Lesotho – The Lost Kingdom, where superlatives go to die.
Evan Haussmann shares a secret.
I’m conflicted as I write this. There’s a part of me that wants to keep this place a secret, to protect it like surfers protect their favourite breaks.
I want to highlight the disorganisation of the booking ‘system’ and the appalling state of the roads; overstate the reports of stone-throwing en route, the lack of services, scarcity of supplies, dirty fuel, isolation, erosion and danger. I don’t want you all to go to Sehlabathebe. You’ll spoil it.
The roads to Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park are not paved in, well … anything. Theese bonejarring, treacherous and beautiful tracks of broken earth scythe through the peaks and troughs of the country’s green and brown drama. Even though there is precious little of Africa’s loftiest kingdom that is not inhabited or utilised as agricultural land, the Lesotho landscape evokes an exclamation – or at very least a comment – at every crest and turn. Just when you think the road can’t get any worse, a track of glass-sharp rock shards leads into an adjective-nullifying zone of natural beauty. If arriving, in itself, is not reward enough, the contrast of wilderness with the hut- and horse-riddled lands that surround Sehlabathebe only makes the cloud-capped peaks guarding rolling grasslands something more than spectacular, something magical.
At the end of the track, we reach Jonathan’s Lodge, named after ex-prime minister of Lesotho and trout-fishing enthusiast Leabua Jonathan, who used it as a getaway, his playground. It’s by no means the architectural spectacle one would expect from a government funded construction. However, the prefabricated 18-bed, serviced, self-catering building is as comfortable as its plush furnishings are gaudy. (And they are green velvet, plastic, gold and glass super-gaudy.)
The kitchen and lounge are communal and bathrooms are shared. There is no electricity and the lodge relies on gas for light, heat and refrigeration. A noticeboard asks visitors to ensure that all ablutions are done by 19h00 so the water supply can be switched off to avoid burst pipes in the freezing winters. It also warns to keep bathroom windows open to avoid asphyxiation by gas geyser fumes.
Speaking of asphyxiation, the long glass-fronted, north-facing structure looks onto, or rather up to, the breathtaking Baroa-ba-Bararo (Three Bushmen) mountain range. When you’ve caught your breath, the 6 500 hectares of photographer’s nirvana waits to snatch it away again with boundless hiking, pony trekking, birding, rock art hunting and fly-fishing.
From the lodge, we embarked on a leisurely two-hour pony trek to the Tsoelikana Falls, where Glenn Jones – my Lesotho guide and travelling partner – became uncharacteristically animated. Previously, he’d explained that this was one of very few remaining areas where the Maluti minnow occurred. The introduction of trout has put the species under pressure and into the Red Data Book. Glenn stopped frantically rummaging in the bottom of his pack and produced a fishing rod and a grin before disappearing across the river shouting something about ‘war on the trout invaders’ over his shoulder.
Later that evening, we shared the spoils of Glenn’s late-afternoon river battles over a camp fire on the banks of the Tsoelikana River. The 20-metre high waterfall nearby provided the soundtrack to our trout and tinned mussel feast, while stars danced in and out behind curtains of clouds plodding across the evening sky. Lesotho weather is fickle and it ended the stellar show with a lightning flash. Hard rain and growling thunder chased us into our tents. During the night, for good measure, it hurled hailstones at us, ensuring we stayed in our ripstop cocoons until dawn.
In the morning, we returned on horseback to the relative luxury of the prefab mansion. As we rocked along, sharp sunlight broke through aqua-blue gaps in the morning mist, prising it out of the valleys, illuminating the hillsides in luminous green. Water burbled unseen beneath bowed grasses, which spread away and up over the lofty horizon, the carpet broken only by surreal rock formations – a crocodile, a map of Africa, a fat lady’s derriere. Pink papery flowers clenched their buds stubbornly, refusing to face the morning. I felt similarly about the prospect of departing later that day: We’d hiked the plains, splashed through mirrors reflecting a fiery dawn and stood staring dumbstruck when verbal exchanges of admiration became impotent against the powerful spectacle.
The truth about Sehlabathebe – and, in many ways, Lesotho – is that the best of it is not easy to access. Wildernesses like this exist and are appealing precisely because they can be a challenge to reach. The time to go is now, because Sehlabathebe is changing. Later this year, a 72-bed lodge with conference facilities and a visitors’ centre is due to open. The road will probably be tarred and a Vodacom tower on the hill will come on-line. There will be concierges, valets and organised recreation.
While all this will undoubtedly be beneficial to the local community, we will all have lost a paradise that has been a secret worth keeping. Go now, before they take the fun out of it, before it’s all too easy.
More about Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project
Sehlabathebe’s 6 500 hectares forms part of the Maloti- Drakensberg Transfrontier Project (MDTP), established in 2001. The MDTP is 1 475 000 hectares in total and includes uKhahlamba/Drakensberg Park (a World Heritage Site), Golden Gate Highlands National Park, Ts’ehlanyane Nature Reserve and Bokong Nature Reserve. The area’s biodiversity is threatened by timber plantations, commercialisation and subsistence agriculture. The project is a park in the making which aims to protect special flora and fauna habitats, as well as an important catchment area for water that is utilised as far afield as Namibia, while seeking to uplift local communities. The MDTP is also home to Southern Africa’s highest concentration of San rock art, with some 600 sites comprising between 35 and 40 000 individual images painted over at least 4 000 years. – www.peaceparks.org
Lesotho Travel Tips
• Pack gear for all weather conditions, including snow. If travelling in winter, snow chains are invaluable. Beware, lightning is a real killer in Lesotho.
• Be prepared: bring more than one spare tyre plus tyre weld and an emergency puncture kit. It is best to travel in convoy with at least one other vehicle. Buy fuel at every opportunity, as supply can be erratic.
• Don’t pass a border post without getting your passport stamped. This can happen easily, as the Lesotho side is lax, but it can cause you problems when you exit. •
Take lots of drinking water. There are no big-brand supermarkets along these routes, but you can usually get fresh veggies, meat and basic supplies in towns along the way. Take a good cooler box or 12V fridge. (You can buy cold beers along the way at almost any village tavern.)
• Don’t forget good torches and lanterns, plus batteries. Wood is scarce, so bring your own and be aware of the environment when making campfires.
• Lesotho’s official currency is the loti (plural maloti), which is divided into 100 lisente. Rands are accepted in Lesotho, but remember that you won’t be able to use maloti in South Africa. There are ATMs in the bigger towns and some lodges will accept credit cards, but it’s best just to take good old cold cash.
• Communications are very unreliable at Sehlabathebe. Vodacom has recently erected a mast, but it was not yet on-line at the time of writing. Vodacom Lesotho is the most reliable network, but only near larger settlements.
• Bring a good attitude. incidents of stoning have been reported (even on the alerts on our GPS), but we had no problems. Anything can be defused with a broad smile and a laugh.
• Don’t – like the early missionaries – hand out sweets or gifts to the kids. It’s not sustainable and turns them into pests when other visitors stop. Break the cycle.
Recommended 4×4 Routes
Getting there Glenn Jones and Evan Haussmann explored the Lesotho sections of the following alternate routes. They were all passable in a 4×4 in March, but heavy rain and snow can have an incredibly destructive effect. Please use this travel planner with large helpings of common sense. Call ahead to find out the road conditions.
We can accept no responsibility for travellers attempting the routes described in this article.
From Durban via Kokstad Enter at Ongeluksnek border post. Travel via Maphooaneng Pass and the Devil’s Staircase and overnight at Moorosi Chalets in Moorosi. Take the Lebelonyane Pass to Sehlabathebe.
Or an easier, more direct route to Sehlabathebe from Moorosi is through Ramatseliso’s Gate. This route is shorter and road is better, but a 4×4 is still recommended.
From Johannesburg (serious 4×4 route) Head for Clarens, stopping at Bethlehem for a last supply run (better variety and cheaper). Drive through Golden Gate Highlands National Park to Monantsa Pass border post. Overnight at the luxury Maliba Lodge or the more reasonable Maliba River Lodge. Other options for overnight accommodation in Mafika Lisiu Pass area are Motebong Village at Lejone and at Katse Dam Lodge at the dam wall. At Thaba Tseka, overnight at the Buffalo Hotel. Continue to Mashai, where you can overnight at Mashai Lodge. In Matebeng, stay at Bob Phillips Camp. Cross the Matebeng Pass and overnight in Sehlabathebe National Park or just outside the park at the Ha Semenyane Ranger Station.
From Johannesburg (easier 4×4 route) Head for Clarens and then Tele Bridge border post. Overnight at Moorosi. Follow the tar road via Lebelonyane Pass to Sehlabathebe on the A4.
From Cape Town Head to Rhodes or Barkly East/Aliwal North. Enter at Lundin’s Nek or Tele Bridge. Overnight at Moorosi. Follow the tar road via Lebelonyane Pass to Sehlabathebe on the A4. OR For a more challenging route, go via Ongeluksnek to the Devil’s Staircase, then through Maphooaneng Pass to Sehlabathebe.
Who to contact
The itinerary and accommodation were arranged by Glenn Jones of Malealea Tours. If you would like to experience this beautiful, friendly country and need a few handy tips in planning and booking your adventure, Glenn is always willing to share some local knowledge and advice. Tel 082-824-0883, e-mail info@ malealeatours.com, web www.malealeatours.com.
Where to stay
Jonathan’s Lodge in Sehlabathebe National Park (sleeps 18). Camping available. NOTE: Booking Sehlabathebe is a hit-and-miss affair – you may have the lodge to yourself or have to share it with others who’ve booked the same room. If this happens, try Ha Semenyane Ranger Station a comfortable, clean dormitory. Tel +266-5807-1433, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Sehlabatebe Gate GPS: S29°52’12.05”, E29°4’3.18”
Jonathan’s Lodge GPS: S29°52’7.72”, E29°6’58.17”
Ha Semenyane Ranger Station GPS: S29°53’11.14”, E29° 2’32.87”
Berg Cottage in Clarens is quaint, self-catering accommodation. It sleeps eight and kids under 12 are half price. Tel 058-256-1112, e-mail email@example.com.
Maliba Mountain Lodge is arguably Lesotho’s premiere hotel. Set in the beautiful Ts’ehlanyane National Park, the lodge is worth an extended stay. However, it’s pricey. If you’re on a budget, you may want to try the nearby Maliba River Lodge for a self-catering chalet. Tel 031-702-8791 or 082-778-8558, e-mail reservations@maliba-lodge. com, web www.maliba-lodge.com. GPS: S28°54’51.95”, E28°26’10.23”
Motebong Village at Lejone has newly refurbished self-catering cottages that sleep two, four , five and seven people. Tel +266-2222- 7600, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Katse Dam Lodge overlooks the dam of the same name. En suite rooms available. Tel 082-824-0883, e-mail email@example.com.
Buffalo Hotel in Thaba Tseka offers accommodation in en suite rondavels with breakfast. Tel +266-2700-7339, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. GPS: 29°32’57.29”S, 28°37’4.56”E.
Bob Phillips Camp is a lovely, secluded site on the banks of the Matebeng River. It is absolutely basic, so you need to be totally self-sufficient and leave only footprints. For more info, visit Lesotho Thin-Air Challenge, web www.lesothothinair.co.za. GPS: S29°48’32.23”, E28°49’31.22”.
Mashai Lodge offers comfortable self-catering accommodation. Tel +266-5888-0303, e-mail email@example.com.
Moorosi Chalets, at the foot of the historic Mount Moorosi, offers en suite rondavels, basic huts and camping. Tel 082-824- 0883, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, web www.malealeatours.com. GPS: S30°13’57.64”, E27°53’32.67”
What to do
Sehlabathebe Equine Hire, based at Jonathan’s Lodge, offers guided horseback tours to Bushman’s Nek and Tsoelikane Waterfall. Book at Jonathan’s Lodge.
This article appeared in Getaway Magazine.