Lesotho (li-soo-too) is an independent country that is landlocked by South Africa. We didn’t know much about the country before going so I thought I would share some information about it before I detail our time there.
It is known as ‘The Kingdom in the Sky’ because it is the only [independent] state in the world that lies entirely over 1000 meters in elevation. With over 80% of the country being over 1800 meters and its lowest point being1400 meters, it is the highest country in the world. It is 30 000 square kilometers and has a population of two million. The people are the Basotho and over 40% of the population live below the international poverty line. The average life expectancy is 37 (Lonely planet gives this number, Wiki says 48.2. Either way the numbers are heartbreaking) and the prevelance of HIV/AIDS is 26%.
The country is renowned for its beautiful scenery and friendly people. It is the Mountain Kingdom that has been frozen in time. One of the main modes of transport remains as pony or horse. We decided to visit after hearing these things and so much more from our tour guide Matt, on our Namibia tour.
We wanted to go from our beach haven in Bulungula to the Mountain Kingdom in one day. There was no wifi or cell service in Bulungula so we had to rely on our lonely planet book and a few road maps a fellow guest had to plot our route. As Lesotho is landlocked by South Africa there are many border posts to enter through. We plotted what we felt was the most logical route based on the information we had, with our goal entry point being Telle Bridge.
We departed Bulungula at 8 am with an anticipated driving time of 6 hours. We made it to Mthata by the midway point and went grocery shopping as there is very little in terms of food in Lesotho. We then began the second half of the drive armed with google maps as we were back in cell reception. The route google came up with was the same we had plotted the old school way of maps and books so we were feeling very confident. Within an hour and a half we came to a junction where we had to turn off the highway we were on to another highway that would give the most direct route to the border post. The only problem was we were going to turn off a tarred road onto a dirt road. You heard correctly, a dirt road highway. We were very hesitant with this but both google and our paper research had lead to this route so we decided to go with it. The dirt road was maintained and signed with all of the official highway signs. Unfortunately, we were only able to go 60-70 km/h on it, so our driving time was being lengthened by the minute. There was another turn onto a different highway 70 km after starting on the dirt road so we were hopeful we would be turning back onto a tarred road. If nothing else, the scenery while on the dirt road was spectacular.
We arrived to the junction and our hearts sunk; we were turning onto another dirt road for a further 80 km. It was 1:30 pm by this point and it gets dark around 5 pm so all we were praying for was to be off the dirt road by dark. Based on the previous dirt road we thought we could do it. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this dirt road was not well maintained. There were massive washouts due to water, and there were many rocks and potholes that had to be avoided. We were averaging 20 km/h or less on this road and became increasingly aware of time slipping by. We arrived to a military post marking the end of the South Africa border and had to have one of the guards open the gate for us. He spoke a little English so Chris asked him if the road was okay from there on. He heartily laughed and replied, “No. Not until after the mountain pass, down by the river.”
What had we gotten ourselves into! We were now officially in no-mans-land heading up the pass. The road condition continued to deteriorate and become narrower and narrower. Again, it was some of the most spectacular scenery we have encountered but it was now cast in the late afternoon sun which was a constant reminder of our race against the clock. We rounded a hairpin turn and saw two men on horses herding their massive pack of bulls down the [one lane] road. There was no way of going around them so I gingerly made my way to the back of the herd and hoped they would get out of the way. Some of them moved to either side of the road and others continued to move leisurely infront of the car. I inched my way forward, and all I kept thinking was,
I cannot hit one of these bulls. I cannot hit one of these bulls.
We were in no-mans-land between two countries, if I hit one of those bulls, or even knicked one I don’t even want to fathom the trouble we would be in with those two men. Thankfully, the rest of the bulls moved to one side at a slight widening in the road and we were able to pass. Not long after we arrived at a very troubling patch of road. The road was almost entirely washed away, and was barely wide enough for our small compact car to pass. I slowly made my way forward with my mirror grazing the rockface on one side and my tire just barely staying on solid ground on the other. As I mentioned in a previous post the Chevy Aveo has a high clearance, but was no match for this treacherous road and we bottomed out more than once. By the time we made it to the bottom of the pass (which was over 2000 meters) my arms and hands ached from gripping the steering wheel so hard. As the guard had said, the road did improve at the river but just barely. We then could average 40 km/h versus less than 15 km/h going down the pass. The sun set as we hit the river bed and soon enough we needed our headlights to navigate our way. Fortunately it was only for 15 km and then we hit the tar road that brought us to the Telle Bridge Border Post. When I finally put the car into park more than 10 hours after embarking on our drive, I half expected the car to just fall apart.
The immigration officers didn’t know what to do with us as not many foreigners utilized this post. They were very entertained by us and had great fun trying to teach us how to say the name of the city we were going in their language which necessitated a click in the middle. We just barely saw the humor after the hell of a drive we had been through. Luckily we didn’t get any trouble and made our way through the border quickly.
We were rewarded with more dirt road, this time in total darkeness as there are no street lights in Lesotho as most of the country is without electricity. They were doing work on the road so it was incredibly difficult to navigate and more than once we lost the main road and ended up by a piece of heavy duty machinery. We arrived to Quthing and the city was in full swing as it was a Friday night. We found our guesthouse after getting turned around a few times and collapsed into our room. It was 11.5 hours by the time it was all said and done and it was one of the most remote and terrifying days on the road. We were incredibly lucky to have not had a flat or other mechanical problems along the way.
The next day when we awoke and walked out of our room and saw the spectacular scenery we were slighty comforted that the journey would be worth it. We set out early with a quick stop to view the dinosaur footprints outside of the city and then continued on to the small village of Malealea to Malealea Lodge. The lodge was originally a trading post and now serves as an excellent mountain oasis (partly owned by the local community) and pony trekking center. We arrived and settled in and then simply sat and marveled at where we were in the world.
That evening after we had supper we sat around the fire with two South African families on holiday. They were lovely to chat with and thankfully kept the fire going all evening.
The following morning we woke up to catch the sunrise, it was one of the best we have experienced yet. The lodge was surrounded 360° by the most beautiful mountains, it is definitely one of the top 5 most beautiful places we have been in our lives.
That morning we set out for a hike. Not long into the hike we were surrounded by local children. One of them cracked me up, he kept saying “My name is KYTE!” but when I would respond he would simply repeat his name. After several rounds of this he introduced, “Give me a TREAT!” For about a kilometer or so he followed us saying louder and louder, “My name is KYTE, Give me a TREAT!” Although adorable we never indulge children as it fosters a culture of begging. He eventually gave up saying anything except “TREAT!!!!” before finally accepting we weren’t going to give him anything. We had a beautiful hike along the rim of the gorge surrounded by mountains.
We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the sunshine and enjoying the onsite coffee shop. The evening was passed at the bar where they were selling handmade crafts. I found a beautiful pair of earrings which may be my favorite purchase to date. The rest of the evening was again spent by the fire chatting with the families. The power was turned off each evening at 9:30 pm so it was candle light after that. There is something so special about having nothing but candle light to illuminate a room. As Lesotho is at such a high altitude it was very cold in the night so we opted for a nice farmhouse room rather than our lightweight hiking tent.
The next day we signed up to go pony trekking as it is one of the best places in the world to go for a ride. This was incredibly exciting for me as Chris had never been on a horse before. I had ridden growing up so it is one of the only times I was proficient at something he wasn’t! He was a little nervous before we got started but as soon as he met his horse, Rasta Man, he felt much better. Our guide was very helpful and entertaining, we stopped early into our trek at a small shack so he could buy airtime. He musn’t have had airtime in a while because he spent a lot of his time texting and calling! We did a 4 hour trek to a waterfall and it was one of our favorite activities we have ever done. It was so relaxing and beautiful, it couldn’t have been a more perfect day. Chris even got to trot for a while which made him very happy! I did manage to snap a picture of him on his horse but the bugger deleated it!!! I am still rotted about it.
After our epic horse trek Chris was adamant he wanted to check out the local pub, called a ‘Shebeen.’ The brew master is usually a woman and she brews in a massive [dirty] bucket. She advertises what type of beer she has by flying a flag made of plastic bags outside her little shack. White means hops beer, yellow means maize (corn) beer. We found a shebeen and Chris went in and ordered a ‘glass’ of hops beer. It cost 5 Rand which is 50 cents Canadian and he was handed a 750 mL tin can of the most disgusting looking liquid I have laid eyes on. I was not even going to consider indulging in one of these beverages.
The frequent flyers of the Shebeen were very excited to see foreigners at their haunt and happily smiled toothless grins and gave us the thumbs up on our drink choice. Chris decided to buy a round for the “boys” and it was as if god himself had walked into the bar (a round for the entire bar cost less than $3 CAD). After much cheering we convinced them all to step outside of the smokey, dark shanty to have a picture taken. This was quite the production and they were all very excited to see the pictures after as I don’t think they had ever seen a picture of themselves. They had great fun zooming in to get a better look. One guy was more than impressed with himself, repeatedly pointing to himself and saying, “Nice!!” It was a very entertaining outing.
The following day we got an early start as the sun rose to make our way to Swaziland. Again we were relying on research from road maps and the Lonely Planet book, so it was with a hope and prayer that we set off for another day on the road. We stopped at the Gates of Paradise to capture these amazing photos of the sunrise. It was the perfect cap to our incredible adventure in the Kingdom in the Sky.
The sign at the Paradise Gates that is pictured in the first photo reads:
Wayfarer pause and look upon a gateway of paradise