The other day I found the name Lesotho on a list naming countries most people didn’t know that they were even countries. I was surprised to find out that even some seasoned travellers a) don’t know that it is a country b) that it’s not just part of South Africa, and c) that it even exists. That struck me as rather strange, because Lesotho is a big part of my family history and always played a role in family anecdotes and travel plans, so how could so many not know about it?

Part of my South African family used to live in Lesotho for a long time, one of my best friends in South Africa is Basotho, and my uncle knows not only the entire staff of their tourism office but also gets invited to Letsie III’s, that is the king, birthdays. And yes the first thing you may learn about Lesotho is, that it has a king and thus its proper name is Kingdom of Lesotho or what I much prefer Kingdom of the Sky.

dorf basotho

Completely enclosed by South Africa it has been an independent country since 1966. As in many southern African countries poverty, corruption, and a high HIV rate meet some of the most stunning sceneries one can imagine and during the winter months it turns into a paradise for snow lovers. This stunning scenery and the hospitality of the Basotho was what attracted my uncle Dirk Schwager, a travel photographer, time and time again. Over the years his love for this country, captured in various books and postcards, won him recognition, also by Letsie III.

boy on donkey

Every family member that came for a visit to South Africa would eventually be taken on a long, monotonous trip through the Karoo and via Bloemfontein up to Lesotho by my uncle in his old Torano. My cousin even met his wife there on one such trip. Moving to South Africa it was first on my list that I also wanted to meet a real king and ride a Basotho pony.

Off we go, my uncle and I, on photo assignment to Lesotho, me playing the unofficial photographer’s assistant. My official job was to learn how to drive a car in general and on the left more specifically and where better to do that than somewhere with no other cars around and little to be damaged on the road side? But first I was to learn the rules of cricket, because one cannot live in South Africa without knowing either cricket or rugby. Also the Twenty20 World Cup was on and as the TV constantly occupied by Dirk, I had little choice but to learn and join the excitement.

lesotho

Our first stop in Lesotho was the capital Maseru. I must admit I didn’t like it very much and the only thing I remember fondly from this part of the trip is that my uncle decides to move the pull-out couch into the bathroom in the middle of the night so I won’t be disturbed by his snoring. I would have loved to see the maid’s face when she discovered the couch gone in the morning. The rest of the city holds no charm for me, the king is not around either, and so I spent my time reading by the hotel pool, happy to leave after two days.

Next thing we were on our way to the Katse Dam, a man-made dam of impressive proportions. On the way we stop in Teyateyaneng to see the Kome Caves, dwellings that were built in the 1800’s by the Basia Clan to hide from other Basotho who had resorted to cannibalism. While the people who live in the caves never were cannibals themselves, I still felt a little nervous to follow a woman who wants to show me her home. It looked ewasugh like a Hobbit house though and I was too curious to not follow her inside. It is dark and cool, maybe not much by my standards, but I could see evident pride in the woman’s eyes in light of her neat and tidy home and that look made me happy. We were quickly acquainted and hugged, a baby was put on my lap, and there was lots of giggling. She seemed to like me with a gentle curiosity, mirroring my own, and there really was no hunger in her eyes.

Only later when we were about to leave did we get some hungry looks, people here need money and food. We gave what we could.

4.Kome Cave Dwellings

The Katse lodge is a completely different world: I learnt how to quad bike, how to fake fish, and that I look more like a cowboy than actually feel like one on top of a Basotho pony. Of course all in the name of photo journalism, I was the perfect model tourist to show fun things to do in the area for pictures for the newest tourism brochure. Of course I was never to tell that the fish I fished was bought from a local fisherman before, but in all fairness it would have taken nothing less than a miracle for me to actually catch one. And after all I did cook it all by myself that night for supper at the hotel kitchen.

fishing2

As far as pony riding is concerned the term pony is quite misleading, because to me a Basotho pony seems as big as a fully grown horse, just more apt to trot downhills and uphills in the mountains. All that makes it very high and very wobbly when you are on top and the Basotho boys ‘helping’ my pony along to make it go faster, doesn’t help matters for me. But I managed to smile and look convincing for my picture – and to stay on top.

horse driving

I am much happier going up and down the hills in Dirk’s Torano after learning how to use a 4×4 and what the donkey gear is good for. I think it must have been here, funny enough surrounded by nature and simplicity, that I learn not only to drive, but to enjoy it too. Roads sometimes have to be found here and always checked first if roadworthy, cows are usually the only obstacle on the way, and it is no question that I leave my passenger seat so we can give an old Basotho lady a lift. Hitchhikers are successful in these mountains. Dumela mme – good day mother, she says to me and smiles a toothless smile. It is the correct form of greeting here, regardless of the fact that she could be my grandmother.

The nights I spent making new friends, volunteers from the Clinton Foundation, which works in HIV prevention and education. With my newfound cricket knowledge I am high in demand with the Americans during game nights.

sundowner

After a couple of days we depart, this time heading southeast towards the boarder of South Africa. Before leaving we chat to a local who has just come the other way to check the road conditions. He tells us, yes, of course we could make the drive in eight hours, no problem. Ten hours later it is getting dark and that’s a problem because we are nowhere close to the boarder or any town for that matter. Luckily my uncle knows his way around and of a lodge in the middle of the Sehlabathebe National Park which is not far. A quick stop at the next shebeen for directions, no GPS is working here, and we are on our way. By now it is completely dark and I am not complaining, the road leading into the park is scary and I know that there is a drop next to me I’d rather not see.

sehlabathebe naturalarchares.org

We finally come to a gate in the middle of nowhere and I have the honor of getting out, open and close it tightly again – the entrance of the park. In the distance we see some eery lights on a hill, apparently said lodge. It takes some time to find the owner, remind him that he knows my uncle and we are in fact no strangers, and to get us settled. The inside is as eery as the outside and old gas lamps that one has to still light with a match are not making it any better. Ghosts must live here. We eat our leftover sandwiches, tomato and cucumber on now soaked toast, and retire to our rooms. I close my eyes quickly and want it to be morning.

Sehlabathebe horses

Morning comes and I don’t remember who wakes whom, but once we get outside the long drive, the eeriness, and even the soggy sandwiches are forgotten as we watch a group of wild horses run by over mugs of hot coffee. And then they run back again. And then they settle on the other side of the river right in front of us. With them comes a bit of magic, a feeling of truly being in the faraway kingdom of the sky, a place of old stories, of kings and cannibals, mountains, and of horses that run so fast they may as well have wings.

The horses move on and so do we. My uncle hands me the keys and tells me to drive. I don’t want to; even though the sun is out now I remember the tiny road and the steep drop next to it from last night. But then I somehow change my mind. If he trusts me to do it so do I and if horses can almost fly in Lesotho, the least I can do is drive.

 

Images 1, 2, 5 via Lesotho High Commission

Images 3, 6-9, 11 by Dirk Schwager

Image 4 by Annika

Image 10 via Natural Arches

 

 

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