Thursday, June 4, 2015

Culture Shock can be a good thing

Culture shock!?!? Everyone keeps asking us and wondering about the level of culture shock we are having. Two years of being in some very foreign countries the expectation is that we would be having issues about being back. Lots of people seem to like using our return as an excuse to rag on the US reminding us of the things we dislike – the commercialism, consumerism, materialism, shallowness of TV and news programming, racism, etc (lots of -isms). While at some level these things are a part of the American culture but despite that our culture shock has been surprisingly small.

We have been living in some rough conditions for so long that at this point we are mostly just enjoying the ease of being back and living in the United States. We have nice houses that we are staying at (visiting family) with comfortable beds. The electricity is always on and our plugs work without needing an adapter or series of adapters. When we take a shower we don't have to first check that there is hot water (or that the water is running at all).

We like that we don't have to think about food or water. Ice water at a restaurant or out of the tap can be guzzled without fear. Grocery stores are like giant playgrounds. In Malawi we would have to go to three different stores and the local farmers vegetable market to get all of our food supplies for the week. In SE Asia there were mostly only 7-11 type mini-marts and most people would go out to eat since it was so cheap. Even in Europe the grocery stores tended to be smaller with not as much of a selection. We are finding going into an American supermarket is a dangerous proposition. Things we had forgotten about or haven't had access to are rapidly piled into the cart. The quantity and variety of foods are amazing after you haven't seen it for a couple of years. It does seem ridiculous at times – does there really need to be 3 or 4 different varieties of Fruit Loops? At the same time we are not complaining about all the new flavor of chocolate that exist now that we have never seen. On top of the incredible selection we are also blown away by the prices. Everything is so cheap compared to where we have been with the exception of alcohol. Africa was surprisingly expensive which is why in Malawi most people only eat Nsima (corn porridge) and local vegetables that they can grow. Even with the favorable exchange rate Europe was still pricey. Only in SE Asia was food cheaper.

When we go to restaurants we are still getting used to the size of the portions here again. In Thailand we would order 3 entrees each (for a total of $3 to $6) in order to get enough to eat. Here one serving could last for 3 meals. In restaurants, like the grocery store, the variety and selection is at times overwhelming. In most of the world you get what you get. In Vietnam there were some times when we had no idea of what we were ordering and just hoped that there would not be a beak or foot involved when it showed up on the table. Here they ask you if you want corn, flour, or gluten free tortillas. You can have chicken, beef, pork, sirloin, barbacoa, or tofu. Do you want Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Cherry Coke? It's crazy at times!

Another big difference about being back is traffic. In the US for the most part everyone drives in an orderly manner and tends to follow the rules. In Germany you didn't go in the left lane of the Autobahn if there was a car within ½ mile of you because they were going well over 100mph and would be on top of you within seconds. In other parts of the world traffic lights are more like recommendations and a two lane road easily becomes 3 or 4 lanes if people want to pass. We are still getting used to driving on the right side of the road. Most of the countries we drove in (except Germany) drive on the left side. We still find ourselves trying to get into the wrong side of the car. A pleasant bonus of being back is that gas is dirt cheap. The price of gas in the USA is 50% to 75% cheaper then the other places we were. Most of the world pays between $6 and $10 a gallon. As pedestrians we have noticed that you can walk out into a crosswalk and expect the cars to stop. No guarantees but that is the expectation. Anywhere else in the world and you would be run down. Many people ride bikes around the world. In many countries that is the only transportation they can afford but even in Europe everyone rides their bike around town. In the US almost everyone wears a helmet. In Europe almost nobody wears one.

A few nights ago at dinner we were talking about schools. In Malawi when we visited a classroom there would be 150 kids in the room with no electricity or desks. They sit on the floor crammed side to side. When we would enter the class they would all stand up and in unison say “Hello Viz-E-Tor! Welcome Viz-E-Tor! How are you Viz-E-Tor?” My brother Tom laughed at this and said that in the US we teach our kids in school STRANGER DANGER!!!! In the US we definitely don't see 5 year old girls taking care of the newborn baby with no adults in sight like we would in Africa, Nepal, and SE Asia.

Being back in America the biggest difference we are seeing boils down to convenience. Life here is easier then the other parts of the world we have seen. Things are available, abundant, and cheap. It is a reminder of how lucky we scored on the birth lottery ticket to have been born where we were which has given us the life opportunities we have had. At this point I would say that I am having less of a culture shock and more of a Give Thanks reminder. We have a lot to be Thankful for. By going away it has really given me a better perspective on how good a life we have here.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

FidEgan's Fastpacks - Episode 9 - Reaching the high point of Malawi

John and I are currently on a world trip where we plan to pursue our passion of trail running through the various landscapes and environments of the world.  As we pass through each country we want to post our top pick for a trail run that we did.  This does not mean that this is the best trail to run in that country.  It just means that it was our favorite that we did.  We are both using Ultraspire Fastpacks to carry our gear, hence the name of the column.  On this trip John carried his larger backpack to carry more gear while I used my Fastpack.

Due to an unfortunate error while (attempting to) download our pictures they were accidently deleted. 

Where:  A traverse of the Mount Mulanje massif in southern Malawi right on the Mozambique border.
Mount Mulanje massif (Google images)
Facilities/Trailhead:  We started our hike from the Likhubula Forestry Office/Park Entrance.  We hiked out at Fort Listers Gap which was just a small farming village with no park facilities there.  It took a half day of mini-buses to get to the Likhubula Forestry Office from the city of Blantyre.  We were very lucky to have hitched a ride out of Fort Listers Gap.  This village is on a very rough dirt road and is a long way from any public transportation.  Once you reach the town of Phurumbu it is still a half day of mini-buses to get back to Blantyre.

Fees:  The park entrance fee is only 100 Kwacha (22 cents) per person.  A local guide is required in the park and the government set rate is 11,000 Kwacha (~$25) per day.  Porters hire out for 8000 Kwacha (~$18) per day.  There is a choice of using the huts or camping.  Even when camping you are free to use the hut to cook dinner in.  Camping was 500 Kwacha/person/night.  Our experience has been that huts tend to be crowded and noisy so we elected to bring our own tent.  We were glad we did as it provided both privacy and a better barrier against bugs at night. 

Terrain/Trials:  There is a network of trails that intersect between all the huts scattered around the massif with trails that come up from the various villages around the mountain.  A trip from one day to over a week could be arranged depending on how long you would want to hike there.  There are also a number of peaks on the top of the massif that can be climbed.  These range from walk ups to technical rock climbing to get to the top of. 

Distance:  We never saw a map with distances so are not sure about the actual number of kilometers covered.  We did hike 4 hours the first day, 8 hours the second day (5 of those were going up and down Sapitwa Peak), 8 hours the third day, and about 3 hours the last day (though without a ride it could have been many hours more).

Description:  The guide we had found in Blantyre was named Fanuel and he ended up being great.  He was born and grew up at the foot of the mountain and is now very active in the Blantyre Mountain Club.  He often climbs there just for fun and has been up most of the peaks including the technical ones.  He is an orphan and the eldest of all his brothers and sisters.  He is supporting his entire family along with 4 Mozambican orphans (one of which is blind) trying to get them through school.  We highly recommend him as a guide and we hired his brother Victor as a porter.  It is possible to contact him via phone (0999329808) or email (  Other guides can also be found in the town of Mulanje.
Our mountain goat guide Fanuel
     There are several trails from the Likhubula Forestry Station to the top of the escarpment.  As usual we chose the shortest but steepest way called the Skyline Trail.  At the base of the mountain are verdant green tea plantations and most of the mountain is steep rock cliffs that go up to the upper plateau.  The lower elevations tend to be hot and the clay soil makes it very slippery if there has been any recent rain.  A variety of birds and vervet monkeys could be seen in the trees.  There were leopard here at one point but none have been seen for many years.  Once on the upper plateau there is an entire new mountain range on the top.  A variety of mountain summits stick up with valleys and ridgelines in between them.  We spent the first night at Chambe Hut and this was the only night where there were other tourists around.  The amount of stars visible at night was stunning. 

Day 2 involved hiking 3 hours to Chisepo Hut.  We left our packs and Victor at the hut while the rest of us hiked to the top of Sapitwa Peak which is the high point of Malawi.  It is not technical to summit but it is steep in places and scrambling across rocks and ledges is required.  Starting early in the morning is recommended as in the afternoon the view is often obscured by clouds.  From the top there are extensive views over the plains into Mozambique.  Some people have been known to camp on this summit.

Day 3 was a long day and we were tired from the previous days effort.  We hiked to Sombani Hut but the nice thing was that there were 2 other huts along the way which provided good places to stop and take a break.  The day consisted of a series of climbing up and over a ridgeline and then across a valley with a river marking the low point of the valley.  Many of these rivers had inviting looking swimming holes in them.  On each day we had come across multiple villagers poaching cedar logs out of the forest but on this day we saw the most. 
One of the many swimming holes (Google images)
Day 4 was a short day of hiking back down the mountain to the plains to a village called Fort Lister Gap.  In 1893 the British built a fort there to try to end the slave trade caravans that were moving between Malawi and Mozambique.  It was a easy and scenic hike.  We were lucky once we hit the rough dirt road in Fort Lister we were able to find someone with a car that gave us a ride.  Without that it would have been a very long road hike or ride on a bike taxi to get to the town of Phurumbu where mini-bus transport can be found back to Blantyre. 

A wide variety of trails are on the mountain.  Day hikes or overnight trips are possible.  With a week or more pretty much the entire upper mountain could be explored.  There are also a number of different mountains that could be climbed of varying difficulty.  It was a beautiful place and the locals could use all the tourist money they can get.  The more tourists that visit places like this, the more likely those places will be protected by both the government and the local villagers. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Disaster Flood Relief - helping animals to help people

In January Malawi and northern Mozambique were struck by the largest floods in a generation. This caused almost 200,000 people to become homeless. Now there is a cholera outbreak further worsening conditions. This was in largely rural regions were people are farmers and depend on their livestock for their income. They don't have bank accounts so often their “money in the bank” is in the form of cattle and goats. Little veterinary care reaches these areas normally and none has occurred since the floods. Recently LSPCA (Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals) in conjunction with HSI (Humane Society International) and WTG (Welttierschutz Gesselschaft) went south to figure out what they could do to help those affected by the floods. Some districts were being helped but no relief had gone to Balaka, Zomba, or Machinga agriculture districts so this is where our attention was focused.

Kathleen and I went down to Zomba on a Monday afternoon via minibus. Public transportation is always an adventure in Africa. The bus does not leave until every seat has been sold and by that I mean there are 5 people for every 4 seats. The drive takes about 4 hours in a car but it was closer to 7 hours in the bus and that was without any breakdowns. We talked to someone else a few days later that went the same route and it took them 14 hours with 2 breakdowns. We met Jender in Zomba. Jender is the project coordinator at LSPCA for the Disaster Relief and he had already been down in the Balaka and Zomba districts for a week. We ended up working in Zomba for one day and in Machinga district for 3 days.

Kathleen and I have always been interested in and talked about doing some sort of relief work in Africa. This turned out to be out first chance where we were able to actually do this. The plan was that LSPCA and its partners would supply the drugs and the Malawi government through their agriculture field offices would supply some manpower and get the farmers and villages organized. The diseases mainly effecting the animals were the sorts of things that occur after too much rain. Foot Rot, Lumpy Skin Disease, and especially intestinal parasites were at high levels. The poultry in this area is also periodically effected by New Castles Disease which tends to kill most of them. The plan was to deworm as many animals as possible, treat the ones that needed it with antibiotics, manage any wounds, and vaccinate the poultry against New Castles Disease. Each district is broken down into different EPAs (Extension Planning Areas). We would visit a different EPA each day. Some people would go through the villages door to door on bicycles or motorcycles to vaccinate the chickens. This is done by placing a drop of I-2 vaccine in their eye.
Vaccinating a chicken                     
While they did this Jender, Kathleen, and I would go to the local dip tank where there would be a cattle chute where we could treat the cattle. Large herds of goats would also be gathered there to be treated. Goats and sheep were given oral dewormer.
Deworming a goat                    
The cattle were injected with ivermectin and if they had other problems then I would figure out what needed to be given. When we would first arrive we would often meet the local chief (often a woman) and the head of the herders association.
Village chief thanking us                      
Some of the herders were very organized and worked together as a team. The cows were moved through the chute efficiently and we were able to treat all the animals. Other EPAs were each herder to himself and it was harder to treat as many animals.  We didn't like the way they would hit them with sticks at times and would occasionally make suggestions on how to move them in a less violent way.
Herders making a plan on how to treat
Examining the cows in the chute         
Too much hitting going on                    
Loading the cows into the chute           
Jabbing cows                                    
Over the course of the 10 day intervention we managed to treat 2172 cattle, 37963 goats, 1453 sheep, 1871 pigs, and 34513 chickens. Our goal beyond treating as many animals as possible was to also help the local AVOs (Assistant Veterinary Officers) and AHSAs (Animal Health Surveillance Assistants) improve their techniques and skills. It was also to start more regular veterinary care by starting treatment now but then leaving additional drugs for future use.

To get to these areas would involve driving 2 hours down a “road”. It would start as a dirt road, become a dirt track, and by the end of the road we would be jeeping the car down a path the width of a bicycle.
View out the windshield of "the road"
The bottom of the car would scrape along some of the ruts and there were several streams and big puddles we had to cross.
One of the "puddles"                          
When it rained the road became a muddy quagmire that we would easily get stuck in. The car we had was not ever designed for this type of terrain.
20 minutes of rain was a problem                
Carrying supplies in past washed out bridge
Along the way we would pass multiple tiny villages and scattered farmhouses. Corn fields were everywhere but we also saw rice paddies, beans, zucchini, and tobacco being grown. Some of the villages were near big lakes where people fished for a living.
Typical farm dwelling                     
Drying fish at Lake Chilwa             
Along these roads we would pass refuge camps for the displaced people. Most were living at the local schools so the children have not been able to learn since the rains began. Many of these families lost everything they owned and now have only one blanket and some food relief provided by the government and NGOs. Rotary International and an organization called Shelter Box were setting up large tents for people to move into so that they could have some privacy. Once the rainy season ends in the end of April/beginning of May then the people will go rebuild their houses.
Shelter Box tents at a refuge camp
In one tiny village we passed through there were three funerals that day. A cholera death where the person had gone from healthy to dead in just over 24 hours and 2 malaria deaths. We passed some houses of natural healers or “witch doctors” who are often the only type of medical care in some of these areas.
A natural healer we met
There was one school that we passed that was still in session. We saw that there were children outside sitting under a tree with a blackboard. I had seen this sort of thing in National Geographic before so we stopped to take a look in real life. This had the effect of pretty much disrupting the entire school.
Outdoor classroom                     
The headmaster came out to see what the commotion was and ended up giving us a guided tour of several classrooms. The school was horribly overcrowded which is why 3 of the classrooms are outdoors. If it rains then there is no class. The indoor classes had up to 160 children in each class. The would sit on the floor and there was pretty much no way to get any more kids into the room.
Typical overcrowded classroom
Jender was able to translate for us so we were able to have some fascinating conversations with people. Jender always liked to ask people if they had seen Mzungu (white people) before. Often the answer was that they had seen one once or twice but had never spoken with one. They would ask if there were poor people in America and we were asked if a person in America makes more money does it mean that someone else makes less? Children would scream, point, and chase after us. The adults were more subdued but would still come out of their houses to stare and wave. Herders would want to shake our hands and thank us for coming so far to their country.
Kids chasing the car              
The living conditions were rough. It was good that we had been traveling through many developing countries by this point because it did not faze us. Our hotel had no toilet seat, no running water (you poured water from a bucket into the toilet), and to turn the light on/off you had to screw the light bulb in and out of the socket. The mosquito nets had holes the size of a head. Not a mosquito head. A human head. There was only one restaurant in town that would have had most westerners skipping food. We would often have to go buy the food in the market and bring it to the restaurant to be cooked. It was better if you didn't look in the kitchen to see where the food was being prepared. Kathleen and I must have pretty strong gastrointestinal systems at this point because we haven't gotten sick despite questionable water and cleanliness conditions.  We still plan on deworming myself when I get back though.
The local eatery
The week flew by. I almost felt guilty that I was having so much fun since the situation that these people were in was not a lighthearted scene. It did feel like we made a positive impact to the people we were able to help. We were thanked by everyone (herders, local agriculture staff, village chiefs, etc) and we could see that by helping their animals that we were helping the people since there is such a close connection between the two. Kathleen and I hope that at some point we will get another chance to help like this again. It was quite the powerful experience.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

World Spay Day - Malawi

For the last month Kathleen and I have been residing in the capital of Malawi, a sleepy town called Lilongwe where we have been volunteering at the LSPCA – the Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, an organization that is working on multiple levels within Malawi. Some are at the national level: They are currently working on an EU initiative on tightening guidelines for Animal Welfare at slaughterhouses and Better Training For Safer Food. They have helped the Malawi government start enforcing the animal cruelty laws and now the first convictions are trying to stop the roadside puppy mill trade. They are helping with fighting the poaching and ivory trade in the region. This organization also helps on the local level: There is community outreach done where LSPCA education officer(s) visit primary schools to teach children about animal welfare. They run a clinic where clients can come with their animals for veterinary care and vaccinations. There is a charge for this service. They also perform free spay/neuter and vaccination clinics in the poor parts of the city. They also do a monthly large animal clinic and are hoping to soon start a program for donkeys to teach people how to take better and more humane care of them.

Malawi has really stoked Kathleen's fire. She has on numerous occasions claimed this is her “happy place”. She is involved in many of the projects going on at LSPCA and has fallen in love with her typical “day at work”. In the mornings she has been teaching at the primary schools how to provide the basic needs of animals and the 5 Freedoms of animal welfare: Freedom from Fear, Freedom to express natural behavior, Freedom from discomfort, Freedom from hunger and thirst, and Freedom from pain, injury, and disease. She also teaches a bit on animal behavior, rabies awareness, signs and symptoms, and tips on prevention. In the afternoons, she often visits the Animal Kindness Clubs at the schools, encouraging the children to continue learning and practicing compassion towards animals. There they use dance, poetry and debate as medium to celebrate and teach animal welfare objectives. Kathleen has also been briefed on the animal welfare slaughterhouse legislation and plans on visiting slaughterhouses later this month. Most recently, Kathleen has joined the Triathlon Committee and is taking the lead on behalf of LSPCA on fundraising for the event which will take place in April.
Kathleen teaching Animal Welfare
My role is more simple. I am here as a veterinarian. I help run the hospital along with the resident South African vet Robyn McCann. Since we are staying at the accommodation on the shelter grounds I also am the after hours emergency vet. Every Tuesday and Wednesday the vets go out into the communities around Lilongwe and do a free spay/neuter clinic. Rabies vaccination and some basic veterinary care is also provided. These are very poor areas and the conditions are primitive. Basically we are doing surgery on folding tables under some trees in a dirt square. People will be lined up with their dogs on chains, wires, and ropes hoping to get them neutered or spayed. The majority of the dogs are medium size short hair brown dogs – the generic Malawi mutt. They are pretty adorable but many of them are not socialized and they often get into fights amongst each other as they wait.
Publicity banner
This last week was World Spay Day which the LSPCA stretched into 3 days to maximize the effect. Our good friend and vet colleague Amanda McNabb heard about what was going on and with less then 2 weeks notice managed to completely change her work and bike race schedule, gather up 2 suitcases of donated medical supplies and donations for an orphanage Kathleen has visited, and through a GoFundMe campaign raised a bunch of money for supplies toward stocking the shelter. We were incredibly impressed with the generosity of our friends and veterinary community that helped out. Drugs from multiple clinics as far away as Wisconsin helped give what they could. Amanda showed up on Monday, did a ton of surgeries for 3 days, held the hospital down for a day while Kathleen and I went to renew our visas, and then went and enjoyed the spectacle of the first Malawi Veterinary Association meeting since 2013 before leaving the next day. It was fun having a friend come visit again so now Amanda is tied with Dan Sears and Seth Wolpin for meeting up with us twice during World Tour (though Seth still has the lead since he spent a grueling 3 months with us hiking across the Himalaya). Over the course of the three days 221 animals were spayed and neutered. Each day there would be a couple of hundred dogs waiting as we pulled in. Many people stood in the hot sun for a full day or more hoping to get the surgery performed.  The recovery building was piled up with dogs waking up from anesthesia.
Standing in line all day                                     
Recovery - this building actually collapsed the next week
Dogs recovering from anesthesia                    
There were also vets from Uganda (the head of LSPCA Richard Ssuna), South Africa (Robyn), England, Zambia, and a Finnish vet that lives and works in India. On the first day we even had two Dutch vet students drop by and we rapidly put them to work. A large group of Malawi veterinary para-proffesionals (vet techs and assistant equivalents) helped us out by monitoring patients during surgery and recovery, inducing and prepping for surgery, and in helping with the registration and crowd control.  Kathleen used her old human clinical medicine skills and found that dogs aren't that much different to monitor.  Dozens and dozens of children would gather and watch. At the end of the days they would get very excited when cameras were taken out wanting to get their picture taken. They always loved to look at the screen to see themselves. High fives were also popular and Amanda taught some of them how to do exploding fist bumps.
Elona and Amanda doing surgery      
Me yelling at Amanda to work faster
The children were fascinated            
The team                                           
There were some sad moments and some great moments. I had to put down a suspected rabies dog that was hypersalivating, neurologic, and acting strange according to the owner. In the afternoon of the third day I saw two elderly men sitting on a wall with their dogs. They had been waiting for a long time. At least all day if not since the previous day. I found that they were number 2 and 3 on the waiting list for females to be spayed. I promised them that I would get their animals done next. I injected the next 3 females with xylazine to sedate them. After I did this I would place a piece of tape on their head with their estimated weight. One of the grandpa's dogs did not want the tape, freaked out, slipped out of its leash, and took off running. The dog ducked under a fence and disappeared with the poor man chasing after her in the hot sun. I was really bummed. I had wanted to help him and now his drugged dog was loose in the town. Fortunately after about 20 minutes he came back with his dog reattached to the rope. The dog was still able to walk but just barely. 40 minutes later he had a spayed dog and everyone was happy.
Sedating dogs with xylazine
We want to give a HUGE thanks to all our friends and colleagues who helped out with supporting World Spay Day. This type of activity has a real impact on peoples lives here. Rabies kills a scary number of people here. A regional hospital where Kathleen and I were at for flood relief had 10 confirmed rabies deaths last year and they thought that there were many more in the villages where people did not seek health care. In Lilongwe 2 weeks ago a woman and 4 month old baby were attacked by stray dogs and the mother was killed. This also is not an uncommon occurrence. Vaccinating and trying to control the dog population helps save human lives also. Many Malawi at spay day thanked me profusely and that thanks goes back to the sponsors that helped make it happen. As they say here, Zikomo!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Drakensberg Traverse - a trip out of Africa Light into Africa Heavy

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy may have been filmed in New Zealand but when J.R. Tolkien first had his inspiration for Middle Earth it was taken from the Drakensberg Mountain range in South Africa and Lesotho. A land also known as the Barrier of Spears to the local Zulu's. Hundreds of caves with paintings in them from up to 2400 years ago dot the landscape. From below it is a line of huge rock cliffs stretching as an escarpment for 1000 kilometers. From above the top of the range is a large plateau that can be very flat in places though in Lesotho where we were it has been eroded by water into many deep and irregular valleys. It is a mountain range like no other that we have seen. Like a combination of the US desert southwest combined with the greenery of Ireland. The Grand Traverse that we were interested in doing is a 220 to 240 km (136 to 150 miles) hike that starts and ends in South Africa but spends most of its route within the Kingdom of Lesotho. There are 6 mountains along the way that are the “checkpoints” of the route. Any path can be taken to connect these peaks. There are no trails so it is up to the individual to find the most efficient way across the countryside. Technically it is not entirely legal to wander across the border but since there are no towns or settlements this is not enforced. It is recommended that you bring your passports just in case.

The record for covering this traverse was set last March by two South Africans, Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel who crushed the previous record finishing the entire thing in 41 hrs 49 min. They were gracious enough to share their GPS track with us as it turned out that this traverse would have been impossible without it due to the confusing landscape and often thick fog his time of year. One night shortly before we left for the traverse we were hanging out at our local friends house, the Bensons. Alcohol may have been involved. Their son had 2 hobby horses (one horse, one zebra) that he had gotten for Christmas. I started to ride it around the house and then had an idea. Lately many people we know have been doing a variety of crazy things that have never been done before to get the “Only Known Time” and thereby setting a record. Without doing any research, I was pretty sure that no one had ever ridden a hobby horse/zebra across the Drakensberg Mountains and I decided that I wanted to be the first one to do this. Luke Benson (without his knowledge) donated his hobby zebra to the mission. Other local friends also helped us out with the logistics. Georgina Ayre offered to meet us in the middle for a resupply and Andrew and Suzie Jed offered to drive us down to the trailhead. None of this would have been possible without the help of everyone listed above and we want to say a HUGE THANKS for their help. Also a big thanks goes to Dawn Greensides and Paul Pleva (Home Base South Africa) where we have spent a lot of our time. I have watched the movie Madagascar pretty much once a day with their 2 year old, so in Piper's honor, the zebra was named Marty.
Day 1: We were given a ride to the trailhead where we found ourselves within a cloud with the wind blowing and a heavy mist making everything wet. I pulled out Marty the Zebra and off we rode into the fog. The first few kilometers was the only real trail we would see for the next week. This trail led up to the Chain Ladders which climb up a ~40 foot section of cliff. Not a good place to slip. Once above these cliffs you are on the escarpment and the terrain becomes more rolling. There is also no trail after this point and the navigation across the alpine landscape began. The fog made it difficult to see any landmarks but using the GPS we were able to head in the right direction to Mount Aux Sources, our first peak. From the top of the Chain Ladders we started to pass Basotho tribesmen dressed in leather shorts, rubber boots, and a brown cloak. As it became afternoon we were able to gain enough elevation to get above the cloud cover. At 5pm as we were contemplating where to camp a tribesman came to the other side of the river from where we were and started to do a dance. He chanted, danced, shook his stick, yelled, and leaped into the air for over 5 minutes. We just sat there with our mouths hanging open. We weren't sure if we were being challenged, if he was praying to the setting sun, or what was going on. When he was done he just walked off and disappeared over the hill. We hiked a little further and found a place to camp. 5 tribesmen came over to check us out. They spoke no English but gave us a lot of thumbs up. When I rode Marty around they were in hysterics and when one of them grabbed him and started to ride him also the other tribesmen had tears in their eyes they were laughing so hard. Marty ended up being a great ice breaker. Through hand gestures they told us that it was ok to camp where we were and we had an uneventful night.
Riding Marty out of the parking lot
Marty climbing the chain ladder
Summit of Mount Aux Source    
Basotho taking a ride with Marty
Day 2: The Marty rider and his friend came back in the morning. These people do not seem to see many white people. They were fascinated by our tent. They kept wanting to touch the material and when I folded up the tent poles they yelled out and were very excited by that. The day started by climbing up a river valley. We found a sheep path to follow for part of it. Occasionally we would find a cliff blocking our way and would have to traverse around it. The terrain was often fairly flat so once again the GPS was very useful to find the correct way. We only met one Basotho who spoke English and it was on this day. He already knew about us. It appeared that news travels fast in these highlands. We passed many more Basotho that day. They were as fascinated by us as much as we were them. Fathers would call their sons over to look at us. We saw no women or young children- only men and adolescent boys. The day remained sunny where we were but below us was a solid sea of clouds.
View over the sea of clouds   
Riding Marty across the river
View of the escarpment edge
Basotho huts along the trail  

Day 3: Each day usually started with us climbing out of a river drainage and moving into the next watershed. Today we did this twice. We saw fewer people but there were multiple times where Kathleen and I both felt like we were being watched. Around mid-day the clouds rose up from the valley below and rolled over the edge of the escarpment in huge waves. When we were enveloped by fog the visibility was only about 10 yards. However breaks in the cloud would open up so we could see the route ahead. When we got to the saddle above the river it was very difficult to determine which way to go. We could tell that there were cliffs all around and needed to be careful so we ended up camping earlier then we had hoped.
Kokoatsoan River Valley                  
Clouds starting to spill over escarpment
About to be hit by fog bank               
Peering through fog at Elephant Peak

Day 4: We started very early to try to make up for lost time. The fog was still present but not as thick. The mornings goal was Cleft Peak, the second checkpoint. I became completely turned around at one point when my brain said we needed to go one way and the GPS said the complete opposite. We followed the GPS. The top of the Peak was on the edge of the escarpment cliff – a drop of over a thousand feet with mist swirling around below so that the bottom could not be seen. Luckily the fog dissipated as the next section involved climbing around the side of a mountain called Ndudemi Dome on a series of narrow ledges. Even with the GPS this would have been a stupid place to be stumbling around in the fog. Luckily we could see what we needed to though we occasionally got cliffed out again. Today was a musical day. We passed two teenagers playing harmonica, had 2 younger boys ask us for sweets (they got a granola bar), and then another teenager playing a single stringed instrument made out of an old can with his friend dancing down the trail in front of him. This was a long day that led to us being camped high on a ridge line. To go get water took an extra hour of hiking into the valley below that night.
Wild horses                                        
Looking down the cleft of Cleft Peak
Another view from the escarpment    
Young Basotho boys                          
Basotho musician           

Day 5: We saw a beautiful sunrise though the red sky made me worried about the weather to come later in the day. The first part of the day was easy as we followed the ridgeline for several miles. It was sunny but very windy. This led to Champagne Castle, the third checkpoint, which reminded me of neither champagne nor a castle. This was another cliff where it would have been a great place to BASE jump. We needed to meet Georgina with our resupply at Giant's Castle Camp so looking at the map it looked like it would be a shortcut to descend Ship's Prow Pass and follow a trail on the map to the camp. This ended up being the wrong decision. Ship's Prow Pass was a super steep grass and rock slope that descended into the valley below. We had to be very careful not to slip. This led to one of the worst bushwhacks we have ever done in the mountains. It took us 6 hours to go 4 kilometers and we ended up having to camp in the middle of this area due to a thunderstorm starting and running out of daylight.
View down Ship's Prow Pass                   
The bushwhack along Ship's Prow Creek
The inside of the bushwhack               

Day 6: It was another frustrating couple of hours for us to finally bash our way out of the bushes, trees, rocks, and creeks. We then had to scramble up a steep grassy hillside using clumps of grass as hand holds. We found a faint dirt trail overgrown by grass which made us excited but after 20 minutes we lost the trail and it took us 30 minutes to find it again and another detour around more cliffs. A troop of baboons moved across the hillside in front of us. After the third time of losing the trail we realized that we were never going to make it to Giant's Camp in time so we elected to go to Injisuthi Camp which was the closest ranger station. It was also during this section that I stepped on a Berg Adder, one of the three types of poisonous snake in the park. The effects of the venom are described as “disorientation, double vision, and deterioration of the other senses”. I didn't even notice that I had stepped on it. Kathleen watched the whole thing as I stepped on its head. Luckily it was early in the morning and cold so the snake was still lethargic and I pinned its head with my foot instead of stepping on the tail. This was the final straw that made us decide to quit the traverse when we met Georgina and to come back in April when the weather was better. Both Kathleen and I had been having a 6th sense that we had recently been pushing our luck in the mountains and that this was a time where we should not push so hard.  It wasn't any one thing, just an accumulation of small things that we were feeling in our gut. We were able to get to the Injisuthi Camp within a few more hours where cold beer, red wine, and a cabin was found for the night. A fierce thunderstorm hit the area that afternoon.
Sunrise on Ship's Prow Pass     
Marty and I having differences
Making up with Marty             

Day 7: This day was an adventure in hitching rides. We initially caught a ride with the camp's handyman named Robert who was taking employees into the town 1 ½ hours away to buy groceries since it was payday. We left first thing in the morning and as we drove down the road there were hundreds of children walking from every direction going to school in their uniforms. Robert was a Zulu and had grown up in the area. He was able to explain a lot about peoples living conditions, the schools, hospitals, and how things had changed in recent years. Once in town he talked to some other park employees from Giants Castle and arranged for us to get a ride with them that afternoon when they returned. That ride was in the back of a 2 ½ ton truck. There were a large group of employees returning home with their groceries in this truck. Live chickens wandered in the back with us and one of the employees and I shared beers and did vodka shots on the way to Giant's Camp. The employees were definitely not used to white people hanging out with them in the truck. They kept talking to us in Afrikaans and were surprised when we told them we were from America. Georgina and her friends Tim and Rich showed up later that night and cooked us a great feast of a BBQ.

Day 8 and 9: We spent the next two days with Georgina, Rich and Tim hiking up to Bannerman Hut and spending the night there. The original plan was to camp in Spare Rib Cave but the weather turned and we were not able to climb that high. We met a South African named Mark that night and he soon became a part of our party. The next day we hiked up Bannerman Pass to the top of the escarpment (passing Spare Rib Cave along the way) and then walked south to Langalibalele Pass. We had been warned that hikers had been roughed up in this area by tribesmen but we were a big enough group that we didn't have to be worried about this. The views from the edge of the cliffs were like being in an airplane. It was a nice mellow couple of days with new friends. As we drove away from the mountains to go back to Pretoria the entire mountain range was covered with very dark clouds and we were hit by repeated violent thunderstorms for the rest of the day and night. We were very glad that we were not up in the mountains that night. 
Bushman's River              
Hiking to Bannerman Hut
Sunrise at Bannerman Hut   
View from Bannerman Face
Looking at Bannerman Face
Eland near Giant's Castle    
We found the Drakensberg to be an amazing place. We only had positive encounters with the Basotho people, the scenery was like no other, the danger of poisonous snakes and lightning, the wild horses and baboons, and the challenge of the navigation made it a place where we want to return to. Our plan is to come back in April when the weather is more stable and make another attempt. Marty the Zebra now has his own Facebook page (Marty Marty) and is recruiting Facebook friends for his next attempt to be the first hobby horse/zebra to cross the Drakensberg. Please feel free to support his effort.