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Again, a warning against something so obvious that I hesitate to mention it ...
As you will hear time and time again, Lesotho is the highest country in the world, and with altitude, the sun - and most particularly the UV component - becomes stronger. It's therefore essential to make sure that you take adequate precautions to make sure that you don't get surnburnt. The risk is especially high in the mountains, where the altitude is over 2,000m, and the coolness of the air tends to make you overlook how strong the sun is until the damage is done.
My son managed to lose his hat just before we went pony trekking at Sani Top, and thus we had to rig up this Heath Robinson 'sunsafe' outfit for him. He was absolutely chuffed with the outcome and spent the rest of the day playing Ninja!
Updated Mar 19, 2012
Let's start with the positive: Lesotho is the perfect place for a challenging, fascinating yet relatively affordable road trip.
Lesotho offers the highest mountain pass in Southern Africa (the Tlaeeng pass, at a literally breathtaking 3, 275m above sea level), the only vehicle pass over the Drakensberg (the highest mountains in the region) and stunning mountain scenery that will appeal to those eager to get off the beaten track. It is relatively untouristed, which means that you'll get to experience something that few other tourists to this part of the world get to see, and it's fairly inexpensive to boot.
Lesotho has a reasonable network of roads, and quite a number of them can be negotiated in a conventional vehicle without 4 wheel drive (4WD) provided that the vehicle has good clearance to avoid sump busting boulders and potholes. However, this is not the case for all roads, and potential travellers need to check road conditions in advance as even 'main roads' (as indicated on the map) can often be in poor condition - ask local people for advice, as road conditions can deteriorate fairly rapidly after major storms, for example. It is also important to note that a road that is indicated as a tar road on a map isn't necessarily better than a dirt road: a badly maintained tar road that has deteriorated to the point where it is little more than a series of potholes interspersed with tar is much harder on a vehicle (and its passengers) than a moderately well maintained dirt road.
Roads in the mountains can be extremely twisty because of the need to accommodate the steep topography and may often seem like an endless succession of hairpin bends (that's 'switchbacks' to you North Americans). This can be particularly dangerous if you meet a large vehicle coming in the opposite direction around a 'blind' corner, so make sure that you keep an eye out for oncoming vehicle on the sections of road that allow visibility ahead. Also be sure not to drive too close to the edge as the road surface tends to 'fret' in this area as a result of erosion due to ice and water, making it easy to slip off the edge.
Lastly, be sensible. If you hire a 4WD vehicle, make sure you know how to engage the 4WD and how to drive the vehicle in this mode - it's amazing how many people don't and, if this is the case, then you've just wasted a great deal of money on hiring a vehicle whose advantages you can't benefit from. If you're not an experienced driver under these conditions (and particularly if you don't have 4WD), strongly consider travelling in a convoy with two vehicles, so that the other vehicle can seek assistance if one gets into trouble. Always keep your cell (mobile) phone charged so that you can call for help - but be sure that you know who to call in case of emergency (usually the hotel/lodge you're travelling to is the best idea). And (particularly in winter) make sure that you have food, water and warm clothing with you just in case you get stuck and need to wait for help to come.
Otherwise, fortune favours the brave, so happy driving (and may the loathesome Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear never discover Lesotho)!
Updated Feb 19, 2012
The Lesotho landscape has been changed forever by the construction of the massive Katse and Mohale Dams which comprise the first phases of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. This scheme started construction in the early 1990s and indeed was the reason why I first visited Lesotho, as a few years previously, I had been involved in calculating the water inflows to the tunnel under the Maluti mountains to the outfall near Clarens in South Africa.
The purpose of the Lesotho Highlands Scheme is twofold: to provide water supply and to generate hydroelectric power. However, despite the scheme, large parts of Lesotho still experience frequent power outages, and some parts still don't have grid power at all. Thus, if you come from a part of the world that considers continuity of power supply as a given, then it's worth thinking through the potential implications of this so that you can plan accordingly.
The most obvious point: travel with a torch so that even if the lights go out, you're not entirely in the dark. I find that the best combination is a sturdy hand held torch plus one of those headlights that you can buy in most outdoor and camping shops (which will allow you to keep both hands free as you stumble around in the dark, and also allows you to read in bed at night).
Secondly, power cuts not only mean that you can't use lights or electrical appliances, but also interrupts landline telephones, so it's always wise to ask for cell (mobile) phone contact numbers from places that you're intending to stay or service providers that you're intending to use.
Similarly, bear in mind that most rural areas don't have piped water supply, and usually rely on pumps to transfer water from streams, lakes or boreholes - thus, when the power trips, the water supply will also be suspended as well. Larger hotels may have a generator to provide backup water supply, but most smaller establishments won't, which means no water to wash, cook or flush toilets with (so best to always travel with a large bottle of water just in case).
Really remote places (such as Sani Top) that don't have any grid power have their own generators, but be aware that these usually only operate for a few hours in the evening and morning. Thus, make sure that you take every opportunity to keep camera and cellphone batteries fully charged as you're never quite sure when the opportunity will present itself again.
Updated Feb 10, 2012
One of the challenges for those planning a road trip in an unfamiliar country is to realistically estimate what distances can be covered. This is particularly problematic in a country like Lesotho where the distances (and more importantly, travel times) between towns are large, and where there are few (if any) alternative places to stop en route if you're running short on time.
The speed limit on main roads in Lesotho is 100kph (80km on secondary roads and 65kph in towns) but I'd be absolutely amazed if you consistently managed to achieve this on anything other than the A2 main road from Maseru which parallels the western border with South Africa. Granted, there have been more and more roads which have been tarred in recent years, but tar surfaces don't necessarily equate to fast driving conditions in a country with such extreme topography and poor road maintenance - drive the section of road just past Letšeng diamond mine heading for Mokhotlong at present (January 2012) and you'll soon discover that driving a dirt road is vastly preferable to driving a badly maintained tar one which comprises more potholes than tar!
As a general rule of thumb, don't plan on averaging more than 60kph on a main road, and considerably less on secondary roads. Also exercise some common sense when interpreting the map: the more twisty the road appears on the map, the more extreme the topography will be, so whilst winding roads are likely to be scenic, the chances are that you probably won't average more than 20-30kph on them.
By way of example, if you're planning to drive the Roof Of Africa (which has two possible routings), bargain on at least six hours from Butha Buthe to Sani Top (including two hours for the last 50km from just outside Mokhotlong to Sani Top) and twelve hours if you plan to travel via Katse Dam. Tackling a twelve hour journey in Lesotho is simply not sensible (since it has relatively short days, especially in winter), so rather plan to break your journey overnight at Katse.
Lastly, road trips aren't meant to be endurance tests and shouldn't just be about driving. If your schedule is overly ambitious, you'll end up being unnecessarily rushed, which is not only stressful, but also potentially dangerous (especially where running behind schedule results in yu driving in the dark on unfamiliar mountain roads). So allow yourself time for frequent stops to take photos, have a picnic, appreciate the scenery and get out to have a stroll: you'll have a much safer and more enjoyable trip as a result.
Updated Feb 10, 2012
Much is written about the need to have a 4x4 in Lesotho, but in reality, what is at least as important as having four wheel drive is having a vehicle with sufficiently high clearance to avoid the sump busting potholes and boulders on the Kingdom's mountaneous roads and also has enough 'grunt' to cope with steep gradients, even when travelling at low speed.
We successfully traversed the Roof of Africa and negotiated the Sani Pass down into KwaZulu Natal in January - during midsummer - in a 21 year old Mitsubishi Pajero (which is a 4x4) and a Daihatsu Terios (which isn't).
I would add that the Terios was a hire car which certainly wasn't our first choice, but as the hire car company stuffed up on our reservation (the 4x4 provided would not lock securely, and the Terios was the only viable option available) and so we had to make do. I would not have attempted this route in a 2x4 if travelling as a single vehicle (we felt that the backup of a 4x4 was essential) and we were also lucky that our friend who drove the Terios is an absolutely excellent driver who coaxed the very best out of what was turned out to be a disappointingly underpowered vehicle.
I should also mention that we wouldn't have attempted Sani Pass in a 2x4 during winter when the pass is treacherously icy. I also don't think that the Terios would have had sufficient 'grunt' to make made it up the pass: the day before we travelled down the pass, some tourists burned out the clutch of their Daihatsu hire car (probably a poxy Terios!) whilst attempting to drive up the pass.
Having said that, certain of the local Basotho regularly negotiate this route on their way to go shopping in Durban in conventional - albeit battered - sedans, a feat which absolutely beggars belief!
Updated Feb 10, 2012
So much attention is focused on the perils of the Sani Pass that few travellers spare a thought for the road from Sani Top to Mokhotlong on the other side. This is illadvised as this is a challenging piece of road in its own right, and one that you should not undertake lightly.
The stretch of road from the tar road just outside Mokhotlong to Sani Top is about 50km of poorly maintained dirt road that could be best described as 'character building'. The surface is uneven and rock-strewn in places, so you need to ensure that your vehicle has high clearance to avoid cracking your oil sump on a boulder. Other smoother sections are easier to negotiate in dry weather, but could easily be rendered treacherously slippy after heavy rain or under icy conditions.
There are also sections of this road that are very steep, which poses a real problem for vehicles that don't have four wheel drive (4WD). The worst sections of all combine steep gradients and rocky surfaces which mean that you can't get up enough speed to 'get a run at' the next slope, and our hired Terios got stuck on a section of road about 15km from Sani Top. Because we were travelling in convoy with another 4WD vehicle, we were able to cajole the Terios up the slope, but it wasn't easy, and was only made possible by some excellent driving on the part of our friend.
This road is passable in a 2WD vehicle with high clearance (apparently many Basotho do this route in ordinary - if battered - sedans to go shopping in Durban!) but I certainly wouldn't recommend trying to drive this road in a 2WD vehicle unless you have experience of driving under similar conditions and are preferably driving in convoy with another vehicle that can help you out and/or seek assistance if you get into trouble.
One last word of warning: even if you manage to negotiate this road without incident, it's slow going, so allow yourself at least two hours to drive this 50km section. It may sound alarmist, but this means leaving Mokhotlong no later than mid afternoon: this is one road that you do NOT want to negotiate in the dark!
Updated Feb 10, 2012
This tip is full of blindingly obvious statements, but sometimes the things that we overlook - especially when travelling in an unfamiliar country - are the most obvious, so please forgive me if I seem to be insulting your intelligence.
Firstly, Lesotho is a very mountainous place, and there are large areas of the country - particularly in the valleys - that do not have reliable mobile (cellphone) reception. In areas of weak signal, you may still be able to SMS (text) even if the signal isn't strong enough to sustain a call, so bear this in mind as an option.
Nonetheless, it's well worth bringing a cellphone with you, as Lesotho's often erratic power supply means that conventional landlines don't work when the power trips. Thus, in order to be able to stay in contact, you may have little option other than to use your cellphone.
It is also prudent to have a cellphone so that you're able to call for help should you get into trouble - for example, if your vehicle breaks down. However, under such circumstances, you can only raise the alarm if you know who to call in the first place, so make sure you have contact numbers for the hotel or lodge you're travelling to, as these are the people most likely to be able to provide you with advice and/or assistance (again, make sure that you have a cell phone number as well as a land line number in case their power is down).
Lastly, the erratic power supply means that you can't always rely on being able to charge your cell phone when its battery runs low. Its therefore wise to charge your battery whenever you get the opportunity, as you can't be quite sure when the next opportunity will arise.
Updated Feb 7, 2012
If you wanted to be charitable, you would say that Lesotho's road signage is not constrained by any lack of opportunity for improvement ... in other words, it's pretty hopeless!
Signage on the few main roads is OK, but this isn't really where you need it: it's the tangle of back roads - such as that travelling north from Thaba Bosiu - that need proper signage, and frankly it doesn't exist. Given that taking a wrong turn in Lesotho can result in a detour of tens of kilometres, this is at best frustrating, and at worst, downright dangerous if it results in you having to drive mountain roads in the dark.
Given Lesotho's lack of resources, I can just about understand a lack of road signs indicating road number, directions and distances. However, curiously for an African nation, there is an almost total absence of signs indicating the name of villages and towns, which leaves you with little option but to rely on the names of schools and other public buildings in order to work out where you are.
We also found that actual distances and distances on the maps that we were using also diverged wildly. We found that the most reliable indicators of distance are the milestones that appear periodically on the side of the road (such as that pictured above) which indicates that it is 51km to Mokhotlong.
Updated Feb 7, 2012
Developing nations are renowned for overcrowded vehicles, and Lesotho is no exception: this is a random example spotted on the main road between Maseru and Teyateyaneng, where 13 adults were crammed into the back of a small bakkie (pick up truck). Technically this is illegal, but in reality, transport is hard to come by for most people and there is no enforcement of this sort of traffic violation, so the situation continues unabated.
The risks to the people riding in the back of the bakkie are obvious: they are not constrained in any way, and one sudden jolt from one of the many potholes (let alone a collision with livestock or another vehicle) could potentially send the occupants flying across the road and into the path of oncoming traffic.
From a risk management point of view, make sure that you keep a safe following distance so that you have sufficient warning and space to take evasive action should you need to. Also I would strongly advise taking the earliest opportunity to overtake such a vehicle, as the passengers are not only distracting, but also restrict your vision and compromise your ability to identify and react to any hazards on the road ahead.
Updated Jan 24, 2012
The Sani Pass is the only way to cross the Drakensberg escarpment on Lesotho's eastern border with South Africa (which, interestingly enough, totally surrounds it) - thus, it is an international border, and you require a passport to cross from one to other. If you want to be pedantic, the pass itself is technically 'no man's land', as the Lesotho border is at the top of the pass, and the South African border is at the bottom, with an intervening distance of 9km. This is reputed to be the longest distance between corresponding border posts on an international border in the world, although I am open to correction on this point.
Looking at the photo, I'm sure that you will agree that it would be a shame to drive all the way up this, only to be refused admission, so make sure that you have checked that you have a (valid) passport with you before you set out, lest you have to drive back to collect it!
It's worth noting that as Lesotho and South Africa are part of a common customs area, you are not required to present any ownership documentation for your vehicle.
Updated Jan 17, 2012
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