Kent’s Family Travel in Southern Africa: Lesotho

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Lesotho (pronounced Leh-SOO-Too) is a small mountain kingdom completely surrounded by South Africa.  It’s about the size of Maryland and is home to roughly 2 million people, nearly all of them Basotho. They speak Sesotho.  If you forget, just say, The Bah-SOO-Too in Leh-SOO-Too speak Seh-SOO-Too–it tends to roll off the tongue and stick in the brain.

I can’t now remember what I expected when we decided to visit this little-known backwater, but whatever it was, it exceeded all my expectations and provided a fantastic, authentic experience for our family.  To put our experience in perspective, it’s probably best to give a very brief history.

A long time age the Basotho people covered a significant chunk of present day Lesotho and South Africa and they still do dominate Lesotho and much of the Orange Free State in South Africa. Their mountain kingdom was plugging along nicely, then threats from the Zulu and the voortrekkers (Boers moving inland from the British) put pressures on them. They survived, in part, by making Lesotho and protectorate of Britain. (Yes, there’s still a king, though he’s a ceremonial head and the country has an elected parliament and prime minister.) All through the Apartheid era, Lesotho remained independent as did neighboring Swaziland, another island nation sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique. But in reality both of these countries are heavily dependent on South Africa for nearly all their manufactured goods, most of their food, electricity, and just about everything else.

We arrived in Maseru, the capital, on a flight from Johannesburg. There are just three flights per DAY into Maseru from anywhere and they’re all from Johannesburg on SA Airlink. I really don’t think I’ve been to a quieter city airport in my life. There are also only a couple roads into the country, also from South Africa, of course. Maseru is the largest city in Lesotho but is of little if any interest to the average visitor by all accounts. The country has no natural resources to speak of beyond the rivers that form in its mountains and flow to the sea through South Africa, providing much needed water to its inhabitants.

But what Lesotho lacks in wealth, it more than makes up for in natural beauty, the friendliness of its people, and its habit of making one feel peaceful and relaxed. To the tune of cow bells and sing-song greetings, time seems to move more slowly here.

For our visit, we stayed at Malealea Lodge, a well-known, family run Lesotho institution. Here, guests can choose from 50+ huts and cabins spread throughout green gardens and lawns. Each is simple but clean with comfortable beds and warm, thick duvets.  There are flush toilets and hot showers en-suite for the cabins, and the views are fantastic with dramatic mountains providing a 360 degree backdrop.

Every evening, local children sing for the guests and local herdsman do their unique one-shouldered boogie with hand in pocket, to the tune of homemade instruments including bucket drums and two-stringed guitars. There are playgrounds and toys for kids–our boys enjoyed playing soccer in the yard with some local boys–and they even have a sand tennis court.  The cozy bar serves beer, wine and liquor and has a pool table. The food served family style–simple meat and potatoes type fare, which while certainly not the highlight of the visit, kept everyone full. The place is good for intrepid travelers from backpackers to nature lovers who appreciate unique settings, hiking, cultural visits and pony trekking.

Our 4-hour pony trek was the highlight of our visit to Lesotho and one of our favorite experiences of the whole trip. As the ponies tread slowly out of the stables at the Malealea Pony Trek Center, the incredible landscape revealed itself, with steep cliffs and sharp mountains dropping into windswept plains and deep valleys cut by rivers and seasonal streams. Along the way, women in their yards hung the washing or weeded the garden. Children played in the yard. Some of the older women sat in plastic chairs or on the ground, warming themselves in the sun. Men and boys (no school this day) tended to the long-haired white goats, fat sheep and bell-laden cattle. The herders, many wrapped in warm, traditional mohair blankets, called to our pony trekking guide in sing-song fashion, joking and sharing news as we moved slowly past. The “goal” or our trek was the beautiful Botsoela Waterfall, which we found, but it was, as they say, the journey that really mattered.

There’s no doubt that Lesotho is very poor and it’s society has been ripped apart by the AIDS epidemic. We were able to get some first-had insight from a friend, Amy Carson, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in the country. Beyond losing much of a generation to AIDS, she said, there are underlying and secondary issues such as negative impacts on the economy, broken families and orphans, and alcoholism. That’s why Africa Adventure Consultants donated $200 to Carson’s project to fund a home health kit which will help two caregivers effectively care for their charges for one year. And despite the real and serious problems the people of Lesotho face, we found the Lesotho to be friendly, laid back and real, if not a bit reserved, and would recommend taking the time to see it, as does Lonely Planet, which rates Lesotho as one of the Top 10 Value Destinations in the world.

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