Exploring Lesotho's extensive bridle paths
Lesotho's extensive network of bridle paths are the arteries of the nation, and without these routeways, large parts of the country would be simply inaccessible. Although the bridle paths were intended to facilitate access by pony or donkey, they also make splendid walking trails.
Lesotho's system of existing bridle paths was greatly extended between 1930 and 1932, when the entire region was gripped by a major drought. The British administration realised that one of the ways of alleviating the resultant famine was to open up access to additional grazing in the remote interior. This involved the establishment of hundreds of kilometres of additional bridle path in a 'make work' programme that also provided much needed temporary employment to Basotho whose subsistence agriculture had been hammered by the poor rainfall. The paths were constructed according to the British imperial norm of a path eight feet wide, which is wide enough to allow two animals loaded with pack saddles to safely pass each other.
Tempting though it might seem, please resist the temptation to use bridle paths as vehicle tracks, as chances are that you'll pay a high price. These paths were not designed for this purpose, so the chances of getting bogged down are high, with the added downside that (unlike designated roads) there is not likely to be another vehicle travelling the same route anytime soon who will be able to assist you. Driving on these roads (which are hand constructed and maintained) also contributes to potential erosion in a country that cannot afford to lose any more of its thin topsoil and when wet, the black turf is just waiting to lovingly embrace your wheels on a semi-permanent basis!
Take my word for it - Lesotho's roads are challenging enough without having to venture off road for your thrills!
The exceedingly remote Letšeng diamond mine
As a general rule of thumb, diamond mines tend to be located in the back of beyond, but when it comes to remoteness, Lesotho's diamond mines really take the biscuit!
Letšeng le Terai is operated by Gem Diamonds and is Lesotho's largest diamond mine and is located just off the road between Butha Buthe and Mokhotlong. It is situated at an elevation of about 3,100m ... that's over 10,000 feet (or nearly two miles) above sea level in old money!
The mine is tiny by international standards - both in terms of its physical size and production carats - but what sets Letšeng apart is the extraordinary size and quality of its gemstones.
For those who aren't familiar with the economics of diamond mining, the profitability of an operation is driven not only by the volume of diamond production, but also by the quality of the diamonds recovered. For example, a massive diamond mine like Debswana's Orapa operation in Botswana produces an enormous number of carats (0.2g, based on the weight of the carob seed, whose remarkable uniform seeds were used as the historic unit of measurement), but of the diamonds recovered at that mine, 80% are of industrial quality, whereas only the remaining 20% are of gem quality. It stands to reason that industrial diamonds - which rely on diamond's extreme hardness for applications such as the tipping of drill bits - are worth only a fraction of gem quality diamonds. Similarly, not all gems are equally valuable - the value is established in terms of the 4 Cs (clarity, colour, carat weight and cut), with large, clear, brilliant white stones attracting a premium.
Lesotho's diamond mines have very small production, but they boast a very high ratio of gem/industrial diamonds, and have a happy habit of turning up massive, high quality stones every so often. By way of example, in October 2011, the Letšeng Star (the fourteenth largest diamond ever documented) sold for a mindboggling USD16.5million. It is the fourth massive gem quality stone to be discovered since the mine reopened in 2006 - economically the challenge is to keep the cash flow ticking over between these 'bonanza' finds.
Theft is a major issue for all diamond mines, but particularly for those which produce a high proportion of large gem quality stones. Hence the long white structure snaking across the landscape is an enclosed conveyor belt to prevent diamonds from being stolen between the pit and the sorting plant. Because of security concerns, there is tight access control to the mine, and visitors are only allowed by appointment. Thus, as a casual tourist, you will not be able to visit the mine pub - which is the highest in Africa - and will instead have to soldier on for another three or four hours to Sani Top to find the highest 'public' bar on the continent!
Just a last word on the photo (of which I am rather proud). This photo was taken in the early afternoon in January - midsummer - and illustrates the massive cloud build up before a huge hailstorm. Photogenic though this might be, it made for atrocious driving conditions, so when planning your trip in this part of the world, be realistic about the distances you can travel in a day based on road conditions and weather-related constraints.
Meet the albino Rastas of Lesotho!
Wherever you venture in the mountains of Lesotho, it won't be long before you stumble across a herd of angora goats with their characteristic white 'dreadlocked' coats.
Lesotho used to have a thriving mohair industry in the late 20th century, but poor management of the sector - particularly with respect to shearing and distribution - saw the industry decline towards the millenium, causing a resultant downswing in the weaving industry.
At the time of writing (February 2012), the Lesotho Treasury was funding the initial phase of a project to "focus on the improving of farming practices, state support services and infrastructure to farmers, and the development of a Wool and Mohair enterprise value chain, all in effort to significantly augment the contribution of the sector to the Lesotho economy".
One of the challenges for the Lesotho mohair industry is the relatively low wool yield per animal, which, by way of context, is only a fraction of the average for angora goats in neighbouring South Africa. This is due to a combination of factors, including poor nutrition, ageing herds and poor genetic diversity as well as the harsh climatic conditions that they endure.
I have to say that goats are not my favourite animal, as they are responsible for more environmental degradation in Africa than all other animals combined. Other grazing animals, such as sheep and cows, clip the grass with their teeth to just above ground level, from where it can regenerate. However, goats will actively grub out the roots and ringbark trees, destroying the plants and leading to the destruction of pasture and rampant soil erosion. There's also something a touch satanic about their eyes, but I digress ...
In order to prevent further environmental degradation, I can only hope that in trying to increase mohair production, the Powers That Be will place emphasis on increasing the wool yield per animal - which would allow production to be significantly upscaled from the same number of animals - rather than simply increasing the number of goats.
Unusual figure on a royal grave, Thaba Bosiu
The royal cemetery atop Thaba Bosiu is a very special place in many ways, but the aspect that most intrigued me was this near life size carved figure on one of the graves.
Other than being a rather endearing depiction, what really piqued my curiosity was the fact that seldom - if ever - are such three dimensional figures included on graves in Southern Africa. I have seen this in places in Madagascar, but never in this part of the world, and the fact that only one grave was decorated in this manner was particularly intriguing.
If anyone knows any more about this, I'd be fascinated to learn more!
The Basotho Hat: a peculiar Maseru landmark
The Basotho hat is a distinctive element of Basotho national dress that doesn't look like any other sort of hat I've ever seen elsewhere. It is a curious conical structure woven out of grass and usually is topped by some sort of ornamentation - as immortalised in this bizarre building that has been part of the Maseru landscape since the 1960s.
Rather than having been relegated to a tourist curio like so many other aspects of national dress elsewhere, the Basotho hat is still surprisingly common in the rural areas. When I first arrived in Johannesburg in the late 1980s - at a time when air conditioning was not a standard feature in cheaper cars - it was quite common (and just a trifle subversive) to place a pair of Basotho hats on the shelf behind your backseat to protect the speakers of your car stereo system from direct sunlight, although this fashion has since passed ...
Of course a Basotho hat is best accessorised with that other distinctive item of national dress, the Basotho blanket ...
Join the faithful at Maseru's Catholic cathedral
Lesotho is a dominantly Catholic country: about 45% of the population are Catholic, which distinguishes it yet further from its neighbour, South Africa, which is staunchly Protestant. The Catholic cathedral in Maseru (at the end of Kingsway) is one of the largest - if not the largest - building in the city, and is indicative of the large number of practicing Catholics in the city.
Lesotho's Catholicism stems from the fact that it was evangelised by French missionaries in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They established their headquarters at Motse-oa-'M'a-Jesu (the Village of the Mother of Jesus), the site of the present day town of Roma, about 35km south east of Maseru - which was the first home of the National University of Lesotho and still hosts three seminaries.
Lesotho is also well on its way to having its first 'home grown' saint, the Blessed Joseph Gérard, a French-born member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who was redeployed to Lesotho from Pietermaritzburg in South Africa in 1862. He was a gifted linguist who became fluent in Zulu and Sesotho and established a good rapport with King Moshoeshoe I which allowed him to pursue his mission. He arrived in Lesotho at the age of 31 and spent the rest of his life there, dying at the age of 83 in 1914.
He was beatified (the stage prior to canonisation) in this cathedral by Pope John Paul II on his visit to Lesotho in 1988. And I was enchanted to discover in researching this tip that his feast day is 29 May - my birthday!
Pony trekking at Sani Top
Even if you've never ridden a horse in your life, you simply can't visit Lesotho and not have a go at riding a Basotho pony! Experiencing the mountains from horseback is very different to watching the landscape slip by through a car window, and being on a pony gives you the opportunity to explore Lesotho's extensive network of bridle paths which crosscross areas that are inaccessible by vehicle.
The Basotho pony is an extraordinarily resiliant breed that is renowned for its endurance and sure footedness - both qualities that make it ideal for negotiating Lesotho's challenging terrain. They are small, stocky animals with stoic temperaments, and little seems to faze them ... ideal for first time riders!
There are many pony trekking options in Lesotho, starting with a gentle hour's trek where inexperienced riders can opt to be lead by the reins. At the other end of the spectrum, it's possible to do extended treks into the mountains: I once did a five day trek to the Leribe Falls near Semonkong, and twenty years on, it still remains one of my most treasured travel memories.
I must comment that I found the pony trekking organised by Sani Top Chalets during our recent trip (January 2012) to be both relatively expensive and disorganised. I suspect that this has to do with the present 'hands off' hotel management (which is best described as 'laissez faire') and later on in our trip when we were in Underberg, we heard that the hotel had been sold, so hopefully the new management will be more interested and will engage with the service provider to improve their service delivery. Nonetheless, it was a wonderful experience, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting any of Lesotho's mountain hotels or lodges.
A word of warning: health and safety considerations scarcely register on the radar in this part of the world, and most pony trekking centres will not provide you with hard hats. Also make sure that you make your guide aware of your limitations as a rider so that you can be assigned a pony that matches your level of competence - this is not the place to exaggerate your experience, lest you end up with a spirited mount that will quite literally run away with you!
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Follow in the footsteps of Lesothosaurus!
When I was little, Crosse & Blackwell cleverly tried to establish a competitive advantage amongst their family consumer base by developing a label for their baked bean cans which featured a dinosaur in the reverse side. For a small fee (sixpence in old money, I think?), you could write away for an album in which to display your dinosaurs, and from that moment, I was hooked.
This was clearly an extraordinarily successful campaign as over four decades later, I still have the (exceedingly battered) album and have never managed to kick my fascination with dinosaurs, although I have to confess that as C&B baked beans are unfortunately not available in South Africa, I have reluctantly defected to their bitter rival, Heinz. I married a man who was even more passionate on the subject than I, and so our kids were left with little choice but to become dinosaur enthusiasts in their own right!
One of Lesotho's claims to fame is that there are a couple of locations where you can view dinosaur footprints. This particular set are located about 10km south of Butha Buthe and are easily accessible, only a few hundred metres off the roadside. As soon as you pull in, you'll find someone running towards you, keen to offer their services as guides: this is essential, as otherwise you probably won't find the footprints in the river bed.
The footprints are of two dinosaur species: the smaller, upright Lesothosaurus (see the photo below for an artist's impression), and another larger sauropod (long necked) dinosaur. Of the two, Lesothosaurus is the more interesting for me, as it was one of the most primative ornithischian ('birdlike') dinosaurs which evolved in the early Jurassic. This group is characterised by cheek teeth that adapted to slicing and grinding, and went on to develop parrot like 'beaks'.
Sorry, but I can tell you nothing about the sauropod - unfortunately the guides are good at showing you the site, but know next to nothing about the context of the prints.
I don't know how other people feel, but I can never resist the opportunity to place my foot in the footprint of a creature that no longer exists - in the National Museum in Dar es Salaam for example, I barely managed to resist the temptation to climb over the barrier and fit my feet into fossilised Australopithecus Afarensis footprints from Laetoli. Maybe it's a deep seated desire to walk in the footsteps of our distant ancestors, or perhaps a need to appreciate the size of ancient animals relative to ourselves. Anyway, in most places, this would probably not be allowed for fear of damaging the footprints, but here there are no access restrictions.
As ever, a word of caution. The footprints occur on a rocky sandstone outcrop in the river bed, so are likely to be submerged under high water conditions. Also flow in rivers and streams in this part of the world tends to be 'flashy' and reaches a peak shortly after heavy rainfall events, so if you intend to visit, try to give it a couple of hours for flow to subside after a significant storm.
The grave of Moshoeshoe I: founder of Thaba Bosiu
In most country's history there are one or two towering figures who overshadow the rest. In Lesotho, that man is the extraordinary paramount chief, Moshoeshoe I, and although there have been two leaders with the same name, the first is so legendary that he seldom requires a number to distinguish him.
Let's start with the name first - despite the spelling, Moshoeshoe doesn't have the slightest echo of footwear and is pronounced 'mo-shesh- shway'. This was not his birth name, but was given to him by a praise singer as a young adult after he organised a highly successful cattle raid against a long term foe. The name is onomatopoeic - that is, imitates the sound it describes - and derives from the sound of Moshoeshoe (figuratively) shaving his defeated enemy's beard!
Moshoeshoe was the founder of the modern Basotho nation, which he gathered together in 1818. Moshoeshoe's people comprised a loosely related group of displaced tribes who had fled from the Zulu nation under King Shaka (and later Dingaan), which was pursuing a fearsomely effective campaign to increase their territory across the entire region.
What was to become the Basotho fled into the mountains, and Moshoeshoe retreated with his people to easily defensible mountain strongholds - firstly at Butha Buthe, and later at Thaba Bosiu. Under his leadership, the Basotho managed to successfully repel a series of attacks by the marauding Zulu and Matabele - as well as frequent skirmishes with neighbouring adversaries. However, what really defined him as a leader was his pragmatism and his ability to achieve reconciliation between previously hostile tribes, including one tribe that had cannibalised his own grandfather, and the latter part of Moshoeshoe's reign was characterised by a period of relative peace between the various tribes.
One of Moshoeshoe's other defining features was the way in which he cleverly managed the colonial powers that were shaping his region. Despite a treaty being struck in 1843, the 1850s were characterised by a series of battles with the Boers from the nighbouring Free State over arable land (a commodity in short supply in mountaneous Lesotho) and Boer incursions into traditional Basotho land increased in the mid 1860s. Realising that tiny, sparsely populated Lesotho could not defend itself, he appealed to the British for protection against the Boers, and Basotholand became a British protectorate in 1868.
In researching this tip, I have come across an intriguing reference to Prince Albert of England meeting Moshoeshoe in 1860 and describing him as a most loyal and civilised subject: those of a pedantic nature would point out that it would be another eight years before Basotholand became a British protectorate, but at that point, the Empire was at its zenith, so British royalty probably just assumed (with little chance on contradiction) that everyone they met on their travels were their subjects! I am a little confused as to which this Albert this might be: surely not Prince Albert, the Royal consort to Queen, who was to die only a couple of years later, as I can't imagine the Queen letting him embark on a trip that would have taken him away from England for so many months? I am therefore assuming that this was Prince Albert - known as Bertie - who was later to become King Edward VII and was travelling around the British Empire over this period, but would appreciate any clarification that others could offer on this matter.
Remarkably, Moshoeshoe lived to the age of 83, which is an extraodinary feat in modern day Africa, let alone the much harsher conditions of the 19th century. Having lead his people for half a century, Moshoeshoe died as a man who had achieved much and had nothing to prove, as reflected by the beautiful simplicity of his grave.
Explore Moshoeshoe's mountain fortress
As long as I have been visiting Lesotho, I have wanted to visit Moshoeshoe's mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu, but the opportunity had never presented itself until now. Often when you wait a long time to do something, the reality can be somewhat underwhelming after all the anticipation. However, in the case of visiting Thaba Bosiu, I can happily report that it was well worth waiting a quarter of a century for!
The initial part of Moshoeshoe's long reign in particular was characterised by intense intertribal conflict, and the Basotho found themselves being attacked by warlike neighbours - particularly the Batlokoa, an especially troublesome lot from what is now the Harrismith region on Lesotho's northern border. In the early 1820s, an impressively intimidating 40,000 Batlokoa besieged Moshoeshoe and his troops in his mountain stronghold of Butha Buthe, and after rebuffing their enemy in the charmingly named 'Battle of the Pots', Moshoeshoe realised that the Butha Buthe stronghold could not be defended indefinitely and sent out scouts to seek a more defensible site.
Thaba Bosiu ('the mountain of the night') to the south was identified as being an ideal fortress. Like Butha Buthe, it was a flat topped mountain surrounded by sheer cliff faces, with enough land to accommodate the tribe and its livestock, as well as a permanent spring to provide an essential source of reliable water supply. From a military point of view, there were only six gaps in the cliffs via which the plateau could be accessed - which lent themselves to being easily defended - and the mountain commanded views of the surrounding lowlands in all directions, allowing advancing enemies to be quickly identified. To this day, Thaba Bosiu can only be accessed by hiking up a path opposite the new cultural centre.
The location proved to be an ideal one, and the Basotho successfully held out at Thaba Bosiu against sieges from both Shaka’s Zulu and Mzilikazi’s Ndebele troops.
Thaba Bosiu was declared a national monument in 1967, a year after Lesotho gained its independence. You can hire a guide to show you the way at the cultural centre, who will also show you around the complex on the plateau, including the Basotho royal graves (including the graves of Kings Moshoeshoe I and Moshoeshoe II), the Mamohato spring and Moshoeshoe's house.
Explore the Mokhotlong valley before it's flooded
I am happy to concede that the Lesotho Highlands Water scheme has brought great benefits to Lesotho, particularly in terms of improved infrastructure and much needed foreign exchange. However, it could be argued that the much greater benefits - in terms of water security and hydroelectic power generation - have accrued to Lesotho's 'big brother' South Africa, which has experienced little of the associated downside.
However, such development comes at a high price. Lesotho has an acute shortage of flat land - and even less arable land - outside the narrow western lowlands, and the only area where it is possible to grow crops is possible is adjacent to rivers, which provide relatively flat topography and water supply. Sadly, these are exactly the areas that are sacrificed when a valley is flooded to create a dam.
At present (2012), the Highlands scheme has resulted in the construction of the enormous Katse and Mohale Dams. The next phase of the project will involve the flooding of this valley close to Mokhotlong, with the resultant loss of the fields you can see adjacent to the river. In common with previous phases of the project, dam(n?) development will necessitate the relocation of villages located in the valley, resulting in community disruption and social dislocation.
My long and happy association with Lesotho started when I worked on the Highlands project in its design stages in the late 1980s, and on balance, I still think that the benefits outweigh the negative aspects. However, as is so often the case with these massive projects, it is sad that the people who bear the brunt of the negative impacts are seldom those who reap the greatest benefits.
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The grave of King Moshoeshoe II
Following in the footsteps of a famous namesake is always a difficult feat, and perhaps in recognition of this fact, it took nearly a century for a Basotho leader to be named after the legendary Moshoeshoe I.
There is an odd sense of symmetry that one Moshoeshoe lead Basotholand into the British Empire, whereas the next Moshoeshoe lead his country into independence in 1966. However, his reign was a troubled one, and included being exiled on two separate occasions, stripped of constitutional power and eventually being deposed by his own son.
The depth of Lesotho's Catholic roots is indicated by the fact that Moshoeshoe II was educated at Ampleforth, arguably England's premier Catholic public (fee paying) school, and during his time there, he developed some very Anglophile tendancies and a liking for the life of an English country gentleman.
He was made paramount chief in 1960 but unlike the absolute monarchs of Swaziland, only ever had limited constitutional power. He presided over Lesotho's independence in 1966, but made a powerful enemy in the Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan, who deposed him in 1970 after he had lost an election and staged a constitutional coup to hold on to power.
Moshoeshoe fled into short term exile in the Netherlands, and was allowed to resume his kingship a few months later, albeit with no constitutional powers. When Jonathan himself was ousted, Moshoeshoe regained some power, but was then deposed by his own son, Letsie III, in 1990, and again went into exile, this time in Britain.
The hapless Moshoeshoe had his third crack at being king again in 1995, but died only a year later in a car accident that seems to have been convenient for many parties. He is buried on top of Thaba Bosiu in a very modern, granite grave that is curiously at odds with the graves of his ancestors which suggests a man that was never quite in step with his heritage.
Lesotho may be a small country, but it certainly has some lively politics!
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Mamohato spring: the secret of Thaba Bosiu
Oh my, this is just the sort of thing I love discovering on my travels!
King Moshoeshoe chose the flat mountain of Thaba Bosiu as his fortress because it was so easily defensible and commanded a view across the surrounding lowlands across which his enemies were likely to advance. All very well and good, but in terms of long term sieges, you can only hold out as long as your water supply ... and common sense would indicate that the water is in the valleys, not on top of the mountains.
Except of course, if your fortress has a perennial water supply of its own, and it turns out that Thaba Bosui has exactly this. The Mamohato spring issues forth from a slope at the top of the eastern side of the mountain and although it has a fairly small yield (only a couple of litres a second), it was enough to sustain Moshoeshoe, his small court and their livestock during the periods that they were besieged.
Scrambling up Thaba Bosui is thirsty work, and it was an odd sense of connection to refill our bottles from a spring that would have been Moshoeshoe's lifeline in the mid nineteenth century.
And how do I know the yield of the spring? Well, I timed how long it took to fill an empty cool drink can ... once a hydrogeologist, always a hydrogeologist!
Take a stiff hike up Thaba Bosiu
Thaba Bosiu can only be accessed the traditional way - a stiff hike up a cleft in the cliffs which is located directly opposite the new cultural centre.
It will probably take you at least half an hour, depending on your fitness, and the path is quite exposed, so make sure that you are equipped with suitable footwear, sunscreen and water and referably try to avoid hiking in the middle of the day when the sun is at its strongest.
For guidance on how the less than fit can sneak an extra rest on the way up without losing face, read my tip on onion skin weathering!
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The new cultural village at Thabo Bosiu
When we visited Thaba Bosiu in January 2012, they were just putting the finishing touches to a new cultural village which will hopefully boost tourism into this area.
It is clearly a massive investment - the largest tourist development in Lesotho to date - and the publicity blurb states that it "will comprise chalets, a restaurant and bar, curio shop, botanical garden, museum, conference venue, amphitheatre and a cultural village showing ancient Basotho life. It will showcase Basotho traditional food, clothes and various dances and songs with a statue of Moshoeshoe I".
The complex will feature 40 rondavels (thatched huts), which will be a welcome development for travellers wanting to visit Thaba Bosui but who don't necessarily want to base themselves in hotels in and around Maseru (the only real option to date). Certainly from what we saw, it promises to be spectacular: however, as with all such developments in the developing world, we can only hope that the quality of the management will equal the vision of the design.
The cultural village has been constructed next to the already operational visitor's centre for Thaba Bosiu, which is where you can hire guides to explore this amazing mountain stronghold.
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