The Mountain Kingdom | 305km

Pony Trkking in the mountains of Lesotho
Photo © Struik Publications
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LESOTHO

While on a South African holiday you should also visit Lesotho, which is also known as the Mountain Kingdom and the Kingdom in the Sky. Lesotho is the only country in the world with all its territory above 1 000 m. Except for the Lowlands in the west, it is an extremely rugged land, characterised by high mountains dissected by deep river valleys. Lesotho is home to the Basotho people, who emerged as a nation between 1815 and 1820 when Moshoeshoe united the remnants of various Sesotho-speaking tribes dispersed by the Mfecane. Disputes with the Voortrekkers over land led to three wars between 1858 and 1867, and in March 1868 Basotholand was annexed by the British. When the territory’s borders were demarcated, the area west of the Caledon River, referred to by the Basotho as the Conquered Territory, was excluded. In 1884 Basotholand became a High Commission territory, and at independence, on 4 October 1966, changed its name to Lesotho.

Blankets were first imported into Basotholand in the 1860s, and still form an integral part of Basotho life. During ceremonies such as the circumcision of boys, a blanket indicates whether a man is married or not, and blankets are also worn on special occasions. Another hallmark of the Basotho is the distinctive conical straw hat, known variously as tlhoro, mokorotlo or molianyeo. It has been suggested that the hat owes its shape to Qiloane, a cone-shaped mountain near Moshoeshoe’s stronghold of Thaba Bosiu.

Although Lesotho’s road network has improved considerably during the last 20 years, the Basotho pony is still an important means of transport in the remote mountain villages. Small-stock farming with angora goats and sheep is the main economic activity, while maize and vegetables are cultivated in river valleys. Much of the country’s income is, however, derived from migrant labour, although the massive Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which began in 1991, has provided a much-needed economic boost to this poor and landlocked country.

MASERU

Visit Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, on your South African holiday. It lies on the eastern bank of the Mohokare, or Caledon River, and its Sesotho name is translated as ‘the place of red sandstone’. The city developed around a police camp that was established in 1869 by Commandant JH Bowker, Agent of the British High Commissioner for South Africa. Situated at a ford across the river, a bustling trading centre soon sprung up. During the Gun War (1880–81), the settlement came under frequent attack, and several outlying buildings were set alight when Maseru was attacked in October 1880. In 1884, when the first Resident Commissioner, Colonel Marshall Clarke, was appointed, Maseru became the administrative centre for Basotholand.

The town’s development accelerated with the opening of a railway line and a road bridge across the Caledon River in December 1905. In the 1960s, many South Africans were attracted to Maseru when casinos – prohibited in South Africa at that time – opened in the capital. However, tourist numbers dropped dramatically following the introduction of legal gambling in the ‘independent’ homelands. Political instability in the latter half of 1998 resulted in the burning of several buildings in Maseru.

LANCERS’ GAP

A short way out of Maseru the road ascends along a pass through Lancers’ Gap, a natural sandstone gateway giving access to the Berea Plateau. The name is somewhat misleading, though, as the route was apparently never used by the 12th Royal Lancers, commanded by Sir George Cathcart, who were defeated by the Basotho at Seliba-sa-Masole in 1852. From the summit of the pass, there are fine views over Maseru and the Conquered Territory. The Sesotho name of the pass, Khalong-la-Ratsosane, honours a headman who lived in the area in the 1830s.

THABA BOSIU

...is the most important historic site in Lesotho and well worth a visit during your South African holiday. It was here that the Basotho nation was consolidated by its founder, Moshoeshoe. After establishing his first stronghold at Butha-Buthe, Moshoeshoe moved south and occupied a flat-topped mountain on the Berea Plateau in 1824. This impregnable natural fortress became known as Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of Night), and from here Moshoeshoe united various scattered groups of Sotho into a new nation.

Thaba Bosiu withstood attacks by the Ngwane, Tlokwa, the army of Mzilikazi and Boer forces of the Orange Free State Republic. On 8 August 1865, during the Seqiti War, the Boer forces made an unsuccessful attempt to storm the mountain. In the second attack, on 15 August, Commandant Louw Wepener was shot dead while leading a group of men up the mountain slopes. The Boers were eventually forced to abandon their attempt, with the loss of 11 men killed, and a fruitless month-long siege followed. During the third Basotho War of 1867, when the Free State forces conquered virtually the entire Lowlands, Thaba Bosiu was the only fortress that remained invincible. Guides are available for walks to the summit, where Moshoeshoe’s two-roomed house and grave can be seen.

HA BAROANA

Ha Baroana, a name meaning ‘place of the little Bushmen’, is one of the best-known and most accessible rock painting sites in Lesotho. Depicted on the walls of the sandstone overhang are finely executed paintings of groups of dancers, hunters, human figures with decorative patterns on their legs, eland, hartebeest and a variety of other animals and birds. The site is often also referred to as Ha Khotso.

MOUNTAIN ROAD

Until the 1950s, access to the interior of Lesotho across the centre of the Maloti Mountains was limited to horseback. Construction of the Mountain Road linking Maseru to eastern Lesotho began in the 1950s, and by 1959 the road reached Mantsonyane, 127 km east of Maseru. The 47-km section of road to Thaba-Tseka was opened in 1969, and two years later the first trans-Maloti crossing became possible. The Front Range of the Maloti Mountains forms a formidable barrier, and the Bushman’s Pass is the first of several passes that have to be negotiated along the Mountain Road.

MOLIMO NTH--

Molimo Nthuse, a Sesotho name meaning ‘God help me’, is the second major pass along the Mountain Road. Nestling among a grove of poplar, plane and willow trees alongside a mountain stream near the base of the pass is the Molimo Nthuse Hotel. About 2km further on is the Basotho Pony Trekking Centre, established in the 1980s by the Irish government and the Lesotho Tourist Board to promote pony trekking in Lesotho.

BEYOND MOLIMO NTH--

...the road winds across the Blue Mountain Pass (2 620 m) and then passes the turnoff to Likalaneng, where the Mohale Dam is being built. The dam forms part of the massive Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which is designed to meet the water needs of South Africa’s densely populated and heavily industrialised Gauteng region. Still further on the road winds across the Likalaneng Pass and then reaches Marakabei, a small village deep in the mountains.

ROMA

Originally known as Mohale at Tloutle, Roma developed around the mission station established here in 1862 by the Roman Catholic Church. In time, the mission became known as Ba-Roma, or ‘the place of Roman Catholics’. Roma is an important educational centre and home to the National University of Lesotho, which had its beginnings as a Catholic college. Opened in April 1945 in a converted primary school, the institution later became known as the Pius XII College. In 1964 it was transformed into the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Eleven years later, legislation was passed to convert the Roma campus into the National University of Lesotho.

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