Travelling to Lesotho was never really part of the plan. With only two weeks to get from Cape Town to Johannesburg and a million incredible things to do and see on our South African road trip, there would not be time for any diversions. It was actually my friend Dan (there were six of us in total on our South African road trip) who suggested we cut through Lesotho to get to Johannesburg, and we all agreed it would be pretty cool to see another country.
The closer we got to Lesotho, however, the more arguments took place on whether we should bother going there. Personally I had set my heart on it and no matter what the rest of the group decided, I was determined to get there for a few days even if it meant hitchhiking.
It was in a small little hostel in Hogsback, way up in the Amathole Mountains, that the arguments really got heated. Some members of our little travelling crew had sat down for dinner and some beers with some local South African men. The men, probably in their fifties, laughed at our plans to visit Lesotho exclaiming, “Why would you want to go there? Nobody goes there!“. (Exactly why I want to go, Mr!). The men went on to call upon the friendly staff of Away With The Fairies hostel, who said that they also had never been and that, now that they think of it, they didn’t know anyone who had been.
After much toing and froing, an hour long heated discussion on the pros and cons of visiting tiny little Lesotho, we finally decided that we would go. It was only going to be two nights and it would be pretty cool to ‘tick another country off the list’ and to visit the highest country in the world.
We left early the next morning, ready for a very long day of driving. The first thing we learned was to never trust Google Maps when driving in Africa! While the GPS on our phones told us we were just 46km from the nearest main road, in reality it was more of a rocky pathway going cross-country through a farm. It was potentially the worst road I have ever driven, which is saying a lot considering I come from Ireland, home to meter deep potholes! It took as just under 2 hours to travel 46km, and we had about 500km left to go on top of a boarder crossing. It was going to be a seriously long day but we hoped the worst bit was over. After an uneventful few hours of driving, passing some pretty spectacular scenery, we were finally nearing the border.
Travelling To Lesotho – Always a challenge!
Before I continue, there are a few things you should know about Lesotho, just to give you a little background. Totally landlocked and encircled by South Africa, the Kingdom of Lesotho has the highest low point in the world. What this means is the entire country is higher than 1,400 metres, with the highest peak reaching heights of 3400 metres. This, no doubt, is why Lesotho is often known as ‘The Mountain Kingdom’. Another important fact about this country, something we luckily read about before crossing the border, is that there is a HUGE diesel shortage in the country and that diesel is not readily available to purchase. Anywhere.
As we neared the border, in our gigantic diesel-sucking party bus, we were on the look out for petrol stations. Turns out nearly all the stations on the border were either closed or had no diesel. Awesome. We had little choice but to drive over the border into Lesotho, knowing we were entering a country where for the duration of our stay we would not, under any circumstances, be able to fuel. Exciting times!
Crossing the border (we chose Van Rooyen’s Gate as it was open until 10pm and most of the other border crossings with South Africa closed at either 4pm or 6pm) itself was pretty harmless, except for a few minutes of panic looking for a misplaced drivers licence, and within about 30 minutes we had our passports stamped, had made a friend in the border security guard and were en route to Malealea Lodge, our home for the next 2 days.
We were surprisingly impressed with the roads but we could not help but notice the extreme poverty everywhere we looked. It was pretty shocking to see how different the two countries were, and the huge contrast between towns either side of the border. The next thing we noticed was the lack of street lighting. The sun had just set in spectacular African fashion, lighting up the sky like a painting, and now the pinks and purples were fading leaving nothing but a star filled black sky.
Due to the lack of street lights, driving at night is a serious challenge. First off, there are the mini bus drivers that seem to fly around the bends with not a care in the world. Apparently they don’t think turning their lights on after dark is a necessity, so it was near on impossible to spot them until they were less than 20 meters away and speeding towards you. The next problem was animals. As it gets a little chilly at night time, many animals like cows and goats lay down on the roads which have been warmed up by the sun during the day so they don’t get cold at night. Avoiding these animals, in addition to the young shepherd boys accompanying them, and all the speeding mini-bus taxis equates to an interesting driving experience!
After about an hour of driving the dodgy streets and constantly checking our GPS to make sure we were going in the right direction, we finally arrived at our destination safely. Or so we thought. We had come across the sign for Malealea Lodge and a small stone plaque (situated at 2,000 meters!) inscribed, “Wayfarer pause and look upon a gateway to paradise” and presumed we had arrived. Unfortunately for us, we could not see a thing as it was pitch dark, so not a glimpse of paradise did we see and we realised we still had 5km to drive along what must be the longest and worst hotel driveway in Africa. The only thing on our minds was keeping the car on the road, as we driving down a steep and rocky mountain pass with potholes to rival both South Africa and Ireland. To give you an idea exactly how bad this road way, it took us just over 45 minutes to drive a distance of 5km. 45 minutes!!
We eventually made it it Malealea Lodge and checked in after what had been a 10 hour journey from Hogsback. Luckily we had pre ordered dinner at the lodge (there was no where else around for miles, so ‘eating out’ would never have been an option!, so we had a piping hot, and delicious, traditional meal waiting for us on arrival.
From that moment on is when the real magic took place.
Malealea Lodge was unlike anywhere else we had stayed in Southern Africa, and unlike anywhere I had ever stayed in all my trips to Eastern Africa. The canteen was plastered in photos from years gone by, with many ohotos taken by visitors dating back to the early nineties. One of those places that really has not changed for decades. My first impression of Malealea Lodge was that it is the kind of place that intrepid explorers would have checked into over 100 years ago. Turns out I wasn’t far wrong, as the lodge was established in the early 1900’s as a trading post, and has been operating as a tourist lodge and pony trekking centre since the 1980’s.
Another thing I loved about this lodge is that the pioneering pony trek that set off from the lodge in the 1991 was an all-female crew, consisting of present day owner Di Jones and her two friends, who set off on a three day trek to remote villages around Malealea on ponies owned by local farmers. There trek was a success and has helped Di and her husband Mickey establish Malealea as one of the top pony trekking destinations in Southern Africa. Need to stock up for your horse riding adventure? Get your riding boots here!
As there is no electricity in much of the countryside, the lodge relies on generators and only provides 5 hours of electricity a day to guests. This was fine by us as it meant we spent the evening sitting around the campfire on the front deck, exchanging travel stories with other intrepid travellers. This is where we met Alex, an American working in Lesotho and teaching and encouraging conservation through music. He was one of those travellers who inspires the imagination and is proof that there are many ways to live you life. You can check out his incredible work here.
While sitting around the campfire, listening to Alex play his guitar and some traditional Basotho songs, the girls and I cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate the fact that arriving in Lesotho meant finishing a decade-long bucket list adventure of visiting 50 countries! We started with just the one bottle but finished three delicious bottles in the end. Just as well customs and immigration didn’t got through our bags at the border…our car was FULL of South African wine!!
The next day we set off on a half day pony trek to the site of some ancient cave man drawings. While our guide, who was actually an eleven year old girl finished school for the holidays, told us the drawings dated back 27,000 years, the owner of the lodge told us these particular ones are no more than 400 years old. Either way, the journey there was spectacular, as you can see from the photos below. We all kept saying how beautiful the landscape was, how it almost looked fake thanks to the crazy contrast of deep reds and browns everywhere you looked. You can definitely see why they call this area paradise. My friend Erika has also written a great post about her pony trekking adventure which will keep you a deeper insight into what’s involved!
That evening, sitting in hammocks and enjoying a local beer, I felt totally peaceful and at ease. Lesotho is a place where the pace of life is so much slower than anywhere else I have visited. With limited electricity, a population of farmers and shepherds, and ponies being the main method of transport, a fast-paced life just isn’t a reality.
The thing I loved most about this Kingdom in the sky was how friendly everyone we encountered was, even if they had little to no English. They never begged for money, they simply smiled and welcomed us into their homes and craft centers. There was never pressure to make purchases and they seemed to have nothing but time. We did a short village walk with a local guide, which gave us a small insight into what life must be life for the locals. The only grocery store was essentially a shed made from corrugated sheeting, the ‘brewery’ was just a large barrel of (potent) local alcohol sitting in a mud hut and the school while small had THE most spectacular views I have ever seen in my life.
We learned all about local culture and customs, about how the chief of the area is the person who gives permission to farmers to farm the land (there is no real land ownership and there are no fences to be found, everything is shared in a community) and we were also saddened to hear that it had only rained once in the entire year which meant crops were failing and a drought could well cause widespread hunger issues. It was crazy to think this entire country had had no rain for a year when Ireland had pretty much had no sun! If only we could swap climates for half the year it would solve everyone’s problems!
While my time in Lesotho was far too short and I didn’t see very much of the country, it is a beautiful little kingdom that I would recommend anyone to visit. The people are friendly, the beer is cheap and the local mode of transport is far more fuel efficient than any cars / buses / planes I have taken!! Travelling to Lesotho is a challenge but one you will love and cherish forever.
If I was to go back, I would try spend at least two weeks in Lesotho and fall in love with this lovely landlocked country a little more. Just like Prince Harry recently said, I now have an ‘overwhelming connection’ to its’ people.