READER STORY

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…

go! - - Contents - LIZA WALLS Home town: Cen­tu­rion Occupation: Part-time book­keeper

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…

SANI PASS

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).

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