Tag: Lesotho

:: horse racing across the mountains ::

“Bo-Ntate, you need to move your cars, that is the finish line.”  Standing in a brown field surrounded by mountains, Basotho and horses, we didn’t realise that the two piles of white painted rocks were the finish line.

Horse racing in Lesotho is not like in the US or UK. There are no grandstands, betting windows or tracks for that matter. In fact, there aren’t even any agreed upon races beforehand. Owners show up and haggle over the cost of entering, race length and winner’s purse. Then there is an informal parading of the horses followed by a slow walk out across the fields to the start line. A flag is dropped and off they charge back towards the assembled spectators. No finish line technology, just a guy sitting on one of the ‘finish line’ piles of white rocks in order to provide an “eyeball finish” if needs be.

These informal, but very competitive gatherings happen around the country, but some of the biggest, and oldest, occur near Semonkong, a market town about two hours from the capital. This is the epitome of horse country, with very few roads and no major cities for more than 100 kilometres in any direction. Here in the Maloti Mountains horses are a source of transportation, agricultural labour and pride. People with few other material belongings revere their horses and back them to the hilt in these races.

The horse races generally occur once a month between March and October, though if there is someone staking an extra large amount of money then an extra race day can occur quite suddenly. The money isn’t huge, but there is a lot of it flying around the crowds! Betting is chaotic and anyone can bet anyone else. If you agree terms, you have a third party hold the money, then winner takes all. You add this chaotic betting system to the official negotiations for the terms of the races and rag-tag jockeys riding unfamiliar horses and it is best to watch from a bit of a distance!

We went for the Independence Day races, one of the bigger events of the year and we were not disappointed. What started slow and low-key became louder and more energetic with each passing race. Horses are paired based on age and size, with the races progressing to older, stronger horses. By the end, it became a straight match race – one on one. We have no idea what was really happening, but the excitement after the winning horse came across the line was intense and great fun to be around.

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There is something special to behold from the joy that the Basotho get from their horses.  Seeing it in the natural setting of the fields around Semonkong and Maletsunyane Falls was all the better. These horses don’t belong on the manicured race tracks of Saratoga or Aintree, but rather on rock-strewn dirt tracks streaking across the mountains of Lesotho.

Here are a few videos of the event to give you a real feel for it – first the parade, followed by a win. Please excuse the poor quality and line across the middle…

:: basotho blankets ::

If clothes make the man, then blankets make the Basotho. Men and women, rural and urban, summer and winter, blankets are a constant sight in Lesotho. Vividly colourful with intricate meanings and hierarchies, these blankets are a common cultural thread in Lesotho and beyond. Yet, their beginnings come from the cultural collisions of European missionaries and traders with Basotho, the people of Lesotho.

In the 1830’s French missionaries coming north from the Cape Colony came across King Moshoeshoe I and his newly formed Basotho people; an amalgamation of many different tribes and clans uprooted by conflict with the Zulus and brought together under the benign rule of Moshoeshoe. The King welcomed the missionaries and became an early Christian convert, thus providing access for missionaries and traders to move freely around what was then known as independent Basutoland.

In 1860 a British trader presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, or kobo, and he immediately took to wearing it around his shoulders. Within a short period of time, Basotho started wearing animal skins, colourful cloths and blankets over their shoulders. Noting this new trend, an English trader called Donald Fraser introduced a specially made blanket for the Basotho which became an instant status symbol. The wool and mohair blankets were perfect for regulating body temperatures and staying dry and warm in the variable climate of the Mountain Kingdom.

It was the launch of the Victoria line from the trading store Frasers in the late 1890s that really kicked off the insatiable demand from the Basotho. This first specially made blanket resembled leopard skin and was made for royalty, but its popularity quickly led to an expanded line of designs and common Basotho bought the blankets in droves. Each year for the next century they produced 100,000 blankets and demand always exceeded supply. The Victoria label had become a symbol and everyone wanted one.

Today the blankets are no longer made by Frasers, but by blanket manufacturers Aranda in Johannesburg. Several traditional styles are still available while they work to introduce new designs each year to accommodate the changing tastes of Basotho.  Vivid colours, iconic symbols of Lesotho and two or three pin stripes running through the design are the key identifiers of the traditional Basotho blanket.

These beautiful Basotho blankets often have special meanings, and many designs are designated for specific occasions like funerals, weddings and initiation ceremonies.  There are also special blankets for royalty and the different traditional clans.  Most recently, Aranda has honoured Semonkong, where they shoot their blanket advertising campaigns, with a new design made to celebrate Maletsunyane Falls.

It isn’t just the iconic blankets that are ubiquitous here in Lesotho. Drive out into the countryside and you will see blankets hanging out to dry in every village. Simple ones, tatty ones, new ones and yes, traditional Basotho blankets made by Aranda. Fastened with a special blanket pin, there are many different ways to wear the blanket, but you’ll always see them worn prominently.

Women wear blankets as an extra ‘skirt’ layer in winter, around their middle to keep babies close on their backs as they work the fields or town, or draped over their shoulders for warmth and protection.

Herd boys make, and fix, their own blankets out in the mountainside pastures, or use those given to them by their family or initiation ceremony.

Older boys can be seen cloaked in traditional blankets as part of their initiation ceremony in which they become men.  Throughout the country, men and women of all ages wrap themselves in a warm blanket to fight against the frigid winter morning cold, strong wind, harsh sun or driving rain.

In recent years, Basotho blankets are even becoming high fashion couture. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Thabo Makhetha, a Basotho designer in South Africa, who is turning these quintessential cultural icons into jackets, dresses and shawls. Other designers are creating men’s jackets, while other sources in Europe and America are adapting or stocking these blankets, including Anthropologie.  Some claim that even Burberry took their inspiration from the Basotho blankets when they sent some of their models down the catwalk cloaked in wool blankets earlier in the year.

Perhaps imitation is the ultimate form of flattery but it is unlikely that these new converts to modern forms of the Basotho blanket will truly understand the influence they wear on their shoulders. After all, how can a trendy New Yorker or Parisian fully comprehend “bochaba ba mosotho ke kobo” – “the nationality of the Mosotho is the blanket”? Maybe they don’t have to, but we hope they at least become aware of this fantastic little mountain kingdom and the beautiful local cultural importance of the designs they choose to wear.

 

:: african snow ::

Sunglasses. Check. Hat. Check. Sunscreen. Check. Skis. Check. Not your typical list for a day out in Africa with these last items, but it’s exactly what we went through at AfriSki. Tucked underneath a 3200 metre high pass through the Maluti Mountains sits this great anomaly – an African ski resort. It isn’t large, but the snow and equipment are good and the experience is one that can’t be beat!

AfriSki is one of two functioning ski resorts in sub-saharan Africa and offers refugees from snowy climes and adventurous South Africans the chance to ski or snowboard without having to take a twelve hour flight. The slope itself is a mere 1000 metres if fully open, with a shorter beginner’s slope and snowboarding park on site as well. Those who have skied in the Alps or Rockies may not fully appreciate this as a resort, but to be able to ski down the side of a mountain in the blinding African sun is a pretty amazing experience!

It is perhaps ironic that the first time in nearly a decade for us to hit the slopes comes in Africa, even after living in the UK for that whole time and being two hours away from the Alps. It was a tentative beginning. We got our gear and headed to the beginner’s slope for a refresher of what skiing entails. CW was hesitant at first to do anything! Gone was the confidence to actually go down a run and he stood stock still on the top of a ridiculously short, shallow slope trying to remember how to convince his muscles to move the skis. Cora was outwardly patient, but internally fearful that we would never get off the beginner’s slope.  Two runs later things had improved markedly and before too long the T-bar trip to the top of the main slope beckoned.

The view from the top is a bit strange as you look down this ribbon of snow surrounded by a sea of brown rock and dead vegetation. The sound of a cow bell passes over the valley and herd boys in their colourful blankets dot the horizon. It isn’t always like this, but the winter has unfortunately been bereft of snow this year and so only the manmade stuff on the slope stands out from the brown landscape.

Our two half days of skiing were spent rushing down the slope with great enjoyment and very few falls. Cora did nearly have a spectacular fall as she actually skied too fast for her rental equipment, but she managed to just run out of her skis at the bottom.  Otherwise we dodged kamikaze kids, apprehensive adults and semi-upright snowboarders. It was great fun!

We couldn’t help but think about how this trip and experience were a great way to end our first year in Lesotho. Here was a quintessentially Lesotho experience that capped all of our other trips – Semonkong, Sani Pass, Maliba, Malealea, Katse, Sehlabathebe, Morija, Mohale, Qiloane and all the hashes. We have explored much of this wonderful country and still can’t get enough.

We are thankful to have another year left to fully experience Lesotho and the wonderful Basotho people, but also somewhat sad to only have one year left. This year has flown by so quickly and we can’t help but feel that this second year will do the same. That said, we know what experiences we still want to have and those that we want to re-live. Twelve months gives us the chance to see all the seasons once more, including the ski season at AfriSki of course!

:: dogs of lesotho ::

It goes without saying that we are dog people. We love dogs and we have a very close bond with not only our black labrador Mosa, but many of our friends’ dogs both here in Lesotho and further afield.

This emotional connection to any dog caused us to bury an unknown dog yesterday near our house. We don’t know how she died, she may have been hit by a car or perhaps just died of old age, but we found her lying in an abandoned and overgrown area at the end of our road. Along with our gardener, who owns several dogs, we dug a hole, buried her and laid a stone and some greenery on top of the grave. It was a hard thing to do, almost as if the physical act of digging a hole was a form of closure we never had with Guinness more than two years ago. The whole unexpected encounter made us think about dogs and their lives here in Lesotho.

We of course have a very western view of dog ownership, one that allows dogs to be in the house and part of the family. Here, the Basotho have a very different attitude towards dogs. Like many cultures around the world, the Basotho treat their dogs in a much more functional way, using them for security, livestock control or simply as companions out in the countryside. Basotho frequently ‘collect’ dogs, so that it’s not uncommon to see one person with four or five dogs trailing beside and behind.

The dogs are not necessarily healthy, but generally they are fairly well treated. That is not to say that Basotho can’t be cruel to their animals, as they definitely can from our perspective. Their actions towards animals are however borne out of a mentality of them serving a function and not from the same type of emotional bond that we maintain with our pets. This means that throwing a rock at the dog to control it or hitting it with a stick to make it listen are instinctive.

The dogs are of course the same as dogs anywhere – loyal, playful and potentially mischievous. A knock to the side with a stick is better than starving and as I said, the dogs are usually treated well. These are hearty dogs after all. They sleep outside at all times, frequently chained up, and endure the drastic daily temperature swings and fierce sunlight. They don’t have soft donut beds or toys to chew on, but rather each other to fight with and animal bones to eat.

For all the hardships endured and administered, dogs and Basotho are inexorably linked. On almost every hike in the countryside or walk in Maseru with Mosa, someone asks us: “give me your dog”. We shake our heads and say she is our dog, but you can see the respect for a beautiful dog that so many Basotho have. Perhaps it is a view of dogs as a commodity, one that can be bartered or sold if needs be, but I prefer to see it as a love of these loyal companions.  Hopefully some day Basotho dogs will have a few more creature comforts!

:: an evening of music ::

Maseru is a wonderful place, but it is largely bereft of unique dining, music or theatrical pursuits. Every so often however there is an event thrown together that brings us culturally starved individuals out of the woodwork! Last night Alliance Francaise Maseru put on an event that crossed several genres and more than ticked the box for uniqueness.

Two french musical groups came to Maseru, but they couldn’t be further apart in style. The first group, Akale Wube, is a Parisian band who plays Ethiopian music with jazzy undertones. The sound is a wonderful mixture of percussion, horns and guitars and offers a perfect background soundtrack for sitting in a cafe garden talking to friends. Luckily, that was exactly the atmosphere!

With the red and green stage lights casting haunting shadows on the leafless trees and various tables crowded around outdoor heaters, it was not a normal venue for a musical concert in the plummeting temperatures of nearly winter Lesotho, but it was magical. The colder temperatures didn’t prevent a large number of Basotho and expats from attending and enjoying the wonderful music. Of course the exquisite homemade Ethiopian food on offer helped chase away a good amount of the chill in the air.

A while later we were treated to a complete change of pace with the second group.  On came four French lads who created the most amazing sounds, all from their mouths/throats. Under Kontrol are a beat box group, meaning they use no instruments to perform. It is simply the four of them ‘playing’ drums, trumpet, guitar and turn tables all from their mouths. They sing as well, frequently in different voices, all of which leads to a fabulous smorgasbord of sounds and energy.

They started with a mix of blues, jazz and hip hop sounds, before moving through the gears to really show off their talent. The switches in their vocal ‘instruments’, intensity and tone were quick and fierce, but always completely controlled. They had people up and dancing, tapping their feet and bobbing along to songs none of us knew. They finished it all up with individual free-styling. If I hadn’t been right there seeing it, I could never have believed that one person could make so many different sounds at the same time.  If you’ve never seen this kind of thing before, have a listen to this and remember that there are no instruments being used!

It was a great evening and very well organised, perfect for a unique experience shared with good friends. We only wish there were more opportunities like this sometimes!

:: a forgotten kingdom no longer ::

Lesotho’s cultural imprint is extremely limited in the wider world.  Some people might have heard of this small landlocked country, but they couldn’t tell you much about it from a cultural perspective.  There is no mention of the Basotho and their blankets or the Sesotho language, nor the prominence of horses in this mountainous and rural country. Even in southern Africa people tend not to know much about Lesotho, only that it is cold and remote.

Perhaps a big reason for this ignorance comes from a dearth of cultural references about Lesotho.  There are no TV shows or movies that showcase Lesotho, while the music and arts scenes are locally limited.  With a large and culturally dynamic neighbour like South Africa influencing Basotho, it is not hard to see how Lesotho can be left in the shade.

A new award winning film, however, made by an American filmmaker, is offering people the chance to explore Lesotho through the movie screen.  The Forgotten Kingdom is filmed in Sesotho, shot almost entirely in Lesotho and features many Basotho as actors.  It is the first feature film ever to be shot in Lesotho and offers a visual labor of love about this phenomenal and overlooked country.

Last night we had the chance to see the movie at an outdoor screening in Morija.  The film producers have been touring Lesotho putting on free community screenings in key locations, especially ones they filmed parts of the movie in.  So, with our picnic blanket and bag of popcorn in hand, we joined approximately 300 other people to watch a movie projected onto an outdoor pop-up screen, surrounded by flashes of lightning as a storm threatened.

This was a fantastic way to experience the movie as most of the audience was Basotho and they vocalized their emotions at key moments of the film. Sitting outside in the countryside that was so viscerally displayed on screen only heightened our enjoyment of this cinematic novelty. 

The story is universal, with a troubled youth trying to find his way in a life torn between the traditions of his parents and the reality of his life in South Africa. When his father dies, he embarks on a journey back to Lesotho to bury him. There he reconnects with the life he had left behind as a child and takes a journey to rediscover his roots. 

It is a lovely little movie that holds extra meaning to those of us who have spent time in this magical country. It is soon to be released in the Maseru cinema as well as in South Africa.  We hope that it will also have the chance to appear in the US or Europe, but hopefully at least a netflix or YouTube version will become available. 

If you can find it near you, we highly recommend it, as it will show you a place that you cannot hope to understand any other way – unless you come to visit us!

Watch the trailer and get hooked:

 

Another little plug for this film is it was supported and partially funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, so U.S. Embassy Maseru has been involved in many aspects of production and screening of this beautiful film.

:: epic remoteness ::

Ten hours of two lane roads navigating the lowlands and snaking up into the mountains.  Ten hours of traversing rivers, rural villages and alpine meadows.  Ten hours of avoiding rock falls, random car sized potholes and speed bumps.  Ten hours of bouncing along dirt roads for kilometre after kilometre of awe-inspiring beauty.  Ten hours after our departure from Maseru, we finally arrived in Sehlabathebe National Park

Nestled amongst the soaring peaks of the Maloti Mountains and staring out over the abyss of the Drakensberg Escarpment, Sehlabathebe was the first National Park in Lesotho.  Like most things in Lesotho, it isn’t terribly far as the crow flies, maybe 300 kilometres, but it feels like it’s on the far side of the world.  That feeling is amplified by the fact that there are almost no settlements near the park and so once inside the park’s boundaries, you have a better chance of seeing jackals than humans. 

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Once past the small guard house and soon to be opened new lodge, there are literally no structures within the park with the exception of a few ruined shepherd shelters and a rather bizarre house.  In the 1970’s, the then Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan decided he needed a hunting lodge, so he had a rather suburban looking house built in the middle of what is now Sehlabathebe.

I am not sure if there were a lot of animals there to hunt or whether it was more of a convenient place to hole up at times.  Regardless, the house has been operated as a rental property over the past few years by the Lesotho Tourism Board.  Two months ago, however, they closed it for an undisclosed duration, but you are still allowed to camp on the grounds.

We, and our friends Stacy and Cale, set up camp right next to a little babbling brook that flowed out of the once well stocked pond.  Much to Cale’s chagrin, there were no fish in this little pond, but there is apparently a beaver.  With a few trees offering a shady canopy and an unbroken expanse of grassland stretching out for a couple of kilometres, it was the perfect place to sit down and enjoy a beer while the braai got started. 

There is nothing to do in Sehlabathebe and that is the pure allure of the place.  You sleep late, have a lazy breakfast and then wander off in one direction or the other looking vaguely for animals, flowers or just a good view.  With this as our mantra, we walked out towards a waterfall, the location of which was described by the park ranger as being ‘towards the frog mountain and then head to your right.’  Admittedly the frog mountain was quite clear.  It was the head to the right that lead to some discussion and random wanderings, especially as from the top of the frog we could not see anything remotely close to a waterfall. 

IMG_0287001One of the unique features of the landscape of Lesotho is that it hides amazing natural wonders.  This is true across the country – Maletsunyane Falls near Semonkong just appear from nowhere.  So we wandered along a twisty stream, cutting through the high grasses and across the rock strewn waterway in search of this waterfall.  Then all of the sudden, it was there, practically at our feet.  The path ran alongside of the falls and lead down to the lovely pool below.  Though lovely to look at, it was icy cold even in the height of summer.  That didn’t stop us from taking a chilly but refreshing swim!

Cale decided not to join us in the water as he continued his unfortunately futile search for fish in the many streams that carve their way through the grasslands.  He did provide me a nice little fly fishing lesson however, so I now understand the basics of casting, even if that lesson did lead to two lost lures and a snapped line, sorry Cale!

The hike back from the falls turned into a marathon trek up and over a couple of mountains.  It was completely unnecessary as we could have followed the same stream back past the frog and towards the camp, but it being early in the day and we being young and adventurous, we decided to hike straight up!  

Like so many random decisions made on the fly, this one proved advantageous as we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views and even found a couple of abandoned shepherd shelters that had been built into the rock faces.  We were exhausted by the end, but that just made dinner over an open fire taste all the better!

Stacy is a professional botanist and therefore was in heaven all weekend.  Sehlabathebe is covered in numerous flower species that are extremely rare to find in the wild and so invariably we would find Stacy kneeling down in the grass examining a small orchid or similarly delicate flower.  It was infectious to be around someone who was so knowledgable and enthusiastic.  With our limited knowledge and attention to flowers, it was incredible to see the many different petal, stem and seed structures through Stacy’s triple magnifier.

The real find of the weekend was going to be spotting an extremely rare lily that was apparently growing in some of the rock pools near the camp.  We set off up onto the plateau in search of them, but aside from some other new flowers we were unfortunately unable to locate the lilies.  The journey was good fun nonetheless as we skirted the rock pools – some no larger than a puddle and others that could be safely classed as ponds in their own right. 

On the far side of the pools were a series of rock outcroppings twisted into many elaborate forms by the wind and rain that lashes the Drakensberg Escarpment.  Some have formed perfect arches that frame the famous Three Bushmen peaks.  These peaks cast an imposing watch over the whole area and could be an entire photographic collection as the sunlight hits them throughout the day and clouds roll across their faces.  We weren’t able to climb them this time but when we go back that is going to be day one!

The weekend went entirely too quickly and soon we embarked on the long drive once more.  We attempted to cut across country on the new tar road to Semonkong, but were thwarted by construction works.  So, once more around the lowlands we went.  The Semonkong road would have been fantastically beautiful, but the drive around the perimeter of Lesotho is a treat, even if you did it just three days prior! 

Thanks to Stacy and Cale for all the good times, good food and good company – it was a fantastic weekend!

A few more snapshots of our adventures in Sehlabathebe…

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Here’s what some of our journey was like, though this was one of the best patches of road quality

:: 1500 hashes ::

How many Sundays do you wake up early to go for a hike? Once a month? Once a year? Never?! For thirty years people in Maseru have gotten up, driven out to the countryside and then walked around following clumps of shredded paper. Why? Who knows, but to celebrate the 1500th run of the Maseru Hash House Harriers, we organised a Hash to Qiloane Falls.

We visited Qiloane with a group back in November, but this time it was an 80 strong group that traipsed over the hills and into the river to reach the falls. The water was lower this time, which was good for the collected masses, and we brought beer, also good for the collected masses! It wasn’t a normal hash as the route was not dotted and there were no false trails, but it was a challenging hike. The true blue hashers were decked out in the special 1500th edition t-shirt, designed by Cora herself! They feature a lovely representation of the Hash, with adults, kids and dogs all walking amongst mountains to the falls.

The reward at the end of the hike down was sun-drenched rocks, swimming under the falls and lots of hashers enjoying the special day out. People hung about, swam, slept, drank, ate and generally enjoyed a place not regularly visited. The return journey is always harder, but the whole day out was a wonderful celebration of the essence of the Hash in Maseru – getting out into the beautiful Lesotho countryside and exploring what nature has to offer!

 

:: in the clouds ::

The clouds rolled slowly up and over the edge of the sheer cliff face, forming the illusion of a tablecloth draped snugly to the rock.  The valley 500 meters below was nothing more than a memory and the idea of driving the dirt and gravel switchbacks that passed down through it was not one that any sane person would relish.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

The top of Sani Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sitting nearly 2900 meters above sea level right on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment, this road pass is one of Southern Africa’s rites of passage for adventurous souls.  

The road climbs over 1300 meters in only 10km with the last kilometre being nothing but ridiculously sharp switchbacks up a nearly sheer wall of rock.  It is the only road pass between South Africa and Lesotho for hundreds of kilometres between the far southwest and northeast of Lesotho.  Nearly half of the circular border of Lesotho has no road passage to South Africa, except Sani.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaOn a clear day the Drakensberg mountain range can be seen from the city of Durban about 90km away.  On a cloudy, fog filled day, the mountains can’t be seen from 90 meters away!  Thrown up millions of years ago, this terribly imposing mountain range stands guard between the coastal plains of South Africa and the rugged interior of Lesotho.

A group of us set off from Maseru early on a Friday and nine hours, 300km and lots of bumpy roads later, we arrived at the top of Sani Pass.  The road from Mokhotlong to Sani alone is only about 50km, but it takes about two hours on the unfinished dirt roads.  The views along the way are breathtaking, as you snake along river valleys and up through mountains, including Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak south of Mt Kilimanjaro on the African continent.

The top of Sani is covered by huge expanses of pasture land cut by small streams formed from run off of the mountains that tower ever higher.  Right on the edge is Sani Mountain Lodge where you can sit on an outdoor deck and look straight down the dirt track that vaguely doubles as a vehicle road.  Sitting in what is claimed to be the highest pub in Africa, you can’t help but marvel at the spectacular views of mountains all around and the huge drop off right in front of you.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

We decided to camp as our dog Mosa wasn’t allowed in the chalets.  We, along with our friend Heather, set up our tents in the middle of a field with the doors facing away from the little village looking out over the pasture and towards the mountains.  At first it was perfectly sunny and clear, but by the time we got back to the tents after dinner clouds had started rolling in.  As we zipped ourselves into the tent, we couldn’t even see the car five metres away.  The cloud swept in thick and low and stayed there throughout the night.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaThe morning brought clear sunshine and an amazing sunrise over the clouds down below in the valley.  The soft morning light played against the towering cliff face and we witnessed our first proper sunrise on the African continent.  It was quiet, majestic and awe-inspiring to stand high above the clouds and watch the sun break through and bring warmth to a new day.

Our hike towards Thabana Ntlenyana, the ‘beautiful little mountain’, took us deeper into the mountains away from the cliff edge.  

The rest of our group made it up to the top, but unfortunately five month old Mosa was not strong enough yet to undergo an eight hour hike up more than 600 meters of climbing.  On our way back to camp the clouds started rolling in fast as we approached the edge.  

A barren landscape with far more sheep and cows than people, it took on a haunted spectral quality when the clouds started rolling in.  When the sun was out though, the green fields and blue sky were about as vibrant as you could imagine.  A schizophrenic landscape filled with malice, it is still amazingly beautiful.

We sat on the balcony completely shrouded in cloud and then retired to our tent, where we watched the clouds roll across and then dissipate just as quickly, only to return again within five minutes. It was a surreal experience to watch such variable weather.

After a lovely couple of days, we then made our way down the pass.  It is slightly harrowing, but completely reasonable in dry, clear conditions.  Everywhere you look there is something more amazing to see – sheer cliff walls rising hundreds of meters above you, waterfalls crashing down off the rock faces and even a troop of baboons wandering through the brush.  We took our time and admired the scenery, content to feel overwhelmed by the power, glory and majesty of nature.

Here are few more captures from our spectacular trip to Sani Pass… Thanks to David, Brian, Heather, Bettina and Emma for a wonderful weekend exploring with good friends!

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:: reservoir in the sky ::

As the rain hammered down, we slowly picked our way through the twists and turns of the ribbon of asphalt winding its way up the mountainside. Regular flashes of lightning illuminated the towering peaks across the valley and cracks of thunder were so close the car shook. With the scenery thoroughly hidden by the elements our focus was on the road up and over the Mafika Lisiu Pass.

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At 3090 metres, the pass is the third highest road pass in Lesotho and not a road to be taken lightly. In just 30km the road goes up over 1400 metres! Leaving the hot lowlands behind, you quickly reach cooler high alpine pastures on the other side of the pass.

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The tarred road to Katse was built as part of the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and provided a key route between the dam and some of the outlet tunnels in South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an amazing feat of engineering, shifting copious amounts of water from the drenched highlands of Lesotho to the parched areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.

The dam wall stands 185 meters high and 710 meters wide at its top and is the second largest dam in Africa. Nestled within the mountainsides of the central Maloti range, it is very difficult to see the dam until you are almost right upon it, making the expanse of concrete all the more impressive. It took 22,000 people approximately six years and 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete to create this massive engineering feat.

The surroundings of the dam are startlingly beautiful, with the 50km reservoir following the twisting confines of the mountains that rise majestically above the water. Sitting well above the edge of the cliffs, it was fabulous to see the sheer scale of the place and lay back to watch the shifting clouds and fading light.

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We stayed in a small house built originally for the dam workers, but now tied to the lodge that overlooks the dam. From the terrace of the lodge you can sit, have a drink and admire the cross section of man made and natural beauty. Though we had a less open view from the house, we could still see the water and mountains from our back garden, perfect for relaxing breakfasts.

One morning we went for a hike and wandered along the Malibamatso River, below the dam. Following the lovely lazy river to the sound of birds and crickets made us feel miles away.  We only passed six or eight people, a surprisingly low number for Lesotho where, even in the most remote places, you almost always come across a surprising number of people wandering up and down the various hillsides.

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The walk itself had a little of everything – some rolling fields, rocky flood plains, small copses of trees and a little rock scrambling. If we had been inclined we could have gone for a swim, but we left that for our return trip to Maseru where we found a nice little place to swim in the reservoir itself. There we were joined by two boys who had been fishing nearby. One actually joined us in the water, while the other just smiled and laughed at us from shore. Mosa came in as well for one of her first proper swims ever, which I think really amused the boys!

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From there it was back over the Mafika Lisiu pass, this time in the clear sunshine.  We took advantage of the better weather and stopped at Bokong Nature Reserve. This small reserve offers fantastic views out over the Maloti Mountains as well as the opportunity to discover ice rats – a small rodent species endemic to Lesotho.

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The visitor centre is perched precariously over a 100 meter drop into the river valley below, but offers views of a waterfall and the river that take your breath away. A quick 30 minute hike takes you to the top of the waterfall and a perfect picnic spot along the babbling stream. Thankfully the hike is over relatively flat ground, as the 3000 metre altitude really kicks in, even for us who are used to mile high Maseru.

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Headed back to Maseru a while later, the good weather gave way to an amazing landscape with soaring mountains and waterfalls crashing down the sheer cliff faces. It was well worth going back the way we came, though the road was almost more scary in the daylight than in the pouring rain!

A few more snapshots of our weekend away…

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