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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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…