Acres of clear blue sky, young boys ploughing the fields by hand, donkeys burdened with maize sacks, men wrapped in blankets donning good, old fashioned wellington boots – Lesotho is a gateway into another untouched world.
I had never even heard of Lesotho until I found a separate section for it in our Lonely Planet guide. That’s the great thing about travelling, it is a constant education that never fails to ignite your passion for exploration. Coercing a reluctant Tom, it wasn’t long before we were standing in a line at immigration, waiting for our visa stamp.
We stated on our visa form that our expected length of stay would be three days, little realising that the uncooperative lady on the desk would enforce this to the letter. We didn’t know that a fourteen day visa is granted automatically – we should have written fourteen days on our form. Considering this, I couldn’t understand why she would be so inflexible. We miscalculated how many days we needed and complained, so she grudgingly gave us an extra day. If Lesotho wants to encourage tourism, it should educate its immigration officials and grant the fourteen days regardless.
It seems odd that Lesotho exists as a single entity in its own right rather than as a South African state. It is one of only three countries in the world to be completely surrounded by another country. Looking back in history, it was the interfering British that sealed Lesotho’s fate. In 1910, when the Union of South Africa was created, Basutoland as it was then known, was a British Protectorate. This ensured that the country was excluded from the Union.
Lesotho is unique in a number of geographical ways. It is the only country in the world to have a lowest point of over 1000 metres above sea level, and not surprisingly, it has the highest pass in Africa at 3275 metres. Understandably, the only tourist blurb we could get our hands on dubs Lesotho as “The Kingdom in the Sky”. Most of the 2.1 million population are Basotho, managing to maintain their culture and traditional way of life, even though many are forced to work for a pittance in South Africa. As in Swaziland, Lesotho has its own currency, the loti (plural maloti) that is also pegged to the rand, so no need to change any money before entering the country.
This tiny country immediately contrasts with the first world trappings of South Africa: vast open spaces, acres of clear blue sky, rugged mountains, deep green untouched valleys, no trees or wire fences, blanket clad men and women (the traditional blanket is known as ‘kobo’), cows pulling carts up sharp inclines and the hardy Basotho pony providing transport between isolated mountain villages. If you want to disappear from the main tourist drag and drift into an untouched world, Lesotho is the place to come.
We followed the major A2 road from the sleepy capital Maseru to Motsekuoa, where we turned off. The tarmac disappeared 24km later. The last 7km were rough, tough work for our under-powered two wheel drive car. The spectacular Gate of Paradise Pass (2001 metres) is literally a gateway to a fantastic panorama. Plains dotted with villages bathed in glorious sunshine against a backdrop of perfect cyan sky were mapped out in the valley below.
Malealea Lodge is at the end of the challenging dirt track but was not quite the idyllic, secluded paradise we had been expecting after the rave reviews from other travellers. The scourge of the overland trucks (and unbelievably, Big Sky coach) was one factor, as were the noisy bar, crowded showers and toilets, distinct lack of toilet paper and impersonal welcome. Later, armed with my trusty toilet bag, I had to compete with an endless stream of girls from the trucks for a shower. The information leaflet on guided hikes, 4×4 trails and pony treks was extremely helpful but I objected to no one volunteering to give us an orientation around the grounds that led us to inadvertently pitch our tent on the private lawn.
I guess we should make allowances for the lodge as they were struggling to cope at full capacity; every rondavel, dorm bed and chalet was taken and it was impossible to walk two paces without falling over a tent. I cannot fault Malealea Lodge for contributing immensely to the local community. They have created a Malealea Development Trust that currently funds the local school. Already three classrooms have been built and we witnessed the building of the kindergarten. The money (R15) paid for a school visit goes towards the building programme. Follow their projects on their website. If you are planning on visiting, donations of pens, educational material and exercise books will be gratefully received. The local people benefit greatly from the lodge by being guides on hikes and pony treks. Without this employment, many would be forced to leave their families and seek low paid jobs in South Africa.
A hundred metres from the lodge is the Malealea Craft Centre where we spent a while examining grass woven baskets and the famous Basotho conical hats known as mokorotlo or molianyeoe. The hat is styled on the profile of Mount Qiloane, a distinctive hill near Moshoeshoe.
In the chilly evening, we watched a local Basotho band perform using their home-made instruments: a drum constructed from a plastic bin, tin can tops acting as cymbals and guitars made from square oil cans. A man and two boys danced using walking sticks to emphasise their jerky movements. The whole band sung in perfect harmony.
We set off on a hike to Botsoela Waterfall without a guide as we hoped to enjoy the stunning scenery in solitude. Silly us, we should have realised that in Lesotho you are never alone. Having declined guides at the lodge gate, we passed the new kindergarten building that was being thatched. We followed the left fork as instructed and a few locals approached us offering to be guides, but we resisted. A toothless lady ran down the hill from her rontabole, trying to sell us a freshly made drink. In limited English, she said that she would wait for us to return from our hike.
It was then that we adopted a shadow. Two boys, one carrying an oil can guitar, followed us into the river valley. They stopped whenever we stopped, strumming the guitar for good measure. It was like playing “Simon Says”. We lost the trail, being unable to locate the landmark willow tree, so we gave up on the hike and said goodbye to our shadow. Just this short walk gave us a glimpse of local life. Women expertly balancing buckets of water on their heads, a lone man wrapped in a blanket riding his trusty Basotho pony and a young boy overloading his donkey with a heavy sack of maize. Life is uncomplicated, reduced to the basics of shelter, food and water.
Traditional village hut
The guided village walk was another insight into everyday life. Many of the villages still live in the traditional circular buildings (rontabole) decorated in attractive patterns with a thatched roof. The houses are built of stones and sticks, held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung. Before the mixture dries, intricate designs are drawn on the thick walls. Windows are minimal to keep out the cold. First stop was a hut where the family fermented the local brew of raisins and brown sugar. I was given a taster out of an old metal can and it was surprisingly refreshing and palatable. All the villagers are subsistence farmers, growing maize, keeping goats, cows and chickens and producing handicrafts.
Our guide told us that men normally marry at 25 if the parents agree to the match. The man used to pay a dowry to the girl’s parents, but this practice only continues in isolated mountain villages. Primary school education is free for all but fees are charged for secondary education and many poorer children do not continue as it is too expensive. Basotho guides haven’t really cottoned on to what tourists want, i.e. describe village life, traditions and culture. It was hard work extracting information from our guide named Solomon, he would have hardly spoken if I hadn’t bombarded him with questions.
Up at 4:50am so we could hit the road at 5:40am to drive the arduous route back to the border. Lesotho is an enchanting place but I wasn’t sorry to wave goodbye to overcrowded Malealea Lodge.