November 2021: After almost three days of travel with only a little sleep on airplanes, we arrived at Maseru airport in Lesotho via South African Airlink from Johannesburg, South Africa. I was exhausted, and now I had to pick up our rental car at the airport and drive a few hours to the hotel in the mountains we had booked, the Semonkong Lodge. To make matters worse, thunderstorms lurked in the distance.

I knew right away that I liked Lesotho. There were no foreigners on our plane, and the airport was small and decrepit. A sign posted in the bathroom stated, “do not flush” the toilet hung because there was no running water. The ATM was not working, and the immigration officer asked me many questions about my home, not because he was suspicious of me but because he was genuinely interested in where I was from. Most foreigners who visit Lesotho do not enter by plane but instead via the mountainous land borders as part of a day trip from South Africa.

I picked up the rental car from a small Euro-Car booth. I asked about the full coverage insurance, and the attendant stated there was none and that I wouldn’t need it. I pressed on this issue, and he relented. I asked for a copy of the contract, and the attendant said he would add the insurance coverage later. I wasn’t sure if Lesotho’s laid-back, relaxed attitude was good or bad. But I was leaning towards good so far.

We hopped into the vehicle, I had to quickly adjust to driving a stick shift on the left side of the road with no sleep for days in a thunderstorm, and we set off to find a working ATM to acquire some funds for the trip because outside of Mesuro there would be no ATM’s.

Lesotho Background

Map of Lesotho

Our route in Lesotho

Lesotho is a mountainous enclaved nation swallowed up by South Africa. It is called a mountain kingdom because it mainly lies in the Drakensberg Mountains above 5000 feet. From 5000″, the elevation only grows from there up to 11,500′. Lesotho is so high that it has the highest base elevation for all the counties in the world. The people consist of mostly one ethnic group-Basotho, and the country’s main exports are water and wool. The country’s existence is due to a protection agreement with the British during colonial times that saw Lesotho protected from its warring and more dominant Zulu neighbors in South Africa.

Sheep crossing the road were a common road hazard

We arrived at our inn late in the evening in the freezing cold. The woodfire in our rooms’ fireplace helped to alleviate this cold. 

Driving Through the Mountains

After a few attempts, we found an ATM that worked, and we set off for the long drive through the mountains while lightning crackled outside, and rain poured. Outside of the city, it quickly became rural, and there were few other vehicles. In most sections, the road is paved and in good shape except for some sneaky potholes and random giant speed bumps that will threaten to decapitate your car if you aren’t prepared for them. This road is one of the only paved roads outside of the capital that extends into the mountains and was only recently paved a few decades ago. It brought electricity to many villages in the countryside but not to all of them.

 

 

The drive was beautiful through the rolling mountains, but the small 4-cylinder rental car engine couldn’t handle the steep mountain passes. I found myself in 1st gear for most of the ride, driving at a very slow speed with other drivers who had similar vehicles. I decided that the two slowest countries for driving that I had been to were Western Samoa and Lesotho. I found myself constantly passing other slow drivers in Lesotho. But I couldn’t go too fast because the road was littered with falling boulders and herds of sheep around each corner. In one turn, I had to brake hard to avoid hitting a sheep and its shepherd. After three or so hours, we arrived in the rustic little village of Semonkong, where our inn was located. We drove through the muddy, potholed roads asking locals for directions until we found it at the bottom of an extremely steep muddy hill.

It rained hard throughout that night; we made wood fires in our rooms and had a big meal with wine in the dining room by candlelight. We finally arrived somewhere and could relax for a short while. I made tentative plans with the inn to abseil 600 feet down the waterfall the following day weather permitting.

Sunny morning at the Semonkong Lodge after a long night of rain

The morning was sunny and showed promise, but rain clouds arrived to replace it as soon as the sun came out. The guide told me that abseiling today was not in the forecast with the weather. Instead, we had breakfast and arranged to visit the falls with the owner, a white man whose family has lived in Lesotho for generations and owned the Semankong Lodge, where we stayed. The owner was very devoted to the culture and the nature of the area and proudly shared his knowledge of the land with us as we drove his 4WD truck through the mountainous backgrounds and passed a few villages on the way to the waterfall. Many towns exist high in the mountains and are not accessible by any road, and the only mode of transportation between these villages is via a horse or donkey. I wished we had more time to hike to these outer villages and stay in them.

The traditional house in Lesotho is designed with rocks sealed with cow dung in between them to create more insulation to trap heat in the cool weather.

 

 

Traditional village  in Lesotho  

Typical scene: A man riding a horse in Lesotho overseeing his flock of sheep

Maletsunyane Falls

We parked the vehicle and hiked a mile to the edge of one of the most beautiful canyons I have ever seen. Although it wasn’t raining, the weather remained gloomy, but this provided terrific photographic opportunities because there was no shadow across the Maletsunyane Falls. We stood a thousand feet on top of the cliff overlooking the falls while endangered bearded and cape vultures flew overhead, gliding effortlessly in the wind. Sadly, a giant modern building was being constructed behind us in what would otherwise be a very pristine natural environment. The government is planning to open a tourist center and build a road to attract mass tourism to the area. It likely will have a significant impact on the area.

Paula and her mom at Maletsunyane Falls

Canyon Around Maletsunyane Falls

Bearded Vulture at Maletsunyane Falls

Maletsunyane Falls

Community Sheep Shearing Center

Sheep holding pen with a big ram in the middle

The quality of the wool in Lesotho is highly prized internationally, and wool is a top export. Villagers own the sheep, and in this village, workers are paid by the sheep owners to shear the sheep and collect the wool to be processed for export. It was amazing to watch the process and see how surprisingly submissive the sheep were to the entire process.

Worker transferring the sheep and carrying it like a giant teddy bear from the holding pen to the shearing area

Sheep submitting to the shearers

Shearers would select the sheep and carry them like giant teddy bears. In a matter of minutes, the sheep are sheared to the skin, sometimes leaving bleeding nick. After a sheep was sheared, a manager would place a stone in the shearer’s bucket. At the end of the day, each shearer was paid by the number of rocks in their bucket.

Each sheep shearer received one stone when a sheep is finished and at the end of the day they are paid by the amount of stones in their bucket

Wool sorting area

Donkey Pub Crawl

We returned to Semonkong village, a tiny village of ramshackle aluminum sheds at 8000 feet where villagers come from remote villages all around the mountains to trade and sell their products in the market and for children in remote villages to attend school. We arranged to hire donkeys to ride around town and visit some pubs. Donkeys known for their strength are commonly used in the mountains of Lesotho to carry goods. In Semonkong, the lodge set up a program to pay on a rotating basis, villagers to rent their donkeys to the lodge’s guests. The donkeys are not the friendliest and without any reigns to control the donkey, we were at the mercy of the handler who followed us on foot to keep the donkeys in line. All was well until my donkey took off in a sprint down a steep hill while braying and trying to murder me. 

Paula on her donkey

Rustic town of Semonkong

I couldn’t help but to feel a little oversized for the poor donkey but the donkey had his revenge on me.

Man in traditional Lesotho outfit

Village Boy

Drive Back to Maseru

On the drive back to Maseru, we took our time to soak in the scenery. This time it wasn’t raining as much, and we were able to stop and take more photos. After hours of driving, we noticed the rental vehicle’s fuel level was suspiciously still topped off, meaning the fuel gauge was broken. There are few gas stations in the mountains, and fuel is primarily purchased in containers at roadside villages. I figured we would be ok if we ran out, but I also determined we would likely make it back to Maseru, barring any major detours.

We arrived at Maseru without running out of fuel right before a massive rainstorm arrived. We checked into a locally run guest house for the night before departing bright and early the following day to catch our 8 am flight to Johannesburg onwards to Botswana.

Shepherd Boy with his flock of sheep. Shepherd life is an essential aspect of the Basotho culture and as a rite of passage into manhood, adolescent youths are tasked with going solo into the mountains with a flock of sheep for weeks.

Mountain Passes Back to Maseru

Kids we met on the side of the road asked us for candy. I gave them printed photos of themselves instead.

13 + 11 =

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