We’d left it a little late to plan something interesting for the Christmas holidays. Before we knew it, everyone at work was hopping onto flights to Europe or Thailand or departing for a road-trip to Durban or Cape Town.
We made a half-hearted attempt to find something in Mauritius, but flying there last minute was expensive and impractical. We also didn’t have a good plan for Loupe, our 2 year-old German Shepherd. He needed to come on holiday with us too! So the urge to do something interesting and exciting was strong. Lesotho seemed to fit the bill – unusual, scenic and less than 5 hours from Jo’burg. We established that we could take our dog into the country with the appropriate paperwork from the State Veterinarian proving his vaccinations.
After some hasty dashing around, we left Johannesburg at midday on Christmas Eve, in Geoff’s trusty Nissan twin cab with a full tank of petrol. Our luggage was packed onto the back seat and Loupe rode in the bakkie. Approaching Heilbron in the Orange Free State, we went through such a heavy rainstorm that we had to look for leaks in the canopy. Nothing serious luckily, and we were grateful that the air had been cooled down considerably!
We took the R725 to Lindley and then the R76 to Bethlehem, where we stopped to give Loupe (and ourselves) a leg stretch. We took the Golden Gate pass to the picturesque town of Clarens – a land of beautiful poplar trees. From there we drove down the R711 to Fouriesberg where we filled up with fuel.
Roughly 10km from the town of Fouriesburg we went through the border into Lesotho at Caledonspoort. We took the Lekila road towards Butha-Buthe. We then followed the A1 all the way through the steep Moteng pass which is the main road over the Maloti mountains. Green rolling fields separated by hills soon gave way to mountains and steep, near treeless slopes. We finally passed the ski resort of Oxbow lodge at about 6:45 PM. It was unbelievably cold considering it was mid-summer. Finally, Loupe was lying down in the back of the truck. We’d been concerned about his comfort – sitting up most of the way, jamming his body against the side and letting his head rest on the rear windowsill looking into the cabin. The vehicle bouncing along the mountainous roads would feel far worse in the back than in the comfortable front seats.
We were extremely high up in the Maloti mountains, where elevations reached 2800 metres above sea level. We carried on a bit further and eventually stopped at about 7:30 PM where we made our camp. We chose a spot next to a very small stream quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the ground was nice and soft so we were able to pitch our tent with ease. There was a bitterly cold wind blowing but we had brought some lamb chops and went ahead with lighting a fire and cooking on our new grid. We warmed a can of baked beans and used some of the bread rolls that we had brought. It was probably not the most creative meal, but when you are so cold and hungry everything tastes delicious.
The temperature dropped below freezing in the night and it became unbearably cold. We had to cuddle up tightly to Loupe who lay between us for all three of us to keep warm. Having left Johannesburg in well over 30 degree weather, we had only a light jacket each and were completely unsuitably attired for these conditions. Not too surprisingly, we both started to feel quite sick with the first signs of flu threatening.
Lesotho is a landlocked enclave of about 30,000 km square, and contains the highest mountains in southern Africa (the Malutis) It’s also the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1000 meters elevation. the lowest point of the country is at 1,400 m (4,593 ft.). Which makes it by far the highest country in Africa. The highest peak of southern Africa, Thabana–Ntlenyana, stands at an altitude of 3482m also lies in eastern Lesotho.
Originally called Basutoland under King Moshoeshoe, it became a British colony in 1822. It achieved its independence in 1966. Lesoth is completely surrounded by South Africa (it is the largest of three such places in the world: – those being Vatican City and San Marino). Lesotho has an Alpine climate with a fair amount of snow in winter. Water is the most important natural resource and the multibillion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project started in 1986, produces and sells water and electricity to South Africa. Lesotho is also the highest $ per carat diamond producing country in the world. It’s a 95% Christian country with approximately 50% of the people being Catholic. while the country is called Lesotho, the language is Sesotho and the people are called Basotho.
We woke up on Christmas Day after having had a very poor sleep due to the icy conditions. The river that we had camped beside, had completely iced up and Snoot’s bowl of water had frozen to a solid block of ice too! Fortunately a milky sun brought a pleasant warmth and the water soon began to flow again. We threw together a delicious breakfast at about 8:30 in the morning consisting of bacon, eggs and tomato. Some sheep came to graze quite close by us and Loupe horrified us by growling at the visitors and then chasing a young cow.
We had the ideal bathroom facilities, with pristine water in the stream and Geoff was brave enough to wash his hair. Gasping, I managed a quick dip in the ice cold water, which was beyond bracing. A young goatherd came to watch us pack up our tent and load all our goods into the car. I tried not to think about the fact that he might have observed our ablutions.
We drove through mountainous terrain for what seemed like hours. There was a new tar road being built and we stopped now and then to take photos and let Loupe romp and have a stretch. By far the most common mode of transport we saw was horseback. Seeing villages clinging to the steep slopes, far from the road, you can understand the reasoning for riding horses. We stopped to have a look around and realised that we were actually the only vehicle in sight for as far as the eye could see. No wonder we were drawing plenty of interest from the locals.
The traditional Lesotho house is called a mokhoro and is built in the rondavel style. This word means ‘circular’ and the houses are made with local materials. The walls are usually constructed from stones with a mixture of sand,soil and dung.
Now home to the largest dam in the southern hemisphere, the Katse Dam. Katse, also the highest dam in Africa, is also one of the world’s ten largest concrete arch dams in terms of volume, with a capacity of nearly 2 billion cubic metres and a surface area of 38.5 square kilometres. The dam was completed in 1996 and the reservoir filled with water by 1997.
We were very tired when we reached the town of Mokhotlong. It is a remote, dusty frontier-type town but we managed to buy some nice fresh bread and got directed to a campsite by a friendly man. A little disconcerting was that the local police came by just as we were planning to erect our tent. Under the pretext of wanting to check on us, (when greeting each other, people in Lesotho ask “where are you going?” as opposed to “how are you”) As we weren’t clear on where we were going, they became pushier and began to make a nuisance of themselves. We tried to brazen it out by being extra friendly and co-operative, but although they eventually got into their vehicle to leave, they said they’d be back “to check on us later”. We felt a little bit uncomfortable and decided that we wouldn’t be able to relax, so we refueled the car and left town. As luck would have it, on our way out we bumped into them again. This time they stopped us and demanded all sorts of information, checking our car papers, Loupe’s Veterinary certificate and passports.
Fortunately they seemed a bit nervous of Loupe (and vice versa). They wanted to check the back of the vehicle ostensibly to appraise themselves of what goods they might want to help themselves to, but thankfully Loupe’s presence helped minimise the looting, which ended up being two bottles of our poorer red wines. Not a nice welcome to the country, and we felt ill at ease and overtired by the time we managed to escape from them. Fortunately, we found a beautiful spot not too far onwards. We were a little bit worried that we could still be spotted if they drove out of town, but we decided to pitch our tent in any case. Ever grateful for the presence of Loupe (who also kept one or two other would-be visitors at bay) we managed to have a peaceful meal that evening of wors, tomato, onion and bread. Exhausted from the day, we were cosily in our tent and in bed by 7:30pm.
We woke up on Boxing day feeling more rested. We packed up our tent and inflated the tyres on our vehicle. We were back on the road by 7am. We headed for the district of Thabe-Tseka. We drove through the hills and stopped for a wonderful breakfast on a steep grassy slope with a stunning view. After breakfast we continued onwards and stopped at a stream where we were able to have a lovely alfresco bath and were able to wash our hair. We felt human again – refreshed and clean. Rocky conditions up the mountain passes place a real restriction on speed, forcing us to pick our driving lines carefully. This must be an isolated stretch of ground because we didn’t see any other vehicles or people. We noted that we were driving a section of the famous “Roof of Africa Rally” dreamed up by a roads engineer who described it as “the worst road in the world”.
We noticed lots of the herd boys alone in the mountains guarding the sheep or cows. Sadly Lesotho’s herd boys are required to do this isolating work that was previously done by older men who now go to work in the mines in South Africa.These kids often need to stop their schooling and have to live in lonely, sometimes dangerous situations including bad weather in the mountains and occasional violent theft.
The countryside we were driving through became more dry and harsh and the road began to deteriorate further. It was tiring traveling so slowly. We stopped often for Loupe to stretch his legs. We were stopped by the cops again (a different bunch) who wanted to fine us for not wearing a seat belt. It was such a ridiculous scenario. No traffic at all. Miles of dirt road. Travelling at very conservative speeds and yet they were insisting on us wearing a seat belt. Realising that it was more of a bribe situation than a concern for safety, we feigned non comprehension, we argued politely, we pleaded ignorance, we begged for forgiveness, we claimed poverty until they eventually let us go.
We began the search for our new campsite. On the way we stopped at a cafe in the middle of nowhere and managed to buy 2 beers. Although the currency used here is the Lesotho Loti, the South African Rand is accepted almost everywhere. We really struggled to find a peaceful place to set up our camp for the evening. It was either super dry and unforgiving, or completely overpopulated with locals dying to approach us. Near the town of Marakabei, we eventually found a lovely spot under some trees on the banks of the Senqunyane River. No sooner had we set up our camp and it started to rain. Our tent was fortunately on a slope which meant that the water would flow downhill and start to rush around the sides. We opted for an early supper I was feeling like the flu had taken a grip on me and pretty much dragged myself into the sleeping bag. Geoff conjured up a wonderful stew with peas and potatoes and some canned beef and tomato. I’m not sure how he managed to cook in that weather.
It began to bucket down with rain. It became heavier and heavier until the water was starting to seep under the tent creating puddles. Despite the base being waterproof, water was starting to drip inside along the stitching. Geoff braved the downpour (we had no waterproof clothing) and dug a trench all the way around the tent to encourage what had become a stream – to gush past us. He got completely soaked! Loupe was absolutely exhausted too. I think it had been a very hard day for him with lots of excitement, not to mention bouncing around in the back of the car on the shocking roads. He basically passed out in the tent covered in mud. Even the brakes of the car smelled quite strongly from all the steep drops that we had been navigating along the roads. Despite the fragility of our situation, all three of us managed to sleep fairly well.
Finally we reached Molimo-Nthuse Lodge. The idea of camping had lost its appeal. My sense of humour was at an all time low. I was snivelling and coughing and running a fever. Geoff booked us into the lodge for dinner, bed and breakfast. Pets were not allowed, so we said we’d leave him in the car and then promptly snuck him into our room via the back entrance. There was an extremely awkward moment when room service knocked on the door to offer us a turn-down and Loupe barked. Coughing like he was dying of emphysema, Geoff answered the door and sent them away.
What a joy to have a lovely hot bath and to sleep in clean dry sheets. I slept, while Geoff read. I felt better by supper time and we had dinner at 8pm and enjoyed the trout, steak and freshly baked, hot-from-the-oven bread rolls. We had a well-deserved, untroubled and comfy night’s rest.
In the morning we had to remove all traces of the muddy doggy footprints that were all over the carpet. We managed to find a brush from the maids’ cleaning area and swept and scrubbed to remove all traces of Loupe. The damp hound smell was another story, but presumably we’d be on our way before anyone noticed. We left the windows wide open, snuck him back into the car and went for a delicious breakfast.
We set off on the road after breakfast and the scenery became more beautiful with lovely trees everywhere. People seemed a lot friendlier with locals waving and smiling at us. We were heading for the capital city of Maseru and were finally on a tar road. There were a lot more vehicles now and we passed through agricultural land. Small terraces of subsistence crops of mealies and fields ploughed by ponies were evident on the slopes. For the first time since we had been in Lesotho we were able to move into fifth gear! in Maseru we found a pharmacy and stocked up with medicine, although I was feeling so much stronger. We picked up Halls cough drops and some Carlton towels. We also went to the Spar for some new supplies and then we filled up with fuel. It was suddenly hot and chaotic and there were quite a lot of beggars looking hopefully at us but again keeping their distance when they saw our resident wolf in the back of the car.
We were pleased to leave Maseru and headed for the town of Semonkong, traveling along the A5. We passed through the beautiful village of Roma and took some photos. Roma is home to the university of Lesotho. It is also a Catholic mission station and there was a very obvious Catholic influence throughout the town. We headed up a winding mountain pass flanked by flocks of sheep. Everywhere were neat little villages made of stone and thatch, clinging to the steep mountain side. we loved the picturesque countryside and stopped to let Loupe swim in a river and play with his Kong. We made lunch – rolls with cucumber and mussels and it was absolutely delicious.
Arriving in the town of Semonkong, it was clear that we had left modern society. It’s incredible how a town so close to South Africa still lived in such a simple fashion. People on horses are the norm, kids were herding their sheep and cows, and everyone still dressed in traditional attire. The Basotho people have a very distinguishable attire. We saw many people dressed in their customary African blankets, which makes quite a lot of sense after experiencing the cold nights. It gets really hot in the daytime, but they are still to be seen enrobed in these blankets. Perhaps a form of insulation from the heat? Their conical straw hats known as mokorotlo were also frequently worn.
There are no ATMs, banks, or grocery stores in Semonkong which is essentially another frontier town consisting of some simple stores and some thatched houses. As we approached Semonkong Lodge a cold wind came up and it became pretty chilly. The lodge is a haven amongst cool willows and a gurgling stream. we met the owners Mel and Jonathan and their dog. Loupe was highly unimpressed to have another dog in his domain. We set up camp and cooked ourselves pasta and a can of pilchards for supper. After taking a stroll up the hill with Loupe and having a look at the view, we went and enjoyed a brandy in the pub. It had such a nice atmosphere that we felt almost tempted to stay on for the planned New Year’s Eve celebration in two days’ time.
The following day we got up early and had cereal for breakfast. We were able to wash up properly and it was nice to have proper ablution facilities in the camp area. We also did some laundry. What a pleasure to have clean clothes, particularly our sparse warmer garments, that had been covered in mud. We’d planned to go for a horse ride with a group that were going out on Basotho ponies. My horse was called Dhowla which means Witch Doctor’s Bones. We thought of taking Loupe along with us but were worried when we heard we might meet stray, (uninoculated) local dogs. It turned out that Geoff’s horse was particularly stroppy and fought him the entire distance and there would have been a good chance of Loupe getting kicked in the head by an intolerant pony.
We went all the way up to the waterfall where we had a view of the Mayenzane Falls. Semonkong means “place of smoke”, due to the waterfall and misty conditions. It is the highest single dropping waterfall in Africa, plummeting into a gorge for a distance of 186 meters. It was not too full when we visited.
On the way our guide pointed out the national flower of Lesotho, the spiral aloe.
The locals wear a distinctive woolen blanket known as a Basuto blanket. Apparently the first one was a gift to King Moshoeshoe by the British and he immediately discarded his leopard skin hide embracing the warm, soft blanket, which has become part of the culture of Lesotho. It is used on ceremonial ocassions (Fertility rights of passage for young men.) It is also usually included in wedding day celebrations and the husband will gift one to his wife on the birth of their first child.
We had absolutely no expectations of Lesotho as a country. No one really visits it or talks about it. Our objectives were a peaceful getaway from the busyness of Jo’burg. We found beautiful mountains, fresh alpine air, bubbling streams, deserted, wide-open spaces and rugged routes through rustic villages.