Into the Jungle – Gray

The row back was pleasant enough, although now we were heading against the current, I could appreciate how much there was and I felt that I had had a good workout by the time we reached the camp.  As the late afternoon had been, the evening also turned into a glorious one, and from  the clearing of the camp we watched as the night encroached revealing a myriad of stars.  The company had bonded well over the last four days, especially the last two on the road and we had a very pleasant dinner.

My favourite guy in this group was Gray, a senior scientist, a fellow geographer, from the US Geological Survey in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  A very gentle north USA man, keen intellect, almost obsessive about some of his areas of interest such as land cover, satellite imagery and bank note collections, he was also incredibly generous and constantly looking to soak up knowledge from others.

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Gray at the water source

He was in his favourite habitat out here, the bush of West Africa.  He intimately knew all the landscapes, how they formed, where they could be found and taught me most of what I type here on land cover.  He was also a backwoodsman, and loved camping in the open air.  He showed us various items from his survival kit, which Hugo too soaked up.  That lovely evening, after a glass or two of wine, Gray announced he thought he would head out into the fields to look at the stars.  Kofi and I accompanied him.  On the far side of the clearing, where we had held our meeting on the first day, there was a second track which led to the wardens camp, which was based around one longhouse separated into a series of single room accommodations.  The wardens were sitting around a small fire talking quietly and a small transistor radio was playing from one of the rooms.  We greeted each other as we passed and soon were out from the trees and in the fields.  There were a few small trees either side of the track, but otherwise we had a clear view of the sky.  And what a sky.  With no electric lights for miles around, and the camp fires from where we had come well out of sight, we could see it all.  There were a few dark blotches where clouds obliterated space; it was after all getting in to wet season.  But that dampness meant that the haziness from too much dust and smoke was completely absent; the clarity of the air gave us the best chance to see as many stars as we could.

I am only an expert in stars where you do not get this clarity – when only the brightest stars are present and you can pick out familiar constellations.  We were over 40 degrees south of UK, so while many stars I saw up north were in the sky here, they were at curious angles above the horizon, and some of the southern hemisphere stars were also present.  Gray could pick out many but as he pointed into the sky I just saw a mass and had trouble picking out the shapes.  I was not discontent, the Milky Way strung out across the sky was enough for me.

We stood silently listening to the night noises.  Even out here, we were not really in wilderness.  We could faintly hear the wardens conversations in the distance, especially when they laughed.  Once or twice there was the distant buzz of a motorbike as it ferried north and south on the main road from ferry to border, about 3km to the west of us.  Coming along our track we saw a low red flash.  A guy smoking was stumbling along in our direction.  We realised he was on his own and didn’t want to shock him too much, and we realised he was completely drunk; the noise of his walking was more scraping and faltering than striding.  So we started talking in reasonable voices as he got within about 50 metres.  It still took him a while to realise there were human beings in front of him.  He just grunted as we said “Bon Soir” to him; he was obviously struggling enough to stay conscious and heading in the right direction to worry too much about us.

The clouds which had been obscuring the distant view were a lot closer and as a few spots or rain fell on our faces we reluctantly turned back to the camp and our beds.  The rain came heavy that night and I was glad I was in the relatively waterproof cabin than out in the tents.

The Highest Country in the World – Becky

The other times I was not in a hotel, but was invited to stay with one of the project officers.  Becky Banton had been working in Lesotho when I first visited, but had not been recruited by Sentebale.  Originally from the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, she had volunteered with the US Peace Corps and built up an impressive CV of immersion projects in Lesotho.  It was her job to pull off this Letsema project.  Progress, like in so many similar projects in development, was slow but she was diplomatic and a great respecter of Lesotho culture and norms which helped grease the wheels.  She was also a big mama, a large lady, and I think, despite being white, that also gained her a lot of respect from many people who interacted with her. To be honest, it was more her fluent Sesotho, the main language in Lesotho, and her mannerisms and approaches to getting work done that was so impressive.

She had almost free reign on a large villa style house in the back suburbs of Maseru.  It had big rooms, a deck out back and a fair sized garden shaded by jacaranda and other trees.  Her only requirement was that if her boss said, she had to share it with project visitors.  This was not a problem as Becky and I hit it off pretty well from the first day.  The more I showed how the Excel spreadsheets I was creating and the Google Earth mapping I was doing could help her visualise her results she started to be really enthusiastic.  I remember one time I showed her how the spreadsheet was manipulating all the information from the different agencies she was logging, and turning it into some kind of code.  I would copy all this code and paste it in to the legend of Google Earth, and all the points would appear in the right places on the map, with symbols and labels telling you the details about who the organisation are, where they are, websites and what they do.  Becky would say “that is magic” as I seemed to throw the gobbledygook from the clipboard  onto Google Earth.  I taught her how it worked and she and I kept up a dialogue on how to refine it both throughout the visits and subsequently.

Becky was a great host at her house (she was happy cooking for me as she was vegetarian and didn’t want me poisoning her with meat) and we sat and drank a few beers and learnt about each other’s past history.  All my trips to Lesotho were quick week long visits, and this last one was no different.  I had one weekend where time was my own, and Becky proposed that we did something together.  One option was to head up into the mountains and base ourselves in one of her favourite villages.  The second was to travel over the border into South Africa and spend some time in a lovely little town called Clarens.  Both were appealing for different reasons; the first because it would expose me to village life in Lesotho and make me see some of the more mountainous countryside that Lesotho is renowned for.  The second would give the opportunity for more of a road trip and be in a place that was more for pampering than for raw experience.

In the end the decision was made for us.  A friend of Becky’s was in need of a pamper, and had access to a house in Clarens.  I hired a vehicle from one of the rental companies that operated out of the big hotels, and we were set.