Prickly Pear Cactus

Here is a plant that I didn’t expect to find in the New Jersey pine barrens, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  There are apparently over 200 species of prickly pear cactus scattered thoughout the Americas.  Here in New Jersey, the prickly pear produces large showy flowers that bloom for about a day.  The oval fruits are red or red-purple which, when ripe and properly prepared, are edible.

Prickly pear cactus have been introduced in many places around the world where, unfortunately, it can spread as an invasive weed.  I photographed this large specimen in the village of Malealea located in the highland kingdom of Lesotho, Africa.  Attempts to eradicate the cactus have been almost completely unsuccessful, so the villagers attempt to manage plants by periodically cutting or burning them back.

Fortunately, prickly pear doesn’t grow so large in the pine barrens and is an interesting addition to the variety of plant life found here.


Our African Adventure – Final Destination – Cape Town

After nearly two weeks on the road, our once-in-a-lifetime adventure was coming to an end as we approached the trip’s final destination, Cape Town.  At breakfast, our tour guides polled the group and laid out the options for that day’s activities.  The original interary called for several miles of bike riding through through the wine country of Stellenbosch, an activity that most of the group simple wasn’t prepared to accomplished.  After a quick vote, we decided on seeing the sights around Cape Town.  We drove along the famous False Bay coast, a beautiful area bounded on the east by Cape Hangklip and the Cape of Good Hope on the west.

False Bay was featured during recent TV episodes of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, because of the large populations of Great White Sharks which over-winter here and feed on the local seal population.

The views as we traveled around False Bay were breaktaking.  We stopped here and there, snapping photos and marveling at the scenery while our guides explained that the Bay contained several wrecks of early sailing ships which had mistaken it for the deeper and safer Table Bay.  After several stops, we arrived at our first destination, Boulders Beach, and its colony of African Penguins.

As an avid birder, I had been looking forward to this sight the entire trip.  Also known as “Jackass” Penguins, due to their donkey-like bray, these remain the only species of penguin that I have seen in the wild.  The penguin colony enjoys protection as a national park, though the area is becoming more developed as home builders take advantage of the incredible views around Boulders Beach.

Here is a photograph of the small group of penguins shown above that shows just how close human habitation has approached their home.  The penguins seem undisturbed by all the activity, though, as hundreds of visitors also walk along a boardwalk built through their colony every day.

Our next stop was the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point.  We started with lunch in Two Oceans Restaurant, followed by a ride on the Funicular up to Cape Point Lighthouse.  The day was clear, breezing, and beautiful as we drank in the stunning panoramic views offered by the Point.  The sights and sounds of two great oceans lay before us as we talked with other members of our group about the experience.  Here I was, a kid who grew up in the last house on a dirt road in a small West Virginia coal camp, standing in a place that I had read about in grade school but had never dreamed that I would actually visit.

After a couple hours of exploring, we left Cape Point for our hotel.  On the way, we passed near replicas of the Cross of Vasco de Gama and the Cross of Diaz, two navigational beacons erected by the Portuguese government to commemorate Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Dias as explorers. When lined up, the crosses point to Whittle Rock,  a large, permanently submerged shipping hazard in False Bay.

After a long, adventure-filled day we arrive at our final hotel destination – the Tudor Hotel in Cape Town.  We spent the following day shopping, exploring Cape Town, and making final preparations for our long flight home.

Several months have passed since our trip, but the sights and sounds of South Africa and Lesotho are as real for me today as when I was there.   Any mention of my trip brings numerous questions from friends and colleagues, all intrigued by the thought of visiting places Americans rarely venture to.  Certain, my wife and I were extraordinarily lucky to have this opportunity and to experience a culture so different, and at times so familiar, to our own.   I can only hope that good fortune allows us to return some day.

Our African Adventure – The Wild Coast

The morning after our amazing dinner in Malealea dawned cloudy and cold.  We had an early breakfast, by candle light, and headed off for our next destination – the Wild Coast.  After nearly 10 hours and several hundred kilometers (the last 70 of which were on a dirt road), we arrived at the Mazeppa Bay Hotel in time for dinner and bed. 

With no planned activities for the day, we set off the following morning to explore. Our hotel was set among a large grove of banana palms and was a beautiful sight from the beach. 

The Indian Ocean was a beautiful sight in the morning sun. Karen and I removed our shoes and waded along in the surf.

We had been warned that we would not have the beach to ourselves and that the other beachgoers out did us in both size and numbers. We found them almost immediately – cattle – lots and lots of cattle shared the beach. We found them almost everywhere as we hiked up and down the beach. While we didn’t have any problems, a couple of our travel mates reported a less-than-friendly bull had taken exception to their use of a beach and had, ummmmm, encouraged them to move on.

We spent most of the morning exploring a rocky island not far from the hotel. It was a beautiful location accessible only by a swinging bridge.  To get to the main part of the island required passing through a large boulder field. It was slow going but the views made the trip worthwhile.


Looking back toward the hotel from the highest point on the island – beautiful!

We noticed several fishermen along the way. Only later did we learn that the Mazeppa Bay was known for outstanding shark fishing. Later in the evening we would meet several folks who were there just for the fishing, and the bar had several photos of large sharks that had been taken just off coast.

We were in search of smaller game and spent most of the day exploring several tidal pools found among the rocky shoreline. The coast reminded me a bit of Maine, with large boulders and rocky alcoves – and tidal pools everywhere.

As we walked back to the Hotel, passing through the Banana Palm grove, we noticed movement in the trees. We were being watched closely by Vervet monkeys – a small family lived near the Hotel and we would see them jumping from tree to tree or, at times, running along the grounds.

Mazeppa Bay was a beautiful location and having a free day with no planned activities was just the right touch.  We settled in for the evening tired and a little sunburnt, but very relaxed and happy.

Our African Adventure – Dinner in Malealea

Our last night in Malealea we were invited to a villager’s home for dinner.  We joined most of our fellow travelers at sundown, flashlights in hand, for the walk to his home.  Arriving in total darkness, we startled a young horse that was sleeping near the hut as we nearly stepped on him.   The tidy hut was small and had ten chairs, neatly arranged in a U-shape, occupying about half of the available space.  A bed occupied the other half.

The hut was dimly lit and it was difficult to make out faces in the candle light. An old man sat by the door, who the villager introduced simply as his father; he then left the hut to fetch our meals, which were being prepared by his mother and sister in an adjoining hut.

The old man warmly welcomed us to his village and asked if our stay had been pleasant. He was 90 years old, he told us, and wanted to share some of the history of his people. He pointed to his blanket and told us that white men had first brought “soft blankets” to his village as a gift to the chief. The chief liked the blankets so much, as they were softer and warmer than the animal skins his people wore, that he told the white men to bring more blankets for all his people. They did and now everyone had soft blankets and didn’t need to wear animal skins anymore.

Soon, the villager returned with our meals. He gave each of us a small white bowl that held boiled chicken, wild spinach, and papa.  Spoons were passed around the room and we ate in silence.  When the old man finished with his meal, his son carefully removed his bowl and gently cleaned his hands with a warm, wet cloth.  He coughed a little (a cold, he told us) and resumed his story.  Long ago, there had been cannibals living in the mountains around his village and the people were afraid.  The first chief, a wise man, sent a messenger to the cannibals and asked them to come speak with him.  When the cannibals arrived, the chief promised that if they stopped eating his people and moved into the village, he would give them all the beef they could eat, forever.  The cannibals thought about this for a while and then agreed to move to the village.  The chief kept his promise and gave them cattle and land.  And so the cannibals’ descendants were still living in the village to this very day.

Finally, he thanked us for coming to his home and for sharing his food.  He was old and tired, but also very happy that black people and white people could sit together and share a meal.  He was confident that we were more alike than different and that our children would enjoy a prosperous future, together.  We left his home, one by one, as his warmly took our hands and wished us a safe journey.

It was a moonless night and there were no lights on anywhere in the village .  We looked up to behold the Milky Way stretching across the sky from one horizon to the other.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.

The small and large Magellanic Clouds were high in the sky, as was the Southern Cross.  We stopped and marveled at the sky – none of us had ever been in a place that had no light pollution.  We were seeing the sky the way our early ancestors had seen it, before the Industrial Revolution and electric lights destroyed the night sky.

We walked back to the Lodge – flashlights pointing forward while we all looked up – and said our “good nights”.  The generator was still running, so a small group of us stopped by the bar for a night cap.  We raised our glasses in a toast to the first chief and his wisdom in dealing the cannibals, and then marveled at the changes the old man had experienced in his life.  Soon, the generator was turned off and we returned to our huts in darkness.  I lay in bed that night trying to absorb the events of the evening and began thinking about how similar we all are, no matter if we live in urban New Jersey or a small dark village in Lesotho.  We live our lives –  have children and hope and dream that their lives will be a little bit better than ours.   We share meals with friends, a drink or two, and, if we’re really lucky, sometimes we notice the wonders of the night sky.

A small footnote – unlike all other posts on this blog, the photos used in this post are not mine, but publicly available images found on other websites.  I used them in hopes that they would help illustrate the mood and wonder of that evening in ways that my words cannot.

Our African Adventure – More About Malealea

In my earlier post, LeKuo had given our group an informative tour of his village.  We returned later in the day to visit the village’s preschool and the Bathoso Cultural Museum.  LeKue had explained during our earlier visit that all children attended preschool, beginning at age 2, and then moved on to elementary school at age 6.  The government provided seven years of schooling, after which parents were expected to pay for any additional schooling their children might receive.  Our group leader, Emma, added that this was very common throughout Africa – costs associated with education beyond elementary school were the responsibility of a child’s parents and only those who could afford it received a high school education.

The children here were as interested and amused by us as we them. They smiled and sang songs to us in both English and their native language, Sotho.

As we left the preschool to continue to our next destination, we noticed the older children walking down the road, singing loudly and carrying large heavy bags. We learned through our guide that the children were busy planting a garden at the elementary school and the bags were filled with the manure that would help fertilize their crops.

We continued through the village, finally arriving at the Basotho Cultural Museum. We waited as our guide went off to fetch the Museum’s curator. We waited several minutes until she arrived and gave us a brief tour of the buildings and small displays scattered about the grounds. She talked about native plant used for food and medicine, including aloe used in water to settle an upset stomach and a similar plant, called pig’s ears, that could be applied to itchy skin.

This was a talisman used by early tribes people to protect the village from lightning or other severe weather that could damage buildings, destroy crops, or kill livestock or people. While the tribes people practiced a form of Christianity now, many still believed in the power of these traditional religious objects to protect them and similar talismen could still be found near homes throughout the village.

Here she modeled animal skins that were traditionally worn by men to protect them from the cold while they tended their herds high in the mountains. She explained that animal skins are now only worn by young boys who were participating in the rites of passage to adulthood.

As we walked back to the Lodge, we encountered a young man dressed in traditional Basotho fashion. He is wearing a blanket, peaked cap (woven to resemble a mountain peak), and gum boots. Several of the men throughout the village, including those who worked at our Lodge, dressed in this fashion.

We arrived back at the Lodge and stopped at the local coffee shop for a relaxing cup of coffee and to discuss everything we had just learned and experienced. A group of young men (members of a local church choir) sang for Lodge’s guests as the sun sank toward the western horizon.

Later that evening, we planned to return to the village one last time for dinner – and for an experience that I will remember forever.

Our African Adventure – A Morning Stroll Through Malealea

The following morning, several of us decided to take a walk through the village of Malealea.  Our young guide, LeKuo, spoke English beautifully and was happy to talk about his village and way of life.  Most of the people in Malealea are subsistence farmers, growing crops and raising animals to feed themselves and their families.   The Resort also provided funds to the village through the collection fees for local guides, sharing revenues generated by tours, and providing employment opportunities.

This was a typical homestead – one or two small huts that were either round with a thatched roof or, occasionally, rectangular with tin sheeting roofing held down with large stones.  Frequently, a fire was burning near the doorway and farm animals were milling about in the yard.

Large parts of the village were little more than open fields.  LeKuo explained that all the land belonged to the village Chief.  When a young man came of age, the Chief would decide how much land to give him and where it would be located within the village.

This was the Chief’s home.  LeKuo explained that the current Chief was a woman – her husband had been Chief, but had died, and her son was too young to assume his duties.  She would continue as Chief until her son was at least 35 years old (he is currently about 20) and considered wise enough to become a Chief.  LeKuo told us that the Chief’s responsibilities included resolving conflicts between villagers, working with the manager of the Resort to ensure funds were distributed appropriately, and acting as the village’s liaison with government administrators.

Most villagers appeared to own cattle, sheep, and/or goats.  We saw shepherds tending to their small herds and other farm activities took place throughout the village.

A small general store provided goods for sale that could not be raised by the farmers.  This small shop sold shoes, clothing, and a very small selection of canned goods and cleaning supplies. 

As we walked back to the Resort, we passed by this fellow busily thatching a roof.   The village was a busy, busy place with lots to see and do.  Our time with LeKuo was over and we thanked him for his patience and hospitality.  Later in the day we planned visits to a local school and the Basotho Cultural Museum.

Our African Adventure – On the Road to Lesotho

Fully rested and (mostly) recovered from our baboon encounter of the previous day, we prepared for the drive to Lesotho.   We were touring with Intreprid Travel, an Australian company that specializes in small group tours that “get off the beaten path”.  Our tour leader, Emma, and driver, Alfred, were simply amazing.  Their extensive knowledge of South Africa, careful planning, and concern for our safety and comfort could not be surpassed.  We were traveling in the 12-passenger bus shown here – our home away from home for nearly two weeks.

The baboons were there to see us off.  We said goodbye to Cavern Resort and began our trip to the border crossing at Maseru, Lesotho.

We passed through Golden Gate Highlands National Park on our way to Lesotho.  Named for the eroded sandstone cliffs which take on a deep golden hue at sunset, the Park offered picturesque views of sandstone formations and wildlife.  While I wasn’t able to capture a photo, we saw Secretarybirds soaring above and at least one standing in tall grass.  Amazing!

We were greeted by a chaotic scene at the border crossing, but things actually went quite smoothly.  After several minutes on line, we were stamped out of South Africa and had walked approximately 20 meters to Lesotho.  We filled out forms, stood on line, and then delivered the forms to officials who barely glanced at us as they stamped our passports.   A quick vehicle inspection and we were in Lesotho.

Our destination, the Malealea Lodge, was accessible  through the “Gateway of Paradise” pass.  Named by Mervyn Smith, who founded the Malealea trading post in the early 1900’s, the pass offered a breathtaking view of our route.

The Gateway of Paradise Pass in early afternoon light was a sight to behold.  This pass was at the beginning of 7 kilometers of, shall we say, some of the most challenging roadway we were to experience on the entire trip.

The road to Malealea was little more than a muddy pathway hugging the hillside.  Alfred did a masterful job simply keeping our bus on the road.  It was slow traveling from here.

Before we continued on our trip, we found ourselves surrounded by children.  I have no idea where they came from, but they appeared in an instant from all directions.   Some of them simply smiled and waved, but most shouted “Give Me Sweets!”, in nearly perfect English, for the entire time we were stopped.

After a long day on the road, we finally arrived at Malealea Lodge.  This was our private lodge – a Rondavel en-suite built to resemble a traditional Basotho dwelling.   

Our thatch-roofed Rondavel was rustic but comfortable, offering all the comforts of home.  We tossed our bags inside and headed off for dinner of mutton, vegetables,  and papa, a Lesotho staple made by boiling corn meal until it becomes thick. 

After dinner we sat around an open fire and talked into the night.  Our trip leader, Emma, outlined the various activities offered by the Lodge as well as opportunities to explore the village of Malealea and interact with people who lived there.  A generator was used to provide electricity to the Lodge and, because of the high cost of fuel, it was turned off promptly at 10PM.  In total darkness, we settled in for the night.