Not many tourists visit Lesotho (pronounced le-soo-too), the small mountain kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa. However, because of its geography – the Drakensberg range proved an almost impenetrable barrier for many years – and history Lesotho feels completely different.
Lesotho was never a part of South Africa, but was a British protectorate until it gained independence a little over 50 years ago. The local Basotho people originally lived in small chiefdoms scattered around the Highveld. Apartheid was no issue here, unless people went to work in South Africa.
Sani Pass day trip
A popular day trip from South Africa is going up and down the 2.865 meter high Sani Pass, the only road through the Drakensberg mountains from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal into Lesotho. This is an adventure in itself. Only 4WD vehicles can negotiate the gutted, unpaved road and steep gradients, the last hairpins to the top being particularly hairy.
The day trips make a quick jaunt across the border to visit a touristy local village a few kilometers into Lesotho and a stop at the Sani Mountain Lodge (formerly known as the Sani Top Chalet), home to the highest pub in Africa. From here the views of the Sani Pass are truly amazing.
2 day eastern Lesotho tour
We felt that a quick day tour really wouldn’t satisfy us, so we booked a two day tour into eastern Lesotho through Sani Lodge Backpackers Hostel, located at the foot of Sani Pass. We’d hoped that more people would join to bring down the costs as the tour was really pricey at a whopping 420 euros for the two of us.
But no such luck. Not many people make this trip we noticed when we drove into Lesotho. Of the vehicles that we saw slogging up the Sani Pass road, ours was the only one to drive further into Lesotho. So it was going to be just the two of us with a guide.
Veteran guide and vehicle
When we were introduced to our car and driver/guide we were a little bit alarmed by what was going to be our company for the next two days: A beat-up old Landrover and an elderly white man. Were they going to make for an unforgettable Lesotho experience?
How wrong first impressions can be. The 30-year-old ramshackle Landrover seemed to handle the 50-60 year old road better than the new Japanese made 4WD’s we saw and our driver/guide Matthew turned out to be the best guide we could have wished for.
He told us he’d negotiated the Sani Pass thousands of times in the past 64 years! The already bad road was even worse when he made his first crossings.
On top of that it turned out that he was born and raised in Lesotho, being one of only about a hundred white people with a Lesotho passport, and spoke the local Sesotho language fluently. In his working life Matthew had been a wool trader, high quality merino wool being one of the major export products of the country.
Crossing the Lesotho border
Crossing the border into Lesotho is pretty straightforward. Most European and North American passport holders don’t need a visa to enter having a valid passport is enough. South African immigration is halfway up (or down) the Sani Pass, Lesotho immigration is on the top.
On the way up we didn’t see much of the spectacular scenery we’d enjoyed earlier in the Drakensberg mountains. Low hanging clouds and fog stayed with us almost to the top of Sani Pass. Once there clear blue skies and a brand new asphalt road – courtesy of the Chinese trying to extend their influence in southern Africa – awaited us.
The scenery in eastern Lesotho was completely different from what we’d seen in South Africa. Barren mountains with just a few houses dictated the landscape. It reminded us a little bit of the incredible mountain vistas of Tibet and the high Andes that we’d seen in earlier travels.
Our homestay was located about 50 kilometer into Lesotho in the Sehonghong river valley. Accommodation was very basic without electricity or running water – as was to be expected –, but rather luxurious by local standards.
We slept in very dusty bunkbeds, the bathroom consisted of a long-drop toilet outside and a jerrycan of water on an table and meals (really plentiful and really delicious) were served in a somewhat dark room. It’s all part of an authentic local experience.
Because the local guide didn’t show up that afternoon – she was a little bit sick – Matthew took us to the nearby town of Mokothlong in search of local Maluti beer that’s hard to come by in South Africa, where he now lives.
The grandson of our host family, Mpo, accompanied us in the hope of buying Castle beer. But the desired beer seemed hard to find here too. After driving across almost the entire town a few bottles were finally found on the way back at a small roadside shebeen. Mission accomplished.
Life of a sheperd
Basotho shepherds clothed in blankets with traditional patterns herding sheep and goats while riding their ponies are among the quintessential images of Lesotho. In reality they’re not really keen on their pictures being taken. We learned that being a shepherd is a hard life.
After some traditional singing and dancing and dinner at our homestay we were taken to a local shepherds school, one of the projects that benefit from the tours being organized by Drakensberg Adventures and Sani Backpackers. Matthew brought a box with clothes that had been collected at the hostel for this occasion which the boys were happy to receive.
At this school teenage shepherds get taught how to read, write and do math for one hour each night by a local volunteer teacher to prevent them from being taken advantage of by the flock owners.
They’re also taught so-called life skills. Boys start to shepherd at a young age and stay out in the mountains for months. They have to do this four or five years and it is part of their rite of passage into manhood. But they don’t really learn skills that are needed in modern society that way.
Community based tourism
After breakfast with homemade bread we visited a local village and primary school that also get supported by tours like the one we were doing right now. Children from surrounding villages can get free education and a healthy free lunch here. Our tour was expensive but it seemed that the local community benefited from it, which we think is great.
One of the highlights, however, was our consultation of a ngaka (traditional healer), who doubles as a lay preacher at the local church. For 30 rand (2 Euros) she predicted we’d stay together for a very long time (great), said we’d still be able to have children if we really wanted to (we really don’t) and used her powers to help me get rid of my chronic neck and head pains.
This could take a while, she said, but we’re a few months later now and – sadly – still no improvement. Maybe her healing had been counteracted by the effects of the Sani Pass Massage, that didn’t feel healing or relaxing at all.
Breathtaking Sani Pass views
On the way back to South Africa we stopped at a sheep shearers shed and watched sheep being shorn the old fashioned way. We could see that Matthew was in his element here and really missed his old trade.
And of course we made the stop at Sani Mountain Lodge for the view over Sani Pass. And Wow. With the mist and clouds mostly gone the panorama was breathtakingly beautiful.
We taped the entire descent of Sani Pass, which you can see on this high speed video.
Back at Sani Backpackers we stayed in the same en suite rondavel (small but neat and functional) we’d spent the night before going to Lesotho and had another scrumptious meal at Sani Backpacker’s Giant’s Cup Café (dinner has to be pre-booked!).
The next day we moved on to the next part of our road trip through South Africa: the Garden Route.
We visited Lesotho in October 2016