Source: The Weekend Argus, 13th/14th March 2010
Kate Turkington tackles some more mountains…
The invitation was to visit the mountains of Lesotho and look at birds and wild flowers. Lesotho? After Tibet? You must be kidding! How could anything possibly compare with my recent trip to the mighty Himalayas?
But my traveller’s curiosity got the better of me. Maseru was my only previous experience of Africa‘s Mountain Kingdom, which wasn’t exactly a Top 100 destination, but you never know…
My goal was Lesotho‘s only National Park, Sehlathebe, established more than 45 years ago and situated in Lesotho’s south-eastern corner, in the Qacha’s Nek District. I knew that Lesotho is one of Africa‘s smallest countries, but I had no idea that it’s also one of the most elevated. Most of the park lies at altitudes between 2 200m and 2 600m, and just outside the northern border, the mountains soar to 2 900m. The Orange River, whose source is in the highlands of Lesotho, flows through the park on its long journey west to the sea.
I went prepared to be mildly interested. I came away awed. I can say with a seasoned traveller’s confidence that this is one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. It’s also one of the least-visited areas of southern Africa, so if you love Big Sky country, seemingly limitless space, hardly a soul in sight, wild flowers so abundant and beautiful that the mountain meadows dazzle the eye with myriad colours, uncommon and rare birds, limpid freshwater tarns, and sandstone rocks, peaks, caves and arches which have been fashioned over the millennia into fantastic shapes by weather and erosion, then Sehlathebe is for you.
Our small group of eight is accompanied by the area experts – Dr Elsa Pooley, KwaZulu-Natal wild flower guru, botanist, and author of the definitive flower guides of the region and Stuart McClean, a birding professional who can spot a speck in the distance and positively identify it as a juvenile female mountain pipit in moult. Matthew Wiggill, born and raised in Lesotho, fluent in Sotho, was our cultural guide and rock art expert. Knowledgeable local guide, Qama Thoola, joined us in the park.
We overnighted in Underberg and, early the next morning, began the long drive – up, up, up – over Ramatselisao or Rami’s Pass, through the tiny South African and Lesotho border posts, to the gates of the park. Matthew explained that Sehlathebe means “plateau of the shields”. The most popular interpretation of the name refers to a great battle deep in the distant past, where, on a high windy plateau, the victorious tribe pierced the shields of their enemies and left them to die as hungry vultures soared overhead.
As far as the eye can see are mountains, valleys, rivers, grasslands and wild flowers. The only sounds to punctuate the crystal clear air were bird calls, the whistling wind and sheep bells. Horses munched in lush fields and men wrapped in colourful blankets trotted by on sturdy mountain ponies. Dogs were everywhere. We met up with a successful hunting pack and their owners, a freshly caught Natal Red Rock rabbit dangling from a stick. The sheep dogs were huge – their forebears being the great St Bernards the first missionaries brought here from Europe. Over the years they’ve been crossed with labradors and border collies and are formidably efficient. Don’t try to pat one, warned Matthew. Every shepherd – and nearly half of Lesotho’s small population of about 2.2 million are shepherds – also has a companion dog that sleeps with him in the wind-blown high stone shelters or caves, keeps him warm at night in the appallingly fierce winters, protects him from marauders.
We walked over fields, up mountain slopes, beside tarns, literally crunching the botanical treasure house of sub-alpine spring wild flowers underfoot – it’s impossible to avoid them.
Elsa called us continuously to admire this one or that, most in spectacular colours – wild gazania, white helichrysum, scarlet watsonia, pink oxalis, yellow hypoxis, orange lilies, blue pentanisias and miniature blue scilla and, growing under a rocky overhang, the dramatically tall Lesotho red hot poker. There was a memorable moment, among many, when she fell to her knees beside an insignificant tiny white flower and reveals that it is a Eulophia aculeatea, a rarely seen wild orchid.
That evening, outside Chief Jonathan’s Lodge, where we stayed for two nights, were two superb specimens of Lesotho’s national flower, the spiral aloe, Aloe polyphylla. We were heady with the high mountain air, the novelty and beauty of it all as an orange-throated longclaw scolded us from a nearby bush.
There were also uncommon and endemic birds. We ticked off the Drakensberg rockjumper, sentinel mountain thrush, mountain and yellow-breasted pipits, ground woodpecker, Drakensberg siskin, large-billed and red-capped larks. And, high on a mountain side, on a nest that has been continuously inhabited for over 30 years, a bearded vulture guarded its chick.
There is wildlife too, but not in such abundance as when the San hunter-gatherers painted their images on rocky overhangs thousands of years ago.
On one such overhang we saw herds of leaping antelope, what appeared to be an eight-legged eland, shepherds in their karosses and a shaman in a trancelike state.
Scampering about the hillsides around the overhang and on mountain tops were the real thing – grey rhebok – looking like a smaller version of Peruvian lamas, with grey woolly coats, fluffy white tails and long ears.
But my favourite was the little critter that came out to watch us as we sat outside the lodge watching a fiery red strikingly beautiful sunset. Endemic to the region, only found above 2 000m, a sort of bonsai hamster emerges from the rocks. It’s the Lesotho ice rat, which stores its food in squirrel-like fashion so as to survive the bitterly cold winters. Its eyes twinkled and its whiskers twitched as the sun finally set…