"South & East Africa 2011" story # 6

Maletsunyane Falls, Lesotho           March 26, 2011

The blackberries incident had stricken me with an unusual sadness.
     But, in reality, most of my interactions with the people of Lesotho were happy and positive. The Basotho people generally had skin the color of milk chocolate, round noses with nostrils wide but not too wide, and kind and happy eyes.
     I made friends with many students of the national university, including: Stone, a dark-chocolate-skinned guy with a wincing wide-open mouth and a squinting nose and tinted glasses, who wore low-cut sneakers and striped socks and surprisingly short jean-shorts; Shubi, a slouching guy who yelled "Hu-wah!" and who said of himself and Stone, "We're like a tongue and saliva, you can't have one without the other"; Masingoane, a girl with a pleasing roundness to her face and smile, who liked to talk to me from her upstairs window if I threw acorns at it; and Ntakoana, a pettite and light-skinned girl whose tight hair braids made her seem authoritative (in a good way) as she treated me to a street vendor's smoked corn on the cob.
     Visiting the family of another student, I met that student's grandmother. Her sagging eyes and cheeks were wrinkled like an old tree, her hair was wrapped in a blue-and-red cloth, and she wore a white-black-and-caramel blanket around her shoulders. She currently authored Sotho-language kids' books. In the soft voice of a creaking tree, she read to me about "toeba le katse" (mouse and cat) or about kids who got hurt playing with knives.
     And I joined the locals in listening to Afro-jazz. A tall guy wearing white slacks, a black sweater, and a beret, named Zila, danced beside me. He requested the band play a Zulu song that asked, "Why are you walking so funny?"
     The baby lips of the female singer, whose curvy bottom pushed on her thin purple dress, sang a hit song by South Africa's Brenda Fassie. "Friday night, I'll be waiting for you ..."
     The male singer wore black jeans, a pink dress-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and a fisherman's hat. He danced by swinging his forearms around in loops, and by pointing his knees out to the sides and balancing on his toes. He sang a South African classic: "That's the way life goes!" A sweet, repeating bass chord filled the air with honey.
     Yep. So, I was enjoying my time with the Basotho people. I just needed a job.
     As in Greece, and as in Israel, I made copies of my travel stories and went to the streets to sell them. The generous Basotho people usually bought them. I now had a new form of income. Yay!
     -- Incidentally, I'd like to note that the people of Lesotho were much more likely than non-Africans to ask others to share food or money. I guessed this was due to the fact that the bartering system, and not money, was in place here until the white men came, only two hundred years ago. Under that system, when everyone had worked the land, the Basotho people probably felt secure in their livelihood, free from the temptations of Western luxuries, and people hadn't minded sharing. I guessed that Western capitalism had already caused a decrease in this security and sharing. --
     Once I'd made my first money, albeit a tiny amount, I celebrated. I traveled to the high, green mountains of Lesotho: the major part of Lesotho. Dark shepherds walked quickly, wearing rubber boots and colorful blankets, holding the threatening staffs which Basotho shepherds held. Other men rode horses. I wanted to ride in these mountains on those horses. I wanted to sleep in their mountain huts.
     Instead, I spent most of my time alone. I still felt more comfortable that way. I camped near the top of Maletsunyane Falls - the tallest falls in southern Africa.
     I first saw the falls from their edge. The Maletsunyane River, with its silvery glimmering surface, rumbled through a rocky groove within the green plateau. I approached the river's dropoff point - from the rocks, not the water. The water was destined for a hellish canyon.
     Canyon walls like cobwebby chocolate or orange spongecake dropped straight down, as if they'd been cut by a large butcher's knife. I teetered towards the edge. The thrill of the wind and air and a 630-foot hole lying before me.
     I lay flat on the rock and peeked my head over. "Whoa!"
     It was sick beauty. So beautiful it hurt my eyes.
     It made me want to bawl. It made me want to sob - not for any personal reason, though. I'd already forgotten myself. I wasn't even worried about the wind pushing me from behind anymore.
     Next to me, white water pushed over the edge and fell, fell, fell, fell. The mighty flush took the forms of boomerangs, of black angel fish, of falling souls without gender. A local legend suggested that the echoes heard in the canyon were the screams of the souls who'd fallen in.
     The water hit a black pool. Mist bounced up. It hit the long, green slopes that led up from the canyon's bottom, and it made them mossy and shiny in parts.
     Along that mossy and shiny slope was what appeared to be a trail. (I wish I never would've seen it.) "A trail? A trail!" I said. I had to go down and see this waterfall from the bottom.
     I began walking along the canyon's rim, but in the opposite direction of the trail, sure I'd find a nearer place to descend. The sun had just left the middle of the sky.
     I had to walk for a long time. I passed other tall waterfalls tumbling over the cliffs. A yellow bird with green and blue wings and a curved, needle-like nose landed before me. Its colors glittered in the way a rare and delicate bird's like a hummingbird's would shine. It flew to some red flowers near me and stuck its long nose into the deep flowers. This bird made me happy.
     Walking on, I finally came to a stream that seemed like it would safely guide me to the canyon's bottom. The sun was now high but no longer at its hottest. I began my descent.
     The steep stream bed turned out to be so difficult to follow that I nearly gave up. Sometimes, I clung to plants and grass on the left-hand side and carefully lowered myself down. Sometimes, I backed my way down cliffs on the right-hand side. Other times, I had to sit for a while and brainstorm, before realizing I could use the rocks in the stream as a stairway, even though it might be a slippery one.
     Reaching the bottom, I banged my left calf muscle on a rock. Ow! The sun was swooping towards the west. I shook my left leg, shaking the pain away. And I began walking upriver through the canyon, walking along the bouldery shoreline of the Maletsunyane River.
     The sun was well below the canyon walls, when I came to a part of the shoreline that was an impassable cliff. I cleverly tried to throw stones in the river, to build up an island for me to step on. But, the river was too deep.
     In order to return to the plant-infested slopes of the canyon from whence I could advance, I had to pull myself up mucky walls. Ew! "Why don't I just stay home and watch sitcoms?" I said to myself.
     I later returned to the river. Walking ought to be much easier here. But ... I met another impassable cliff! The sun was in the Americas, and black darkness was filling the canyon. Oh, no.
     I saw that several large boulders protruded from the middle of the river. They'd found their places in such a way that it would've been possible for a kangaroo, or an Olympic long-jumper, to cross the river without getting wet. I needed to cross the river.
     I stood on the first boulder. The next one was eight feet away and four feet below me. I was 90%, if not 100%, sure I could make the jump and avoid the strong current. But, I was going to feel a brief but horrible lack of control as I flew. And the impact would be hard. I prepared to jump.
     ... but, I never jumped. I was a coward! I had no choice left but to spend the night on a cold, dark rock.
     All I had with me were my wet shoes, jeans and a handy jacket, a flashlight, an umbrella, a water bottle, and my camera. I doubted the chances of my prolonged future.
     To make matters worse, I began vomiting and dry heaving. Why was I doing this? I wondered. Had I over-exerted myself? Was my left leg bleeding internally? I figured, if I was bleeding internally, then I was probably going to die.
     Or ... had I become ill because I was drinking from the river? (The Maletsunyane River flowed through many villages.) At one point, I analyzed my vomit for any recognizable tastes, and I determined it tasted a bit like cow dung. Ew. I would drink no more river water.
     I shivered and huddled and closed my eyes through the night. I thought of electric heaters, my dad's fireplace, a bed with warm blankets. One time, I opened my eyes ... and the canyon was light again!

I stood on the first boulder in the river and made my great leap. I hit the next rock hard but painlessly and held on. I jumped to my feet.
     "Oh ... YEAH!" I yelled as if I wanted the whole world to hear it. It felt great.
     And just then I fell backwards into the river.
     ... ha ha. Just kidding about that!
     I would make it through the rest of the canyon. At times, I hugged cliff faces and tiptoed my way forward. Other times, I plunged into the river with all my clothes on and swam to boulders. I reached the trail I'd seen from above, and I hiked to view the waterfall. I'd overcome the canyon!
     On the trail in front of me, a dozen local men/shepherds appeared. Some carried shovels and pickaxes. One of them said to me:
     "We have a problem here. One of our men was found at the bottom of the waterfall yesterday. A tourist discovered him. It was one and a half months ago that the river took him."
     We rounded the last bend. In this black, mossy cauldron, the ricocheting water blinded and drenched us. I could only stand here for about ten seconds. Meanwhile, the local men went down into the waterfalls' fury, to search for their friend whom they'd come to bury.
     Gee. Maybe I shouldn't have been teasing death, toying with something as gorgeous and deadly as the Maletsunyane Canyon.
     Hungry, thirsty, and exhausted, I followed the trail up out of the canyon.
     I was happy that my screams would never be heard among the echoes of the canyon.

Until next time,
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Matati; two parents & Donkiso; Tefo & two family members; and a rickety truck for rides!

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