Lesotho: the Mountain Kingdom

A visit to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho has been on my wishlist for a long time, and in early March we finally made it there, even if it was only a very quick visit. We were visiting the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province of South Africa for a week, and as part of our visit to the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains we took a day tour up Sani pass and crossed the border into the heights of Lesotho.

Sani Pass

Sani pass is an infamous dirt road with many bends and turns, ascending up 1332m to the border between South Africa and Lesotho, at an altitude of 2876m. You need a 4 wheel drive and pretty good driving skills to go up there, so we went up on a jeep tour instead, which started at the Sani pass backpackers lodge.

Apparently after much debate, the South African government plans to tar Sani pass, which many people fear will lead to more accidents as people are likely to drive too fast around the hairpin bends. Some of the mountain roads on top in Lesotho were recently tarred by China (which is apparently interested in the cobalt in the area), and although on the surface of things it is an improvement, they can apparently be dangerous in icy weather because they get slippery.

One of the new roads

I should mention that the Drakensberg are no small mountains – the highest peak, Thabana Ntlenyana (“pretty little mountain”) is at 3482m. There is even a ski resort in the Drakensberg, the only one in Africa.

Hello pretty little mountain!

Our tour started with the bumpy jeep ride up Sani pass, with several stops to enjoy the beautiful views of vast, green mountains that unfolded before us. Our tour guide gave us an interesting commentary on the natural surroundings and the history along the way. The day started off sunny with blue skies, but as we got higher, some mist started rolling in. In the mountains you can expect any kind of weather.

At the top of the Sani pass we reached the border between South Africa and Lesotho. I was on the last day of validity of my South African passport so was a bit worried they wouldn’t accept it, but everything was fine. While they were processing all the passports from our tour group we wandered around near the border station, all super excited to be about to enter Lesotho. Our tour guide pointed out the ice rats that run around in a nearby field so I spent most of the time trying to spot these. Afterwards most of us hopped back in the jeep to drive across the border, but my husband was so excited that he’d already walked across the border and was waiting for us on the other side.

It is true that once you cross the border, it immediately feels like another world. Not only is it a different country, but this is the mountain region of the country, the traditional highlands. Most of the population of Lesotho lives in the lowlands, where the capital Maseru is situated. Here in the Maloti mountains are the villages and shepherds, still dressed in their traditional clothes and living traditional lifestyles. As it can get cold in the mountains, they wrap themselves in woolen blankets and sometimes wear balaclavas. Some of them go on horseback, and they can ride bareback. They often wear gum boots because of the wet ground and to protect against lightning. They are paid in sheep, live in stone shelters with sheepskins to keep warm, and have dogs for protection.

Sheep are important in Lesotho, because the country is famous for its beautiful Basotho blankets. Later back in the Sani backpacker lodge shop, I bought a book that tells the life story of one of the men who used to be a shepherd (Thabo Makoa), as narrated in his own words. It is not an easy life being a shepherd, the shepherds often start working when they are just boys in order to earn money for their families or their education. But he wrote that although it was a very hard life, he did enjoy the freedom of the mountains. The book is very interesting and I’d recommend it if you’d like to learn more about the lives of the Basotho shepherds. I think it would be nice if there were a way to maintain their culture while making their lives easier at the same time.

Our first stop on the tour was the highest pass in the area, the Kotesipola (or Black Mountain) Pass at 3240m. Our guide parked the jeep at the side of the road on a plateau and we stopped for a bite to eat. As I got out of the jeep and walked a short distance to look a the view, I felt a rush of dizziness. The altitude had hit me. It was the first time I had ever felt anything from altitude, though I’d been at 3000m before in Georgia. I realized it was probably because I was already pretty hungry and hadn’t drunk anything in a while, so I walked slowly over to a rock to sit down, drank a 500ml bottle of water, and ate the packed lunch. After that I felt better. The altitude hitting me had been a weird feeling though. First I’d felt giddy and then my lungs seemed to gasp for air. Drinking acclimatized me pretty quickly though. We went for a short walk afterwards, further up the mountain to a viewing point. I took care to walk slowly and everything was fine, soon I forgot about the altitude. The view of the surrounding mountains was great and I enjoyed checking out the mountain flowers.

After our walk to the top of the mountains, we drove back down to one of the villages. The houses in the villages are rondavels, made from stones and thatched roofs. There are no windows. Inside is a fire for heating and cooking. You might be surprised to learn that the floor is made from a smoothed mixture of sand and cow dung. This makes a very nice floor after it dries. Contrary to what you might expect, it doesn’t smell at all, after all, it is just processed grass, much like milk! The floor has to be redone every so often and our hostess had redone it recently, so it looked perfect. Our tour company had an arrangement with one of the ladies in the village, who showed us her home and let us taste some traditional baked bread and beer. We also learnt some things about Basotho culture, such as that when taking or giving something you should do it with your right hand.

Some chickens decided to gate-crash the party

After our village visit, our final stop was to the highest pub in Africa. I enjoyed a hot chocolate there (as it was pretty cool high up in the mountains) and my husband tried the local beer. As we sat there, it started pouring with rain. Like I said, the weather changes quickly in the mountains!

Eventually it was time to head back down the Sani pass to South Africa. The mountain offered us a rainbow to say goodbye. It was such a quick visit to a fascinating country, but hopefully we will be back again. In case you are interested to know more about the country, below I have tried to summarize how the kingdom of Lesotho was formed.

The history of Lesotho

The history of Lesotho is very interesting. Many people want to know how this land-locked kingdom, completely surrounded by South Africa, came to be an independent country. To answer that we have to go back to the period of turmoil between 1815 and 1840 known as Lifaqane in Lesotho and Difaqane or Mfecane in South Africa. In the early 1800s, there was expansion of the Zulu kingdom in the east of South Africa under the powerful king Shaka Zulu, triggering a scattering of peoples from conquered areas further inland, and widespread war between tribes over territory. One of Shaka’s former lieutenants, Mzilikazi, fled to the Transvaal after the two argued, and began to conquer territory, eliminating all opposition to his Matabele tribe. At the same time as all of this warfare, a severe drought started, adding to the woes and conflict. In this dark time arose a great leader, King Moshoeshoe (1786-1870). In 1820, he became a minor chief of the Bamokoteli lineage, a branch of the Koena (crocodile) clan. When the Lifaqane started, he moved to Thaba Bosiu mountain, a natural fortress. It proved to be an excellent stronghold, resisting many attacks. King Moshoeshoe provided a refuge to those fleeing war, offering land and protection. He was also kind to his defeated enemies, offering them land and help growing crops, and this won him many subjects. His nation, the Basotho kingdom, grew.

By Natal Archives anon. – Natal Archives. Pietermaritzburg. South Africa., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14680944

The Basotho kingdom was twice as large in those times as Lesotho is today, because after the Lifiqane would come a new challenge: the arrival of Europeans. The first European colonists in South Africa were members of the Dutch East India Company, who established the Cape colony at the southwestern tip of the continent in 1652 as a refreshment station for their long journeys by sea. The Cape was originally inhabited by Khoi and San tribes, who were naturally not happy when they realized the Europeans were planning to stay, and there were often conflicts. The Cape colony grew with the arrival of more Europeans, and was composed of a Dutch-speaking population of mixed European ancestry (Dutch, German, French, Scandinavian…) and slaves from south east Asia.  In 1806, the Cape colony was occupied by the British, and as a result many Dutch-speaking colonists headed further inland.  These migrating Dutch colonists were known as the Boers or Voortrekkers. At the same time, the British established another colony at Port Elizabeth in the southeast. King Moeshoeshoe was aware of the arrival of the Europeans, and he tried to learn as much about them as possible in order to prepare for any potential conflicts, either with them or with Khoi raiders, as various Khoi tribes had also started migrating since the Europeans started to dominant the Cape. He knew that the Europeans had guns and horses, and that he would need to acquire some as well to be able to protect his people. He invited some French missionaries to come and live among the Basotho people. One of them, Eugene Casalis, became his interpreter and adviser in terms of matters relating to Europeans.

In around 1838, a group of migrating Boers from the Cape colony arrived on the western borders of the Basotho kingdom and started to settle there, in the land that today forms the Free State province of South Africa. King Moeshoeshoe apparently said: “… the ground on which they were belonged to me, but I had no objections to their flocks grazing there until such time as they were able to proceed further; on condition, however, that they remained in peace with my people and recognised my authority.” Casalis reported that the Boers had humbly asked for temporary rights when they were few in number, but when there were more of them, they felt stronger and claimed that the land was theirs.

Over the next 30 years there were conflicts between the Boers, the British and the Basotho, and the Basotho even had problems with raiding Khoi tribes who had moved further inland after the arrival of the Europeans. Moshoeshoe won many battles, defeating the British, the Boers, and other tribes. Using his talent for diplomacy, he eventually managed to win the British to his side. However in 1865 he lost a great portion of the western lowlands to the Boers, and he realized that his kingdom was at risk of destruction. After discussions with Caselis, in 1867 he appealed to Queen Victoria for help against the Boers. She agreed to make Basutoland (as Lesotho was known) a British protectorate in 1868, and a treaty was signed between the British and the Boers in 1869 that defined the boundaries of present day Lesotho.  Although he had to concede half of his territory, Moeshoeshoe never suffered a major military defeat, and he saved his kingdom and culture. In 1966, Basutoland became independent of Britain and became, as it is now, the Kingdom of Lesotho.

King Moshoeshoe and his ministers




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