SNOWED IN Semonkong

SNOWED IN Semonkong

by Gerald O’Brien

We usually target the winter months for visiting the Semonkong lodge in Lesotho. This is because we want the snow, we want to see the Lesotho highland’s peaks covered in snow
and of course, if we can get high enough, we can actually do what people do in snow, especially the children. The previous few years have been relatively snow free up in the mountains, however this year, just before departing, the weather services warned of extreme conditions. Mails were quickly sent out suggesting that some extra warm clothing and dry change of shoes, even gumboots be thrown in. The forecast was in fact for a large portion of SA to be on the receiving end of incoming and severe storms.

Our visit to nearby Maletsunyane falls on the Saturday was fantastic, warm conditions, no wind, just perfect. Saturday afternoon the weather was still looking good so most of the team, children included mounted the donkeys for a pub crawl into the village. The Donkey pub crawl is always a blast, seldom does anyone return on the same donkey, some land up facing backwards in the saddle and some even choose to rather walk next to the animals instead. The idea is to visit three different Tavern’s, having a quart of the finest Maluti Lager at each stop. It goes without saying, the return trip usually goes quite a bit quicker than the outward bound stretch.
Sunday, saddle sores n’all we head off out into the mountains on a 4×4 drive of roughly 40 kilometers to a favourite braai area overlooking the Senquyane River. It’s a fantastic braai area, high in the mountains with the river way down below and 360 deg of the most amazing mountain backdrops. By now it had begun clouding over and the temperature had begun to drop somewhat, but the braai was going well the kids were having fun and everyone was in high spirits.

I remember those first few snowflakes clearly, and thinking that we may just get to see a bit of snow before our early departure scheduled for the following morning. From here on, things moved fairly quickly, once all had eaten and the locals fed with whatever was left over, packing up became a matter of urgency. The cloud cover was now darker and heavier than before and the snow was beginning to fall. We still had a long way back to the lodge and we were on a trail not a roadway.
Further on once we had cleared the worst of the trail we pulled over to spend a bit of time in the snow. Everyone had and absolute ball, bum boards came out, snow balls were flying in all directions, Old Brown Sherry was out, and the snow kept falling. We were in the midst of a real snow fall, we would remember this for a long time to come. But all good things must come to an end so tired, wet and all snowed out, we headed off for the warm fires and shelter of the lodge.

Departure time was set for 09h00 the following morning. Monday morning though, the snow was still falling and things were not looking good for our scheduled departure. Let’s hold on a while, it will soon stop snowing and when the sun comes out it will quickly melt and we can still make the border, besides Maseru is a 24 hour post. At lunch time it was still snowing, rather heavily now, by mid- afternoon the snow had not yet eased up and things were not looking good for us. Finally the snow eased up at around lunch time on the Tuesday, it had been snowing non- stop for two days now and we had problems on our hands, we would not be going anywhere soon.

The next day a few of us took a rather difficult walk into the village in the search of Gumboots. It was so sad to see all the damage that had been caused by the weight of the snow on the flimsy roof tops. Whole warehouses had collapsed whilst small shop owners had their flat shop roofs overloadedcausing their shops to collapse into a pile of buckled zinc sheetsto make matters worse, the town of Semonkong was now totally cut off from the outside world, no supplies coming or going. The livestock were struggling for grazing as everything was now under almost half a meter of snow and impossible to reach and morning temperatures were down to -16. For everyone at the lodge, twenty seven of us in total, we were ok, the lodge had around a month of supplies and the bar was well stocked. The following day another rather long hike to the local Clinic had become necessary, some of our folk needed their chronic medication which had begun to run out by now. The clinic was excellent in the way that they helped where they could and because we were in Lesotho, would not take a cent for anything received. Hats off to the Lesotho government, good friendly and professional service and at no cost.
Then on Thursday afternoon I managed to drive a path out of the lodge and up the hill into the village, we could now at least move around within the village, the roads out the village were still deep in snow. It was round about now that a few of our group were able to charter a chopper flight back to Maseru. They had become desperate, their businesses were closed and could not operate without them. The flight was set up for the next morning and over two trips a total of ten were airlifted out. A few days later, a father and son team were flown out by the Disaster management team when the father’s blood pressure was almost as high as the mountains and the situation for him was not looking good.

By now the sun was out and the snow was making signs of melting so a few of us took a recce drive out to see how far we could get in the direction of Maseru. Driving through ice and snow we were able to get around 20 kilometers out. Herewe met a group of locals with spades and a 4×4 Hilux trying to make their way through the snow. It was painfully slow and a lot of hard work. We helped where we could by using the Cruiser to repeatedly ram into the snow over and over again with digging in between. We were making progress though and the site of the pass which we needed to drive over was now within our sights. After a long afternoon we agreed to meet them at 10h00 the next day with our full team. On our return to the lodge, the good news was passed on and a decision was taken that we would all pack our bags, settle our debts with the lodge and we were going home the following morning. With a combined effort from us and the locals we would get over the pass and down the other side.Spirits were high that evening with everyone looking forward to be on the way home after spending so many days being snowed in.

Things did not go as planned the following day, the locals did not pitch and when contacted, they demanded money. Being desperate to get home we agreed on R700 for their entire group. We were not happy with paying them for the reason that who was helping who, sure we wanted to go home, but the villagers were also desperate to clear the pass for their supply truck to resume with much needed deliveries, this was a joint exercise.They arrived with very little enthusiasm and did not show much interest in the exercise at all and after 5 hours we had not quite progressed 2 kilometers and the summit of the pass that we were headed for was still a few kilometers away, and all uphill. The day was hard going as we struggled in the deep snow to even make progress on a short downhill, how on earth would weever make it up the steep gradient to the top of the pass. Tired, sunburnt and despondent after working at 2500 meters with bright sunshine and minus 4 deg we returned to the lodge for what we knew, would be a few more days.
The lodge owners were kind to us and told us that we would no longer be paying for accommodation and a discount on all meal prices. This eased matters up quite a bit as this being snowed in was beginning to become an expensive exercise for all. We were also given a discount on our meal prices and when the barman placed a few bottles of complimentary Sherry on the tables, the groups spirits were soon sky high once more.

Besides our group not leaving for home, the villagers were desperate, supplies were running out, paraffin had run out a few days prior, and there was no more cash in town. Trying to clear the pass the way we had been attempting could take days, what was really needed was outside assistance in the form of graders and bull dozers. To rely on the sun to melt the snow and ice could take weeks, the government need to step in, and soon.

The following day was declared a day of rest for everyone whilst a few of us in two vehicles thought that we would take a recce down south towards the Qacha’s Nek border, the Chopper pilot had advised us against this route due to the dangers of the steep gradients of the passes and the deep snow. The going was not easy but to our surprise,the conditions were a lot less hazardous than the northern route. I
t was clear that the southern side of Semonkong had received a much lighter snow fall than the town itself and north thereof. It was not long and we were clear of the snow and out in the dry open mountain side. The good news was radioed through to those at the lodge that we could prepare to leave first thing in the morning.

Then next morning we were on our way, nine full days late. All agreed, it was a fantastic once in a lifetime experience and grateful that we were all still in one piece and in high spirits.

From a tour leader’s point of view, I must say, everyone in the group were great people to be with and they all took everything in their stride and making the best of a difficult situation.

Thanks to everyone involved and Semonkong Lodge for accommodating us in the way that you did. Put all this together and it’s what made this such a memorable and once in a lifetime experience for all.