A landlocked island within South Africa, Lesotho (Le-Soo-Too) is known as an adventure travel destination. That in itself is usually enough to signal it’s probably our kind of place, but when Marie saw it described as “The Tibet of Africa,” it was a done deal. It was on the wish list.
A country the size of Belgium it is 30,355 sq kms of mountain peaks and high plateau with a strong culture amongst its 2.4m people. It is one of only three independent territories completely surrounded by another country (one is the Vatican but our internet connection is too slow to for us to google and work out the other, if anyone knows do let us know. EDIT: thanks to Kylie for letting us know it is the Republic of San Marino).
After gaining independence from the British in 1966, like much of Africa it was soon followed by political turmoil and unrest. Accusations, assassination attempts and coups didn’t end until 2015 when elections installed the current coalition government.
Heavily economically integrated with South Africa, it is poorer and its economy is primarily based on agriculture. It also has diamonds, but only 30% of the money from mining diamonds stays in the country, the rest is kept by the mining company.
The intention had been to visit Lesotho at the end of the trip if time allowed, but a change in flight gave us an unexpected 2 days at the start.
The short flight to the capital Maseru from Johannesburg was a hefty NZ$600 return, whereas a return flight to Durban further south, from where it is a 3 hour drive to the Lesotho border was NZ$80. This also had the benefit of taking us to the side of the country we wanted to visit, allowing us to enter via Sani Pass. A rough 4WD route that climbs 1332m to an altitude of 2876m, that culminates in a series of steep switchbacks to reach the Lesotho plateau.
Wanting to maximise the short time, the day before we flew we found a tour company and organised a driver/guide through them. After a 4:30am alarm it wasn’t even 8am when we were greeted at Durban airport by Thabo. His part was to drive us to Underberg, the town at the bottom of the pass. A hugely knowledgeable guide he likes to gives his guests some extra value and not stick to his instructions, so we got a bonus tour of Durban, including exploring one of its markets. Full of personality he is real extrovert that spent the entire 3.5 hr journey sharing insights into South African culture. We learned so much on the way.
Our flight from Wellington to Sydney had been delayed giving a number of us a really tight connection. We all made it but our checked bags hadn’t. Luckily we were going back to the same gust house in Johannesburg when we returned but airport luggage handling refused to take the owners phone number because for security reasons as when it arrived we had to authorise it’s delivery. Helpfully the luggage counter is before we could get a local SIM so we gave our contact at the tour company’s number. They gave us some numbers to call. We spent the first morning sporadically trying all of them but none were ever answered.
At Underberg Thabo handed us over to Sandilie, our driver/guide for Lesotho. Our bags had been due to arrive at 6am so before we lost our signal we called one last time, left voice messages and emailed. That was all we could do.
Sandilie was a much quieter personality but equally knowledgeable. The weather was beautiful. Blue skies and clear. The Drakensberg mountains dominated the scenery and the table plateau was visible on top. The pass we were headed for started out as nothing but a small notch.
Sandilie managed to spot wildlife as well as drive. We’d seen numerous baboons, an antelope and a bunch of small mammals as well as a baby snake (well, Emma did as Marie refused to look at it despite accepting Emma’s description that it was ‘only tiny’).
We left the tar seal soon after entering the UNESCO area. A reasonable gravel road led to the bottom of the hill where the South African border post is. The 8kms of no mans land contains the climb up the pass; rough and unkempt it is slow and tough travelling but spectacular.
Finally we made it to the top and the plateau opened out in front of us. Sandilie got our passports stamped and we headed to the pub at the top of the pass. The highest pub in Africa it was our late lunch stop. The wind was cold at altitude and we cursed our lack of luggage which had our jackets, scarves and beanies in it.
As we entered Lesotho the road became a proper sealed highway. Built by the Chinese there was barely a vehicle on it. The scenery is on an epic scale, and on a par with other places we’ve been. Massive expansive plateau with mountains in the distance. Dotted with the occasional village, but mainly the only life to be seen was shepherds wrapped in their infamous blankets with their herds of sheep or Angora goats.
We took our time and stopped often for photos. It took us a few hours to get to the town of Mokhotlong, our overnight destination. The guest house they’d booked for us was nice, not really our definition of budget, but we were fine with that and appreciative of having hot water, a heater and electric blankets. It also had a great view over the town and to the hills beyond.
Sandilie offered to take us to have a look at the town. Jet lag meant our bodies struggled in the afternoon and thought it was time to get up when it was actually bed time. So we were knackered, but with the sun soon setting and there being nothing by way of evening entertainment we agreed and dragged ourselves out. A large town, it has a population of 200,000. We found a shop and Emma was excited to find it had a bar of chocolate (literally 1 bar). Marie amused herself watching village life go by and the shop security guard waving around what looked like a sawn off shotgun.
Dinner was amazing. A small place we were either the only guests or the only ones eating. The guy that owns it is quite the chef and made us pork chops with potatoes, vegetables and salad. We also discovered he’d got a big wood burner blazing in a small bar area. So we hung out there and taught his puppy bad habits.
The next day our short time meant we basically had to retrace our steps all the way back to Johannesburg, but with an added detour to a visit a village.
The village turned out to be on the side of a mountain and some serious 4WDing was involved to get there. We’d picked up a woman at the bottom who spoke English and she would be our translator. When we arrived a group of women sung and danced to welcome us. Amongst other things they explained how they built their huts, the roles of men and women in the village, had us grinding maize into flour, showed us some of the hats and pots they make and they demonstrated some of their dances (a super short video clip below). They also taught us some words in their local language, or more accurately attempted to. It was nice to know our visit had put some money into the village.
It was nearly 9pm when we got back to Johannesburg (and were reunited with our rucksacks). It had been 2 long and tiring days and while it had only allowed us to scratch the surface of Lesotho we were pleased we had taken the chance to go.
We also had an email from Air Madagascar telling us our flight was delayed so we didn’t need to get up at 4:30am again. The extra sleep was very welcome.
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