Monday, November 14, 2011

The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho

Lesotho is another of those countries that people ask "where the hell is THAT" when you tell them you want to go there. Other than its isolation (completely surrounded on all sides by South Africa) Lesotho's greatest claim to fame is that it has the highest average elevation of any nation in Africa. And like so much of Africa, unemployment is rampant in Lesotho and with it comes the attendant poverty that is so pervasive.

Lesotho is made up mostly of highlands where many of the villages can be reached only on horseback, by foot or light aircraft. During the winter shepherds wearing only boots and wrap-around blankets have to contend with snow.

While much of the tiny country, with spectacular canyons and thatched huts, remains untouched by modern machines, developers have laid down roads to reach its mineral and water resources. Major construction work has been under way in recent years to create the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to supply South Africa with fresh water.

Resources are scarce - a consequence of the harsh environment of the highland plateau and limited agricultural space in the lowlands. So, Lesotho has been heavily dependent on South Africa.

Politics: Ruling party of Prime Minister Mosisili won early elections in February 2007, called after some of its MPs crossed the floor. Polls in 1998 led to violence; peacekeepers restored order

Economy: Lesotho depends on South Africa as an employer, and as buyer of its main natural resource - water. Textile exports have been hurt by the erosion of trade concessions, but appear to be expanding again

International: Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa

Over the decades thousands of workers have been forced by the lack of job opportunities to find work at South African mines. South Africa has on several occasions intervened in Lesotho's politics, including in 1998 when it sent its troops to help quell unrest.

The former British protectorate has had a turbulent, if not particularly bloody, period of independence with several parties, army factions and the royal family competing for power in coups and mutinies. The position of king has been reduced to a symbolic and unifying role.

Lesotho has one of the world's highest rates of HIV-Aids infection. A drive to encourage people to take HIV tests was spurred on by Prime Minister Mosisili, who was tested in public in 2004.

Poverty is deep and widespread, with the UN describing 40% of the population as "ultra-poor". Food output has been hit by the deaths from Aids of farmers. Economic woes have been compounded by the scrapping of a global textile quota system which exposed producers to Asian competition. Thousands of jobs in the industry have been lost.

Just like with Swaziland I wanted to go to Lesotho simply because its there and I haven't been. Also, its remoteness all but assured me that while there I would likely be unaffected by the presence of any other Americans. After all if I wanted to be surrounded by American's I would have stayed home.

There are about a dozen border crossings that allow you to reach Lesotho plus there is the option of flying to the capital from Johannesburg. The route I took was described in the Lonely Planet guide as the most spectacular route - I went up via Sani Pass set in the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains.
The Drakensberg Mountains seen from South Africa

For my assault on Lesotho I chose to arrive via the Sani Pass road in South Africa. I had booked a room at the ultra posh Sani Valley Lodge about 15 km from the South African border post at Sani Pass.
View from my chalet at the Sani Valley Lodge

As I had traveled through South Africa so far I was constantly on alert for venomous snakes. With Mozambique spitting cobras, and black mamba, and puff adders widespread and highly toxic the last thing I wanted to do was be bitten by a snake. At Sani Valley Lodge and up into Lesotho I figured I would be safe from snakes because there was still patches of snow laying about. Before taking off for Lesotho, however, I asked the manager of the Lodge about venomous snakes. Sindi said, rather authoritatively, that it was "much too early for snakes. Not to worry, my friend." I'll remember that.

I followed the winding dirt road west for about 15 kilometers toward the Sani Pass border post. Enroute I found several "good" birds, the best of which was the spectacular Malachite Sunbird - a species that by itself was worth the cost of the trip to see.
Malachite Sunbird

All the information I had read told me that a 4x4 vehicle was "essential" for climbing the road to Lesotho. However it wasn't until I actually arrived at the border post that I discovered that "essential" actually means "required by law." There, near the sign proclaiming that I was at the border post was another sign that recited a South African law that states it is illegal for any vehicle to pass the border post if it lacks 4x4 functionality. The microscopic Kia vehicle I rented at the Johannesburg airport was far away from legal here.
Sani Pass Border Control Post in South Africa

I checked in at the border post and was surprised, once again, to hear all of the officers there correctly pronounce my last name the first time they tried it. As the trip wore on I never once had anyone get it wrong including border control people in Namibia. Eventually it dawned on me that Afrikaans is a Dutch-based word and in Dutch two vowels together are always soft so it made sense eventually that they could pronounce the name correctly unlike how it gets butchered in the United States.

When traveling in Central or South America it is insulting to a resident of any of those countries to tell them that you live in "America" because to a Central or South American they, also, are American. Years of experience have taught me that its always best to say "I'm from the United States" when asked where I'm from. However I quickly learned in South Africa that the opposite is true. Like today at the border control post when I was asked where I was from. Instinctively I said "the United States." The person asking me then said "ah, America." It was like that the entire trip.

Ronald, the border control person helping me today asked me where I was from in America and I said that I live in Florida. He then responded, like everyone who asked that question responded, by saying "ah, Miami." Ronald then asked me "is there really as much crime in America as it seems?" I told him there was crime in the US just like everywhere else. I then asked where he got the idea there is a lot of crime. He said "We watch all the TV shows from America. We watch Miami Vice, Law and Order, The Closer. All those shows and it seems like there is really much crime." I shook my head, smiled, and assured him that it wasn't as bad as the television shows made it seem.

Ronald placed the exit stamp in my passport and then asked about my car. When I pointed out the little Kia he restated almost verbatim everything on the sign outside about the South African law that forbids use of anything other than a 4x4. He told me my only option was to walk. Ronald then said "its an eight kilometer walk from here to the top. If you walk really fast you can make it in two hours." Yes you can - if you are a mountain goat. As I was leaving the door Ronald told me not to worry because usually the 4 wheel drives going up the mountain stop to pick up walkers.
Start of the hike up the Sani Pass road

I set out up the mountain and found many bird species that made the effort worthwhile. Species like Gurney's sugarbird, malachite sunbird, double-collared sunbird, karoo prinia and Cape white-eye all made for a worthwhile hike. The cool thing about Gurney's sugarbird is that among males the tail makes up about 65 percent of the bird's entire body length!

Gurney's Sugarbird

I surprised myself having traversed four kilometers of the up-mountain climb in 90 minutes. At four kilometers hikers (and drivers) are given their first close-up and personal view of the sheer-face of the mountain that needs to be climbed. Out-of-shape and 60 years old I thought I was doing well until I saw how steep the last four kilometers were going to be.
The sheer face of "the switchbacks" leading to Lesotho just four kilometers away

Given the daunting task of the climb of those last four kilometers I started to wonder if maybe the best strategy was to say the hell with it and turn around. However I knew it would bug me for the rest of my days if I didn't put in the effort to climb those last four kilometers to a new country.

By now I had been passed by at least a dozen and probably more 4 wheel drive vehicles. I waved and smiled at each one but nobody stopped to offer me a ride until Julian and Kay, on holiday from Devonshire, England, pulled up alongside me and asked "Are you sure you want to walk all the way to the top?" Julian then opened the driver side rear door of their 4 wheel drive and waved me inside.

In country on a 2-week holiday Julian and Kay were spending their first week south of Johannesburg. Their final week would be in Kruger National Park where Kay wanted to fulfill her fascination with hippopotamus. Married for 21 years they had been to Africa many times. They even had spent their honeymoon in Zimbabwe where Julian had worked in the early 1980s.

"Once you get Africa in you its impossible to get it out of your system," Julian said. They were now about the fiftieth set of people who had told me the same thing. Long time friend and former colleague John Sidle was addicted to Africa ever since his Peace Corps days in the mid 1970s. Despite being stationed in a corn field in Nebraska John seemed to be able to work out a deal with the US Forest Service that sent him to some country in Africa every year since the mid-1980s. Now retired from the US Government, John lives and works in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I'm sure he's extremely happy. The longer I went on this current trip of mine the more I came to understand why John and everyone else could not get Africa out of their system.

Julian enjoyed driving on precipitous cliffs while Kay kept her eyes closed. The ride in their 4 wheel drive SUV was swift until we reached the dreaded "switchbacks", a series of tremendously sharp and steep curves and hair pin turns on a "road" that was a little wider than a goat trail. And not by much. There is a road near La Paz, Bolivia that is reported to be the most dangerous road on earth. I traveled on it in 1997 and was scared to death the entire time because of the turns and the 1,000 foot sheer drop offs on each of them. This road to Lesotho isn't nearly that bad however my feet were sweating along with the palms of my hands as visions of a rented SUV with three white people catapulting over the edge of one of the hair pins continuously raced through my mind.
"Deadman's Curve" on the Sani Pass road just below Lesotho

At two turns we had to stop where Julian backed up to get the proper angle on the turn. At a third switchback we encountered a sizable rock that had slid off the mountain and deposited itself in our path. Just enough space existed between the rock and the cliff face to allow us to pass. After this road if any one every complains again about the switchbacks on Mount Evans in Colorado I will automatically relegate that person to pussy status.

This South African tourism video from You Tube gives you a little idea of what its like on the Sani Pass Road.

However this video, also from YouTube, gives a much better feel for driving the road. In this video I walked about as far as 2 minutes 38 seconds into it where Julian and Kay picked me up. The rest of the way to the top was spent clutching onto anything that was tied down in the backseat of their SUV!

After one last nerve-wracking turn we popped out over the rim of the precipice and were greeted by the endless rocky tundra of Lesotho.
The precipice marking the boundary of Lesotho. South Africa is everything "downhill" in the picture from this point

Our first stop was the Lesotho Immigration and Customs post a dilapidated building with a sign scrawled in paint saying "Immigration - Welcome to Lesotho." Above the sign was a satellite dish.

The Immigration officer charged Julian 30 Rand (about $4.20 US) as a "road use" tax for Lesotho despite us not going to travel any further than the border post. He then stamped our passports with entrance and exit stamps at the same time "I just want to save you some time" he said.

Lesotho entrance and exit stamps in my passport

Directly behind the Immigration building was a colony of Sloggett's Ice Rat (Otomys sloggetti), a cool ground-burrowing mouse that is endemic to the high elevation grasslands of the Drakensberg Mountain range.
Sloggett's Ice Rat

From there we stumbled breathlessly across the tundra to the Sani Pass Chalet whose entrance sign proudly proclaims it to be "the highest pub in Africa."

Inside the pub it felt like a ski lodge in the Colorado mountains in winter. I bought Julian and Kay a cup of coffee. It was the least I could do for their generous offer of a ride up the side of the mountain. For me, I decided that because I was in a pub and had not consumed a single beer in 2 1/2 weeks I wanted to have a glass of Lesotho's finest brew.

Maluti Beer "Brewed by the Maluti Mountain Brewing Company in the Kingdom of Lesotho"

Maluti, named after a mountain range in northern Lesotho, has an alcohol content of 4.8 percent by volume and comes in a 330 ml can. I asked the bartender if he had any really cold beers. He simply reached behind himself, plucked a can off the shelf next to the whiskey, and said "that will be 20 Rand."

I found Julian and Kay on the deck overlooking the precipitous path we had just climbed. Across from us was an incredibly black-skinned man who sat playing some sort of stringed instrument. It was made from a large tin can as its base, a wooden pole projecting from the can and attached to the pole were some weird looking metal strings. He knew about three chords and played them constantly. His livelihood was likely just playing those three chords over and over again for visiting tourists like us who pop up over the rim of South Africa and to have a drink at 10,000 feet.

Rondavels ("native" huts) used for traveler accommodation at the Sani Pass Chalet. Note the snow still on the ground in the background

As we sat talking and drinking we saw several Drakensberg Siskins that were attracted to the seed placed on the ground daily by the chalets.
Drakensberg Siskin

Occasionally an Orange-breasted (Drakensberg) Rock-jumper would pop into view. This and the Drakensberg Siskin were the two species that occur nowhere else on earth but the Drakensberg Mountains that I came to Lesotho to see.
Orange-breasted (Drakensberg) Rock-jumper. This was not only a new species for me but also a new bird family

Several Cape Sparrows competed with the Siskins for seed while Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Red-winged Starlings floated around us. Overhead we watched Alpine Swift and African Black Swift performing their aerial acrobatics.

We left Lesotho after an hour or so and began the trek back down the mountain. Julian and Kay asked me if I wanted to ride with them and I asked to go only as far as the end of the switchbacks four kilometers down the road. From there I wanted to walk back.

Kay kept her eyes shut as we passed through the switchbacks. The scenery here was breathtaking and occasionally I let out a "wow." Kay finally said "the wow's are ok, but your sighs are scaring me!" I had forgotten I was with other people.

When we reached the bottom of the switchbacks I asked about my most favorite British topic - the Queen and what she will do about Prince Chuck.

"Ah, the bloody queen," Julian began. "She will never abdicate the throne to Charles and who could blame her?"

"Will she abdicate to Prince William," I asked?

"I bloody well hope she does," Julian said, "before she bloody dies and Charles becomes King automatically. God, I hate to think of Charles and how that idiot will absolutely ruin the country."

I'm not British and I hate to think to think about Chuck also.

Julian and Kay met on a blind date. She went home that first night and told her mother than she had met the man she was going to marry. "I promptly dumped Kay and came crawling back three weeks later asking for another chance."

I asked if he was crawling back on hands and knees, and Julian said "I bloody well was when her mother got hold of me."

We said our good byes at the bottom of the switchbacks and I took off on foot for the last four kilometers to the border control station. By now the temperature had warmed considerably at this "lower" elevation and I was starting to sweat a bit from the temperature. Birds along the "road" were still active and I enjoyed second looks at several species.

About 100 meters up the road from the place where the stream crosses the road I saw a sluggish movement out of the corner of my eye. Looking more closely it was obvious I was looking at a snake but which one? Earlier in the trip I met a retired geologist who grew up in Texas. We talked about snakes and he told me that if I saw a Puff Adder it would "look like a rattlesnake without the rattles." Sure as hell this big thick snake looked exactly like a rattler and its tail was without rattles.
Puff Adder - a highly toxic and dangerous African snake

I walked in front of the snake to make sure it had the characteristic delta shaped head of a pit viper and once I confirmed that it dawned on me that I was in front of the working end of a snake whose bite kills more African every year than any other snake species. Luckily the animal moves very slowly and I was convinced that I would move one hell of a lot faster so I took this picture and moved to the other side of the road until it was out of sight.

If venomous snakes like the puff adder have emerged from their dens this high up in the mountains, then certainly black mambas and Cape cobras are out down below where I'm headed tomorrow. I think before I leave tomorrow morning I'm going to have a little talk with Sindi about there not being any snakes out yet and I had nothing to worry about. I thought of that as I watched the puff adder slide by a rock I had sat on in the morning as I took a break from the climb up the mountain.

On my return to the South African border post Ronald asked me if I had seen all the birds I wanted to see and if I enjoyed the trip up and down. Having complained about my age on the way up the last thing I wanted to do was let him know I rode in a SUV through the most difficult part of the climb.

"It was a great hike, Ronald, all the way to the top and back down. Great exercise also." When I mentioned exercise he told me about a local resident who mountain bike from the nearest large town (about 20 kilometers from the border post) up to the Lesotho border and back every day. "That old man is 75 years old and he never misses a day, even in snow in winter."

I had seen the old man from the backseat of the SUV as I was riding with Julian and Kay up the mountain. We saw him come to the top of the cliff at Lesotho, turn around, and begin his return trip. He was 75 years old and had legs like a mountain goat. He also had about zero percent body fat.

"Yes, I saw him Ronald. He passed me on the way up the mountain and then a few minutes later coming back down. He was in really good shape."

The look on Ronald's face told me that he didn't believe for one minute that I'd walked all that way up and back in six hours. He didn't say anything however and let me live in my own delusional world.

As he stamped my passport letting me back in South Africa one of Ronald's colleagues asked me "Where are some good cities to visit in America where I can stay warm?"

I told him about Miami, Tampa, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles. I then added "I lived in Washington DC for 14 years and it is a nice place to visit. It stays very warm in summer but is a bit chilly in winter." I then added "I lived in Washington DC through all of George Bush's Presidency and I still like Washington DC.

The passport agent said "Ah, George W. Bush. He is such an asshole."

I knew there was a reason I liked South Africa so much.


  1. Craig ... do they let you cross borders on request in places like Swaziland and Lesotho, or did you have to do a lot of leg work and get visas to go to those places?

  2. Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia are all "free" crossings. Just show up with an American passport and you get stamped in. For Zimbabwe there is a 100 dollar charge for a visa but I refused to support the oppressive regime of Mugabe so I crossed the Limpopo River instead. Mozambique wanted $100 US also but I lucked out and was let across the border at a rather "open" crossing by some South African border patrol people so I got in the country for free. Botswana requires a visa before going there but I didn't have time to try for it so I didn't. In the western hemisphere Americans can cross into all countries except Brazil and Suriname without a visa. For those two you have to apply early because you aren't allowed on a plane out of the US without the visa before going there. Same with China, Australia, Viet Nam, Cambodia Laos and a few others. A few years ago when crossing from the United Arab Emirate to Oman I talked with an Indian guy (India indian) who looked at my passport cover, pointed and said, "that's the best visa in the world." With the exception of Canada and Switzerland passports he is right.

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