Round here, the only way is up

Lesotho's lodge stays are central to understanding this intriguing country, writes Kate Armstrong.

I'M ON a windswept plain in the highlands of Lesotho. A small boy wanders past. His buttocks are poking out of the torn backs of his bright-red tracksuit pants. "Lubela Me (hello, madam)," he says shyly. My companion, a local lodge owner, cautions me against pity: despite this being a poor country, don't always assume that rags mean poverty.

"He's the son of a farmer who has hundreds of cows. He's from a wealthy family," he says. As I come to discover travelling around Lesotho, nothing is quite what it seems.

To start with, the country's name is deceptive. Pronounced Le-soo-too, this little-known, largely mountainous country of almost 2 million is completely surrounded by South Africa. The country's Basotho people speak Sesotho. The rugged mountain ranges to the north-east of this so-called "kingdom in the sky" feature lofty snow-capped peaks (none below 1000 metres), massive waterfalls and deep valleys - yet the western lowlands are dry, brown and flat.

A friend tells me that to truly experience the history and culture of Lesotho, staying in a lodge is a must. I'm dubious about a lodge stay's tourist connotations. But here I am, crammed into a minibus taxi, speeding along the lowlands towards Malealea Lodge.

Mud-house villages and shanty-style corrugated-iron dwellings punctuate the plains. We swerve around a goat; perimeter fences don't exist in Lesotho. I see my first herdsman, his face covered in a balaclava to protect against the elements, his feet shod in gumboots, his body swathed in a cape. The capes, I learn, are of a highly prized patterned wool introduced by French missionaries in the 1800s. The Basotho quickly adopted them as a fashion item.

I share my seat with a local pastor, who talks of his country's rich history: the current monarch, King Letsie III, is a great-grandson of King Moshoeshoe I . The nation's "Ghandi" figure, Moshoeshoe established a stronghold on the Thaba Bosiu plateau, protecting people scattered by Zulu onslaughts. In the 1860s, the wider area of Basotholand became a British protectorate after Moshoeshoe appealed to the British for protection against Boer incursions.

The country gained independence in 1966 and was renamed Lesotho; its capital, Maseru, is near Thaba Bosiu.

My minibus reaches a dirt road and grinds its way up the mother of gradients, known as the Gates of Paradise Pass. Here, a plaque says: "Wayfarer - Pause and look upon a gateway of Paradise." I gasp at the view - a vast valley ringed by rugged mountains, brown but for a yellowish twinge and coated with a bluey-grey haze.

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At odds with the landscape, in the near distance lies an oasis. Suddenly, a blanket-clad male trots past on a pony, in the direction of the village where I'll experience my first night of lodge life at Malealea, Lesotho-style.

Lesotho's unique lodge accommodation is an intriguing anomaly for its tourist market, mainly a mix of European and South African travellers. To understand how lodges function here, you need to understand their history.

Most are former trading posts and stores, tucked inside sandstone buildings built during colonial times in strategic, if remote, parts of the country. (The best-known chain, Frasers, a British company, was well established in Basotholand in the 1900s and several places still operate as stores.)

In some instances, villages formed around the original trading post, explaining why some villages and lodges, including Malealea, are almost considered as one.

In recent decades, enterprising owners converted the stores into accommodation. Most are modest places, comprising a complex of cottages, rondavels and rooms set within a garden or by a river.

While the original trading stores supplied locals with everything from sacks to ploughs, these days most lodges offer horse-riding treks, day and inter-lodge mountain hikes, extreme adventures and trout fishing.

Then there's bird watching: the grasslands are home to canaries and storks; inland waters feature wagtails and herons and the higher, rocky areas support kestrels and owls.

Responsible tourism plays an active part in lodge ventures: community members have commercial interests in the village lodge and they generally run guiding, pony riding and bird-watching trips.

High on the agenda at Malealea is pony trekking. Owing to two long-ago, horse-induced bone breaks, I opt out of having a saddle experience, even though the head horseman assures me of a placid pony. I'm tempted after seeing hot, sweaty and exhilarated guests return from their jaunts; their appraisal - the terrain is steep, with sheer drops, river crossings and fascinating visits to caves adorned with ancient San rock art.

I walk from the village to the oasis I saw on my arrival. It's a reclaimed donga: a massive, eroded ravine caused by overgrazing and use of metal ploughs.

When heavy summer downpours occur, the loosened topsoils wash away. A family in Malealea regularly builds a series of terraces in the gully to catch detritus and soil when it rains. As the terraces fill, they plant trees and today the former ravine has an ecosystem of lush, native plants and bird varieties.

My next stop, Semonkong Lodge, is a potholed, three-hour uphill drive from Maseru. Established in 1955 as a campsite by a trout fisherman, the lodge complex is nestled against the banks of the Maletsunyane River. Action Jackson-style owners Amiele and Jonno, in conjunction with other locals, offer guests everything from pony treks to shebeen (pub) visits by donkey, fishing and village tours. They also host a 204-metre abseil down Maletsunyane Falls.

The evening I arrive, after gazing at an incredible African sky, I head to my cosy hut when the generator cuts out at 10pm.

After a breakfast of muesli and fruit at the lodge cafe, it's time for a village walk. Our guide, Catherine, proudly sports a Basotho hat, its conical shape resembling that of Moshoeshoe's mountain stronghold, Thaba Bosiu. The village is a shamble of corrugated-iron constructions. Despite its ramshackle appearance, this is a functioning community: a shearing shed, shebeens (drinking dens), small lean-to-style shops, a witch doctor, a small market and a grinding mill.

Later, I trek from the lodge to an outcrop. There, nestled by a rock, is a rare and beautiful plant - Lesotho's aloe, whose leaves follow a perfect spiral pattern. The longer I stay, the more anomalies I hear: despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, Lesotho is rich in diamonds and gems. In 2008, the world's 18th-largest diamond was discovered there. And while water is scarce in this dry and barren region, it pipes water from dams to neighbouring South Africa.

And, although the land appears as one mass to the untrained eye, there are proprietorial boundaries. My friend was right: the lodge experience reveals mountains about Lesotho.

But I'm still perplexed by the "wealthy" child's bare butt, so I ask my host, Jonno, the Basotho owner of Semonkong Lodge. His shoulder-length hair is flying about in the wind and his shirt tail is flapping as he laughs: "Simply this: I was a scruffy kid. He's just that - a scruffy kid."

Trip notes

Getting There

South African Airways flies from Sydney to Johannesburg, priced from $2033 return and from Johannesburg to Lesotho's capital, Maseru, from $240 return, plus taxes. 1300 435 972, www.flysaa.com.

Staying There

Malealea Lodge is priced from 110 rand ($16.60) a person for a hut stay to 250 rand a person for a rondavel. +27 082 552 4215, malealea.com.

Semonkong Lodge is priced from 66-384 rand a person a night. +266 2700 6037, www.placeofsmoke.co.ls. A free shuttle service operates each Tuesday and Friday from Maseru to Semonkong.

Accommodation at Trading Post Guest House is priced from 79-384 rand a person. +266 2234 0202, www.tradingpost.co.za.

Further information

www.seelesotho.com; www.lesotho.gov.ls

The tourist information office, Kingsway, Maseru, has maps, brochures and information on tour guides and public transport. Open 8am-5pm, Monday to Friday; 8.30am-1pm, Saturday.

Currency exchange

The loti (plural maloti) is pegged to the South African rand. While you can use rand in Lesotho, you can't use maloti on return to South Africa. There are a few ATMs (some give rand), limited to main towns.

Need to know

Although pocket-size, parts of Lesotho are remote and terrain is hilly. Four-wheel-drives are required on some roads, especially to the east, although much of the country is accessible by two-wheel-drive. Do not drive at night as there are no fences and livestock wander at will. It's cheaper to hire a car in South Africa than in Lesotho. Tell the hire company of your plans to enter Lesotho, as sometimes a letter or papers are required. Minibuses cover most parts of Lesotho, although be aware that they can (and do) speed.

Three other things to do

1 The sandstone cave walls of Ha Baroana, about 39 kilometres east of Maseru, feature a gallery of ancient San artworks depicting the preoccupations of Bushmen — hunters, dancers, village life — and their prey: elands, hartebeests, leopards, lions and a variety of birds. The wider area is the site of ruins of an ancient civilisation.

2 Built as one of a series of dams in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to feed water to South Africa, the huge Katse Dam, with its 185-metre dam wall — the highest in Africa — is worth a look. The dam lies on the Malibamatso River. The best views are from the Mafika-Lisiu Pass.

3 Morija Museum and Archives, about 40 kilometres south of Maseru city centre, has an exhibition of early stone tools and weapons, artefacts and archeological remains, dinosaur bones and paraphernalia from the Boer War. +266 2236 0308, morijafest.com/museum.html.

With the kids

THERE'S little formally organised child-friendly travel in Lesotho. That said, the lodges are generally rustic but fun for supervised children and provide excellent nature-based experiences. No lodge location is pram or tiny-toddler friendly; older toddlers and children should be fine if they're not averse to hilly terrain. Horse riding with children may be limited to shorter rides but you can hire a guide to walk alongside the steeds. Young football players will have no problem joining in a game with the local children. They play everywhere, on any cleared (and usually dusty) patch.

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