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Seven days in the Kingdom in the Sky

Let us first render ourselves popular by mighty deeds, and afterwards we will speak of peace and clemency.                                                                                                                                                                            King Moshoeshoe 1


Over the past 7 days, I have gone to sleep on the heels of a magnificent orange sunset burning behind the Lesotho mountains and woken up just as she flung her fire across the dawn.  It has been an adventure of such I have never experienced before, and I’ve returned from this country with my status as a ‘Lesotho Junkie’ even further ingrained in my soul.

On the first afternoon, we were herded across Maseru and dribbled out of the main city center on a road lined with small concrete block homes, tin structures housing oranges and apples and bananas, the odd sheep or two, and cows calmly masticating in front yards.  An uneven mix of little shops and domestic living were spaced between groups of youths lounging under knitted caps and kicking the occasional ball. Just as I was getting lulled into this suburban slumber, we turned into a side road with our driver smartly braking to miss the shaggy sheep being herded up the road.  Suddenly a gate opened, and the magnificence of Botleng Guesthouse was revealed in all its glory.  What a diamond in the rough.  Excellently appointed rooms, wide dining areas, and perfectly tended gardens were incongruous in this setting.  A guest house scoring a perfect 10 was not expected to be found in Maseru.  The dinner was par excellence and cannot be rated higher.

The next morning, we were joined by journalists, radio hosts, and members of the Lesotho tourism department and thus the journey began. We met our local guide with a husky voice who rolled guttural Sesotho nuances off her tongue as easily as she melodiously changed to English.

Small moments of wow included the well-preserved souvenirs left from the fire of 1998 that destroyed the city, a wall from the post office adorns a corner carefully framed by golden sandstone, every area is clean, paperless, and houses little pockets of pride of the Basotho nation.

At the Senate Prince Seeiso, in a well-cut suit stopped to greet us as he ambled towards parliament to sign off amendments to the constitution.

A city of contrasts, people eking out survival as informal traders sandwiched between well-maintained buildings and glittering palaces.  This is definitely worth a morning with a good guide and of great interest to me as I have always carefully avoided this city in the past.

Right through the week, we were introduced to quaint guest houses happily ladling up ribs and lamb stew and soups and bread to make grandma cry. In a country where we’ve generally battled to get good food, I found the tasty, wholesome, and healthy meals very refreshing and encouraging.  At times, the service albeit good was slow but usually well worth the wait. I learned to roll with the pace and get into sync with local time.

The days merged into a cacophony of activities each possibly topping the other but those that stand tall for me were a boat ride on Mohale Dam, home to Lesotho Trout, the yellow fish, and the endangered Maloti Minnow, and especially Thaba Chitja Island, which is only accessible by boat and houses the gaunt skeleton of a once thriving 5-star resort that burnt to the ground.  Wild horses and dassies were our only companions on the island.

I was enthralled by the cultural village at Thaba Bosiu and mesmerized by the specialist guide and had I had to write an exam after the presentation I would have remembered each moment from the ancient lie detector rock to the interesting ‘do not disturb’ sticks at the door. The old reaches the new as the grizzled guide stopped in the midst of a dramatic moment of explanation of the battles fought by Moshoeshoe as the blanket across his chest began to ring.  He fished out a modern cell phone and loudly yelled ‘Hellooo’ at the device.  This delighted me, not because I’m an advocator of taking calls in the midst of a presentation but because this means we will be able to contact him in the future to organize a time for our guests to go through the same enchanting experience.   The echoes of this presentation kept reverberating throughout the days.

The group abseiled at Semonkong – which will always remain one of my favourite places on earth, rode on horses to see the daunting Maletsunyana falls, and shivered under the icy mornings as herders braved the elements to jingle cows and bells and bouncing goats through the lodge which is perched on the edge of this little trading town.

A sobering moment bit deeply into emotions when we stopped in the twilight and spewed through the door of the Leribe Craft Market. The old lady limped ahead adjusting her head scarf and pointing to items made from the mohair they produce.  However, as good detectives of amazing experiences, we found our way into the weaving area behind the shop.  The staff, all disabled ladies, had left for the day and only echoes of the ‘cluck’ of weaving looms could be heard.  Suddenly a deaf woman, keeping the cold at bay in a tattered hoodie, arrived and busily set about showing us the raw wool, how it is woven, and the luxurious final products.  Their skills and final products are masterpieces and so dearly deserve support. As I scurried back to the warmth of our vehicle, I was even more determined to showcase these remarkable artists on the world stage.

A highlight for everyone was bouncing on the ski slopes at Afriski, as ski boarding, bum rides and tube escapades attract a multitude of SA tourists.  The icy slopes were home to tiny tots and hulking gym pros’ who zoomed down the white frosting in all manner of styles and exultation.  Had I not known better I would have sworn I was in Switzerland with the cheery music and great vibe throughout the day. Most of the group limped stiffly back to the waiting vehicle at the end of a very active day – note to self “include skiing in the next tour”! Second note to self – wet pants are uncomfortable to take an extra set of clothing to change before heading home.

Our second guide, a businesswoman of note, sporting a Hollywood smile and figure and nails to boot had a challenge keeping everyone on a strict time schedule but her sweetness and smiles kept the group in check.

As we’ve always struggled with being able to reach guest house owners, restaurants, and activity guides it was very heartening to make contact with a network of folk all committed to assisting.  I do think the unreliability and battle to connect will be vastly improved by the new network of like-minded people we met. hope this will increase our chances of receiving competitive rates and perhaps we may find a new understanding of the pressures we face to get back to guests timeously.

Lesotho is not an ‘easy sell’ to markets flooded daily with glittering lights and enticed by the beauty of the cape and the allure of the Kruger.  It is hard to convince tourists to come to Kwazulu Natal and even harder to entice them to increase their holiday by the days that will be taken up by coming to Lesotho.  Therefore, we rely on the local folk to turn the holiday from a trip away to an experience of a lifetime.

Lesotho is a glittering spark of genuine brilliance in the Southern African crown.  There is nothing faux between these borders.  Life is real.  The experience is genuine and what you see is what you get.  The vast mountains and the stark beauty peppered with ice and snow, pale in comparison to the sincerity and warmth of the Basotho people.

It was honestly a trip I will remember in flashing episodes for many years to come.  If I achieve only one more thing in life, I hope it is to inspire many people to come and experience the flood of joy and pleasure I’ve experienced.

An old Mosotho man told me once, that if you stand on the edge of the Sani Pass, the air is so clear that if you stare hard enough you can see until tomorrow.  I hope that my inspiration encourages many tourists throughout the world to see until tomorrow from the Kingdom in the Sky.

Thank you to Philip Rawlins and Emile Van Den Heetkamp for the photos
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