Sunday, January 20, 2013

Looking Down on Lesotho

Add this to the list of amazing adventures I have had because of Kathy:  flying over Lesotho in a small plane with the U.S. Ambassador and her family.  Kathy had known for some time that I really, really wanted to fly over Lesotho in a small aircraft of some kind, be it plane or helicopter, just because I believe this country is so beautiful and wanted to see it from that perspective.  Then one day, Kathy overheard the Ambassador talking about a planned flight and inquired on my behalf about available seats.  Too cool.  So my thanks to my wife and the (now former) U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho for making this particular adventure possible.

The flight was with an organization called Mission Aviation.  They are missionaries who specialize in bringing health care resources to remote locations via air.  Normally, their flights carry nurses, physicians and medical supplies; but they do occasionally charter flights, if their mission schedule allows.  During conversations with our pilot, I learned that finding physicians who are willing to serve by flying all over the country is difficult, as the pay is low and the hours and conditions harsh.  So most of the personnel they carry are nurses.  In fact, our pilot told us that there are two nurses who have been working with Mission Aviation in Lesotho for more than 25 years.  That is dedication!

So along with being a fantastic opportunity to see Lesotho, this journey was also a new lesson in what access to health care really means and how difficult it can be to create that access, as well as a reminder of how crucial committed and caring people are to bringing care to those in need.  

Now, to the flight...

Here is one of the planes Mission Aviation maintains in Lesotho, being worked on in the hangar.

Another, sitting just outside the hangar.

This is the actual plane in which we flew.

My view of the flight controls.

This is some of what I saw as we took off from the airport in Maseru.  It was not Moshoeshoe International Airport where flights go to and from Johannesburg, but a small military airstrip.

From the air, the patchwork of fields, interlaced with mountains and ridges, was absolutely breathtaking.  Again and again during the flight, I thought about how truly rural and agriculture-dependent Lesotho really is.  Traveling around the country by its few main roads, I do not usually see how much of the land is being farmed.  So I forget that I have read several estimates that put the percentage of the population that depends on subsistence farming in the 80-85% range.  In Lesotho, the debate over climate change is thus a luxury no one can afford.  As the climate changes, so do the lives of most Basotho, often in devastating ways.  A shortfall of rain for even one growing season can leave most of the nation without enough food.  It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the Basotho farm every last little piece of arable land - even if it is on a bluff with very steep sides.  The climb is worth it if the land on top can produce food.

Along with ruminations on survival, I occupied myself by admiring the landscape for its captivating beauty. Hard not to, when looking out the window showed me scenes like this.

I must say, I quite enjoyed the intermittent reminders that we were flying through, and not over, the mountains.

Evidence that I was, in fact, in the plane.  (We had to wear those head sets to hear each other.)

Something else for which I gained a greater appreciation is the distinction, within Lesotho, between the lowlands and the highlands.  To me, wherever we were within the country, we were in the mountains. After all, this is the Mountain Kingdom, and even the capital, Maseru, which is at one of Lesotho's lowest elevations, is a mile high.  However, from our plane, the transition from the lowlands into the highlands was easily discernible, and the distinction impossible to deny.

Lesotho is in the process of developing a series of remarkable dams, built mostly to supply water to South Africa.  The dams, built high in the mountains, create some stunning landscapes.  I have admired them from the ground, but from the air is something different.  Here, for example, is part of our flight over the lake created by Mohale Dam.

And then we flew past Mohale Dam itself.

We did not remain in the air the entire time.  We landed in Methalaneng (meh-TAHL-ah-neng), a remote mountain village with a health clinic and one of the dozen or so air strips around the country that Mission Aviation uses.  The landing we made their was eye-opening.  We practically brushed a mountain side with our wheels as we banked into the landing.  It was fantastic, but I cannot imagine doing it on a windy day!

On the ground, the Ambassador and our pilot served up some coffee on the tail wing of the plane.

A couple of herd boys, or balisana (bah-DEE-sah-nah) came out to meet us.

We visited the  clinic compound, which looked fairly new, complete with solar panels.

Nearby was a school, which we were also able to tour.  Like the clinic, it felt new.  Note, though, that a new school in a remote village in Lesotho still has cinder block walls and an unfinished ceiling.  Also, I did not see any lights or sources of heat for the cold mountain winters.

While we studied the school, the children studied us.

Apparently, every last one wanted to be in the pictures we were taking.

It is an interesting feeling, being a curiosity.  But that is definitely what we were.

As if the landing in Methalaneng had not been enough, the take-off was equally spectacular.

As was the scenery on our return flight.

Including a view of Maletsunyane Falls, where Kathy and I had gone abseiling.

Landing in Maseru was an eye-opener, too, as it gave me a whole new perspective on the city. About 20 seconds into the next video, a sprawling complex appears.  That is Maseru's new mall.  We now have two!  At 40 seconds, the new parliament buildings appear.  Before this, I had never really gotten a good look at them.  For me, at least, this part of the trip was as mesmerizing as any other.

What a fantastic flight.  What a wonderful wife I have!  Thank you, Kathy.  And thank you Ambassador, for allowing me to tag along.

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