At 2874m, the bar at the Sani Top chalets lay claim to being the highest pub in Africa - or just under 9,500 feet in old money. At this altitude, you'd be entitled to expect the beer to be cold and the view to be spectacular ... and you'd be right on both counts!
Many people decide to drive up the Sani Pass on a day trip to enjoy a hearty lunch and a drink or two to celebrate their achievement: if so, be sure to bring your passport, as the chalets are in Lesotho and you won't be let through the border without one. You don't need to stay in the chalets to be able to access the bar, but to do so gives you the obvious advantage of not having to drive down the Sani Pass afterwards (a sobering prospect if ever there was one)!
Technically Sani Top is indeed the highest pub open to the public in Africa. However, for fear of being pedantic, the highest bar in Africa is actually located a few hours drive to the west at Letseng le Terai diamond mine on the road to Buthe Buthe, which is approximately 3,100m above sea level. However, being a diamond mine, security is obviously a major consideration, and the mine is not accessible to the general public. So you can have your celebratory drink at Sani Top secure in the knowledge that the height of your current barstool cannot be topped!
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.
When you travel, there are certain hardships that you need to impose on yourself in order to experience the iconic, and this is certainly the case when it comes to resurrecting your carcass at 04:30 to witness sunrise from the Roof of Africa!
Fortunately in midsummer, the temperature was positively balmy - about 7ªC - and as there was little chance of encountering anyone else at that hour, I was able to slip on my shoes, nip out of the chalet in my pyjamas, take my photos and slip back under the covers within five minutes: in the sub zero temperatures of winter, it would be a different matter altogether, but then the trade off is that you wouldn't have to get up as early!
What is the cheat's way of experiencing this? Well, the shower in our bathroom had a window looking out over the escarpment, so having sleepily asked me on my return whether it was worth seeing, my husband (anything but a morning person) stumbled blearily into the shower, peeked out the window, agreed that it was indeed spectacular and shuffled back into bed ... gathering of the photographic evidence had, of course, had already been subcontracted!
An obliging spouse (who's also a morning person) can sometimes be a wonderful asset!
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.
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.
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.
... 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.
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!
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!
Maybe I've lived and worked in the developing world for too long, but I don't like border posts one little bit. My experience is that they are ominous places peopled by bad tempered officials with inferiority complexes who are eager to work out their despotic tendencies on hapless tourists ... but in the case of the Sani pass border between Lesotho and South Africa, I'll make a notable exception!
The Sani Pass border post is unique in so many ways that it can hardly fail to be endearing. To start with, it is staggeringly picturesque, and it's almost impossible to be negative about somewhere that's just so beautiful. And then of course there's the fear factor and the quavering knowledge that the only way to pass between the two border posts is to conquer a pass that inspires trepidation in even the most ardent offroader.
And finally, there are the completely trivial considerations ... which of course are precisely the ones that appeal to people like me! At conventional borders, the immigration posts are separated by a 'no man's land' of a few metres over which the border officials can eyeball each other with varying degrees of hostility depending on the warmth of neighbourly relations. However, at Sani Pass, there simply isn't enough flat land to allow for such a construction ... and so the Lesotho border post is perched at the top of the pass, 7km distance (and at 1400m elevation difference) from the South African border post at the foot of the pass! This is reputed to be the widest 'no man's land' in the world and the sensation of passing through a corridor that doesn't technically belong to any country is a heady one.
Oh yes, and just to completely buck the trend, I should mention that the border officials were very nice indeed ...
Let's face it, textbook onion skin weathering probably isn't big in your life, but read on, as if you decide to visit Thaba Bosui, it may provide a very useful way of saving face ...
As you probably know, I am a lapsed geologist, and I have never quite managed to leave my geological roots behind me. Onion skin weathering is a phenomenon where the rock is broken down by exposure to the elements, which are particularly harsh in Lesotho. Repeated fluctation between extremes of temperature - ranging from snow and ice in winter to harsh sun in summer - over the aeons causes the various minerals which make up the rock to expand and contract at different rates, which ultimately breaks down the internal structure of the rock. This causes thin layers of rock to peel off like onion skins ... hence the term 'onion skin weathering'.
So how could this help you save face? Well, if you decide to tackle the rather stiff hike up Thaba Bosiu and aren't as fit as you could be, then you can probably wangle an extra rest en route by exclaiming in a loud voice, "Wow, just look at that textbook onion skin weathering!" and then peering intently at the rock and feigning intense interest whilst trying to catch your breath. Great chutzpah is of course required to pull it off convincingly, but for those of us of Irish heritage, well, that's second nature!
When in comes to word association, the concepts of 'Africa' and 'skiing' would seem to be mutually incompatible ... until you stumble over the Afriski resort in northern Lesotho.
Lesotho is certainly high enough and cold enough in winter to sustain snow - the problem is that snowfall isn't reliable because the winds bringing in moist air from the Indian Ocean to the east are forced to rise up over the Drakensberg escarpment, and, in the process, tend to drop their rain on the KwaZulu Natal side. Thus, there is a 'rain shadow' effect further to the west in Lesotho.
The Afriski resort is located at 3,000m altitude on the Mahlasela Pass. It has insured against a shortage of snowfall by installing snow machines (which use water from the ponds in the base of the valley). Nobody is claiming that this is a skiing experience to compete with the famous alpine resorts of Europe or North America, but apparently it's great fun with exuberant apres ski activities, and in the absence of alternatives in the region (now that Tiffendell in the Eastern Cape has closed down), it does a very brisk trade.
The road from the South African border to Afriski is tarred all the way, and should be passable in all weather for those whose vehicles have reasonable clearance. Just be aware that in order to get to Afriski, it's necessary to negotiate the Moteng Pass, which can be slow going.
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!
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.
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.
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