Sunday, February 5, 2012

Just Don't Look Down

So I recently celebrated my 47th birthday by doing the craziest thing ever. But I get ahead of myself. Last weekend, for my birthday, my darling wife treated me to a weekend in Semonkong, the last major destination in Lesotho that we had not yet visited. I was quite pleased by the prospect. The drive there was filled with the usual beautiful vistas and picturesque villages:

A big part of the trip, I must confess, had nothing to do with my birthday. We were visiting a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who is doing work with health clinics in the area. Here she is (on the right) with one of her local colleagues:

We visited one of the clinics that first day, and I was left with the impression of a fairly modern clinic sited way out in the middle of nowhere. She (the PCV) later showed us the other clinic in Semonkong, as well as one under construction. It is hard for me to describe how crucial these clinics seemed to be to residents of Semonkong and the surrounding villages, especially given the waiting queues I saw.

Later, we visited a new residence that particular PCV will be moving to, as her current residence is too isolated from the town. (We moved some of her stuff for her that day, but try as she might my wife could not convince her to let us move her completely. Those darned independent volunteers!) While visiting her soon-to-be new home (which featured neither electricity nor running water), we were in turn visited by two of her soon-to-be neighbors, who insisted on being photographed:

The PCV then gave us a quick tour of town, where the big news was this new off-sales market (a bottled beverage store):

We then got to see the local air field (upon closer inspection, that plane looked rooted to the spot):
And its control tower:

But do not mistakenly conclude from these images that the field is no longer operational. Quite the contrary. Just that day it was being used as a local distribution hub for the delivery of HPV vaccines to places too remote to be reached effectively any other way than by helicopter (the Lesotho Ministry of Health recently initiated a national program to vaccinate all of the nation's young women):

We saw local families out and about, perhaps on their way home from school:

In places, Semonkong gave off a Wild West vibe - like here, where there are horses tied up outside a pub:
We eventually made our way to the lodge where we were to be staying, passing this grazing horse...
... this rock wall...

... and this peaceful stream (usually a river but we have not been getting enough rain this year)...

... before arriving at Semonkong Lodge:

We had a lovely view from our room:

As well as a lovely room:

After we checked in, Kathy and the PCV went back to work, with more meetings, etc., while I relaxed at the Lodge, exploring its views...

... its grounds...

... and eventually finding myself a perfect spot to sit and play guitar for a bit:

It was there that I made a new friend, who apparently appreciates a good Dylan tune:

The next day, the PCV led us on a hike, which began here, just up the hill from our lodge:

Here are Kathy and the volunteer seemingly walking off into pastoral perfection:

We passed another horse, living the legendary good life:

Alongside streams like this:

And fields of sunflowers like these, which have been partially obscured from view by a large dork-like creature:
After hiking a while, we began to approach this chasm:

Along the edge of which we strolled for a bit:

We finally reached the end of our trail, this view of the Maletsunyane Falls, the highest waterfall in Southern Africa (196 meters):
Take a good look, as we will be returning to those Falls soon enough, albeit from a radically different point of view. But for now, here I am posing casually at a safe distance:

And here are the two Peace Corps women, looking ready for action:

Now, about those falls...

You see, one of the activities offered to guests by Semonkong Lodge is an abseil. Specifically, they offer the longest single drop commercial abseil in the world (it is in the Guinness Book of World Records). Somehow, my wife talked me into trying it. So, that Sunday, we got into a truck with a few other Lodge guests (medical students from Australia) and headed for the top of the Falls, where this member of the Lodge staff was kind enough to ask me if I were sane or actually wanted to go through with it:

Apparently quite insane, I proceeded:

This is what I looked like, starting out, from the ground some 200 meters below (please keep in mind that none of the images here give a really good sense of the height we were dealing with):

This is me, lounging partway down, enjoying the view (I was admittedly freaking out a bit from fear while we were up at the top waiting, but once I had the rope attached I felt much better about the entire situation):

Here I am a little farther down:

Both Kathy and I experienced something similar while making this descent: we kept looking down and expecting to see the ground getting closer, but for the longest time it did not. So we kept on, as I was doing here, beside the Falls (yes, the same Maletsunyane Falls we had seen from a safe distance the day before):

Here is Kathy, the real and fearless adventurer in our family, setting out:

Note that she does this all smiling:

Look closely, you will see her here, descending but still near the top of the falls (or maybe you will not see her, as she is so small relative to her surroundings):

But you can definitely see her here (at this point I was already down at the bottom and bragging to one of Lodge owners about my wife and how extraordinary she is):

In fact, here I am shortly after arriving at the bottom - and looking suitably dazed:

In contrast, my wife arrived all smiles and thumbs up:

Of course, after she joined me, I began to feel more like smiling:

After hiking out of the gorge, which reminded me exactly how out of shape I am, we had lunch with the PCV at the Lodge and then headed home, passing this wall, where we had practiced our abseiling skills the day before doing the full 200 meter drop (I actually hurt myself here but not on the big descent, giving myself rope burn blisters that I still have a week later as I write this):

Naturally, on our way home, we hit traffic:

And here is some of that traffic looking back at me:

We also saw these strikingly tropical looking flowers. We do not know what they are, but had seen nothing like them in Lesotho before:

All in all, not a bad way to celebrate a 47th birthday... thanks mostly to my wonderful wife! (With an extra Thank You added on for yet another Peace Corps Lesotho Volunteer who impressed me immensely).

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