Lesotho is a treasure trove of leisure, pleasure and action says Jacques Marais. Here’s to a serious case of mountain riding, running, trekking and cantering, as well as all the playing and pampering you can handle.
Lesotho has always been on my travel radar, but in a very so-so way. Call it the ‘girl-next-door’ syndrome if you will, where you don’t really take any notice until one day she walks out in an enticing spring dress and all your synapses go BOOM!
My sexy neighbour moment happened a couple of months back, after I finally submitted to a long-standing invitation to go and recce the Lesotho Sky MTB Challenge route. I obviously expected a mind-expanding ride, but what really got me upside the head was everything else that came packaged with the adventure…
Family-friendly lodges, mind-blowing cuisine, off-the-scale landscapes, infrastructure on par with parts of the Free State, and an Africa-for-Beginners feel that blew away a whole bunch of misconceptions. Forget the stories about rocks thrown at cars on deserted roads, of getting lost for days on back-road passes approximating cattle-tracks, or the perceived lack of tourism oomph because Lesotho does not brim with Big Five beasties.
So there you have it: all of a sudden, this little land-locked country languishing up against the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal became my latest crush. And the amazing thing is, you can go to explore her bountiful charms with consummate ease from just about anywhere in South Africa. You won’t even need a visa to do so!
My journey to Lesotho started from Bloem along what I have to say is an absolute peach of a highway. Minimal early morning traffic, meandering bends through winter grassland, and the occasional bovine wanderer on the horizon, make for a headspace drive, and for once border control did not spoil the experience. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that my entries into and out of Lesotho must have been some of my most painless cross-border experiences yet.
If you’ve never been to Maseru, imagine Paarl, just more haphazard and colourful, and with fewer wine estates. Er…maybe not quite, I suppose, but the capital does strike a pretty good balance between African vibe and first-world intent. Shopping malls, service stations and Spur restaurants rub shoulders with shebeens, chisa nyama stalls and a damn fine coffee shop run by an Eritrean dude with a face like the Dalai Lama, but just ever so slightly less smiley.
My first day with the Lesotho Sky crew (Christian Schmidt and Darol Howes) was a relatively laid-back affair, with a quick burn along their urban MTB time trail route that zooms through the local townships. Cattle-track tripping, donga dashing and pavement cruising eventually got us to Scoopie’s Shebeen, where I was initiated into the pleasures of Africa’s leading brew, Maluti Lager (in quarts, exactly as it should be).
But my story is not about Maseru because, as far as I’m concerned, the capital is but a launch pad into a countryside sure to blow your mind. So, on Day Two, and with some collateral damage due to the session at Scoopie’s, we soon had the 4×4 headed towards Malealea, arguably one of Lesotho’s best-known lodges.
A detour via Morija – with a quick stop at Lindy’s for a pap-and-meat take-away – juddered us onto Gates of Paradise Pass, with 360 degree views across the valleys and imposing ridges rising up in the distance. Once settled into our cosy stone rondawels at Malealea, we saddled up the mountain bikes for a ride back to the top of the pass.
From here, we pedalled a raggedy route looping around the mountain in an anti-clockwise direction. Good riding, despite getting waylaid in one of the villages by some rather dodgy umqomboti home-brew rather early on during the mission. (We decided that the batteries lying around were not there for acid harvesting, but to power a wonky satellite dish).
A few sunset hoicks got us back to Malealea before the light shut down completely, and just in time for a fantastic spread before we hit the sack. What seemed like 15 minutes later, we were up again, however, and ready to tramp off on foot into the surrounding ridges as the sun rose.
We combined some kloofing and scrambling with our run, negotiating huge boulders along the riverbed towards the waterfall. A fantastical duck-and-dive route got us to the falls for some quick photos, before we slogged back onto the plateau to pack for the next leg of our trip to Ramabanta Trading Post.
If you head into the Mountain Kingdom’s interior beyond Ha Ramashabe, you had better be in the mood to face Lesotho’s wilder side. Rugged and rough-hewn mountains top 100%-proof African landscapes, and thin air is the order of the day along the gritty back roads and trails. If you have a donkey, saddle up. And if you can dress in a slit-eyed balaclava and a Basotho blanket, even better, because it gets damn cold. Or, best of all, get on your bike and ride, making sure you don’t see your ass (and I don’t mean ‘donkey’) as you bomb down passes, blast across rivers and grind your granny gear up tortuous passes.
And then, just when you think you’ve had one of your best days in Africa, EVER, you hit the high road to Semonkong, and Lesotho does one of those shape-shifting moves you normally only see in supernatural movies. The rugged ranges morph into golden-bleached highlands seductively nudging up against the pale blue sky; mountain tribe shepherds canter by on horseback, smoking ginormous spliffs; sparkling rivers, resplendent with rising trout in tranquil pools, run through it; imposing peaks crowd in through the haze of a distant horizon.
Imagine the Tongariro Circuit of New Zealand, right here in Africa, but without the annoying Kiwi accent. Bald Ibis contrail high above; biking and trekking trails of truly mythical proportions; a waterfall that plunges an incredible 204m into a pool where there surely lurks a seven-headed Inkanyamba serpent.
Whichever way, you’ll feel the adrenaline uncoiling in the pit of your stomach when you rappel down what is a Guinness Book of World Records abseil. This then is Lesotho’s ‘Place of Smoke’ – named for the eerily beautiful cascade, of course, and where the village Shoprite does not have a parking lot, but rather a series of wooden posts to which you tie your horse while shopping for roll-ups and chewing tobacco.
Come Friday afternoon and the makeshift streets of Semonkong town begin to bustle with all kinds of mountain men, horse traders, matekwane merchants and assorted rabble rousers and, if they wore Stetsons rather than balaclavas, you’d feel yourself time-lined into a Butch Cassidy flick.
And if all of this sounds too wild and woolly for your liking, here’s the ace in the hole … take all of this ragamuffin cultishness and juxtapose it with Semonkong Lodge’s gourmet cuisine. The springbok carpaccio and pork belly with cracked pepper and Thai chilli will make a Cape Town yuppie sit up and drool, and room service includes a wood fire that is magically lit by the time you return from supper.
None of what I’ve written here is legend or myth, or some kind of marketing bull dust. It just so happens that Semonkong is one of the coolest spots I’ve ever been to in Africa, and if I’ve any say in the matter, it will move to the top of your bucket list. Right. About. Now.