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Lesotho is a tiny country in Southern Africa, and landlocked within the Republic of South Africa. It used to be known as Basutoland when it was a British Protectorate. It is spectacularly scenic, and has a large mountain range (part of the Drakensberg), forming most of its border. All of Lesotho consists of high mountainous terrain. Even the region that is referred to as the lowlands is over 1000 meters high. The main attraction of the country is its ruggedness and its people who in many cases still follow a traditional way of life.
The capital Maseru is a laid back place and a good starting point for exploring the country. Hikes and visits to the only national park of the country, Sehlabathebe national park can be arranged in the capital.
Note to drivers: police checkpoints frequently pop from behind a sharp curve in the road. Come to a full stop and remain stopped until the officer motions you to come forward. Even if you have to wait 5 minutes, do not move the vehicle without his permission. Doing so will get you fined for failing to come to a complete stop.
A Journey Into Lesotho via the Sani Pass
At a local airstrip in Durban, we boarded a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter for an hour and fifteen-minute flight over hilly farmland, small villages and forest plantations before climbing up the slopes of the Drakensberg Mountains. This World Heritage List range is South Africa's highest and forms a majestic semi-circular border between KwaZulu-Natal and the land-locked mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
We landed the three helicopters on a gravel clearing at 1,800 metres and got into a 5-litre Chevrolet 4-wheel drive built for the South African army in the 1970's. From here it was three kilometres to the South African border post, from where the Sani Pass – a dirt track open only to 4x4s – rises 1,000 metres in just eight kilometres, arriving at the Lesotho border control and top of the pass at 2,873 metres. The final section of track has seventeen precipitous hairpins over three kilometres, with reassuring names like Big Wind Corner, Ice Corner, and Suicide Bend. It rises through spectacular scenery with imposing basalt buttresses soaring over remote valleys and jagged gorges, and waterfalls twinkling in the bright sunlight and cascading into the river far below. As we climbed the tortuous pass, buzzards and lammergeier vultures circled the sky around us, baboons barked from the cliffs and eland grazed the lush grass. Reaching the top, we drove 8 kilometres into Lesotho across a Scottish highlands-like landscape covered with summer flowers, and visited a small village of some twenty stone, mud and thatch huts. Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world, about the size of Belgium. Average annual income is about US$125, but the shepherds we met up here make about a third of that. It was a scene of extreme rural poverty although people looked fit and healthy, as they would have to be to survive the -14°C winters. We were welcomed into the hut of a 61-year old widow who makes a living from providing food, shelter and home-brewed beer to visiting herdsmen and sheep shearers. We sampled her delicious behobe bread baked on a fire in the centre of the hut, but – probably fortunately – she was out of her joala home-brew.
Driving back to the pass the temperature dropped suddenly and the next minute we were in the midst of a violent hailstorm so loud it drowned out the sound of the 5-litre Chevrolet. An hour before we had been under a warm cloudless sky! Before our cloud-covered drive back down to the waiting choppers we had a beer and a simple lunch at the highest pub in Africa run by an enterprising South African and his wife.
Contributed by Howard Banwell