School holidays were coming up, and as that is normally the only time we get to travel out of Gauteng, we had to decide on a destination. There were no appealing overseas deals – those days are unfortunately gone with the rand exchange rate constantly dropping. It was then that we realised that it was about time we visited our neighbour, Lesotho. Especially since it was much closer than Durban and Cape Town. We made our plans and waited for the day to arrive.
On a Wednesday morning, we consulted the GPS on the quickest road to Maseru, and proceeded to drive to Lesotho on long stretches of quiet roads. We passed the Vaal River and small Free State towns like Reitz, Petrus Steyn and Senekal. For hundreds of kilometres we saw nothing but dry fields (it was winter), some cattle and a few ostrich. Not a garage or a shop or toll gates (thankfully) in sight. Coming from the densely populated city of Johannesburg, it was not often that we got to see such vast stretches of empty land in South Africa. The roads to Cape Town and Durban usually have an abundance of service stations, restaurants and toll gates. When we got to Senekal, we made our first stop – to refuel the car and refresh ourselves with some Krushers from the KFC there.
Our last stop in South Africa was at Ladybrand where the potholes were as huge as craters. A few minutes later we were at the Maseru Bridge border. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had to get off the car twice to get our passports stamped – on the South African and Lesotho sides alternatively – we may not have known that we were driving into another country. The border post was not very busy and we were done in about 10 minutes on each side. We weren’t asked for our vehicle registration papers, which was great, as we didn’t have them on us. They did ask for the kids’ unabridged birth certificates though – which we did have.
Our hotel, the Avani Hotel Lesotho, was near the border and we didn’t see much of Lesotho that day. Our initial thoughts were that it was quite similar to South Africa. When we drove out of Maseru the following day however, we realised that it was quite different.
Lesotho is the largest enclave in the world. An enclave is a country, or portion of a country, entirely or mostly surrounded by another country. It is an independent sovereign country, completely surrounded by South Africa. It is also known as the “Kingdom in the Sky”, and the “Switzerland of Africa”, due to its abundance of mountains and its base altitude (lowest point), which is the highest in the world at 1400 metres above sea level!
After breakfast the next morning, we drove through the capital city and out into the mountains. For a capital city, Maseru did not seem very densely populated. As we ventured further out, we saw how different it was from South Africa. The terrain became very mountainous, more and more so as we ventured deeper into the country. For miles, we didn’t see any other cars. There were sporadic clusters of houses and Basutho huts, women washing clothes in rivers, and shepherds wrapped in the traditional, colourful Lesotho blankets, herding cattle. It was evident that many people still used the old-fashioned modes of transport i.e. horses and donkeys, and we often had to stop to allow animals to cross the road. All of these scenes were set amid spectacular scenery.
Our destination was Semonkong Lodge, a rustic lodge, about two hours away from the capital city. Most of the roads leading there were in good condition, except the portion leading into the Semonkong area and Maletsunyane Falls, which would have been more appropriate for a 4×4 than our passenger vehicle. Once we got to the Semonkong area, we drove through a busy trading post before we arrived at the lodge. Local stalls were selling all sorts of goods. I spotted food stalls, clothing, horses and donkeys for sale, and even a PEP store and one sole Chinese general dealer. People were milling about, little children were playing, and older children were herding cattle. On enquiring, we were told that donkey prices ranged from R800 to R1500 while horses were sold from R4000 to R20 000, depending on their height.
The “road” here was very bumpy as it was not quite a road. We drove down a steep incline, crossed a bridge over a flowing river and arrived at the lodge. The setting was spectacular. Horses and donkeys were constantly passing through. We picked up our guide, placed our orders for lunch and set off for Maletsunyane Falls, a 30 minute drive away through more bumpy “roads”.
Maletsunyane Falls is one of the longest drop waterfalls in Africa. The falls are set in a canyon and are spectacular although the water level wasn’t at its highest at the time. Here, adrenaline junkies can challenge themselves with the longest single-drop abseil in the world (204 metres). It has a certificate from Guinness World Records to prove it. My kids were keen to experience it, but I was hesitant especially after hearing that it was considered “extreme abseiling” and “not for the faint-hearted”. The falls drop into a beautiful pool at the bottom.
It was a short but steep hike down to a plain where we could get a better view of the falls. After admiring the falls and taking the obligatory photos, we took a longer but gentler route back to our vehicle, passing grazing cattle along the way. Our vehicle then returned us to Semonkong Lodge. I got to see some of the quaint rooms set in rondawels (round huts), and imagine about how relaxing it would be to stay there.
We had a light but delicious lunch of hake and chips, smoked trout, mango and cashew salad and cheesy quesadillas. While we were lunching, a biker came in, flushed and exhilarated. He had just rode in from Johannesburg and we overhead him saying that the winding mountain roads to Semonkong were a bikers dream.
Soon it was time to return to our hotel. As we entered Maseru Town, we were caught in peak afternoon traffic but it was paltry compared to Johannesburg traffic.
We left Maseru via the Maseru Bridge border again. The formalities on the Lesotho side were completed in five minutes while the South African side took over an hour. This time, we drove via Ficksburg to Clarens and Golden Gate National Park. Ficksburg is known as the Cherry Capital of South Africa but as it was not the right season, there was not a cherry in sight. I must admit that while my primary reason for visiting Lesotho was to tick another country off my list I really enjoyed my time there. The pace of life seemed so much slower than anywhere else I visited and it is the ideal place to relax and enjoy a bucolic way of life.
Some trivia about Lesotho
- Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Letsie III since 1996.
- Prince Harry does a lot of charity work in Lesotho. He co-founded a charity in Lesotho in 2006 with Prince Seeisoof the Lesotho Royal Family. It is called Sentebale, which means ‘Forget me not’ in Sesotho. He visits often.
- Maseru means “place of red sandstone”.
- Lesotho’s currency is called the Loti (Plural: Maloti). It is pegged to the South African randon a 1:1 basis and both are accepted as legal tender within Lesotho.
- I asked our guide if there were any wild animals in Lesotho and she said that there weren’t as they had all been eaten by the locals already!
See this amazing video by Travel Concept Solution about a Lesotho Road Trip.