So… have you heard of Lesotho?
I hadn’t. Until I met my (now ex) South African fiancé. Most South African’s have heard of this tiny mountain kingdom as it is located entirely within the borders of their home country.
A country within a country. Pretty weird huh?
Lesotho (pronounced Le-Soo-Too) is known as the Kingdom in the Sky due to its lofty position high in the mountains. It encompasses a tiny 30,000 km2, all of which lies at over 1400 metres above sea level. It has earned itself the titles of the highest lowest point of any country in the world and the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 metres in elevation. It is a rugged and forbidding country of dirt roads and extreme weather. There is abject poverty here, with 40% of the population living under the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Natural resources are scarce and the population is gripped tightly by HIV/AIDs; Lesotho has the highest rate of infection in the world.
The people of Lesotho are called Basotho, or Mosotho in singular, and they speak the language Sesotho. Confusing huh? A large number of the population in rural areas are competent horse riders and in some parts of the country, it is the only way to travel other than on foot. The Basotho are known for wearing thick woollen tribal blankets, wrapped around themselves to keep warm against the cold. It snows heavily in winter, and even when we visited in summer it dipped down to a chilly 13°C once the sun went down.
You can fly into Lesotho via South Africa and there are a number of land entry points but probably the most iconic route of entry is via the steep and precarious Sani Pass. What started as a perilous horse trail that rose steeply from the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, the Sani Pass is now passable by four wheel drive. I have been interested in driving up the Sani Pass since seeing it on the travel show Extreme Frontiers with Charley Boorman.
Unfortunately it was going to be really expensive to rent a four wheel drive vehicle that we would be allowed to take into Lesotho, so we ended up parking at the Sani Pass Hotel for a small fee and getting our accommodation to pick us up from there.
The Sani Pass Hotel was set on stunning grounds, nestled in the foothills of the magnificent mountain range that Lesotho sits atop. We will definitely be back for a luxury escape at some point in the future.
Deciding to be picked up instead of driving the Sani Pass ourselves definitely turned out to be a wise decision. A thick and soupy mist set in the higher we drove. Stopping at the half way point before it got really steep, we got out at Immigration to get our passports stamped out of South Africa. The air was already decidedly chilly.
By the time we were nearing the end of the sharp switchbacks, where in sections we were within half a metre to the cliff’s edge, the mist was so thick we couldn’t see more than a metre in front of us. Thank God our driver has been driving this route daily for 15 years in all types of weather conditions so we felt safe in his capable hands. At the top, he took our passports into the rundown building of Lesotho Immigration and got them stamped for us.
We had arrived in one piece. And it was freezing.
The Sani Mountain Lodge and Pub, the highest pub in Africa, was right beside the border crossing in the small traditional Basotho village of Sani Top. Our driver dropped us at the Reception to check in, then took us down the road to the Backpackers building where we were staying in a simple double room. The rustic backpackers used to be a store but is now owned and operated by the Sani Mountain Lodge, ten minutes’ walk away and perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Sani Pass.
Sheep wandered through the mist, identified by the clanging of their bells. White wildflowers sprouted up among the muddy grass. A rough road of deep puddles, interspersed with smooth grey rocks jutting out of the ground, led through the village and linked the backpackers with the pub.
The village was very simple. There was no shops except for a small gift shop, and no electricity in the small stone round houses with thatched rooves. On an exposed and treeless high altitude plateau with no shelter from the elements, I could only imagine how cold it must be for them, especially at night. I have no idea what they do for toilets or showers. Or where they get their water from. To say that their lives are starkly different to mine would be an understatement.
We were asked by the Lodge to bring items for the village children for Christmas so we bought them lunchboxes, water bottles, sweets, pads and pens and small Australian animal toys. We were happy to see a box overflowing with gifts for the children on arrival at Reception. I would have loved to see the kid’s faces when they received them.
Despite the hardships, almost every Masotho that we saw was so friendly and eager to say an enthusiastic ‘Hi’ or wave to us. Life must be pretty harsh for them but they generally seemed to be a cheery bunch. Basotho kids played out in front of the pub every day we were there. One sombre looking little fellow was strumming a homemade guitar made with a large plastic bottle. We weren’t sure whether it was appropriate but we gave him R10 which brought a beaming smile to his face, briefly, before he resumed with his serious demeanour.
We did encounter one small group of herders when we were out hiking one day that came across as aggressive, with one of them yelling in Sesotho and banging his big stick on the ground. He looked like a teenager and I think he was trying to intimidate us. His friend was watching us suspiciously and asked me to take their photo. So I took a photo of him and the two young and smiley boys that were with them, showed it to them which they were happy about, then we said goodbye and left. The stick banger must have had his fun and they didn’t follow us.
The Basotho are known for their crafts which include a range of colourful baskets woven out of grass. One of the main woven items you can buy as a souvenir is a traditional Basotho hat, conical in shape with a bauble at the top. Trav bought me a small souvenir hat but didn’t let me wear it because he said it was embarrassing. I don’t know what he is talking about. I like it.
Located at 2874 metres above sea level, the pub was our daily retreat from the elements. When it was foggy and cold outside or during an epic thunderstorm which seems to be almost a daily occurrence up there, it was cosy and warm inside by the open fire. There were comfy couches and arm chairs adorned with blankets to wrap yourself in, walls crammed with photos of happy people drinking in the pub over the many years it has been there, and comments expressing the love of the place written by past visitors over every other spare space. A beautiful and affectionate cat made itself at home on our laps, purring to its heart’s content. I couldn’t have asked for anything more to make me feel so relaxed and comfortable.
We watched the sunset each day over the pass from the deck out the front. I also caught the sunrise one day from the Backpackers and it was even more impressive. I am of the opinion that they are better at high altitude. With thinner air the light just seems more magical.
The deck was also a great spot for some wildlife watching. I saw iridescent green sunbirds flitting about, cute little ice rats scurrying between rocks, gigantic bearded vultures hovering above, herds of dirty sheep and lonely donkeys being herded back to the village in the evening.
Each morning we awoke early and hurried to the Pub for rusks and coffee on the deck before breakfast. It was the best time of day for some bird watching. Breakfast was definitely something to look forward to with a full cooked meal made to order as well as a huge variety of continental items such as chocolate croissants, dried fruit and nuts, juices, cereals, breads and spreads.
Unfortunately the lunches and dinners weren’t as good. I had a daily
argument discussion with one of the waiters about how trout isn’t a vegetarian option (he was adamant that it was) and as it was either that or red meat as the only options each night, I ate a lot of vegetables (which were also the exact same each night). So I made sure to eat a lot for breakfast.
Evenings were spent with a creamy Amarula in hand by the fire. We met some wonderful people during the long hours before dinner. An intrepid German family who have lived all over the world with the father’s job including Nigeria, Thailand and now South Africa. Young English filmmakers who were filming the villagers, excited by their new exciting life away from Mother England. Even a couple of Kiwis (honestly, you can find us anywhere and everywhere in the world). A lot of people were driving through Lesotho by four wheel drive and it is something I would definitely like to do in the future. We only had three nights and I am pleased that we spent them in and around Sani Top. It gave us time to relax and for reflection, rather than rushing through.
The rocky and desolate landscape was quite captivating in its emptiness and we spent a few hours each day hiking into the wilderness. There were no hiking trails as such but by using surrounding mountain peaks to locate ourselves, it was easy to blaze a trail across the marshy pastures and into the mountains.
One day we hiked to the top of a mountain with spectacular views down into the rich green valley below. Waterfalls tumbled off sheer cliffs and small and colourful wildflowers passed underfoot. Everything was strikingly green. The lack of trees or bushes of any kind made the landscape like nowhere I have ever been before.
On the way back down we came across a shepherds hut with pens for the sheep created with stone walls. No one was around so I peeked into the small hut which comprised a blackened fire pit in the middle, and a makeshift bed of long grasses. So simple.
Another day we hiked in the opposite direction and across the pockets of crystal clear marshes and rivers and through fields of wild yellow irises. We passed grazing horses, baboons foraging for food and unruly teenage shepherds with big sticks. Cresting a small hill, we had 180 degree views of the fertile fields and mountains of South Africa below.
When it was time to leave and head back down into South Africa, in some ways I was ready to go, but there was definitely a sense of melancholy hanging in the air. It was a different world up there and we were about to go back to reality.
The drive down Sani Pass couldn’t have been more different than the drive up. The sky was a brilliant blue and there was not a wisp of mist in sight so we could finally see the spectacular views that we missed the first time around.
There were waterfalls everywhere and it reminded me so much of Iceland. As we descended the mountain kingdom we slowly started seeing trees again, and slowly the high altitude chill eased into a hot, summer’s day.
We were back in summer again after our wintery getaway.
The main thing I have taken away from our time in Lesotho is the desire to see more of Africa. I must confess that I have never felt particularly drawn to the continent, even after trips to Egypt and South Africa. I think it is because those countries weren’t what I pictured Africa to be. Although both wonderful, they weren’t the stereotype. South Africa is largely developed and Egypt is more Middle Eastern than African.
Lesotho felt like the real deal; what I had envisaged Africa to be. The wild open spaces, the polar differences in the way people live, the traditional villages, the poverty. This felt like Africa to me and I got a thrill out of being there.
Lesotho gave me a taste and now I want more.