Traveling without a detailed itinerary can be exciting and the best way to experience a country. It can also be foolish and even downright dangerous, as we learned on our recent trip to Lesotho.
Lesotho is the tiny landlocked nation in the middle of South Africa. It was the only country bordering South Africa that we hadn’t visited yet, so when classes were cancelled due to protests last week, we planned a last minute road-trip to check it out. I mapped out a general route to follow and we hit the road.
No matter where you approach Lesotho from, the first thing you’ll notice is the mountains. This is the highest country in the world and the only country in the world that lies entirely above 3,281 ft in elevation; hence the nickname, “Kingdom in the sky.”
Our first day in Lesotho consisted of a drive down to the village of Hlotse to look for dinosaur print fossils (we couldn’t find them), up an incredibly steep pass to the Bokong Nature Reserve (it was closed), and down an equally steep pass to the Katse Dam (where we spent an hour trying to figure out who ran the campsite we’d be spending the night at). It was clear that our only source of information, a Lonely Planet guidebook, was not quite up to speed. It was also obvious that Lesotho does not get many tourists.
But despite our setbacks, day one was full of gorgeous sites. The bare, rocky mountains are spectacular, and we saw snow and ice for the first time in almost two years! The Katse dam, which supplies water all the way to Johannesburg, was a beautiful and impressive feat of engineering. We slept in the back of our Jeep at the edge of the dam, with views of the blue waters and the jagged mountains.
Day 2 started off with a visit to the Katse botanical gardens next to the dam. These were surprisingly nice and well-kept, with plants from across the region and plenty of Lesotho’s awesome national flower, the aloe polyphylla.
Then we consulted a map and set off for more driving, choosing to take a long way around to the East in order to see more of the country, rather than backtracking. Our experiences the day before should have given us pause, but when it comes to travel we are fearless (read: reckless).
And so we turned off the paved road onto what the map showed as a “short” stretch of dirt road that would reach a highway in 35 kilometres (21 miles). Just a fun way to see the countryside.
The first 5 km or so were fascinating. The road was bad, but all around us was real Lesotho. Spencer deftly handled driving the car over bumpy roads as I shot pictures and took in the incredible world around us.We passed little villages of stone and mud huts set high on the mountainside, where the residents were plowing rows for planting right on the steep cliffs. We passed one-room schoolhouses and little shepherd boys. The Basotho people wear blankets as part of their national dress and to protect them from the cold; we saw countless beautiful blankets draped around grandmas, cowherds, and children.
And then an hour had gone by, and we had not even covered 10 km. The condition of the road got progressively worse. It deteriorated to the point that it was no longer a road, really. It was a pony track. A pony track that at times went almost vertically up and down mountainsides. We passed no other cars, but were repeatedly overtaken by men riding donkeys. Giant boulders lay strewn across the path, and on way too many occasions the Jeep made a sickening sound as its underbelly scraped across a rock.
Every time we’d turn a curve and see another huge incline, we’d hold our breaths and wonder if this was the one that we wouldn’t make it over.
By now we were seriously regretting our lack of map, cellphone reception, food or water. The excitement had worn off and we were just nervous. About two hours (and less than 20 km) in, we spotted a water pump that had been installed as aid from the U.S. government. Taking that as a sign that it was safe to drink, I jumped out and filled up a water bottle.
As I did so, a crowd of children approached. I smiled, waved and jumped back into the car. These kids started running and followed us for the next 30 minutes or so. They helped guide our way, all the while shouting “Give me some sweets!,” and “Give me your money!”
About another 5km down a remote stretch of road, the dirt beneath us gave way and the jeep tipped dangerously far to the left (passenger) side. I gingerly hopped out and guided Spencer as he deftly maneuvered the Jeep out of the ditch and back onto the path. It was way too close a call, and I’m still not really sure what we would have done if the car had fully flipped. Our guardian angels were extra busy that day.
After driving 3 1/2 stressful hours on these treacherous paths, the dirt beneath us turned to paved roads. I have never been happier to see pavement in my life. (Thanks, Chinese investment in Africa!)
Another 30 minutes of gloriously easy driving on a highway and we made it to our destination for the night. Afriski is a ski resort tucked up in the mountains of Lesotho. Although there was no snow while we were there, it looked for all the world like a little ski resort in the Alps, complete with timber A-frame cabins and a cozy lodge at the foot of the lift. Granted, it has only one kilometre-long piste with a single T-bar; but hey, it’s skiing in Africa! We slept so soundly in our little chalet.
Day 3 consisted of a pleasantly paved drive through more beautiful mountain passes. We stopped off at the Liphofung Cave to see some ancient San rock art before crossing the border back into South Africa.
Lesotho is a beautiful, rugged place. It is a totally different landscape and culture to the surrounding South Africa, and it was a gem to discover. Our drive through Lesotho offered us a peek at a way of life that is virtually unchanged from hundreds of years ago. Experiences like that are exactly why I love to travel.Lesotho is also not a place to go on casual drives down dirt roads without any preparation. Another Johnson family adventure, another travel lesson learned. Keep ’em coming.