I had previously been to Swaziland, on a road trip which came close to costing my traveling partner and I our lives. That was not so much fun. It also meant that the only remaining, easily accessible country to a South African with a car was the Kingdom of Lesotho. Made famous for a brief coup in the late 1990’s, but otherwise largely invisible to the international community, it was to this secluded little nation that I and Katherine pointed my little car these past few days. Setting off in search of… well – whatever there was to be found, really.
The minor back story to this trip was that my brother had recently gone into snowboarding withdrawal after too long back in sunnier climes after his stint teaching English in the northernmost villages of Japan. As a result, he had absconded on Friday with a bunch of like minded boarders to see if they could find some powder in the uppermost reaches of the Lesotho mountains. Lesotho, you see, is comprised almost entirely of some of the biggest, most closely packed mountains in the Maluti range in South Africa. With peaks extending well past 3000m above sea level, it gets cold fast. Then it gets snowy.
On arrival, the Lesotho customs official, as sour as she was angrily excitable, stamped our passports with a force usually reserved by gods for smiting
I had declined to go with, waiting on the travel arrangements of others, later changing plans for reasons whose politics would make for an even longer and far less interesting blog post. What this in effect meant was that Katherine and I, come Saturday morning, had decided on a few hours notice that it might make for an interesting experience to throw some warm clothes, passports and a spoonful of naivety into the car and head down south as well to see what Lesotho was actually like first hand.
This was how we ended up in Clarens, some six hours later, with a helpful lady at the last real rest stop before the border crossing informing us that to cross into Lesotho that late in the day, with no particular plans (which was, in fact, our plan) was decidedly dumb. In a hazardous to your general health kind of way. There is something in the shrill panic of another that really focuses your attention on the fact that you have no place to stay, and no clue what the other side of the border will be like.
Some frantic calls later, after the Internet coughed up perhaps six credible references for accommodation in the entire eastern half of the country, and we had booked two beds in Mamohase Rural Stay. For which directions and a general review will follow in a subsequent post, because I really wish someone had provided one beforehand to make finding it a little easier.
[kml_flashembed allowfullscreen=”true” publishmethod=”dynamic” fversion=”8.0.0″ movie=”http://www.richardstupart.com/images/sets/lesotho/loader.swf” base=”.” width=”542″ height=”441″ targetclass=”flashmovie”]
With the confident pomp of a pair who believes they are now organised, we proceeded on through the border. Past the bored and tired South African post and through to the Lesotho post. On arrival, the Lesotho customs official, as sour as she was angrily excitable, stamped our passports with a force usually reserved by gods for smiting before performing the sliding equivalent of throwing them at us. Welcome to Lesotho. Scurrying back to the car, zipping through the boom and out into Lesotho proper, the initial drive into the country became a continual series of “wow”, “look at this”, <insert tourist cliches here>.
Lesotho, you see – and I feel that it is important that the record reflect this – is absolutely nothing like Swaziland. Swaziland seemed more like an extension of South Africa than a culturally distinct country in its own right – with freeways, South African style signs and obvious reminders of South African washing powder, soft drinks and banks on its billboards. Lesotho felt like something else. The further we drove, the more it was as if the modern world faded into nonexistence. With the marginal exception of Butha-Buthe (the first town on the Lesotho side from the northeast), there are few cars, practically no electricity and the ever-noticeable signs of the likes of World Vision and other aid agencies.
Lesotho, you see – and I feel that it is important that the record reflect this – is absolutely nothing like Swaziland.
From the map we had available, there are maybe a half-dozen tarred roads in the whole country – roads which hug the sides of mountains which seemed to grow ever larger as they cast their great shadows across entire villages in the (by then) waning light. As the sun slipped behind the range and night gathered momentum, we were still some way off from finding where we had informally booked ourselves in for the night. Mountains, while impressive enough in the daytime when that densely packed, had an ability at night to project an even more intense darkness around us as we continued scratching our way ahead. With no electricity, only occasional fires or lamps being carried would provide pinpricks of light hovering in the apparent nothingness alongside the road.
Mamohase, to great relief, would eventually appear out of the night as a giant white sign pointing down a road which, had it been daylight, I am not wholly convinced I would have had the courage to tackle in my distinctly-not-a-4×4 vehicle. But a half hour of bouncing and climbing, scraping and tilting, and we found ourselves in a local community whose collective project had become providing accommodation and cultural and touring activities for those fortunate enough to stop in. This was Mamohase Rural Home Stay.
It was a little piece of heaven. Even more so in the morning, when it became clear that driving in the darkness of the night before had in fact meant that we were now well and truly ensconced in a land of mountains. Mountains on mountains. Mountains as far as the eye could see in any direction, with the most perfect, cloudless blue skies fading out into the distance and reducing the furthest mountains to artistic silhouettes, strange and craggy shapes in ever deeper shades.
With the Sunday spent exploring as much as possible, the country managed to continually find new and beautiful things to see and ask about. Fortunately, we were lifting the one of the Mamohase residents up the mountain to see family, making finding out more about the sights we passed as simple as, well… asking. Whether it was a shack-turned bar at 2500m above sea level, or stories about being a shepherd in the higher mountains in summer, the day was so much richer for our passenger’s presence.
We never did manage to find my brother in the end. He had (as it turned out) stayed just outside of Lesotho, popped in to board and returned to Johannesburg the morning we were spending in eager exploration. But comparing his impressions with what we had seen and learned, I have little doubt that we will be going back to see more. Lesotho felt very much like an isolated mountain kingdom, where it would be all to easy to forget that beyond the endless peaks was a modern world. There is a magic in the mountain kingdom, for sure.