Lesotho (le-soo-too), known as the Mountain Kingdom or Kingdom in the Sky, holds a wealth of different experiences in store for those who visit there. Mountains, valleys, and rivers present unforgettable panoramas for tourists.
In the mountains is the source of Lesotho’s crystal-clear water, which also waters the green pastures for livestock. Diamonds are amongst the minerals found in the mountains. Indeed, Lesotho can truly be called the Kingdom in the Sky.
Lesotho is also called the Mountain Kingdom
Beautiful, culturally rich, safe, affordable, and easily accessible from Durban and Johannesburg, mountainous Lesotho is a vastly underrated travel destination. The contrast with South Africa could not be more striking, with the Basotho people’s distinct personality and the altitudinous terrain’s topographical extremes. Even a few days in Lesotho’s hospitable mountain lodges and trading posts will give you a fresh perspective on Southern Africa.
This is essentially an alpine country, where villagers on horseback in multi-coloured balaclavas and blankets greet you round precipitous bends. The hiking and trekking – often on a famed Basotho pony – is world-class and the infrastructure of the three stunning national parks continues to improve.
Experiencing the mountains from horseback gives you the opportunity to explore unusual paths
The 1000m-high ‘lowlands’ offer craft shopping and sights, but don’t miss a trip to the southern, central or northeastern highlands, where streams traverse an ancient dinosaur playground. This is a genuine adventure travel.
This remote village has three travel trump cards: its breathtaking mountain scenery, its trading-post lodge and its successful community-based tourism. Many visitors to Lesotho head straight here to sample traditional Basotho life or, as the sign outside town says, to just ‘pause and look upon a gateway of paradise’. The area has been occupied for centuries, as shown by the many San rock paintings in the vicinity.
Semonkong (Place of Smoke), a one-pony town in the rugged Thaba Putsoa range, gets its name from the nearby Maletsunyane Falls (204m), which are at their loudest in summer. The town is the starting point for many fine hiking and pony-trekking trails, including the two-day ride via the peaks of the Thaba Putsoa to Ketane Falls (122m)
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 crisscross areas that are inaccessible by vehicle.
The Basotho pony is an extraordinarily resilient 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 to a 5-day trek into the mountains
Sani Top sits atop the steep Sani Pass, the famous road into Lesotho through the Drakensberg range in KwaZulu-Natal. South Africa’s highest mountain pass, it offers stupendous views on clear days and unlimited hiking possibilities
Sehlabathebe National Park
Lesotho’s most under-visited national park is remote, rugged, and beautiful. The rolling grasslands, wildflowers, and silence provide complete isolation, with only the prolific birdlife (including the bearded vulture) and the odd rhebok for the company. Hiking (and horse riding from Sani Top or the Drakensberg) is the main way to explore the waterfalls and surrounds, and angling is possible in the park’s dams and rivers.
Maletsunyane Waterfalls, one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in the Southern Hemisphere plummeting 186 metres into a spectacular gorge creating clouds of spray is visible from afar. Day trips to the falls can be arranged.
Come well prepared for the changing elements: this is a summer rainfall area, and thick mist, potentially hazardous to hikers, is common. The winters are clear but it gets cold at night, with occasional light snowfalls.
Leribe (also known as Hlotse) is a busy regional market hub. It served as an administrative centre under the British, as attested to by a few old buildings slowly decaying in the leafy streets.
Quthing, the southernmost major town in Lesotho, is also known as Moyeni (Place of the Wind). It was established in 1877, abandoned during the Gun War of 1880, and then rebuilt at the present site. Activity centres on the new part of town, Lower Quthing, with its bustling main road.
Ts’ehlanyane National Park
This Lesotho Northern Parks–administered national park protects a beautiful, 56-sq-km patch of rugged wilderness, including one of Lesotho’s only stands of indigenous forest, at a high altitude of 2000m to 3000m. This underrated and underused place is about as far away from it all as you can get and is perfect for hiking.
In addition to daily walks, there’s a 39km day hike or pony trek to/from Bokong Nature Reserve, covering some of Lesotho’s most dramatic terrain. Heading north from Bokong to Ts’ehlanyane is easier, as Bokong is higher; the challenging route is also better tackled by pony or horse. Hiking guides can be arranged at Ts’ehlanyane gate or Maliba Mountain Lodge.
Community-run pony trekking and horse riding can be arranged through Maliba or the park gate. Book at least 24 hours ahead.
About 25km east of Maseru is the famed and flat-topped Thaba-Bosiu (Mountain at Night), where King Moshoeshoe the Great established his mountain stronghold in 1824. It’s regarded as the birthplace of the Basotho nation and, although an unassuming spot, is Lesotho’s most important historical site.
The origins of Thaba-Bosiu’s name are unclear and numerous versions exist. The most interesting is that, to intimidate enemies, magic herbs were placed on a rope, which was wrapped around the mountain. When intruders crossed the rope at night, they were overcome with the drugged-like sensation that Thaba-Bosiu was ‘growing’ and thus an unconquerable mountain.
At the mountain’s base is a visitor information centre where you can organize a guide to walk with you to the top. Horse riding is also available.
From the summit, there are good views over the surrounding area, including to Qiloane Hill, which allegedly provided the inspiration for the Basotho hat. Also fascinating to see are the remains of fortifications, Moshoeshoe’s grave, and parts of his original settlement.
The cultural village adjoining the visitor information centre has a traditional Basotho village, museum, and amphitheater.
Bokong Nature Reserve
Bokong has perhaps the most dramatic setting of the three Lesotho northern parks, with stunning vistas over the Lepaqoa Valley from the roadside visitors centre, various short walks, and a good, rugged eight-hour hike to Ts’ehlanyane National Park. Bearded vultures, rock shelters, waterfalls, and valley head fens (wetland areas) are features here. Hiking guides are available, and pony trekking can be booked ahead through the visitors centre.
Liphofung Nature Reserve
Liphofung Nature Reserve, “place of the eland” cave occupies an important place in Lesotho history. This is the smallest of the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority reserves at about 4 hectares. The cave is in fact a large overhang in the Clarens sandstones, which is a typical feature of the Lesotho lowlands region.
Snow skiing is possible on the slopes below the Mahlasela Pass; New Oxbow Lodge nearby and Afri Ski rents skis and boots. There are three slopes and two ski lifts, while several alternative activities are on hand in the summer months. The resort of Afri-Ski is 4 frac12; hours’ drive from Johannesburg South Africa via the steep tarred Moteng pass and the Mahlasela pass and is one of only two skiing resorts in Africa.
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.
While Lesotho might not be able to boast the wealth and infrastructure of its much larger neighbor, when it comes to raw adventure and natural beauty it can certainly hold its own.
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