Lesotho | Dodging Donkeys on the Roof of Africa
Heavy rains over Lesotho cleared long enough for Johan de Smidt to make the pilgrimage from the Basotho’s birthplace to an iconic pass via a famous waterfall.
I bet you ten malotis those are donkey ears sticking out from the pothole, Frank.”
“Nah, it’s a rabbit,” Frank counters and carefully steers the Cruiser past the pockmark, pocketing a crisp note of the Lesotho currency.
After all, a pair of ears protruding from a pothole might be that of something much larger than a rabbit − it could be a donkey, as the saying cautions here in the Kingdom in the Sky.
The donkey, of course, could be the one of local legend who hiked with his two buddies, a bull and a goat, to the Reef’s gold mines to find work.
Crammed into a 4×4 Hi-Ace the trio returned to their beloved Maluti Mountains after a year. When the minibus stopped near the goat’s hut, it well, hoofed it, leaving the donkey and the bull to settle his fare.
Ever since, the out-of-pocket comrades have been hunting for the bilking goat, which is apparently why goats run away every time they see an oncoming vehicle, and donkeys and bulls block the road, looking for the goat to extract a refund.
I mean, have you ever seen a goat ending up as roadkill? We certainly didn’t on our three-day, 850-km trip from Maseru to Sani Pass here in the land of many thabas (mountains).
Our journey took us via the academic centre of Roma, onto the nation’s birthplace of Thaba Bosiu and into the cannibal-linked Kome cave dwellings on the first day.
A river-hugging 4×4 dirt road was the highlight of the trip to the thundering Maletsunyane Falls on the second, while views over the gigantic Mohale Dam and steaming gluhwein at an icy Sani Top vied for the honours at the end of a long third day.
What we did encounter, besides a technicolour dreamcoat landscape, were equally colourful yarns about an off-roader plunging from the infamous Jockstrap Pass, a harrowing exit − in reverse − out of the same pass, and newly-weds being towed in a crippled Land Rover most of the way over the mighty Baboon’s Pass.
Even local royalty such as Moshoeshoe II, killed in a 4×4 that plunged over a cliff in 1996, have fallen prey to the Malutis, the mountainous eastern part of Lesotho containing the highest peaks in Southern Africa.
Then of course, no Lesotho story is complete without a cattle-rustling tale – and we have an intriguing one for you, one where the victim made an effective, if gruesome plan …
But those stories we would only hear later, in cosy lounges at the Ramabanta Trading Post and Sani Top Chalet as blanket-covered herdsmen began moving their stock off the highlands in the face of an early cold front.
Pg 2: On Moshoeshoe’s …
On Moshoeshoe’s stronghold
The balimo (ancestors) must be smiling on us here amid their royal graves on Thaba Bosiu (Mountain at Night), a hilltop some 20 km east of Maseru.
The summer rains that have been pouring onto lush fields of mielies and morogo (wild spinach) and into the ginormous dams here on Africa’s rooftop have lifted on our first late-summer morning in Lesotho.
The sun is coaxing out a veritable aromatherapy of smells from the soaked earth on the stronghold where Moshoeshoe I lead his people to find a spear-proof refuge during the difaqane, the large-scale flight before Shaka’s marauding impis during the early 1800s.
Earthy, wet soil blends with savannah grass, medicinal lengana (African wormwood) and blackjack in an aroma that’s crying out to be canned and labelled “Mountain Rain”.
Soothing our skins, the sun plays hopscotch with the remaining cumulous clouds suspended from a Surf-blue sky.
Shades from deep army green to moss green enveloping us from the nearby grasslands to distant fields of grains on mountainsides are heart muti too.
These are the sights and smells that helped to sustain Moshoeshoe I and his fledgling nation as they also held out against a three-year Boer siege that ended with British annexation in 1869. With spears and stones raining on attackers, what is a mere hilltop in the day, in the dark might well have grown to the Mountain at Night.
Frank and I have made straight for Thaba Bosiu after meeting Jennifer Thorn, our self-appointed mother for the duration of our stay, at the Trading Post Guesthouse in Roma, 35 km southeast of Maseru.
Tsiliso “Tsili” Koeshe, our Basotho guide, is grinning too – we two eager, if a little less fit sightseers he has just lead up the footpath to the ruins of Moshoeshoe I’s stone house are panting. From the edge of the hilltop Tsili points out the conical Qiloane Hill below after which the quirky Basotho hat is said to have been fashioned.
Frank Carlisle, the head honcho at Bhejane 4×4 Adventures, is in the seventh heaven here in the Kingdom of the Sky. “This … has always … been my dream … to visit … this site … where the Basotho … nation … was born,” he gasps.
Me? I feel like I’ve won the first prize of a 4×4 photographic safari to an alpine destination where the hills are alive with Sound of Music greens.
Pg 3: Cannibals and …
Cannibals and clay homes
Having viewed Moshoeshoe’s grave on Thaba Bosiu, we descend to continue to the Kome clay cave dwellings, a national heritage site 28 km away comprising a series of clay rooms built under an overhang in the 1800s.
Along the rutted road to the tourist centre there, we’re grateful we’re driving in a 4×4.
At the dwellings a woman is tending a boiling potjie on an open fire and an nkhono (grandmother) is sweeping up sorghum.
The inhabitants are descendants of a handful of families who have been living on the site since fleeing from cannibals in the area in the 1800s, the resident tour guide tells us. (Royalty once again weren’t spared − the cannibals consumed no less than Moshoeshoe’s grandfather.)
We stoop into the interiors of the dwellings to find simply-furnished sleeping quarters and grain stores in what, two centuries later, appears to be a living exhibition.
Grateful to be living in a century that consumes mostly animals other than bipedal primates for protein, we return to the old sandstone buildings of Roma.
Later, Ashley Thorn, Jennifer’s rally-champion husband, drives us some 2 km up the Mafikeng Mountain to Jurassic-era footprints of the metre-long Lesothosaurus. Ashley points out the hand-sized imprints that are clear even though it’s been almost 200 million years since the herbivorous “Lizard from Lesotho” hot-footed it along these parts.
After sundowners at the ancient site we celebrate our status as apex predators in the post-T-Rex and -cannibal age with social and gastronomic rites at the Trading Post Guesthouse.
Pg 4: Long falls …
Long falls, plunging Landies
Semonkong and its iconic Maletsunyane Falls is where we set out for early the next morning. After all, this is our shot at viewing the highest single-drop waterfall in Southern Africa.
As the Basotho measure distance in time rather than kilometres, we’re told the waterfall is three hours away (or some 135 km, if you must) over the Thaba Putsoa range. And we’re taking the scenic route there.
Ramabanta Trading Post manager Peter Sinclair first leads us onto a 4×4 route linking the A3, the west-east road past the Mohale Dam, and the A5 running southeast from Roma via Ramabanta to Semonkong.
At the foot of Bushman’s Pass, 27 km from Roma, we turn right off the A3 and onto the 31-km route meandering along the Makhaleng River.
The river-hugging dirt road demands frequent stops for photographs that soon fill up the memory cards. A man out walking with his dogs near a village above the languid river touches his felt hat as he hails us, “Ntate (father)!”
Deciding against continuing up the time-consuming, rough Jockstrap Pass, we turn right onto a shortcut that spits us out on the A5 between Roma and Ramabanta.
Heading for the falls now, Peter pointedly indicates the firm, twin mounds of Thabanali-Mele (the Mountain with Breasts) on the way to Ramabanta. After passing Ramabanta we also get a glimpse at the tough Baboon’s Pass near Thaba Putsoa.
On the final leg of the trip we pass fields of wheat ready for harvest and farmers threshing grains by chasing cattle around the threshing floor or beating ears of grain with sticks.
As we pull up to the 192-m-long white plume of the Maletsunyane Falls, a cracking like that of a distant rock-fall greets us as the water hits the rocks below.
Having captured our own postcards of the tableau, we drop in at Semonkong Lodge where, sporting shades in the late-afternoon shadows, owner Jonathan Halse raves about the abseiling down the falls − the longest commercial single-drop abseil in the world. “It’s 204m man, a Guinness Book of Records, man.” Cool, man.
I buy two woollen felt beanies that will make me look just like a local herdsman, man.
Pg 5: Living on the …
Living on the edge
Driving into the glare of sunset we wend our winding way back to Ramabanta, 50 km from Semonkong and our overnight stop where co-manager Rose Duby mothers us mercilessly where Jennifer left off.
Meanwhile, Ashley and Jennifer have followed us from Roma. Putting his feet up after marking the route for a rally the coming weekend, Ashley, a Roof of Africa veteran, regales us with extreme-4×4 tales so closely associated with this mountainous country.
The near-death experience of Landy man Mike Porter who plunged down a mountainside near Ha Tsokotsa, close to the Jockstrap Pass, in 2007 ranks right up there with the most dramatic (see Drive Out #20).
The selfsame Jockstrap Pass is where Ashley and Jennifer had their own harrowing experience of reversing out after driving into road building teams that had supposedly already completed the pass.
“I’d asked Ashley to phone to ask whether the work had been completed, but, typically male, he didn’t as he was sure the work was over,” Jennifer ribs him.
“The road was so narrow,” she relates over dinner at Ramabanta, “there was nowhere for me to stand next to my door.” Jennifer gingerly directed Ashley back to safety over 300 terrifying metres, his wheels at times a hand’s width from a precipice.
Then there were the newly-weds in a Land Rover that broke a side-shaft after it got gripped by the Baboon a little way into the pass. Another vehicle in their convoy towed the Landy the rest of the boulder-strewn way.*
Ashley himself also once lost a Unimog to the selfsame pass that left its chassis twisted. “We were a bit greedy by extending the load bay to increase packing space for trading,” he confesses.
The German technician they flew out to advise them on fixing the vehicle, Jennifer adds, merely shook his head saying, “Das geht nicht (I can’t do it).”
Pg 6: A warrior’s …
A warrior’s send-off
Brightly-whistling red-wing starlings are our alarm clock the next morning. Frank and I have some 12 hours of travelling ahead of us today, all the way across the central highlands to Sani Pass where we want to be before nightfall.
Peter and Rose are up before sunrise to kick-start us with coffee, rusks and padkos – bottled peaches of the local variety and vetkoek.
We cover the now-familiar stretch back to Roma, which we’re soon leaving with the cheerful sloshing of newly-filled fuel tanks. Then we head onto the A3 to the Mohale Dam, some 107 km to the east.
At the foot of Bushman’s Pass three brightly-dressed donkey riders give us a rousing warrior’s send-off with their fighting sticks held high.
The Mohale Dam, which at 145 m has the highest wall of crushed rock in Africa, awaits us after we’ve crossed the Blue Mountain Pass.
We’re reminded that Lesotho will be sitting pretty when the global-warming doom prophecies of acute water shortages materialise. It’s not for nothing that the Basotho treasure water, their only significant natural resource, so much they’ve wedged pula (rain) in between khotso (peace) and nala (prosperity) in their national motto.
Although their other crown jewel, diamonds, have lost some of its lustre to the recession, we nevertheless encounter a 4×4 with geologists doing a “geochemical survey” of the range of “minerals” found in the local riverbeds. After all, after agriculture and labour, diamonds are one of the country’s main export products.
On the Likalaneng Pass we slow down for herdsmen migrating down from the fast-chilling highlands with herds of sheep, angora goats, boer goats and cattle.
We’re reminded to treat the mountain with respect as we approach the settlement of Marakabei, near which Moshoeshoe II met his Maker.
Just after Thaba-Tseka, capital of the eponymous district, we cross paths with the Senqu Rivier flowing southwest where we know it as the Orange River.
With rain clouds moving in and an icy north wind sandblasting our faces, a knight appears, literally on a white horse, from the roadside to confirm we’re still on track.
“Horses are their Toyotas, man,” Jonathan told us at Semonkong Lodge. In fact these “4x4s” come thundering from every nook and cranny in Lesotho to race each other on the last Saturday of the month at Semonkong. The locals come to bet.
“It’s a jol, man.”
Pg 7: Cattle rustler’s …
Cattle rustler’s nemesis
Near the cloud-covered top of Thaba Phafane (3 482 m) we reach the highest point of our journey. Before we turn right onto the A31 for the final leg of our odyssey to Sani Pass, a flash of intermittent rain brings us the closest we’ll get to Lesotho’s famed thunderstorms.
We stop at a trio of boys fishing in a stream. They engage good-naturedly in the local form of bartering − sweets for a photograph. “No man, sweets are bad for your teeth,” I argue, settling on trading with the only currency (apart from ubuntu) we have − those coveted malotis.
The posse of cattle herders we encounter on the narrow ascent between the Seqoqo Mountain and the Sehonghong River are more militant. Amid gesticulation, orders are shouted, ostensibly to spread the cattle out to prevent us from passing, before they declare their terms.
Herdsman: “Give me money.”
Me (in a bartering mood): “Give me beer!”
Herdsman: “Give me money!”
Me: “No, you give me beer!”
There’s a silent standoff, and with no prospect of receiving anything from the heartless umlungu, the trio let the cattle part for us to drive through.
Having survived this brief skirmish minimally scarred, we encounter our first 4×4 tour group − four vehicles heading into the gloomy mountains.
We’re grateful to be on course for the welcoming of hot, spicy gluhwein at Sani Top Chalet − “the best south of Germany”, guitar-playing minstrel, poet and tattooed manager Greg assures us as he fills our glasses. And, man, is he right.
Over belly-warming glasses, we watch the sunset extravaganza projected onto a cloud screen covering the Drakensberg foothills.
It is here, on the last night of our trip, sharing dinner with a bachelor’s party out on a fly-fishing jaunt before the big day, that we hear the cattle-rustling tale from the nearby so-called McLean Valley.
Now, you don’t mess with (or apparently marry) a barefoot-and-shorts (winter or summer) farmer with chest hair growing out of his shirt like the ubiquitous Lesotho peach trees.
Even less so if his idea of fun is husky marathons across Alaska and 100-m rope descents down cliff faces to “borrow” bearded vulture eggs (worth big bucks, we’re told) for his bird-egg collection.
No, not even if you’re the meanest cattle-rustler in the whole of Lesotho.
The hacked-off farmer made a grisly plan. After the troublemaker had moved into his area, we’re told, the farmer shot a male baboon, cut his hands and head off and removed the entrails.
One night, the farmer planted the baboon’s hands − pointing at the front door − in front of the troublemaker’s house, stuck the head on a stake facing the house and, as the final touch, strew the entrails in front of it.
The troublemaker, we’re led to believe, was never the same again after facing the macabre scene on opening his door the next morning. And six months later he was dead − natural causes, we’re told.
There was also hushed mention of two skeletons found in the area − both with bullet holes in the forehead.
There’s apparently no cattle-rustling in McLean Valley.
Pg 8: Watery farewell
It’s 3 °C just before the sun rises over the mist and clouds into which we’ll be descending on the twisting Sani Pass today.
Before setting off, we share a last cuppa with the bachelor party steadying themselves for another day’s fly-fishing.
In turn, we brace ourselves for the return to the road-rage rush over rabbit-sized potholes on home soil as Frank negotiates the dirt pass’ hairpin bends.
Dragging our heels in the time-warping corridor back to the simple subsistence life in the Mountain Kingdom, Frank stops at a river for some fly-fishing.
As the curtain drops over our adventure in the kingdom now literally in the sky above, I’m standing knee-deep in the fast-flowing waters. Frank casts a bright yellow line against the backdrop of a solid shroud of cloud that has descended over the Roof of Africa.
Khotso, pula and nala indeed, man.
Pg 9: Quick facts
For the more adventurous
- Go pony-trekking into the mountains from the Roma Trading Post, Ramabanta Trading Post or Semonkong Lodge and abseil down the Maletsunyane Falls.
- Explore caves and overhangs for San paintings or experience the traditional lifestyle by spending a night in a Basotho village.
- Fly-fish for wild trout and yellow fish in remote mountain streams in hidden valleys or go birding for the rare bearded vulture, Cape vulture and the bald ibis
- Go mountain-biking, off-road- or quad-biking, explore 4×4 trails or hoof it on a hiking trail.
- Contact the Roma Trading Post at 266 2234 0202 (o/h);
firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Semonkong Lodge 266 2700 6037; email@example.com
- Ski at Afri-Ski in the Oxbow area ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
How long should I stay?
At least two nights, but to do justice to the country, you need to spend a week there.
Can I go in a 4×2?
If you have dental insurance, you can drive from Maseru to Semonkong for example in an Avis Corolla, but large tracks of Lesotho will be out of bounds in a 4×2.
What must I take along?
Warm clothing as it can be freezing on the mountain tops; something other than sweets for the begging children; camera; fly-fishing rod
Can I use rands in Lesotho? Yes
What spares did you take? We took very few spares, as Lesotho is close enough to be reached by agents in South Africa.
Did you take any recovery equipment? Yes, a spade, high-lift jack, a kinetic recovery strap and good quality shackles
What tools do you pack for a trip such as this? We only took a basic tool kit.
Where can I refuel? Maseru and all major towns such as Roma and Sani Top; fuel can be paid for in rands.
What are the road conditions? Dirt roads were fairly good; tar roads excellent.
Best map? Tracks4Africa
Where can I stay over?
- Roma Trading Post Guesthouse, (B&B, self-catering cottages, camping); Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge (self-catering cottages, restaurant) 266 2234 0202 (o/h); email@example.com
- Semonkong Lodge (self-catering cottages, backpackers, restaurant)
266 2700 6037; firstname.lastname@example.org
Must I book? It is only necessary to book for school holidays.