4ft long pig butchered and balanced over his back tire. A Saturday market, selling everything from electronics to headscarves stretched 2 km along the highway, merchants sitting beneath giant camoflauged golf umbrellas with their merchandise spread out on groundsheets or hanging from trees behind them. At rest stops, I snacked on hard-boiled eggs bought from the vendors that mobbed the bus, passed on an offer of fricazeed chicken feet, and watched the whole show, happy as I could possible be.

Mulanje soon appeared, its massive base 70 km around and rearing up to a plateau that leveled out at more than 1000 meters above the surrounding plains. Peaks on the plateau jutted even higher and gave the whole mountain, as Janine put it, the look of a giant cake with strawberries on top.

At the park gate, we paid fees and hired a quiet but diligent young porter to freight our gear on the stiff 3 hour climb to Chambe hut.

Grunting up the steep red earth track, we were entertained and periodically awestruck by Malawi loggers, bringing bundles of 18 ft long fresh cedar planks down the mountain balanced on their heads. The weight of this green wood is astonishing. I later tried to shove two of these planks across our cabin’s floor and nearly give myself a hernia. The men carry these loads for around 500 kwacha ($3.50) per trip. A round trip takes between 4 and 6 hours. Paricularly strong men may take even heavier planks for 700 kwacha or make two trips a day. It’s backbreaking work.

The ascent is beautiful more for the views backwards than forwards.Mulanje’s accessible slopes have been heavily logged. Stumps of yellow cedar, cypress and pine litter the bare slopes. The mountain owes its size not to tectonic shifts, but to obdurancy. Mulanje is simply made from sterner materials than the surrounding land, which has eroded away with time, leaving Mulanje with a pretty nice view of the countryside.
Now we enjoyed it too – a pleasing patchwork of farms and smaller mountains, with the highlands of Mozambique forming the eastern horizon.
We reached the plateau of the massif and spent the last hour of our walk strolling through tall young pines in story book yellow sunshine. Chambe hut lay at the feet of the peak of the same name, a long, curving wall rising 700 meters above the plateau in a dark granite bell curve.

The hut can sleep more than 15 people. But when we arrive on its deck in the evening twilight, there is only one other occupant.

Fleur is not exactly your standard issue camper. Or, if she is, I’ve most certainly been camping in the wrong places. Tall, blonde and sitting with a cup of tea amongst a small stack of fashion magazines, her expressive face lights up when she sees us trudging up to the hut door. “Yay! Campers!” she shouts with a delightful Dutch accent, clapping her hands with glee. “I was worried that I would be all alone!”

Janine and I were soon impressed with Fleur for reasons beyond her natural beauty. A 22 year old medical student, she had just finished a foreign exchange semester in Malawi and was now seeing a bit of the region before heading home. With no outdoor experience, no climbing partner and no hesitation she had come to Mulanje and intended to climb Chambe peak tomorrow.

Although it’s not the tallest on the mountain, Chambe has a reputation for being tough and not for the faint of heart. But Fleur seems to have as much pluck as she has personality. Every story, whether hers or ours, seems to end with with her smiling, laughing or exclaiming charmingly, “oh sheet!” We can’t help thinking that we’ve met a younger euro incarnation of my mother, right down to her obsession with the colour pink.

“I just love pink,” Fleur says with a laugh and a shrug, putting away her her pink plastic tea cup in her pink plastic bowl after dinner. Then she says thoughtfully, “But I don’t have too much pink with me now.”

She says this apparently not noticing that she’s wearing a pink shirt.

Same for her hair band. Her socks are pink. Ditto for her ipod, camera, cell phone holder and water bottle.

I point this out to her and Fleur takes a minute to look at the items listed. Then she looks back at us and laughs. “Sheet!”

In the morning, Janine and I try to convince Fleur to change her plans and come on with us to Sapitwa hut, where the peak is higher than Chambe but supposedly easier. But that will add an extra day to her schedule and she is eager to complete her trek and move on to Mozambique. “If it is too hard, I will just come back down,” she assures us, standing outside the hut under a brilliant blue morning sky, a pink hooded sweatshirt wrapped around her waist.

We look up at the steep sided peak and stifle any concerns with a smile at our new friend. “Hey Fleur!” I notice suddenly and say in a complementary tone. with sudden surprise, “Your hat is blue!”

“Yes,” she says, running her hand across the brim of the navy New York Yankees ball cap affectionately. “My boyfriend gave me his hat to wear before I left Holland. I have a matching one. It’s pink.”

“Oh shit Fleur,” we say laughing. “Be careful up there.”

And then with a hug and a last wave, she’s gone and we are left hoping that the mountain, and the world in general, will be nice to her.

Two days later, we got a text message from Fleur. The mountain was too hard and after 10 minutes she came and headed for Mozambique.

***
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Through the rest of the day, we made the easy hike from Chambe hut to Chisepo hut, treated to lovely views of rugged cliff faces, sprawling vistas and the most beautiful array of wildflowers I’ve seen anywhere – Red Hot Pokers, Yellow Everlasting, blue Forget Me Nots, white Proteas, scarlet Pointsettieas and small lemon and mauve blossoms resembling snap dragons and lady slippers, just to name a few. With such scenery great and small, the three hour walk goes by quickly and we’re soon at the Chisepo hut drinking tea boiled in a black iron kettle over a crackling fire. Outside, the sun is setting behind a range of rounded peaks that could occupy a climber for many happy days. The plateau of Mulanje drops off steeply to the plain via a steep set of cliffs that resemble an elephant’s head. Mulanje may be deforested, but it remains beautiful.

By 7 a.m. the next morning, after a restless night plagued by obnoxiously noisy rats, we were ascending the mountain behind the cabin.
At the first rest stop, I pointed breathlessly to the highest of several likely looking summits rising above us and asked our porter if it was Sapitwa. “Oh no,” he chuckled.
That seemed like a bad sign.

We tramped steadily upwards on a single deep track, occassionally looking up to peer at the tall, grey points that surrounded us.

Accompanying us were two more ubiquitous Peace Corp volunteers, Diana and Kate, as well as their guide, with whom Diana chatted merrily in the Che’Chewa language.

The cliff face before us sloped at an ever increasing angle. Only its sandpaper-like surface allowed us to keep our grip. After an hour and a half, this surface changed to a boulder strewn rubble field. The rocks ranged in size from armchair to station wagon and were jumbled together in a haphazard way that made for many precarious scrambles over, hops between and slithers under. At one particularly heart-thumping jump over a chasm between two of these giant stony marbles, Diana’s guide told us that “Sapitwa” means “Don’t Go There” or “Don’t Come Back” in Che’Chewa. The reputation is supported by recent tragic events. Two years ago, a solo dutch climber was lost on this climb and her body never found. “They even used dogs,” says the guide looking down into the crevasse as if searching for signs of a boot or backpack. “But nothing…”

We had gotten an early start today in order to have the best chance at a clear summit view. Mulanje typically gets cloudy weather in the afternoons at this time of year. But the cooperating clear sky brings with it increasingly oppressive heat as the morning ages. By mid-morning, my day pack straps and hat band are sweated through and I silently urge on the cloud banks that start growing in the western sky.

The peak is remarkably elusive and we’re almost at the summit before our guide happily points to it. It was the first high point of land about which I hadn’t asked him if it was the top. But there it is – a final blocky slope across one last valley choked with dense thickets and more erratically placed boulders.

Seeing the end, we pant with renewed energy across the rocks and through the bushes. The final few minutes after the valley and before the top are the most exhilerating. The boulders are immense, the spaces between forming deep pits or narrow tunnels which must be navigated with care to avoid a limb breaking fall at worst or a curse filled head scrape at least.

But the summit, as summits seem to do, erases all complaints and minor scalp wounds by giving us a magnificent panoram of everything from the great Lake to the southwestern borders . A simple, rusting metal pole marks the highest point in Malawi. No words, no flag; just metal in cement. There’s something a little disappointing in this, but also something fitting. The starkness seems appropriate in a country where humility remains a virtue and even the higest and best would be loathe to boast.

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Jason

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Good news! There’s a funeral!”

– Matthew

On a three day canoe trip up tropical Lake Malawi, we expected to see lush natural beauty, slices of remote rural life and generally leave the beaten tourist path for a few days. We didn’t expect the drug-addled guide, the kids, the worst road in the country or the exploding catfish. Those were just bonuses… Read on.

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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