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april 25th, 2004 -> A Day in Lesotho

Lesotho is known as the "Mountain Kingdom." Completely surrounded by South Africa, the independent nation occupies the high plateau atop the Drakensberg mountains. Though its highest point - Thabana Ntlenyana (Basuto for “beautiful little mountain”) - rises to just 3482 meters, Lesotho has the odd distinction of possessing the highest low point of any country in the world.

During the 'Mfecane' (Zulu for “the crushing”) of the 1820’s and 1830’s, the infamous Shaka Zulu led his people in an all-conquering campaign that caused many tribes to flee their ancestral homelands. The Sotho people sought refuge in the highlands atop the Drakensberg mountains. There, led by the cunning Moshoeshoe, the Sotho managed to fight off the Zulus as well as the Boers. After continued Boer hostilities, however, Moshoeshoe sought the protection of the British in 1868. Protection, of course, lead eventually to administration and annexation by Britian. Only in the 1960's did Lesotho gain its bittersweet independence.

Lesotho is a desperately poor country. Its roughly 2 million inhabitants are mostly pastoralists; their cows, sheep or horses are their livelihood. Our guide pointed out the trails that dagga (marijuana) smugglers had worn through the valleys. It was one of the few ways a family could supplement their meager income. On the way up the pass we came upon a couple wearing the traditional bright blankets of the Basuto. I was sad to see the man motion to his belly and his mouth – he was begging for food.

Pony-trekking is the big thing to do in Lesotho. A few years ago, I remember three travel magazines did articles on Lesotho within a few months of each other. Each article was about pony-trekking. As we learned in Mongolia, however, Nori is allergic to horses, so pony-trekking was out. We decided that a nice hike in the highlands would be adequate, so we signed up for a one-day trek in Lesotho offered by a backpacker hostel. Just enough time to stop by and say dumela (“hello”.)

The Sani Pass is the only way to access eastern Lesotho by vehicle, and even it is for 4X4s only. The torturous road snakes up a beautiful valley, and into a cleft in the Drakensberg escarpment, before cutting impossibly tight switchbacks to the top, at 2865 meters.

On the right sits the Sani Pass Lodge - “The Highest Licensed Pub in Africa” - where one can enjoy a cold Maloti beer (the Basuto name for the Drakensberg mountains) with an unparalleled view of the Drakensberg and the rolling hills of Kwa-Zulu Natal far below. Just a few meters further is the Lesotho border post; a concrete box with barred windows. A small cluster of stone and mortar huts with thatched roofs sat beside the road, many with horses tethered nearby.

Our knowledgeable guide led us on a two-hour hike to the top of Hodgson’s Peak, one of the highest points in Lesotho. From the border post, we walked off across sparsely vegetated flats, clipped short by grazing animals. Yellow and purple wildflowers grew amongst old manure piles. The surrounding hillsides and mountains were rounded and smooth. Apart from the breathlessness of high altitude, one would never guess one was atop a mountain range. Shepherd boys stared as we walked past; their stone huts were tucked into the hillside, nearly invisible. It took some scrambling to reach the top of the wedge-shaped bluff, but views of the Drakensberg escarpment and South Africa below us were stunning. We were on the dividing line of South Africa’s catchments. To our east, rainwater would eventually find its way to the Limpopo and the Indian Ocean. To our west, it would drain into the Orange River and the Atlantic.

I ran most of the way back from Hodgson’s Peak. It was getting late, and I wanted to make sure there was time for a beer at Africa's Highest Licensed Pub. It had been a hot, cloudless day, but the temperature was dropping quickly. When Nori arrived, I had a cold Maloti waiting for her. We mailed a few postcards - delighted that they would be postmarked in the capital, Maseru. Then we bundled into the Land Rover and headed back down the pass, to South Africa.

I like to think that my traveling is about more than stamps in a passport. But I must admit that I am very proud of my “Sani Pass – Lesotho” stamp. It is not every day that you climb a mountain and enter a new country.