LESOTHO – The friendly mountain kingdom

Lesotho is probably one of the least-explored countries of Africa. And yet this tiny kingdom, tucked away high up in the mountains and completely surrounded by South Africa, has so much to offer.

Astoundingly beautiful natural scenery, alpine mountains, meandering streams and rivers, breath-taking waterfalls, a vast variety of flora and fauna, snow-covered peaks, rich in culture and tradition, friendly and hospitable people, affordable, easily accessible from anywhere in South Africa, luxurious mountain lodges, awesome national parks, ancient rock art, craft shopping, exhilarating hikes and 4X4 drives, outdoor adventures, and even a ski resort…these are just a few of the things that define this magnificent little country.

The country is also widely identified by one of its national symbols, the very distinctive mokorotlo, or traditional Basotho straw hat. Its design is said to have been inspired by the conical Mount Qiloane.

Completely landlocked and nestled high up in the Maloti Mountains, part of the Drakensberg range, it is the only country in the world that sits in its entirety at more than 1,300 meters above sea level. Its highest point at 3,482 metres is Thabana Ntlenyana, literally meaning “beautiful little mountain” in Sesotho.

It shares with South Africa one of the highest, most daunting mountain passes in Africa, the Sani Pass, while it also boasts one of the highest nature reserves in Africa, the Bokong Nature Reserve, at more than 3,000 meters above sea level.

The country’s surface area covers a mere 30,000 square kilometres and it has a population of just over 2-million people.

For such a small country that must have been quite inaccessible a century or two ago, Lesotho has a history that suggests it was much coveted by all who ventured into the kingdom. First it had to repel the marauding Zulu warriors of King Shaka Zulu and those of Mzilikazi, king of the Matabele, as well as other bands of attackers, during the infamous Mfecane, meaning “crushing”, also known in Sesotho, the language of Lesotho, as the Difaqane, meaning “scattering” or “forced dispersal”.

This bloody chapter reshaped the tribal landscape of Southern Africa and gave birth to several new tribes and nations in the period between 1815 and 1840, including the establishment of the Basotho, the people of Lesotho, under King Moshoeshoe I in 1822. Then followed a series of wars with the British and the Boers of South Africa, with several annexations occurring before it came under British rule as the protectorate of Basutoland. In 1966 Basutoland gained its independence from Britain and became the Kingdom of Lesotho.

Today it is governed as a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and a government headed by a prime minister, while King Letsie III has a largely ceremonial role.

Lesotho’s first capital was at Thaba Bosiu, the seat of King Moshoeshoe I, but was replaced under the British in 1869 with Maseru, which today remains its capital. Maseru is a laid-back, low-key little city that straddles the country’s lower-lying western edge, rimmed by the Berea and Qeme Plateaus. But be warned: rush hours bring surprising traffic congestion.

Near Maseru are ruins dating from the 19th-century reign of King Moshoeshoe I. In recent years the city, which has a temperate climate, underwent a major rebuilding facelift and now boasts many well-stocked shops, good restaurants and fine accommodation. It is located right at the Maseru Bridge border post with South Africa and is an excellent place from where to start one’s exploration of the rest of this lovely country.

The country is easily accessed by road (through several border posts), rail and air from South Africa, with the Moshoeshoe I International Airport located just outside Maseru.

The people of Lesotho are fiercely independent and strongly resist any misguided inclination that the country is little more than an unofficial province of South Africa, with their very distinct personality on display wherever you venture.

For some truly adventurous travel, tackle the mountainous terrain up to Sani Top, where the daunting gravel-road of the Sani Pass summits at 2,874 metres above sea level after winding its way to the top through a series of nerve-wracking hairpin bends. Here you can overnight in the comfort of a legendary lodge, or just have a drink in “the highest pub in Africa”.  Locals often claim this to be the highest point in the world, a “fact” the Nepalese will probably dispute.

Or you can trek on horseback or the famed Basotho pony through the rural districts, negotiating winding tracks and roads and sheer drops, or make your way by 4WD vehicle to the north-eastern highlands, site of an ancient dinosaur dwelling ground. Here, at Subeng Stream, you can take a look at the fascinating footprints of dinosaurs perfectly preserved in sandstone.

Everywhere you go you will be greeted by friendly villagers and farmers, often travelling on horseback, wrapped in colourful blankets and wearing balaclavas or mokorotlo hats.

The Maloti Mountains are also home to one of the toughest extreme endurance races for motorcycles in the world, the Roof of Africa Race, which recently took place at the end of November. Locals have come to regard the 49-year old race as a “rainmaker”, as it takes place every year just as the summer rains start.

Also high up in the mountains you will find Afriski, one of only two ski resorts on the African continent, situated a mere 80km from the South African border. Visitors flock here each year for skiing and snowboarding on the snow-covered slopes, while the resort also offers a range of summer adventure activities.

The Bokong Nature Reserve is the highest in Africa, lying at over 3,000 meters above sea level. An impressive visitors’ centre is perched on the edge of a 100m cliff, offering outstanding views across the highlands. The highlight of this reserve is the Lepaqoa Waterfall, which freezes in winter to form a solid column of ice. The reserve is also a favourite with bird watchers and hikers, but the use of a local guide is strongly advised.

In the south a visit to the Sehlabathebe National Park, Lesotho’s flagship park, is a must-do. Other nature reserves include Liphofung Nature Reserve with its “place of the eland” cave, and the Sehlabathebe National Park situated atop the Drakensberg escarpment, home to fascinating rock formation, San paintings, unique wild flowers, a bird sanctuary, rock pools and a waterfall. Here the rare minnow fish is found, while rhebok, oribi, mongoose, wild cat, jackal and baboons frequent the area. The Tse’hlanyane National Park is located deep in the front range of the Maluti mountains, traversed by streams and rivers with crystal clear mountain water.

Another unique experience is the 120 km drive from Maseru  over the “Gates of Paradise Pass” on to Malealea. From here visitors can be taken to some really remote areas, piny-trekking, hiking or mountain-biking, while staying overnight in traditional Basotho villages.

At Katse Village you can take in some spectacular views of the Katse Dam and the surrounding mountains. At 2,000 metres above sea level, Katse Dam is the highest dam in Africa, and one of the world’s 10 largest concrete arch dams in terms of its volume. As part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, it supplies much of South Africa’s water.

A visit to the Maletsunyane Waterfalls takes one to one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in the Southern Hemisphere, plummeting 192 metres into a spectacular gorge creating clouds of spray that can be seen from afar.

In the Maseru district on the way to the Mohale Dam visitors can venture underneath the arches formed by overhanging cliffs to view the ancient Ha Baroana rock art at Nazareth. At Masitise in the Quthing district, you might want to stop over and marvel at the Cave House, built inside a cave in 1866-7 by Rev. David Ellenberger, a missionary who was invited there by the local chief.

Staying with caves, the Ha Kome Cave Village is situated at Pulane area in Berea district. Here a cave served as a hideout for clans during the Difaqane wars and is still inhabited by their descendants.

Also worthwhile is a visit to the Royal Archives and Museum, located in Matsieng Royal village, the 1858 settlement of King Letsie I which became the traditional capital of Basotho after Thaba-Bosiu. Thaba Bosiu, which means the “Mountain at Night” is where in July 1824 Moshoeshoe and his people took refuge and is considered the birthplace of the Basotho nation. Throughout the successive invasions, the mountain was never conquered.

Favourite activities for visitors to the Mountain Kingdom include abseiling, rock climbing, fly fishing, mountain-biking, horse riding, pony treks, hiking, camping, off-road driving in 4WD vehicles, kayaking, archery and swimming, or visiting the many cultural and historical sites.