The Kingdom of Lesotho - 26 to 29 November 2013

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Africa » Lesotho
December 10th 2013
Published: December 13th 2013
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The morning we left the Drakensberg Mountains it decided to pour with rain so when we awoke our tents were already soaking wet. It is not much fun taking your tent down in the rain as well as trying to have breakfast in the rain - but we managed to get everything packed into the Mercedes and headed off. We have become so used to travelling in the ‘merc’ and do not miss the Red Fire Engine at all! Today we were visiting yet another African country, firstly passing through what is known as the Free State, to get to Lesotho - our next destination. After a very short while we were travelling on a very long section of really poor quality road - Albert said they had been fixing this road for three years now - well it still needed a lot of fixing, but I think money was a bit of a problem! We passed through a village called Little Switzerland and you could see why, as we travelled higher and higher, down below us was a stunning blue lake situated at the bottom of a massive valley. This was surrounded by lush green meandering hills and dotted mountains all around, definitely a mini Switzerland. Albert told us that the area had a very ‘intelligent’ group of baboons, who realized that passing trucks meant, food.......... The trucks had to slow down to get up the hills and the baboons used this opportunity to ‘hitch a ride’, they literally jumped on the back of the truck at the tight corners and proceeded to gnaw their way through the thick canvas covers to get at any maize or other food supplies that might be underneath! Albert said that he often followed trucks with baboons hanging out the back merrily enjoying themselves.............

After a while we entered the Golden Gate National Park and what a lovely location this was. It looked like how we have imagined Arizona or Utah NP’s would look, towering red sandstone cliffs but the difference being that these were all clad in a blanket of green grass - hopefully on our next travels we would be able to see if this was a good likeness!!!!! The park derives its name from the sunrays of the setting sun that cast a soft shade on the west facing sandstone cliffs and turns them into a glowing golden colour. This is what a Mr van Reenen observed in 1878 whilst travelling down the pass at the Western entrance to his new home - in awe of this magnificent sight he named it Golden Gate. It is now an important site for South Africa in that more than 50%!o(MISSING)f their water supply comes from this area. In 1896 the area literally teemed with large game herds and it was recorded that the whole landscape was one ‘moving mass of animals’, which included thousands of zebra, blesbok and black wildebeest. Attempts have been made to restore these large herds again but because most of them were migratory this has not been an easy task but research is ongoing and whilst we were there we did see some large herds of zebra.

We finally stopped in the town of Fitzburg to shop for some basic supplies before continuing to the nearby border crossing. We had been told that Lesotho is full of friendly people - well our first experiences were not that good. A very grumpy lady at customs wanted to see the receipt for the food we had just brought. We produced the receipt only for her to take it and when asked she would not return it - not sure why but thought it best not to pursue the point - Albert would have liked it though as it was a business receipt......... We then filled in the usual border formalities form and met a very miserable young lady on the desk. Paul was not amused when she stamped his very full passport on the only remaining second clear page (another trip required to London Passport Office soon). However worse was to come as when we did get through and thought ‘great we are on our way’, we had only gone about a mile down the road when there was a police checkpoint.

Albert stopped the car and this very scruffy/grumpy policeman said that he was going to ‘arrest’ Albert as we had too much equipment on the back seat of our mercedes, namely, a very small icebox, our box of food supplies and a couple of rucksacks. Albert got out of the car and went off to ‘talk to’ three other policemen who were standing in a field nearby with their guns slung over their backs. He was gone for ages whilst we were getting quite ‘roasted’ and very annoyed in the car............. We could clearly see there was a problem by the body language going on outside but could not help the matter and probably would have made it worse if we had intervened........ A while later Albert returned, he said they had asked him for money starting at R300 and dropping down to R75 when he was not ‘playing ball’. He told them that of all the times he had travelled in Lesotho he had not come across this situation before. If they wanted to ‘fine him’ for having too much ‘stuff’ on the back seat then he would pay, but they would have to take him to the local police station and he would liaise with the man in charge there. We think this must have done the trick, as they then quickly told him he to go, realising that they were not going to get a ‘free hand out’ from us........ Hopefully others would not pay them either as this will exasperate the corruption problem in this country..........

Albert was ‘tuned on’ to these backhanders, having travelled for so long in these countries and he told us that if you were stopped at these checkpoints and you could see other policemen standing further away (not all grouped together) then this was probably someone after a ‘free’ handout............We were quite astounded as although we knew there was some corruption in this country, to see local police openly flaunt their authority in this way was another thing. Certainly not doing anything for tourism in this country which could do with any available ’tourist income’ to support such a poor people. All around we could see these very people struggling with basic living conditions in a hard environment, making us even more mad at this so called ‘police’, who were at least paid a small wage, but taking the ‘michael’ out of their fellow countrymen.

A little further down the road we were stopped yet again by police only this time they were looking for people who had avoided paying the local tax at the border crossing...... Albert told them we were tourists and therefore did not have to pay anything other than what we had paid to enter the country. After a very small ‘smile’ from the lady we were on our way again. Luckily we were then waved on through yet two more police road blocks as they were busy with other ‘customers’ - not a good initiation into this supposedly ‘friendly’ country.........we were watching all the time for the next road block...........

In our opinion and judging from our first few hours in the county we felt that Lesotho was not the friendliest nation in the world......but this opinion was changed later after meeting some of the people. It is though the highest country in the world - we always thought that this was in Nepal but apparently it’s right here in central Africa! With over 80%!o(MISSING)f the country lying above 1,800 metres Lesotho is affectionately referred to as the Kingdom in the Sky or the Roof of Africa. A democratic, sovereign and independent country with the unique characteristic of being totally surrounded by its neighbour, the Republic of South Africa. It is just under 12,000 square miles in size and has a population of about two million. Formerly called Basutoland it was renamed the Kingdom of Lesotho upon independence from the UK in 1966. In 1993 after 23 years of military rule, a new constitution was implemented leaving the King without any executive authority and proscribing him from engaging in political affairs. In 1998, violent protests and a military mutiny following a contentious election prompted a brief but bloody South African military intervention. Constitutional reforms have since restored political stability and peaceful parliamentary elections were held in 2002.

The Kingdom of Lesotho is made up mostly of highlands and many of the villages can be reached only by horseback or on indeed on foot. During the winter herdsmen wearing boots and only wrap-around blankets have to contend with very cold snowy conditions. The herdsmen closely attend their animals following them as they graze throughout the countryside and sometimes sleeping with them at night - a very harsh life but the only way to maintain a healthy stock in these extreme conditions.

We drove through the countryside watching life pass by as it had done for centuries and quickly passed through Maseru, the capital, a buzzing sprawled out city surrounded by mountains and nothing much of great interest in the city itself. For a ‘city’ though it was strange to see so much livestock, sheep, goats and cattle grazing on the limited grass verges in the centre with their herdsmen standing nearby taking the opportunity to catch up with their fellow countrymen.

As our journey continued we realised how tiny Lesotho was - time had surely passed it by but it had such a raw beauty, with spectacular canyons and homesteads dotted across the red soiled landscape. Most of the homes consisting of small thatched huts completely untouched by the modern world. However we noticed that although many of the recently resurfaced roads were already showing signs of stress with massive potholes - with not much traffic they had not been built to withstand much use............. Albert informed us that many of the roads had been paid for by ‘foreign countries’ employing local developers so that they could reach the massive mineral and water resources - so big changes may be on the way to hopefully benefit the local peoples but I fear not...........

We travelled on for most of the day passing through quaint villages and small townships but mainly all we saw were rural areas with fields of agriculture and people working in the fields. In the towns, sadly there were many young men drinking around the bars, which is becoming a big problem for the country but mostly for its people and family life. Apparently Fridays (pay day if they are lucky) is a time to avoid these area.............

Eventually after all our hold ups we did arrive at our destination of Malealea before darkness and what a delightful first view of this serene valley we had. As you enter the valley a small inscription on the side of the road said ‘Wayfarer - Pause and Look Upon a Gateway to Paradise’. - very apt words. This sign was put there by Merwyn Bosworth-Smith an Englishman who lived in the valley from the early 1900s until his death in 1951 - you could see why he would want to spend his life here it was so idillic.

We were staying in a small lodge nestled in the isolated mountains and were thankful that we did not have to put up our tents after our long and stressful journey here. However we were not happy with the bushman huts that we had been allocated, particularly the kitchen facilities, so Albert had a chat with the manager and we changed to ‘better accommodation’ and they even gave us our own separate hut, which housed a private kitchen where we could cook for ourselves and an outdoor area to sit in which was great. Its sometimes hard to be thankful for what you have but we have our limitations where hygiene is concerned, a little bit of hardship is fine with us and we have indeed experienced this on our travels but we do draw the line where cleanliness is concerned.

The lodge we stayed in was very quaint - founded by Merwyn Bosworth-Smith who was born at Harrow School, England in 1878. His father was Assistant Manager there for 37 years and Melwyn was born at the school together with his five brothers and three sisters. All his brothers were educated at Harrow but he went to Rugby, where he excelled at rugby and athletics. He was also a brilliant scholar, writing Latin prose at just 14 years old and on leaving school he attended Oxford University. He came to South Africa in 1898 teaching and even digging for diamonds before joining the police-force in what was then called Rhodesia, now of course it is known as Zimbabwe. At the outbreak of the Boer War he joined the Dorset Regiment (a coincidence as some of my ancestors were also in the same Regiment, I wonder if they ever met). After the war whilst visiting his brother in Africa he ended up in Malealea and fell in love with the area and set up a Trading Post which is how the lodge came into existence.

Starting off in a tent the first building was a store and shed and then the main house was built of cut stone under a thatched roof. The original lounge was a replica of the lounge at Binghams Melcon, Dorset, which was his family house, when his father retired from Harrow. A swimming pool, also under thatch was built and later a tennis court was added. As Melwyn was a keen bridge and billiard player he had a billiards table brought by Ox-wagon, travelling over very rough countryside to the lodge. This must have been a remarkable thing to do in those days as we know how difficult it was just to get here in modern times travelling in the relative comfort of Albert’s old merc.........

Melwyn was well established when the 1914 - 1918 war started and he returned to England to join the Dorset Regiment again and he served throughout the war years. He developed trench-leg which was then a problem for the rest of his life. Returning to Malealea in 1919 he got married and had a number of golden years with flourishing trade and shooting safaris in Rhodesia - the rosy years as it was for many people in those ‘blinkered days’. He died suddenly at ‘home’ in 1950 and was buried by the Bishop of Basutoland in the gardens - he had no permanent headstone but I do not think he needed it as Malealea itself is his memorial. As we walked around the area we could feel that he still lived on - ‘wandering in peace’, around this beautiful little piece of paradise.

If anyone reading this blog ever visits Lesotho and comes to this area you will certainly be privileged to listen to the local Basotho choir and music bands as they perform each evening with the beautiful backdrop of the mountains behind them - even in the rain.......... What wonderful voices and excellent musicians they were with such basic homemade instruments made of basic metals, many just spare vehicle parts........ I think we will remember their singing and spiritual music for a very very long time to come. All the singers were local people working in partnership with the lodge and most of them were quite young, putting to shame some of their fellow countrymen who were probably drinking in the towns at the bottom of the valley.

At Malealea lodge they worked in close unison with the local villagers - anyone over a certain age who wanted to work was usually able to do so. Cooks and restaurant staff were permanently employed but other workers like; cleaners, gardeners, guides, donkey and horse trackers worked in rotation. Workers were allocated their own days, so that everyone got the opportunity to work and earn a little extra money to support any income they may get from their own lands.

The next morning we awoke before the sun rose to the sound of peacocks sitting on our roof (no we are not in India) and when peering out of our room found one male happily displaying to anyone nearby on our terrace with his feathers in full bloom.............we were not that impressed..............As we were awoken so early we wandered over to our kitchen ‘rooms’ to have breakfast as we were wide awake now. Our kitchen area had plenty of space, we even had our own Victorian fireplace - although a sign did say, ‘do not light a fire as there was no chimney’! It was useful though having this extra space as we were able to erect our very wet tents to dry them out as they were still soaked from our last campsite. One fitted nicely inside the kitchen and the other we erected on the terrace getting some very strange looks from other guests..........

After breakfast we met up with a local guide called Max and headed off with him and Albert to trek across the farmlands to see some nearby Bushmen Paintings. We walked through the farmlands watching the locals tilling their lands and Max who was born in the village told us a little bit about growing up in this remote area. The men of the village on reaching the grand old age of 21 would ask the Chief for some land and were allocated a plot. If they were lucky the ground would be near the village but if not they would have long walks to ‘farm’ their plot but he said that did not really matter as they were used to walking long distances from the moment they stood up. The way of life for most people is mostly self sufficient farming, people harvest their lands for their own consumption and the same goes for any cattle they might have. If they had any excess products that their family does not need then these were usually bartered with others for the excess products they had.......bartering rather than buying and selling - a thing of the past in western society.

They used an ox and plough to till the land as tractors were far too expensive. The main diet for a villager was a mash (porridge) made out of maize which was eaten at any time of day and is called ‘pap’ - we have tried it on our safaris and it was not to our taste.......... The locals usually have it with spinach, which is also grown in the fields but it can always be served sweetened. Chicken is also on the menu, but reserved for more ‘special occasions’ much the same as it was in the UK in the 50s when Christmas was the time for this special treat. Some villagers may have a few pigs, goats and cattle if they are lucky......

As we walked through a small village we came across a few families but most were out working in the fields. A couple of small children were playing in the middle of nowhere and stopped to wave to us as we walked by. A little further on a couple of small black pigs and a very poor looking sheep wandered around us, whilst a group of cows sat and chewed the cud overlooking the valley. We stopped at the edge of the village where a very old granddad was looking after his grandchildren. In his ‘garden’ he had a small raised bed and when I asked why Max said it was to stop the goats getting at his most valued products.

The view from his ‘garden’ was lovely to the valley below where a local herdsman was wandering with his flock of sheep, they looked much more healthy than the one in the village had......... We walked for a while down a steep hill to the top of the gorge before descending steeply again into the valley itself. After a while we came across a large cave which Max said was called Echo Cave and guess what if you called out the echo came quickly from across the valley as clear as a bell....... We descended deeper, with care and a little while later came across our first bushman's painting known as Tohlong II or ‘upside-down eland shelter’. The painting depicted had quite bright pigments and were characteristic of sites painted within the last 400 years. The main panel of fourteen hunters and six eland was in a good state of preservation. For the Bushmen, the eland was spiritually their most important animal - much like the lamb is in Christianity today. Elands were ambiguous animals because the male had more fat than the female - the opposite to all other animals and humans........... We continued our walk down into the valley stopping to view Tohlong III, known as the Daddy long-legs shelter because it had a most remarkable running human figure, the legs of this figure were 1.2m long, hence its name!

After a very ‘hot’ climb back up out of the valley we stopped and had lunch overlooking this remarkable sight before heading ever upwards back to the lodge. We had a drink with Max before saying goodbye and he headed off back to his village and his way of life and we moving on to our very different world.

The next morning descending from the Lesotho highlands we made our way to the border crossing and back into South Africa - a very short trip into this country and we had some very mixed views with the diverse experiences we had in such a short time - would we remember it for the unfriendly people at the border crossing, the corrupt police-force a little while later, or for the vey friendly people we met in the mountains!!!!!!!! I must say after our bad initial experiences entering Lesotho we did in the end experience some of their friendly hospitality - so will leave it up to you to decide.

As we travelled toward the Van Rooyens border crossing we watched everyday life taking place before us and we though we had seen it all but that was until we saw an outdoor butcher carve up a huge carcass on the side of the road right in front of us........

This border crossing was going to be our last in the African continent, taking all entries and exits into account since our arrival we had passed through 25 checkpoints in 3 months and I think we are through with filling in forms for a while - or maybe not.............but we have not quite finished with the continent yet as we are now heading back into South Africa for our final ‘surge‘ - see you there.

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