Crossing the Sani pass
Favorite thing: We finally arrived at the South African border post and had our passports stamped. For the next 8km we would be in no mans land the gap between the two nations of South Africa and Lesotho.
We continued on horrid roads getting higher and higher finally reaching the last sprint up the mountain. This was just switchback after switchback zigging and zagging until we reached the summit. In the distance we could see buildings the first signs of human life since we left the South African border post. We finally reached the top and arrived at the Lesotho Sani Pass border post. We were now 2,873m in elevation or roughly 8,600 feet well over a mile above sea level where I started my day
It took us nearly an hour and a half to conquer the pass from this point. We zig zagged through the mountains getting higher and higher as the roads got worse and worse. Our guide would point out where we were going. It was where the two highest points in the range seemed to meet each other. It seemed pretty impossible we’d be able to drive there but we kept getting closer and closer zig zagging on unpaved, rock filled roads as our destination became slowly closer.
Fondest memory: We climbed out of the truck to get our passports stamped. I noticed as I leaned into the immigration office window with my passport that the office was being heated with a wood fire not electricity.
It was hard not to noticed the stark difference between the border posts themselves.
In South Africa they had a nice brick building with bathrooms for all to use and a huge sign with the SA flag welcoming people to South Africa.
On the Lesotho side the building didn’t even have electricity and “Welcome to Lesotho” was written on the outside wall in black paint by handRelated to:
- Road Trip
When's the best time to visit Lesotho?
Favorite thing: There is no well defined 'tourist season' in Lesotho, and the time that you choose to visit should largely be dictated by what you intend to do.
Lesotho's climate is tempered by its altitude, and except in the lowlands on the western border, it never gets particularly hot, even in mid summer. Winters are extremely cold, with snow in the higher mountains. Rain occurs mostly during the (Southern Hemisphere) summer months between about October and March and usually falls as shortlived but intense thunderstorms. Follow this link for more detailed climatic information on Maseru (or enter the name of other towns in Lesotho to get an idea of the often significant variation within the country).
If you're planning a self drive trip, then it's probably best to avoid the winter months (May to August) when temperatures are coldest and snow is most likely: having said that, a colleague of mine did the Roof of Africa and Sani Pass to celebrate his 40th birthday in June and loved the experience, frozen waterfalls, river crossings and all!
Those planning to do any sort of extended pony trek would probably be well advised to perhaps consider visiting in spring and autumn, when the weather is relatively warm but there is less chance of rain. From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that there are few things as miserable than spending an entire day in the saddle when you've been caught in a torrential downpour which has soaked you to the skin!
Fishermen are a hardy lot, and so fishing seems to be pretty well a year round activity, except in the depths of winter.
Lesotho is keen to develop a winter sports industry - particularly with the recent demise of the Tiffendal ski resort in the Eastern Cape, which was, until now, the only ski resort in Southern Africa. In recent years, the Afriski resort has been established to the east of Buthe Buthe, which is accessed via the Moteng Pass (which should be accessible to those with 4x4 vehicles in all but the most extreme winter weather). Whilst it lays no claim to being in the same league as the premier Alpine ski resorts of Europe or North America, surely it's got to be worth considering, if only for the novelty value of being able to say that you've been skiing in Africa???
And my personal opinion on the matter? Well, my advice to you would be that the best time to visit Lesotho is as soon as possible, before too many other people discover its charms, so that you can have it pretty well to yourself!
A national animal that doesn't live in the country
Favorite thing: Most of the time a country's choice of national animal is pretty obvious, but in the case of Lesotho, the fact that the crocodile has been awarded this honour is somewhat bewildering!
For one thing, there are no crocodiles in Lesotho. The climate is too cold, and the rivers generally too rocky, shallow and fast flowing to provide the sort of warm, slow moving environment that crocs need to thrive. Granted there are dams, but these are deep, steep sided and freezing cold, and don't provide the shallows and sand banks that crocs relish.
So why on earth choose the crocodile? Well, the best explanation that I've been able to come up with is that one of the tribes that became part of the Basotho nation (the Bamokotleli) when it was pulled together by Mosheoshoe I in the early 19th century were closely related to the Bakoena tribe in Bechuanaland (modern day Botswana), who were known as the 'crocodile people'. This would make sense, as crocodiles are common in Botswana, but it's still a pretty tenuous link.
I'd be fascinated to know if anyone can tell me of other countries whose national animal doesn't exist within its borders ...
Getting to Lesotho in the first place ...
Favorite thing: For fear of stating the obvious, Lesotho is not a mainstream tourist destination, and chances are that if you ask your travel agent to provide you with flight quotes to Maseru, their response will be, "Where?" Once they have confirmed that they indeed heard you correctly and that you really do want to go to Lesotho, you may also find that prices you are quoted seem very high, but take heart, because there are many ways to skin a cat ...
Let's start at the beginning. There are very few international flights directly into Maseru - and the only 'international' flights that do exist are South African Airways flights from OR Tambo International in Johannesburg. The number of passengers wanting to visit Lesotho is simply so small that it isn't worth the big international players servicing the route, so all international visitors will need to transit via somewhere else.
The route to O R Tambo International in Johannesburg is the busiest route into Africa, so there is heaps of competition, and as a result, it should be possible to find a relatively competitive fare with services providers such as South African Airways, Lufthansa or Emirates.
Once you make it to South Africa, the logical course of action might appear to be to catch a connecting flight to Maseru. However, these tend to be relatively expensive (the lack of competition again), and this only gets you to the capital which - with respect - is probably not the part of Lesotho you want to access unless you're picking up an organised tour from here.
Given that the majority of tourists choose to do self drive in Lesotho, the most practical, flexible and cost effective option is to pick up a hire car in Johannesburg and then drive into Lesotho. This is usually much cheaper than hiring a vehicle on arrival in Maseru, as there are many more car hire companies operating in Jo'burg, which means that you're probably able to get a much better car hire deal and a wider choice of vehicles. If you've had a long international flight, then it may be a good idea to break your journey by staying overnight at one of the many hotels at the airport (which cater for most budgets) and then picking up your hire car in the morning when you're renewed and refreshed after a good night's sleep.
The drive from Jo'burg into one of the northern Lesotho border posts is straightforward and takes about 5 hours.
Other South African destinations that you could fly into and then rent a car include Bloemfontein and Durban - but be warned that if you fly into Durban and intend entering Lesotho from the east, then your point of entry will be the formidable Sani Pass, so you'd be well advised to read up on this challenging route before you commit to this point of entry!
South Africa and Lesotho are part of a common customs union, so there is no problem in bringing a car hired in South Africa across the border into Lesotho (and vice versa). Visitors need to have valid passports and visas (where required) but do not have to show vehicle registration papers.
A country completely surrounded by another country
Favorite thing: (work in progress)
Off the top of my head, I struggle to think of any country other than Lesotho which is completely surrounded by one other single country - in this case, South Africa. Well, I suppose that places such as the Vatican City and San Marino are in similar positions, but to be realistic, these are only a few square kilometres real estate, whereas by comparison, Lesotho is quite a sizeable country.
Obviously being completely encircled by another country poses unique political and logistical challenges, and make it inadvisable for you to fall out with your bigger and much more powerful neighbour. This was a particular dilemma for Lesotho during the isolation years of apartheid.
Entry Requirements into Lesotho
Favorite thing: South Africa surrounds this country completely - however Lesotho is totally independent from South Africa and hence visitors require a passport and in certain cases a visa to enter. If you do not have those documents you will not be able to leave South Africa and enter Lesotho. The border formalities are easy, but it is recommended that you take a pen with to fill in the Lesotho arrival forms.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Budget Travel
- Business Travel
Mountain passes, mountain passes, mountain passes
Favorite thing: During our trip we must have passed over ten or more mountain passes in Lesotho, most of them very special and interesting from all perspectives. The scenery in most of them is breathtaking, particularly the ones north of Katse Dam, the ones on the way to Thaba Tseka from Maseru, and the ones just before Oxbow, which are also the highest in Southern Africa. It this is your thing, you'll find the architecture and technical features worthy and interesting... one of the passes just north of Katse won a construction award. Note that all of these are tarred roads, so all are easily accessible. The dirt road passes are also in reasonable condition, just take care in wet conditions.Related to:
- Road Trip
Favorite thing: Lesotho is a slow place. To truly discover and appreciate it, you have to drive, walk, eat slow, but be present in the moment. Wildlife is almost non-existent... or so you may think, if you don't keep an eye open for eagles and other unique birds along the road. You may miss the splashes of colour of blankets being dried alongside the stream they've been washed, or miss a wave and a smile from someone tilling their field some distance away. Go slow, and you'll be rewarded with a memorable experience or sight.
Favorite thing: A lot of life in Lesotho revolves around the donkey. It's the default means of transport for many inhabitants, and the array of goods being transported by donkeys never fails to amaze. Watch out for trains of donkeys along the roads, either on their way to or returning from mills where their owners have had their maize turned into flour. On a trip you may spot donkeys carrying anything from flour bags to gas cylinders, meat, wood, and, of course, human beings.
Money in Lesotho
Favorite thing: The Kingdom has got its own currency - the Lesotho Maluti. The currency is en-par with the South African Rand, which is also accepted everywhere in the country.
Be reminded that if you do get your hands on local currency, try and spend it in the country, since you will battle to exchange it back into anything else later; even in South Africa!!Related to:
- Budget Travel
- Family Travel
- Work Abroad
Favorite thing: In the village we visited during our pony ride we saw a lot of round traditional huts.
These huts were made of local natural materials like rock at the bottom and straw for the conical roofs. The huts formed a perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape.
And these round huts with their roofs are cool during the day and hopefully warm enough during the night.
The house of the medicine woman
Favorite thing: The woman who welcomed us, was the medicine woman of the village or maybe of the whole area around.
She invited us in her house. She is a medicine woman for body and soul. She treated the illness and body-pains of the local people, but she also helped with mental problems and she had a very important spiritual role in the village.
The interior of the house, especially of the prayerplace, was very peaceful and serene. The atmosphere was enchanting, also caused by the special effect of the natural light. It gave us a very good feeling.
The woman sung some ritual prayers for us.
Because it was getting dark very soon, it was a pity, there was no time enough for a treatment of one of us.Related to:
House, high under the cliffs.
Favorite thing: After we visited the caves and we had to descend at the other side of the slope, we saw the upper part of the village with some huts..
The two girls asked us to climb to the highest house under the overhanging rock. This house had very clear nice terracotta colours. All the other dwellings in the village had natural, grey colours, so this house with its colours was striking.
The woman at the clothes-line beckoned us and welcomed us at her place.
The view from this place at the village and the plain was splendid. It felt like a magical place, so just before twilight.Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
In the village, nice girls
Favorite thing: In the village, that we visited during our pony ride, we climbed to the caves and the upper part of the village.
These two nice girls accompanied me. They showed me the best tracks to climb and where to walk at the steep slope between the rocks.
After visiting the caves they brought us to a very special house in the upper part of the village.Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
Climbing to the caves
Favorite thing: After leaving the pomies behind down in the village we climbed to the caves.
The kids of the villages accompanied us, showed the best path and helped us to climb. They showed us the small caves and dwellings in the rocks. They were not very interesting, but the view at the plain was wonderful and so was the story of the caves.
And this is the story to be told:
In these caves lived cannibals in former times. This people stretched a rope across the plain to notice when a passer- by appeared. And then they knew, there is someone for in the bowl.
And these cannibals were maybe the ancestors of most or some of the people in this village nowadays.Related to:
- Hiking and Walking
- Historical Travel
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