HIDDEN JEWELS IN THE KINGDOM OF LESOTHO
I had no plans to visit Lesotho when I touched down in Johannesburg in April 2015, eager to drive South Africa’s world-famous Garden Route. Lesotho is a tiny kingdom in the highlands I knew nothing about, beyond its unusual location — entirely landlocked by South Africa. It seldom makes international headlines (its new ski resort being the recent exception), and its tourism industry is not well-developed, which makes it hard to imagine from the outside why it’s worth the diversion and expense.
Hit by a wave of last-minute curiosity, I decided it would be more interesting to drive through Lesotho than around it, and acquired the necessary paperwork from our car rental company at the airport. Looking back, I can’t imagine having done our road trip without Lesotho, whose geographic isolation has birthed a rich, distinctive culture that is worth every uphill mountain kilometre to experience. The scenery is jaw-dropping, the people are warm, the beer is good, and the blankets are warm in the cold highland air.
Consider this route if you’re driving south from Johannesburg, or planning any amount of time in Semonkong. Visiting Lesotho requires some logistical preparation, so be sure to check the Know Before You Go section at the bottom of this page.
Day Three: Johannesburg to Semonkong
We left Joburg early for the four-hour drive to Ficksburg, where we would make our crossing into Lesotho. Perhaps I’m a bit spoiled at this point, but I thought the scenery on the way there (yellow farmland and no elephants) was relatively bland. We stopped for lunch and fuel in a small town called Bethlehem, and once again, I stomached a South African-style ‘chicken sandwich’ — heaps cooked mayo with bits of chicken. I never made that mistake again.
We reached the Maputsoe border post at the Ficksburg Bridge around noon, and I have to say, I’ve never made a smoother African land crossing — a quick smile and stamp in our passports, and we were through (read more about my misadventures in Guinea and Uganda here). Happy with the lack of questioning, bribery and bag-searching, we drove into the capital, Maseru. The difference between South Africa and Lesotho was immediately obvious.
Despite being enclaved by its larger neighbour, the Kingdom of Lesotho clearly ran its own operation. Its capital had a kind of quiet chaos to it — disorganized and polluted, but with so few people, we made our way through it relatively quickly. Lesotho is a developing country of about two million people, roughly 40 per cent of whom live below the poverty line. It has a harsh, high-altitude climate and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, leaving an average adult lifespan of less than 55 years in its wake. Though South Africa occasionally steps into Mosotho politics, and many Basotho people work in South Africa, my initial hopes that some of South Africa’s prosperity may have trickled into Lesotho appeared to be false.
READ MORE: Lesotho country profile, BBC
THE MALOTI MOUNTAINS
Using street signs and a map I printed at the hotel in Joburg, we followed the winding but well-paved road to Semonkong, a community of villages in Maseru District. We considered taking a shorter route south to Malealea, but decided a trip to Semonkong in the centre of the country would be more adventurous. We were right.
Despite Google Maps telling us it would take under two hours to get from Maseru to Semonkong, it took nearly seven hours in the Gutless Wonder to arrive at the doors of Semonkong Lodge. In a way, this was a blessing — we passed through the stunning Maloti Mountains during sunset. It was pitch black when we finally arrived, and despite not speaking a lick of the local language, Sesotho, we managed to get down the dark, rocky road to our hotel with some local help. Sore and starving, we devoured a chicken and mash dinner, and passed out by the fire in our cosy rondavel.
Day Four: Maletsunyane Falls
Tea, coffee and biscuits were brought to our room at precisely 7 a.m. to perk us up for a long day of riding, hiking, and eventually, drinking. We paid 300 Loti each for a four-hour excursion on horseback, worth every penny in my opinion. Our guide picked us up at 8 a.m. sharp with saddles, helmets, and a pair of rugged brown and black Basotho ponies.
Experienced riders, we galloped through the magnificent scenery, which included grand canyons, biblical yellow crop fields, and mounds of the rare Spiral Aloe, Lesotho’s national plant. We passed rural mountain villages — practically inaccessibly on foot — and offered friendly waves to children and villagers who greeted us along the way.
Eventually, we reached the apex of our journey: The majestic Maletsunyane Falls. This ‘horsetail’ waterfall drops nearly 200 metres over triassic-jurassic basalt into the Maletsunyane River, and the mist that hovers over its base gives Semonkong the nickname, “Place of Smoke.” We took photos, had lunch, and concluded our ride with a race through the mountains back to the lodge.
The Semonkong Lodge is a beautiful compound of stone and thatch bedrooms built by a stream below the main village. Even if you go nowhere else (although I recommend you do), the lodge alone is quite picturesque, and visitors are welcome to hike through sheep and goat herds to the nearby cliffs and forests. It’s a cool and colourful area — not unlike a brisk autumn morning in Canada, I thought. Walking in no particular direction, my partner and I soon found ourselves back in the main village, where we decided to do a little pub crawl.
You can book a pub crawl or cultural tour through the hotel, but we opted to explore on our own at our own pace, for free. It’s safe to wander in Semonkong Town; everything is within walking distance of the lodge, and its residents are friendly and curious. We went from pub to pub, enjoying different local beers and ciders, chatting up patrons who had a smattering of English, and watching old American action flicks on the 10-inch tubes mounted behind the bar counters.
Outside a Chinese-owned supply shop, we watched two gentlemen face off in a checkers-like game of morabaraba, which in Sotho, means “exchanging.” They used painted beer caps for pawns, laughed furiously when we failed to understand the rules, and sped us on our way. We ate dinner back at the hotel, and returned to town for an evening drink.
To our great surprise, country music rang through the pub speakers (everything from Kenny Rodgers to George Jones), and Basotho men mouthed the words as they bobbed to the rhythm. Many started laughing when my partner and I took up a two-step in the corner — it must of been quite a spectacle to see white people dancing at a bar in the Maloti Mountains. When we left, they resumed their bobbing, and turned their attention back to their beers. I was pleased with our experience in Semonkong, made much more personal and authentic by adventuring on our own rather than a scheduling a tour.
Day Five: Semonkong to Chintsa
We were out of the lodge by 7 a.m., shivering in the morning cold. Google Maps pinned Chintsa, South Africa, at only eight hours away, but we knew better and hit the road early. The mountain pass from Sekake to Mohale’s Hook was stunning and we passed dozens of morning commuters on horseback, wrapped in traditional seanamarena quilts and mokorotlo caps.
In fact, the horse, blanket and hat are arguably the three most important symbols in Lesotho, and each bears special meaning in Basotho culture. Horses are matter of both pride and necessity in treacherous mountain terrain, while Basotho horse appears on the country’s national coat of arms. Wool seanamarena blankets are distinguished from those of other African nations in their use as an everyday garment and their importance in fertility, marriage and circumcision rituals (see them today, featured in the new Black Panther movie). The mokorotlo hat is a symbol of craftsmanship and appears at the heart of the Lesotho flag. Its shape is fabled to mirror the Qiloane Mountain near the fortress of Moshoeshoe I, founder of the great Basotho nation in 1824.
LEAVING THE PLACE OF SMOKE
We followed street signs and the A4 Quthing Moyeni, stopping for fuel and snacks at a trading post on the way to the Makhaleng Bridge for South Africa.
I was very sorry to leave Lesotho, a country of hidden jewels cached among mountains ridges and rippling highlands of overwhelming natural beauty. Its scenery rivals that of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, and the Rift Valley in Kenya, while its isolation and distinctive culture offer a deeper, more meaningful travel experience. It’s perfect for people like me, who constantly crave exposure to something raw and different.
I couldn’t have asked for a better detour to kick off the trip, which resumed its touristy, light-hearted nature once we started the Garden Route. I can’t recommend making this a part of your journey enough, especially when the alternative is driving through Bloemfontein or Durban in South Africa.
Return to the South Africa page to continue the journey, and scroll down to Day Five.
Know Before You Go
- South African currency is accepted everywhere in Lesotho, so don’t worry about exchanging cash before crossing the border. But remember to BRING CASH WITH YOU — there are very few ATMs in Lesotho and none once you pass Maseru.
- South African cellphones (and subsequently, their GPS) will not work in Lesotho, so print a map ahead of time, and pay careful attention to street signs. Get directions from locals and hotel staff.
- As Canadians, we were not required to obtain a visa for a stay in Lesotho for less than two weeks. Check the requirements for your nationality here.
- Fill your tank at every opportunity — there aren’t many fuel stations on the way to Semonkong. Four-wheel drive is not necessary to make this trip, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
- Bring food with you from Maseru or South Africa if you’re on a budget or don’t want to eat at the hotel restaurant. Options are limited past the capital.
- It’s pretty cold in the mountains, so pack accordingly. If you want to keep your water bottles cold, just leave them in the car!
- If you decide not to book any tours and explore on your own, make sure you support local business by purchasing drinks or crafts, and respect the boundaries of its residents. Much of Lesotho is not accustomed to tourists.
- Plan your border crossings carefully, and double check their hours of operation. Ficksburg is open 24 hours (but gets the most traffic), and the Mahkaleng Bridge is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where to Stay
- The Semonkong Lodge is really the only option for accommodations in the village, so call a day or two ahead to book a room. It’s a bit more expensive than a typical backpacker, but you won’t be sorry you stayed there. For R400 each we got a beautiful thatched bedroom inclusive of firewood, tea and coffee each morning.
- The hotel has a charming, funky restaurant that serves three meals a day (again, pricier than average but affordable), and its owners can also arrange activities for you, including pony treks, bike riding, hiking, fishing, eating, drinking, and more. Customer service is top notch.
- You can pay for the activities, hotel room, and restaurant bill with a credit card, but bring lots of cash with you to tip your guides, or in case of a power outage that shuts down their debit machine.