Lesotho (pronounced leh-soo-too) is a tiny mountain kingdom landlocked by South Africa. Formerly known as Basutholand, modern Lesotho is a nation of blue skies, towering mountains, rushing rivers and pony trekking. Not to mention friendly faces.
One of the highest points in Southern Africa, Lesotho is the only independent state in the world that sits entirely above 1000 metres, so expect crisp summers and snowy winters. Locals here get around in the warmest wool sweaters, knit caps and the Seanamarena blanket, which is probably the cosiest traditional garment ever created.
I’m on the Kruger, Coast & Cape trip, a 22-day overland odyssey that makes a pit-stop in Lesotho for rondavels, shebeens and, of course, pony trekking. Here’s how I spent 24 (and a bit) hours in the Kingdom in the Sky:
9AM – To the Gates of Paradise
It doesn’t get much better than driving the Sani Pass from Durban. Winding higher and higher, this famous road cuts through cliff faces, seemingly skirting the edge of the world. We stop at the Gates of Paradise for a panoramic view of Lesotho plains, eating our lunch at an altitude of 2001 metres. Gift, our tour leader, points to his left and says “Just over those hills is our home for the night. It’s only a handful of kilometres but it’s going to take us a while, so buckle in for the African massage”. He’s not wrong. The travel is slow, and the pot holes are epic, but the view is amazing.
12PM – Walk like a local
We’re calling Malealea town home for the next few days, a tiny village standing at 1800 metres above sea level. Regina, a local woman, takes us on a tour of the neighbourhood. The village is a collection of grazing ponies, kids wrapped up in warm wool and traditional Basotho huts. Grandmothers sit on their front doorsteps holding babies and shouting at younger kids to keep it down while elsewhere we hear the sounds of the local choir rehearsing. We are welcomed into homes and schools and shown a genuine hospitality not often found when travelling.
3PM – Sing with the choir
Speaking of the local choir, it turns out they were rehearsing for their afternoon show. We all grab a plastic chair and head down to the grass amphitheatre. Above us, the sky is rolling with thunderclouds threatening to clap. The chorale leader tells us that all the singers are untrained and have learnt by ear. He blows a tuning whistle and the first lady sings: I get goosebumps. The choir singers split effortlessly into a four part harmony, singing a welcome song in Basutho. The song that follows steps up the energy and soon they’re clapping and dancing, and I’m clapping and dancing along with them.
5PM – Hit the shebeen
Shebeen is another word for bar, essentially, and in Lesotho that translation is quite loose. Homebrewing is a big thing here, with many locals fixing a personal home-brew setup in their living spaces. The way to visit a shebeen is to look for the flags. If a home has maize beer ready to drink, it will fly a yellow flag. If another has sorghum beer, you’ll see a white flag. We’re in Malalea on a lucky day, as all the beers in town are ready and drinkable. The highlight, however, is the ginger beer. We crowd into the tiny hut and find ourselves surrounded by elderly ladies who are passing around a giant mug of beer. Some nod hello on our entrance, others smile. But by the end of my first mug of beer, I’m taking selfies with three of them.
9PM – Dreaming of Basotho huts
As we’re walking back to our hut, a little woozy around the edges from gallons of ginger beer, the skies finally open and we’re in the middle of a torrential downpour. Luckily the round, grass thatched, mud brick huts are a) watertight and b) cosy. The mud brick helps to keep these traditional rondavels cool in summer and warm in winter; it’s the perfect natural insulation. I fall asleep to the pitter-patter of giant raindrops and the flicker of candlelight. Snug as a bug in Lesotho.
10AM – Saddle up
A trip to Lesotho is not complete without getting on a horse. And not just any horse, a pony. Most locals here own a trusty steed because 9/10 times it’s faster to ride a horse than to navigate these mountains by car. My pony for the day is a bossy little number named Microsoft. I love her already. Our horse guru tells me that Microsoft is the older sister of the ponies and because of that, she likes to be at the front of the pack. Me too, Microsoft. Me too.
Traversing the Lesotho landscape from the saddle is incredible. The vistas feel even bigger, you feel even smaller. It’s a welcome new perspective. The ponies know their way around these mountains and they take lead, effortlessly meandering around boulders, across river beds and up gravel tracks. Whenever we get to an expanse of green, the guide gives us free reign to go as fast as we want. Microsoft and I fly across the flats. I haven’t laughed so freely for a long time.
12PM – See the Bushmen art
We tie the horses up and jump off our saddles at the top of a huge gorge. If I didn’t know I was in Africa it could’ve easily been somewhere in the Australian northern territory. We traipse down the rocks, winding our way into the gorge, climbing beneath huge overhanging boulders. The Bushman’s Painting in this area of Lesotho depict half-human hybrids hunting eland bulls. The rock art is over 27,000 years old and it gives you an insight into the ancient culture of the San Bushmen people. Long story short: the climb down is worth the effort.
3PM – Dance like a local
Get back on the horse, literally. The ponies lead us back to Malalea Lodge just in time for the local band’s afternoon jam session. The band is comprised of a bunch of local men who have created their own instruments out of everyday pieces. There is something like a guitar, a drum set, and a lot of whistling. Two smaller boys, who look about ten years old, perform a dance that is an incredible mix of Basutho and jive. I’ve never clapped harder or smiled more widely.
If dancing, singing, and meeting a few friendly ponies sounds like your perfect trip, check out our small group adventures in Lesotho now.
Feature image by Ryan Bolton.