Navigating The Mountain Kingdom Tucked Away Inside South Africa

Technically, this kingdom is not inside South Africa. Lesotho is a separate country — an enclave surrounded by South Africa.

It is a mountain kingdom, though… think Bhutan. But, other than it being a mountain kingdom, Lesotho has very little in common with the kingdom of the thunder dragon.

The Kingdom of Lesotho has no masterful architecture, and it’s certainly not the happiest country in the world — not by any subjective measurement. While Bhutan — with its unique brand of tantric Buddhism — is known for celebrating sexuality, Lesotho is known for having one of the world’s highest HIV/AIDS rates — trailing only Swaziland, according to 2016 figures. Crime can also be a problem in this tiny African nation. And rather than tourism being strictly regulated by the government, travel in Lesotho is basically a free-for-all (though not entirely anarchist).

But none of these factors would deter me from paying a visit to the mountain kingdom while in the middle of road tripping across South Africa. Not even the thought of traversing unpaved mountain roads in a beat-up rental car would deter me.

It was just going to be two days in Lesotho anyway. Other than catching HIV (Don’t worry. It didn’t happen.), what all could happen to me?

The obstacle was the way

Some stoics like to say “the obstacle is the way.” This very much describes my travels into and through Lesotho.

Dodging lightning strikes, motorbikers, prostitutes and child extortion artists were frequent occurrences as my friend and I traversed this remote territory in southern Africa.

We’ll start with the road to Lesotho.

My friend and I had been traveling along South Africa’s southeastern coast. Before heading to Lesotho, we were in South Africa’s Transkei region, which was formerly an unrecognized state. During South Africa’s apartheid era, Transkei was an area set aside for black residents that sort of functioned as an independent state. Now reintegrated in South Africa, Transkei is a rural, green and wet region of the country. It has lots of high cliffs as well.

The day before we left Transkei, we ran into a big thunderstorm. At the time, I was walking alone on the beach. The storm started suddenly. Rain poured out of the sky, and lightning repeatedly struck very close to me. I was scared for my life.

 

I looked around and the only place that was not out in the open was a forest near the beach. I ran into the forest and sheltered under a tree, hoping lightning would not strike one of the trees close to me. After about an hour, the storm passed. I got soaked, even though I was under tree cover. Most importantly, I was alive and ready to venture to Lesotho.

Our drive out of Transkei and into Lesotho featured a four-legged friend. This dog took advantage of the fact that we could only drive about 20-30 km per hour on the gravel roads. He chased after us and, for the most part, managed to keep up with our car.  Every few kilometers we would stop to take some photos. There was the dog, behind us again. He was a very friendly dog who clearly wanted to come with us to Lesotho. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take him with us. When we finally made our way onto better roads, we parted ways with our furry friend.

Our furry friend

Heading north for Lesotho through a South African mountain range we encountered some snow, even though it was November and we were in the Southern Hemisphere. There would be plenty more snowcapped mountains later on this journey…

Upon hitting the Lesotho border, the guards were surprised to see us — two Germans traveling in an old, beat-up car. But they let us in the country without problem.

Well, crossing the border wasn’t entirely problem-free. Our internet cut out upon entering Lesotho, and it was evening, and we hadn’t booked a place to stay.

We searched for the next “big” town (Lesotho’s largest city has a population of 330,000 and many people in the country live in huts) and managed to find a hotel with nice bar. It was all booked up. Bummer.

Onward we drove, cruising around western Lesotho. In the end, we found a tiny town with accommodation — a hut with a bed — and took it. After scavenging for dinner, we stumbled upon some kind of restaurant that was just selling bread with some chicken. But the bread was a special type of bread baked in Lesotho and it was tasty. A worker in the restaurant could speak English and was friendly, which was a plus. We gladly answered his questions about life in Germany. We didn’t give quite the glowing review he was expecting.

A cozy place for the night

The next day we went to the Malealea area near the city of Mafeteng. The region is known for having beautiful mountains and being a good place for hiking and encountering local culture. We hiked through a hidden valley with a man who pointed out the various topographical features of the area. I think the area can be described as a colorful valley with snowcapped mountains and hut villages hidden behind trees.

Mountains, huts and trees

We ducked into one of the huts and had dinner with a local family. Goat curry. Yum.

Then came the motorbikers

Apparently one of the top lodging facilities in Lesotho is none other than the Malealea Lodge. Expecting to get a room for the night, we entered the Malealea Lodge and found that it was completely booked up — by mtorobikers.

It so happened that the 50th Roof of Africa motorbike race was taking place right where we were traveling — in western Lesotho.

Again in need of a place to stay, we headed for the capital city Maseru, located on Lesotho’s western border with South Africa. Maseru has a less than stellar reputation. The city doesn’t get on my nerves, though, the way Kathmandu does. So I’ll refrain from calling Maseru a shithole.

We arrived at night and luckily got a nice hotel. The next challenge was getting dinner. Being that it was dark out and Maseru isn’t the safest place, our hotel offered us a bodyguard. They didn’t offer us their best muscle. A young woman “bodyguard” who could not speak English accompanied us on our excursion to dinner.

To be fair, she was fat (larger than the girl on my trip across the Outback). So, if needed, she did have some weight to throw around.

We drove through Maseru, blowing through red lights. After all, if we were to stop at a red light, there would be a higher probability that we would be robbed.

A shopping center turned out to be about the only option for food at that hour. After much persuading, our plump female bodyguard came out of the car and joined us. To be fair again, she couldn’t speak English and was very shy.

Surprisingly, we lucked out. We struck gold in the form of a steakhouse, Eagle Mountain Spur, where I ate what was probably the cheapest 500 gram steak of my life. And it was good! Basically all of the other expats living in Lesotho were in the steakhouse as well, which confirmed the restaurant’s worth. Who knew there were expats in Lesotho??

Victory!

On the way back to the hotel, things got more interesting. Out on the street there were hookers looking for clients. They tried to stop our car but did not succeed. Not that I was looking for that, but given the HIV/AIDS rate, you’d think tourists would show a little restraint when considering the sex industry in Lesotho.

Ultimately, we returned to the hotel unscathed and uninfected, and our bodyguard was off the hook. I think she was quite relieved the experience was over.

Our trip continued on with a driving tour of Lesotho’s mountains. Admittedly, it would have been more exciting if we were on motorbikes (or in my Moorean roadster, if going for style). We saw motorbikers from all over the world going straight up and down mountains. There were no roads involved in their racing. We had to keep some distance, so they didn’t fly over our roof or knock off our rearview mirror while zipping by. Just watching the race was pretty cool.

Deeper into the mountains we went. At some point, the asphalt road gave way to a gravel road and then the gravel road gave way to a mud road. At this point, dirtbikes would really have come in handy.

As we traveled deeper and deeper into the mountains, we would run into villages. About every half hour we’d hit a new village. And every time we arrived at a new village, we would be swarmed by the village children. Kids would come running up to our car, not to see who these foreigners were, but to demand that we give them sweets. In one village, the children blocked the road. Considering the length and extent of their blockade, we were almost forced to run them over. Fortunately that didn’t happen.

Rural life in Lesotho

The economic engine of the country

Before heading out of Lesotho, we took a pair of highways across the middle of the country. Traveling West on A3 and then northwest on A25, we continued to drive through beautiful mountain passes. And in the north of the country, we found the Katse Dam.

Despite Lesotho being such a small country, it has the second largest double-curvature arch dam in Africa (fun fact 🙂). The Katse Dam is part of a large water project in which Lesotho generates both water and electricity for a region of South Africa. Lesotho receives more than $35 million a year from South Africa for this endeavor.

Water is a cash commodity in Lesotho

Water from the dam flows down to South Africa. It also travels to a hydroelectric station in Lesotho. We stopped and visited the dam and the hydroelectric station to see how this system functions. Given the undeveloped feel of the country, this operation is impressive.

After driving through both highlands and lowlands, the sun was again setting on us, and hence, the sun was setting on our time in Lesotho. Like usual, we had no place to stay for the night.

Snow in the highlands – even as summer approaches

We exited Lesotho in the northwest and returned to South Africa, where our Internet connection was restored. Driving around and looking for a place to spend the night was not proving to be the most effective strategy. So we turned to the Internet and discovered the town Clarens.

Clarens is a nice, artsy South African village that is near the border with Lesotho. It is actually a bit of a tourist trap with a bunch of pubs and restaurants. Despite arriving after nightfall, Clarens worked out well for us. It was just a stopover as we prepared for another tiny country semi-embedded in South Africa.

You’ll have to stay tuned to the blog to read about our adventure into Swaziland…

What awaits in Swaziland??

 

Stay: Dont expect much in terms of accomodation, although it is more than the hut pictured above. Highly recommendable is a trip to Malalea Lodge, even if that means some lenghty gravel roads

 

Eat: They have a tasty special bread in Lesotho. And did i mention the Eagle Mountain Spur steak house in Maseru? 😉

 

Drink: We did not see much in terms of nightlife, but had the experience to be in a little hotel bar and drinking some beer because they had nothing else.

 

Connect: No Google Fi, although there seem to be local 3G connections

 

See: Quite beautiful landscapes, but devoid of people and animals. Lesotho can get very lonely, but is a haven for hikers. Going into the mountains is recommended.

 

Do: Get a car and take the gravel roads thorugh the rugged mountain interior. Visit the sights described above – and have your fun with the roads.

 

Go there: There are flights from Johannesburg, theoretically. Better just rent a car in South Africa and drive into the country through one of the borders on the west or north. All other boards are only passable by very good 4WD drivers due to steep mountain passes.

 

Go next: South Africa is everywhere – but a days drive brings adventure-minded travelers into the next small country – Swaziland!