In April 2017, Liza Walls and her friends went looking for adventure in the Mountain Kingdom. Their road trip encompassed most of the major sights – and they were surprised by all the new tar…
Liza Walls drives new tar roads in Lesotho, on a tour that includes all the highlights.
Maletsunyane Falls! Did I ever think I’d be here? In 1973, my late husband Ian and a few of his Mountain Club pals from university hiked from Qacha’s Nek to Maseru via this magnificent waterfall and thereafter it took on a dreamlike quality for me. Now I’m here above the spectacular canyon, with the falls thundering down. A bearded vulture floats past. What more could one ask for? To the side of the waterfall, some fearless people are abseiling the almost 200 m drop. I see dassies, a Cape rock thrush and a rock kestrel; red-winged starlings and martins wheel past. Our group of friends arrived in Semonkong yesterday – the name of the village means “place of smoke”. ( See “Africa at its Best” in go! #145 – Ed.) There were six of us: me, Dave, Elmarie and Danie in my Landy; and sisters Marise and Annelee behind in Annelee’s Suzuki Jimny. After having spent the first night in Ladybrand at a nice lodge with huge pot-bellied pigs roaming around, we drove here via the A2 and the A5, through Maseru, through the university town of Roma and on through the village of Ramabanta. It was a great tar road all the way, although the mountains remain as lofty and steep as ever. Despite the good roads, it still took us at least three hours to drive 100 km, with the odd stop
to admire a view or dodge livestock being herded by blanketed men on horseback. Along the way, near Maseru, we checked out Thaba Bosiu – a sandstone plateau and natural fortress that King Moshoeshoe fled to in the early 1800s to escape invaders. The British and Roman Catholic Church came to his rescue and most of Lesotho is Catholic as a result. We’re staying at Semonkong Lodge. There are some nice chalets and a campsite on the river, and two bigger rondavels up the hill. Each rondavel has six bunks and a shared kitchen. The six of us are in one rondavel and the other is shared by an Israeli man who is hitch-hiking through Africa, and a chap from Mossel Bay on his motorbike. There seems to be a steady tourist trade here, with the attraction of the waterfall. Getting to Maletsunyane Falls from Semonkong entails hiking for about an hour along a well-worn network of paths. We encountered lots of people on horseback and on foot leading donkeys, who were on their way to the village to stock up. Some of the donkeys had huge gas bottles strapped to their backs. The men and older boys were all wrapped up in blankets, balaclavas and beanies. We also saw lots of goats, sheep, cattle and dogs. Then, just like that, the falls came into view. Danie, Marise and Annelee decide they want to hike downstream and find a way into the gorge. Elmarie and I, however, are content to stay put and carry on soaking up the scenery. Soon enough, the intrepid trio work out that the only way to hike down into the gorge is also the only way to hike out – it’s the path the abseilers use to climb back to the plateau. Instead, the hikers decide to walk along a 4x4 track that goes upriver some way and then around a hill to another viewpoint overlooking the waterfall. I don’t join them – I’m finding it quite hard to breathe in the thin air at more than 2 200 m above sea level. After everyone is done exploring, we head back to Semonkong for a beer in the lodge pub and dinner at our rondavel.
Katse up close
I’m up first the next morning. As I open the door of the rondavel, I’m greeted by the yellow band of dawn on the horizon and a waning crescent moon hugging Venus above. Exquisite. Once everyone is awake and packed, we drive back to Roma along the A5 and then turn east along the A3 to Thaba-Tseka – a town roughly in the middle of the country. We go up and over some magnificent passes, all wonderfully tarred: Bushman’s Pass, God-Help-Me Pass; Blue Mountain Pass… We’re right in the mountains, in the basalt. We pass more cattle, goats and sheep, herded by more blanketed young men. The vegetation has an alpine quality and water sluices off the slopes and into the valleys. Hairpin bends, an ox standing in the middle of the road… Danie’s at the wheel and we screech to a halt. A planned stop happens later – for lunch – and along comes the local soccer team! They’re running up the mountain, a monster of a hill. All around, I notice little patches of mealies. The stalks have been cut to make sheaves and haystacks. Later, I see these haystacks bundled on donkeys to be stored for livestock feed for the long winter. And the best is yet to come. If I thought the road to get here was dramatic, the road from Thaba-Tseka to Katse Dam and north to the village of Lejone is even more so. From ThabaTseka, it’s 60 km of gravel to the Katse Dam wall. It’s potholed and rocky and takes us three hours. Next to the road, the landscape simply
falls away into seemingly bottomless valleys. The sun is ominously close to the horizon when we get to the wall and we’re thankful that the final 50 km section to Lejone is tarred. We finally reach Motebong Lodge at 7 pm, where they have no record of our booking and deposit. Never mind – we’re shown to a lovely prefab house with four bedrooms and all the modern comforts, and they assure us that our booking will be sorted out the next day. Katse Dam is basically a flooded valley on the Malibamatso River. It’s long and thin – and deep. Lejone served as the construction village in the north when the dam was being built in the early 1990s. It’s part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project – a partnership between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa – to supply water to the ever-increasing population in Gauteng. A tunnel takes the water to the Caledon River, which feeds the Vaal River and eventually the Vaal Dam. You can do a tour at the wall – an impressive feat of engineering – but we’re too pooped to drive back there again. While the three enthusiastic hikers go for a long walk around the valley with a guide, the rest of us opt for a gentler stroll to the dam. The water level is low during our visit – less than 60 %. While we’re walking around, we meet a South African man who is in charge of the trout farm near Lejone. The fry (young trout) come from the Cape, the eggs come from Europe and the farmed fish are trucked to Woolworths stores all over the country. After a cup of tea back at the lodge, we head off on another walk: up the road to Lejone. We go past the market, which is bustling with horses, donkeys and people. It seems to be pension day and many elderly people are waiting patiently in an open area for the relevant authorities to arrive. The shops in Lejone are arranged haphazardly along the road, with the usual assortment of clothing stores, micro-lenders, cellphone shops and a small supermarket. A patient donkey stands outside one shop with a blanket wrapped around its head – a sure way to keep it from strolling off! (Speaking of blankets, we also visit a shop where we’re offered lovely acrylic Basotho blankets for R400 each.) We all reconvene for a braai later that evening and listen to the stories of the three hikers, who say they covered about 20 km with their guide.
The nuns of St James
The next day is cloudy and we get an early start, following a gravel road north-east that will eventually deliver us to the tarred A1, where we’ll turn south to the town of Mokhotlong. The gravel section is slow: It takes us three hours to cover 40 km; up and down, winding around the valleys. We take a wrong turn at one point and end up high on a hill in a dead-end village, where a lady is teaching a group of kids in the sun. Fortunately a young man puts us onto the right road, but first we have to turn around, which is a mission in itself! We cross the Malibamatso River and head uphill past the Kao diamond mine. The road is better here, probably maintained by the mine. Up and up we go, until we’re on an alpine plateau. The air is thin and the views are enormous. The gravel road joins the tarred A1 at the top of the Tlaeng Pass – at 3 251 m it’s one
of the highest road passes in Africa. The Afriski resort is just around the corner to the north, but we’re going south to Mokhotlong. Mokhotlong serves the diamond mines in the vicinity. We find fuel and a decent Shoprite stocked with anything you might need. The 155 km journey so far has taken “only” six and a half hours. This is better than the drive from Semonkong to Lejone, which took us 11 hours! South of Mokhotlong, we turn off the A1 onto the Sani Pass road. Soon thereafter, we turn off again to St James Lodge – a big Catholic mission station with a church, a primary school, a crèche, a high school with boarding facilities and a clinic. More than 40 nuns live in a lovely block of flats – some are teachers and some are nurses. The “lodge” turns out to be a small stone building where the priests probably stayed when they first came here: two big rooms with four or five beds in each, a bathroom and two adjoining rondavels. It’s a bit primitive, but at least there’s electricity. And the accommodation is cheap. Of course there’s no record of our booking and deposit, but the friendly receptionist gets a priest on the line and sorts everything out. The receptionist then takes us on a tour of the church, which features numerous frescoes and a painted ceiling that was apparently decorated in sections and inserted into place. She says that she plays the drums for the large church choir. A light drizzle at about 7 pm worries me, but when I step outside at 9 pm the Southern Cross winks at me from high in the sky. The next morning Venus greets me again with her reassuring twinkle.
Downhill and home
We decide that one night at St James is enough so after a hot shower from the donkey boiler, stoked by some poor devil at 5 am, we’re off to Sani. The lodge at the top of the pass is only about 40 km away – a pleasant, hour-long drive on new tar. At the lodge, we chat to some other travellers and brace ourselves for the onslaught on the pass. Through passport control, second gear, low range… Over the edge and down. After the first few hairpin bends, I put the Landy into first gear to save the brakes. Dave is next to me, coaxing me down. The escarpment towers above as we descend. After the hairpins, the gradient eases off and soon we’re through the South African border post. We’ve done it! What a wonderful holiday it was, with the best travelling companions. The weather couldn’t have been more accommodating – a week after we got home, it snowed up there in Lesotho…
FALLS AND FUEL. Maletsunyane Falls (below) tumbles over a basalt ledge into a gorge. The water creates clouds of condensation that looks like smoke. At Thaba-Tseka, Liza and her companions finally found some petrol for the Jimny, which had been running on fumes for some time (bottom).
ON ROUTE. On her adventure, Liza experienced Lesotho’s major attractions like Sani Pass (top), but also the daily life of herdsmen moving their angora goats and donkeys (above).