Welcome to the magical mountain kingdom of Lesotho

Sunday Times
Published: 7th December 2014

On the wind-scorched plateau the shepherds of Lesotho stand around like alien Star Wars characters, absolutely still as if they’ve been waiting here, swathed in their brown blankets, wearing their green or white gumboots and woolly balaclavas, for ever. One of them raises his arm in a dignified salute, then another. 

A friend who used to pony trek here as a child told me about this secret, spectacular mountain kingdom encircled by South Africa. It gained independence from Britain in 1966, but it hasn’t thrived. “We call it the land that time forgot,” he said. “People live in a medieval past. The landscapes and high-altitude flowers and the birds are all breathtaking.” Others told me of dinosaur footprints, of San Bushmen paintings, of the fortress of the first king of the Lesotho people (called the Basotho), of waterfalls and emptiness and peace. 

I had done the Garden Route, knew Cape Town, had been on safaris, and now I wanted another adventure in the region. Lesotho sounded dramatic, if a little raw. 

Getting there was an adventure in itself; I flew to humid Durban, stayed at the fabulous Oyster Box hotel, on the ocean, and from there it was three and a half hours to the Sani Pass, the most dramatic route into Lesotho — though not for the faint-hearted. A driver took us in a 4x4 up the pass, with its impossible turns. One especially precipitous one was called Devil’s Elbow. Waterfalls gushed out of rock, baboons played in the distance, and sunbirds flashed across the road while all the time we climbed towards the Twelve Apostles, 12 mighty tables of basalt above which lay the landlocked, secret kingdom of Lesotho. On average it is higher than Nepal, 1,500m above sea level. 

Prince Harry spent two months of his gap year in Lesotho, famously (and puzzlingly at the time) pictured in the traditional Lesotho blanket and woolly hat, and has said it is where he feels he can truly be himself and where he feels closest to his mother Diana, Princess of Wales. The blankets are national dress, with different patterns in different areas, and are worn with gumboots in green or white plus woolly hat or conical straw hat. The first Basotho king, Moshoeshoe I (who reigned from 1822 to his death in 1870) is said to have made the wearing of blankets rather than animal skins de rigueur. He is the hero who founded the nation, bringing together clans fleeing from the belligerent Zulus and fighting off all challengers. 

From the plateau, we intended to drive along the dirt road to the Maliba Mountain Lodge in the Ts’ehlanyane National Park. But the road was blocked and we had to return — as exhilarating going down as going up — and enter the country at another border, near the chi chi resort of Clarens. 

When we arrived at the lodge it was well worth the trip. Here, a self-catering stay in a four-bedroom house by one of the streams which thread through this lush and dramatic scenery costs less than £100 a night. There are also lovely thatched chalets near the main lodge whose shape mirrors the rounded form of the mountains beyond, the local huts and, once again, Lesotho’s characteristic straw conical hat. The food, cooked by a local who came here as a dishwasher, rivalled the finest London restaurants. 

We pony-trekked from the lodge up steep mountain passes. over streams and through silver waterfalls, surrounded by skittish white butterflies, by daisies and harebells, as if here, too, we were entering the past before pesticides and pollution. Lesotho’s dazzling wild flowers, mostly high alpine, are among the finest in the world and worth visiting the country for. We came to a river pool, took off our boots and dabbled our feet before climbing back on to the sturdy Basotho ponies. My pony stopped to eat wild mint and the smell filled the air. I wanted never to leave this kingdom which seemed to belong to no one but me. The cool babble of the streams and rivers which are everywhere in this land of water swept all problems away. 

But this is also one of the world’s poorest countries; it is not all about wild mint and fresh linen. As thunder roared outside I visited a local “doctor”. Her thatched hut, among black piglets and crows, had washing lines hung with the kidneys and fat from cows and a dead hamerkop bird with its black wings extended. Stiff and elderly, in a faded pink and red smock, surrounded by old packets and jars of herbs and ointments, the doctor showed me her headdresses of porcupine quills and the fur of baboons before throwing “the bones”, which include two dominoes and a coin, to tell my fortune. 

Driving back to the lodge from this “community visit” we saw a group of young men wearing tribal blankets and carrying sticks in the back of a pick-up truck, laughing and chatting excitedly. “They’re back from months in the mountains,” my guide said. “They go to learn to fight with their sticks, to learn the old rituals. When they return they are men. This is one of our ancient traditions.” 

The distant past seems very recent in this remote kingdom. The modern world seems hardly to have touched it. Along the empty roads, and in the beautiful lodge, we hardly saw another tourist and, when we visited the country’s extraordinary sights, such as the Kome Caves dwellings, which are still inhabited today, the guides seemed astonished to see us. The caves were a hideout after the Basotho people resorted to cannibalism in the 1700s after a drought. 

The nearby sandstone Liphofung Caves feature dreamlike red figures created by San Bushmen in the Stone Age. It is the most beautiful rock art I’ve ever seen. King Moshoeshoe would stay in these caves when visiting this part of his kingdom. The dinosaur footprints, too, which are scattered over the kingdom, take the breath away. Lesotho is said to have the largest concentration of dinosaur footprints in the world (in Leribe, Morija, which also has a museum and archives, and Quthing). 

In Leribe, a board announces”Dinosaur footprints” accompanied by a bad painting of a toothy, smiling lizard. Wearily, expecting nothing, we traipsed down a hill to a hut where a single guide was staring into his phone. He perked up, grabbed a bucket of water, and showed us down to the dried-up Subeng Stream. When he threw the water over the streambed, we gasped as a series of vast three-toed footprints showed up in what was once mud, and suddenly we were back in time, visualising the dinosaur making his way across this landscape millions of years ago. The guide smiled victoriously as he explained its movements. In nearby caves you can see more. 

Again and again, Lesotho takes you back into the past, and not into a quaint, charming past but something dramatic, raw, wholly unexpected and like nothing else. Somehow time has forgotten this strange, troubled land, which has been subject to a number of coups. It still keeps its British connection: the present King Letsie III and his father Moshoeshoe II were both educated at Ampleforth. 

But the king most present in Lesotho is the subtle and courageous King Moshoeshoe I. The remains of his mountain-top fortress are not far (15 miles) from the down-at-heel capital Maseru, where we stayed at the Lesotho Sun hotel. The walk up is steep but, a little like the Sani Pass itself, the agony is rewarded once you stand on the plateau and look around, lord or lady of all you survey. The fortress – Thaba Bosiu – was a city in the skies, some 2sq km in size and 120m above the surrounding plain. It proved impregnable to both the belligerent Zulus and to the Boers of the Orange Free State. Now, amid the ruins, white horses and their foals roam around a fallen bluegum tree. 

On the way back we hiked in the Drakensberg mountains, staying at the Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. It was out of this world and there were few people around, except naturalists expanding on the wonders of the flowers in Lesotho and the butterflies. 

It was an astonishing trip. But, most of all, I remember the sweep of the mountains and the water gushing out of them like millions of diamonds, and my little pony gorging on wild mint. 

Need to know

Sally Emerson was a guest of Mahlatini Luxury Travel (0289073 6050, mahlatini.com) which has a ten-night holiday to South Africa and Lesotho with flights and car hire, from £1,950pp. It includes two nights’ B&B at the Oyster Box hotel in Durban, one night’s dinner and breakfast at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, three nights’ full board at Maliba Lodge in a mountain chalet, one night’s B&B at the Lesotho Sun and three nights’ B&B at Wistieshoek Mountain Lodge