Sehlabathebe

Anyone who has ever spent time wandering about the upper reaches of the Drakensberg will be all too familiar with the distinctive dress sense of the Basotho herdsman. A perennial favourite at the Maseru Fashion Week, the nomad’s choice of Pep Store blanket with matching gumboots is a utilitarian look that not only embodies ‘form following function’ but has also managed to become an advert for Lesotho’s tourism industry.

Now, there should be no confusing the Basotho’s choice of attire with any sign of poverty; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. These men wear their blankets by choice and with honour, and it is my understanding that a boy is presented with his blanket as a sign of his coming of age. Blankets are a source of immense pride, and for this reason, I think that the Basotho supervisor of the terribly rural Jonathan’s Lodge was astonished when I asked him if I could borrow a blanket.

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The Sehlabathebe National Park is a small nature reserve situated in the south-eastern corner of Lesotho. By most people’s standards, the park is isolated. It is approximately two hours’ drive from any town of significance and, perhaps most importantly, lies in one of the most undeveloped regions of the country. Adding to this solitude is the fact that the park has an average altitude of 2400 metres above sea level and these ingredients mean that Sehlabathebe is one of the most sensational natural retreats in Southern Africa.

 The Devil's Knuckles at sunrise seen from the Sehlabathebe National Park.

The Devil's Knuckles at sunrise seen from the Sehlabathebe National Park.

The story goes that Sehlabathebe was once extensively used by the Prime Minister of Lesotho – Leabua Jonathan. It was Jonathan’s love for the area that resulted in the establishment of the reserve and ultimately gave the name to the reserve’s once only form of accommodation, Jonathan’s Lodge.

The Prime Minister’s fondness for Sehlabathebe was born of his love for fishing, something that is possible in the area due to its unique concentration of tarns. Tarns are small naturally occurring pools of water that appear throughout the Drakensberg Mountains. They exist as the rocky terrain does not drain away rainwater easily. Instead, the water collects in depressions, forming ponds that vary in size – from that of a puddle right through to the size of a small dam. Sehlabathebe has an abundance of the two components necessary for the creation of tarns – rocks and water – and consequently, has a surplus of these aquatic divots.

Furthermore, as attractive as the mere existence of this concentration of tarns might be, their appeal is further accentuated by their proximity to mountain peaks. Sehlabathebe is tightly wedged between the imposing 3000-meter summits of the Drakensberg’s ‘Devil’s Knuckles’ to the west and a steep drop-off into the neighbouring South Africa to the east. The reserve exists on a lumpy alpine plateau that has all the hallmarks of Heidi’s backyard and accordingly makes for a sublime landscape photography destination.

 A view south from the upper tarns of Sehlabathebe.

A view south from the upper tarns of Sehlabathebe.

Honestly, Sehlabathebe is overrun with photographic potential but in my case, a single image provided the motivation for my journey to the reserve. My objective was to photograph the Devil’s Knuckles reflecting in one of the tarns at sunrise and to ensure the best possible chance of success, I studied other photos of the scene prior to my departure for the reserve.

My poring through photos on the internet revealed two issues upon which I wanted to improve. The first was the size of the Devil’s Knuckles in the images relative to the size of any tarn that might comprise the final photograph. The pictures that I had found seemed to make a tarn the focal point of the image when, in fact, a person standing in the park feels – more than anything else – dwarfed by the peaks towering up above them. It made a lot of sense to me for the peaks to contribute the bulk of any composition rather than any puddle.

To address this matter, I marked out tarns on the map that were as close to the mountains as possible. On its own, this measure meant that the peaks would be as big as they could possibly be in the final photograph but, additionally, I also planned to shoot from a low position relative to the ground. Such positioning would effectively reduce the size of any foreground components, making the mountains appear even larger still.

 Baroa-Ba-Baroa is an old name given to the mountains that I know as the Devil's Knuckles.

Baroa-Ba-Baroa is an old name given to the mountains that I know as the Devil's Knuckles.

A further aspect of the size conundrum that only became apparent upon arrival was that the chosen tarn could not be too deep-set into the floor of the plateau. As it turns out, in the case of deep-set tarns, the edge closest to the camera obstructs the reflection of the mountain, and there are only two possible ways of avoiding this. One either raises the height of the camera and therefore tolerates mountains that appear smaller in the final frame, or one finds a shallower tarn. I chose the latter alternative.

The second matter that I sought to address was colouring. Shooting at sunrise produces the best light, but I have found that sometimes the light at this time of the day works against me. I have produced photos in the past where only the peak is lit by the sun while the foreground remains dim; this combination has produced bright orange and dark green colour combinations that have made me feel a little ill.

To ensure that the colour of the final image had no unintended physiological side-effects, I had a two-pronged plan. The first part was to make sure that I captured images as the sun rose as well as a little later, once the orange hue had started to fade. This tactic certainly helped with the colour and, what’s more, resulted in some unexpected compositional benefits too. As the sun rose higher into the sky, it began to light the mid-ground and brought out shadows and detail in the landscape that I have not seen in any other images from the location.

The second prong was to control as much of the dynamic range of the scene in the camera as possible. In my past attempts to photograph similar landscapes, I have used ‘exposure bracketing’ techniques to ensure that the camera captures detail in both the highlights and shadows. I suspect that the adoption of this method revealed limitations in my post-processing abilities and contributed to the final disturbing colouring. For this reason, I decided instead to use a two-stop ‘soft graduated’ filter to dim the brightness of the peaks when the sun’s first rays managed to break over the horizon. The use of filters gave me the leeway in the dynamic range that I needed to expose the foreground for longer, hence making it brighter.

While on the topic of exposures, it is also worth mentioning that I used a circular polariser as a means of ensuring the punchiest reflections possible. The power of the polariser never ceases to amaze me and, as a whole, this ‘double filter’ approach worked well and resulted in what are perhaps my best-exposed images.

It goes without saying that applying all this in the field was a rather time-consuming exercise and finding the correct composition with large mountains and a full reflection took the better part of a day. On top of that, it meant getting out of bed long before sunrise and walking back to the locations that I had found in the predawn darkness.

Given these working conditions, it is only natural for people to question just how safe it is to be wandering around the Drakensberg alone in the dark, and it would be wrong for me to suggest that there is no risk. The Basotho folk – for whom the ‘nature reserve’ is merely bureaucratic designation rather than a place of restricted access – have a reputation for hostility towards visitors, and there have been cases of assault and theft in the high Drakensberg.

 The Three Bushmen is a lesser known name for the Devil's Knuckles.

The Three Bushmen is a lesser known name for the Devil's Knuckles.

When I was working in the field, I was unquestionably in a state of heightened awareness, listening for any sound of human movement. Thankfully, the reality is that in the four days that I was in the area, I didn’t see another soul in the tarn region. I maintain that the probability of visitors encountering any trouble is, in fact, low and that the probability can be lowered even further by simply being vigilant. Moreover, Jonathan’s Lodge is presently staffed by members of the Lesotho Defence Force, and they assured me that all was safe.

It is worth noting, however, that the Defence Force’s presence at Sehlabathebe is less about security and more about building maintenance than anything else. This trip to Sehlabathebe was my fourth, and I had stayed at Jonathan’s Lodge in the past. Unfortunately, the Lodge was closed in 2013 due to its derelict condition. The truth is that the lodge was being regularly used by general visitors as well as hikers and ultimately, a lack of upkeep meant that the building mostly fell apart and was closed.

What’s more, the closure of Jonathan’s Lodge happened to coincide with the commissioning of a ‘new’ lodge built a few kilometres away. I maintain that the new lodge was built as a substitute to Jonathan’s Lodge, a notion that had been refuted during my previous visits. Regrettably, the new lodge is simply located on the wrong side of the mountain, leaving anybody who stays there with rather pedestrian views and a less than trivial drive if they wish to see any of the tarns or indeed the Devil’s Knuckles. For these reasons, the occupancy of the new lodge has been exceedingly low, to the point where it too was closed for a period.

And yet, despite being out of operation, the demand to stay at the original Jonathan’s Lodge has remained buoyant, and it appears that the park’s authorities may be taking this market more seriously. The rag-tag group of Defence Force personnel is currently working to renovate the lodge, but sadly the group seemed to be rather disorganised and somewhat demotivated. No one on the renovations team could tell me what the scope of their work was or when they expected to be complete. There was even contention amongst the group when asked whether or not the lodge would ever be recommissioned.

All these factors contribute to a rather unfortunate set of circumstances for potential guests, especially ones wanting to take photos. The one alternative is to stay at the new lodge and to drive into tarns area. While this approach is certainly possible, it means photographers having to get out of bed even earlier to navigate a tricky little road in the dark. The second possibility is to camp at Jonathan’s Lodge as I did, and for the record, I have no trouble with camping; in fact, I quite enjoy it. The campsite itself is picturesque with all the requisite views and additionally has its own little stream and dam. The trouble is that the campsite is not clean; there is litter and other garbage almost everywhere. To make matters worse, campers have to use the ramshackle ablution facilities that remain semi-functional inside Johnathan’s Lodge. These ablutions too are not clean and are shared with the renovation staff, something that never makes for a hygienic environment. The simple truth is that neither the campsite nor the toilet facilities ever get cleaned other than by those who are using it and with entropy reigning supreme, the situation is only going to worsen.

 Camping at Jonathan's Lodge, Sehlabathebe.

Camping at Jonathan's Lodge, Sehlabathebe.

Nevertheless, as grim as the condition of the accommodation sounds, I cannot stress enough just how spectacular the surroundings remain. I strongly encourage anyone with interest in visiting Sehlabathebe to do so. Tolerating either the early morning drive or the campsite dirt is certainly a worthwhile sacrifice and I am still optimistic that things as a whole will continue to improve.

To finish with, my Sehlabathebe expedition ushered in a new era in my photography. Not only was it my first-ever solo photography excursion but it also set a new standard in research and preparation. I have never before been so well acquainted with an area or with the techniques I intended to apply prior to even departing on the journey. It is evident to me now that this approach is the only way for me to push the standard of my photography to a higher level and yet, despite my almost obsessive attention to detail, I still managed one rather critical mistake. I succeeded in leaving my sleeping bag at home and it is for this reason that I stood in front of a bewildered renovation team and asked if I could borrow a blanket. The best-prepared photographer on the planet stood in Lesotho, and was brought to his metaphorical knees by the one thing that no Basotho goes without. Needless to say, I have learned my lesson.

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