Mum and I set out from Kokstadt where we had
stayed at Tigerskloof backpackers. The owner, Peter, had spent some time
living in Lesotho, and was kind enough to go over a suggested route with me,
as well as telling me where I would find accommodation along the way.
Armed with this info we turned off the tarmac
and entered real Africa - this was still on the SA side of the border but
the trail up to our entry point at Ramats'Eliso's Gate was rough and rocky.
At times we were unsure of the piste - at one point we decided to explore a
side-track that took us down into a deserted valley before we realised that
it was a construction road for some irrigation project.
The views to the top of the pass were
spectacular, and the sense of isolation made it hard to believe we were
still in SA. All to soon we arrived at the top. and a few minutes later,
slipping into low ratio for a tricky descent across bare rock, we pulled up
outside an immaculate and well equipped border post manned by smart
officials with computers that actually worked. What they were doing there I
know not as this was clearly a little travelled route - the border post on
the Lesotho office was a get-out-and-hunt-the-immigration-officer type of
affair. I was stamped out on the last spare space on my old passport, and
entered Lesotho on my new passport.
A night in the King's bed
Our first destination was Sehlabathebe National Park - notable for the
unspoiled wilderness more than anything else. Although we hadn't booked we
were assured by Peter that we could just turn up - and after following a
slow track from the gates for about 15km we arrived at a lodge in a
beautifully rugged valley where we were welcomed like royalty by the live-in
staff - we found out that this is actually the official summer house of the
King. The lodge was amazingly luxurious considering it's located in
the middle of nowhere - it has the shabby grandeur that remind one of a
sixties officers' mess of the colonial era - with massive windows
overlooking spectacular landscape - and better still it's hardly ever
visited - I read half a dozen entries for the month of August in the
The road less travelled
We left late the next morning in warm sunshine and strong winds, and
negotiated the track back to the road, finding a route past the stranded
tractor (did I mention that?) and exiting for the run inland. The
road, which up to that point had been a pretty good gravel piste,
deteriorated into rocks as we began to climb the Matebeng pass. The trail
wound its way up and down mountain sides, passing the remains of the winter
snows still clinging to the verges. Lesotho is over 1000m above sea level at
it's lowest point, and has the highest average altitude for any country in
the world, and the fact that there were any roads at all struck me as
The smart locals were happily getting
around on foot, or using the sturdy Basotho ponies favoured for their sure
footedness and stamina. Some of them seemed to make better time across the
mountains than the camel...
After four hours and forty kilometres
(mostly in low ratio) we finally descended to the level of the Orange River
which we forded with ease, passing the washed away remains of a substantial
concrete bridge. I had thought that we were over the worst, but the road now
changed in character.
First there would be an ascent that
eschewed the switch backs of the pass behind us in favour of dangerously
steep inclines. I'd size this up from the bottom, take a deep breath, then
force my way steadily up in high ratio second, at times scrabbling for grip.
I reckoned from the traffic that I'd seen that a few dozen Land Cruisers
were plying this route every week, and if they could do it, then so could I
with my new all-terrain tyres and the thrusting power of the 300TDi that
rippled under the bonnet - yeah, yeah...
Mum seemed blissfully unaware of the
dangers involved - a loose patch of scree could at any moment have sent us
sliding back down the slope - and probably over the edge of a cliff that
would have tested the strength of even the Safety Devices roll cage. However
I'm delighted to report that the tyres held firm and the only material
damage was to my seat covers.
The descents were a reverse of the ascents
- except of course that this time if the car slipped we would be facing in
the right direction to watch the edge of the precipice approaching with
the inevitability of death.
In between these diversions were
contour-following pistes with views across the mountain ranges that came
straight from the pages of national Geographic - horizons seemed to stretch a long
was for such a mountainous country.
Forty minutes to somewhere
We came at last to the beautifully named
Sehonghong, and as it was approaching 4pm we decided to start thinking about
a place to lay our heads. We decided to try for the next village - "How far
to Mashai?" we asked - excepting a reply of several hours. "Forty minutes"
was the reply. And then a minibus pulled up, to my utter disbelief. Suddenly
the roads were smooth gravel once more, and an hour after sunset we arrived
at the rustic comfort of Molumong Guest House.
The guest house was built as the manager's
residence - the managing relating to something to do with sheep or wool, or
both. It's run by a couple of South African's who love the isolation of
Lesotho, and get up whenever they can. Lighting is by candle only, which
lends a romantic flavour to your stay, assuming you manage not to burn
The following morning we headed back to SA
via the Sani pass, which is notable as being the highest point of Southern
Africa, and in fact the highest point of Africa South of Kilimanjaro.
A good piste took us to the pass in an hour
and a half, and because you follow a valley into the pass you have the
strange illusion that you are at a far lower altitude than the 2865m
altitude claimed on all the signs.
At the border we met a crowd of shiny SA
registered 4x4s - it seems that the pass is a major destination for the hard
off roader types, who get to the to of the pass, have a beer in the
restaurant (yes really, there is one there but we skipped it) and them
return to SA. I suggested to one that they should try the Matebeng pass (but
then I'm evil). Border formalities on the Lesotho side involve waking up the
official, who then waves you away without a stamp.
The descent to the SA immigration office is
via a series of tight switch-backs that challenged the Unimog we met coming
up, but were a piece of piss for the Camel. In fact after our gruelling
traverse of the Matebeng pass I was
tempted just slip into low ration, point the car downhill, and take a nap
down to the bottom.