Pay your respects at the graves of Basotho royalty
Up front, I should confess my bias - I am a complete sucker for a good graveyard, especially when it's in a scenic location and exudes a powerful sense of history, so this was always going to be a winner!
The royal family of Lesotho - from the legendary Moshoeshoe I, who first pulled the nation together in the early 19th century onwards - are buried on top of the imposing mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu. With very few exceptions, their graves are marked by simple hummocks of rock - probably designed as much to prevent animals scavanging the corpses as for ornamental purposes - which gives them an organic feel that is very much at one with the landsape.
It's worth bearing in mind that the Basotho retreated to Thaba Bosiu to seek refuge from marauding neighbours, but once peace was restored, most of the population returned to farm on the lowlands which have much richer soils. Thus, most of the notables buried on top of the plateau had to be transported up the mountain to their final resting place - no mean feat when you've got a stiff in tow!
Admire the carpet of alpine flowers at Sani Top
Summer in the mountains of Lesotho (which is to say, most of it!) is a short, relatively cool affair, but the plants take full advantage of the comparatively warm conditions to burst into flower.
The unusually flat plateau that surrounds Sani Top was carpeted with gorgeous alpine flowers when we visited in early January. The plants flourish in hollows between boulders which are relatively protected from the wind, and you could spend happy hours wandering around admiring their exquisite delicacy, which is all the more striking when juxtaposed against the harshness of the landscape.
Carpets of red hot pokers will astound you!
... despite the alarming title, this was anything but a painful experience!
We travelled across Lesotho in early January at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer. Living in South Africa, I am used to seeing red hot pokers (Kniphofia) - also known by the less graphic but equally enchanting name of of 'torch lilies' - growing in the wild. However, I was astounded when we turned a corner on a mountain pass and were confronted by a blazing spectacle of red, orange and yellow carpeting the mountainside. Never have I seen them growing together in such profusion, and the spectacle was jawdroppingly beautiful and all the more impressive for being totally unexpected.
Best of all? Red hot poker nectar is one of the preferred foods of the sunbird - the local (somewhat larger) equivalents of humming birds - so the flowers were alive with activity. These hyperactive little birds are utterly captivating, and the flash of their plumage in the sunlight against a backdrop of pokers was a sight that I don't think that I'll ever forget. One of the most beautiful things I think I've ever been lucky enough to see.
In Lesotho, you're never as alone as you think ...
Compared to other more populous parts of the world, there's a whole lot of nothingness in Lesotho - but that doesn't necessarily mean that you're always as alone as you think you are ...
Even in the most remote of mountain areas, there are always cattle herds tending the free ranging livestock, and they have the most unnerving ability to materialise out of nowhere. Because they are camouflaged in brown blankets and balaclavas, you often don't realise they're there ... and in this case, it was only when I was peering at my photos to select the best one for upload that I spotted the silhouetted figure on the horizon ...
Woolsheds in the most unexpected places
Lesotho is not a country that's big on built structures: even in the few towns, structures tend to be modest, single storey affairs. The villages are dominated by rondavels - circular huts with sturdy stone walls and thatched roofs - and utilitarian rectangular structures that serves as shops, clinics, schools or churches.
In the rural areas, the only exception to the rule are the woolsheds which are used for the shearing of sheep and angora goats. Their most distinctive features are their corrugated iron roofs - usually secured with strategically placed boulders to hold down the roofing sheets in high winds - which reflect sunlight and often make them visible from kilometres away over the otherwise empty landscape.
Stunning sandstone overhangs on the Moteng Pass
Lesotho has two very different landscapes: the (relative) lowlands along the western border with South Africa, and the soaring Maluti mountains of the central and eastern portions of the Kingdom.
As with most landscapes, the key to this striking difference is the underlying geology. The western area is underlain by honey coloured sandstone of the Clarens formation, which weathers to form rounded peaks with distinctive overhangs such as the one pictured above, which is located on the beautiful Moteng Pass. These formations were particularly significant for the San (Bushman), who used these overhangs for shelter, and who took advantage of the pale 'canvas' of this backdrop to adorned many of these caves with vibrant rock paintings depicting their hunter/gatherer way of life.
The Clarens sandstone is overlain by Drakensberg basalt, a dark coloured lava which was laid down on top of the older sandstone by virtue of a a prolonged and extensive series of volcanic eruptions. This lava was extruded fairly peacefully from a series of extensive fissues in the earth's surface (rather than isolated volcanoes) over several million years and spread out over the landscape as a huge blanket, covering a vast area that extends into the Drakensberg of South Africa to the east. Because the basalt was extruded as a series of flatlying flows which have not been subsequently been deformed, the resulting mountains have a characteristic 'steplike' appearance which has been dissected by erosion to form steep valleys.
From a hiker's point of view, the distinctive 'stepped' nature of the topography in this part of the world brings an unexpected benefit if you're hiking in the Maluti or the adjacent Drakensberg, as - unlike most alpine mountain hiking - once you have achieved altitude, you have a reasonable chance of maintaining it! Needless to say, this is highly rated according to the Reichardt Altitude Preservation Principle, which becomes ever more important as middle age sets in!
House of King Moshoeshoe I - built by the Irish!
This house on top of the Thaba Bosiu plateau was used by King Moshoeshoe I and was built for him by the Irish in the mid 19th century.
The first thing that strikes you is that it isn't constructed on a regal scale ... and although slightly larger than the average Basotho hut, it certainly isn't palatial. Considering the extreme climate of the area and the fact that it hasn't been used in over a century, it's quite impressive that it is still in such good nick - the damage is due to failure of the roof timbers (the most perishable part of the structure).
I haven't quite managed to fathom the apparently special relationship between the Basotho and the Irish, but it seems to be closer and warmer than you might expect.
When I worked in Lesotho in the late 80s, there was a pony breeding centre at Molimo Nthuse on the God Help Me Pass which was an Irish aid project to fund improvement of Basotho pony bloodstock - I must check whether it's still going. And this time around, a quick foray into the more upmarket residential area of Maseru in search of the house where my husband had lived for several years as a child turned up a brand new Irish embassy of palatial proportions which seemed utterly out of keeping with Lesotho's modest international profile.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that both countries are staunchly Catholic? As usual, I'd be interested in any feedback that would allow me to address my ignorance ...
ENTER THE HIGHEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD
Lesotho is the highest country in the world! And I bet you thought it was Nepal!
Lesotho has the highest low point of any country in the World (1400 meters/4593 feet) and is the only country to be entirely above 1000 meters (3281 feet) high. So where is it? The Kingdom of Lesotho is a small, mountainous country in southern Africa. In fact it is surrounded by the country of South Africa. It is the only place you will see Africans not only prepared for snow, but actually receiving it. The people are super friendly and it is well worth a visit. You can see at least ¼ of the country by car in a day.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Mountain Climbing
- Adventure Travel
Mafika Lisiu Mountain Pass
The Mafika Lisiu Mountain Pass is a spectacular achievement and was built to connect the low regions of Lesotho to Katse Dam. The pass which winds up the mountain valley from Leribe ends up at an elevation of 3090 meters. The views on a clear day are simply spectacular. The road is in perfect condition all the way. During winter one has to take caution off snow and ice however.Related to:
- Road Trip
- Mountain Climbing
Katse Botanical Garden
The Garden has been in existence since 1996 and today is a fully functional Botanical Garden. It boasts a large plant propagation area and extensive pathways that allow visitors to see the displays of Sesotho traditional medicinal plants. The garden has a unique collection representing the dry Senqu River vegetations. The size of the gardens are 17 hectares at an altitude of 2229m, which makes this the highest botanical garden in the southern hemisphere.Related to:
- Road Trip
- National/State Park
Step back in time as you follow the dinosaur footprints in Lesotho. This small country has the distinction of having the world's earliest known mammalian skeletal material. Magazostrodon links the reptiles and the mammals, something which gives Lesotho worldwide fossil distinction. It also has the world's largest known sites of dinosaur footprints, which makes Lesotho rich in paleontological importance. Many of the earliest known dinosaur fossil discoveries were made by the missionaries' explorations of the area. Lesothosaurus was discovered including a wealth of bones, trees, plants and shells from pre-historic times. There are many dinosaur footprint locations and some can be found at Morija, Subeng Stream and Tsikoane close to Leribe, Moyeni, Matsient and Mohale's Hoek. The pictures I took were made just off the road from Butha Buthe to Leribe.Related to:
- Road Trip
The Mohale Dam is the second dam that was finished for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The dam is connected to Katse Dam by a 32 km tunnel allowing water to flow between the two dams. At 145 m it is the highest concrete faced rockfill dam in Africa. The dam has set new standards for environmental responsibility and pioneered new design concepts and construction techniques.Related to:
- Road Trip
The Katse Dam is situated on the Malibamatso River in the heart of Lesotho. It is the highest dam in Africa and by far the most efficient storage dam in Africa due to its great depth and relatively small surface area. The dam wall is 185 m high, and the crest length some 710 m in length. The total storage of the dam is 1,950 Million/m3 of water.Related to:
- Road Trip
In my mind, a multi-day traverse along the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment is the peak of African alpine adventures. Kilimanjaro may be higher, but the Drakensberg is light years beyond in both wilderness experience and scenic beauty. Where crowds inhabit the tracks of Kili, you can walk for a week or more here in the Drak without seeing another soul. The ‘normal’ traverse - all routes are mostly trail-less affairs for the majority of the way - runs from the Sentinel/Chain Ladder trail on the west edge of the Royal Natal National Park over to the Cathedral Peak Hotel, a trek that will take you 4-6 days. Another week would take you over Cleft and Champagne Peaks and maybe as far as Giant’s Castle. Or you could just continue to walk towards Sani Pass and beyond. Just a matter of time and physical condition. Be aware that you will need to be in good shape to accomplish this trek. You need to be fully equipped for the weather and have to carry everything upon your back. You need to be able to navigate with map and compass and keep your wits about you when the dragon mists swirl about you. An alpine guide is of invaluable help for someone not acquainted with this range for it is easy to get yourself into trouble out here.Related to:
- Mountain Climbing
- Hiking and Walking
By horse is one of the best and most fun ways to get around the mountainous terrain of the Lesotho highlands. Pony treks can be arranged through your accomodations. We stayed at the Malealea Lodge (see website).Related to:
- Horse Riding
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Tsehlanyane National Park 400, Lesotho
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