May 2017: Exotic mountain kingdom filled with beautiful, smiling people. Crystal clear streams running out of snow capped peaks. Blanket clad shepherds tending flocks of woolly goats. Some very stunning mountain scenery and some very, very average mountain roads. This pretty much sums up our four days exploring Lesotho, a tiny little mountainous kingdom surrounded by South Africa.
Four days exploring Lesotho: the Sani Pass
We entered Lesotho by driving up the stunning Sani Pass from Underberg in the southern Drakensberg. For the first time on the trip we engaged 4WD as Bertha slowed crawled up the famous dirt track to the highest country in the world. Apparently there are plans from both South African and Lesotho governments to pave the Sani Pass road but it’s facing stiff opposition from tour operators and locals. It’s rough, slow and full of tight switch back turns but has become a bit of a 4WD enthusiasts mecca who wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first car to drive up the Sani Pass was an army surplus jeep in 1948 driven by an ex-pilot named Godfrey Edmonds. It took about six hours plus a team of local labourers with ropes to coax the long suffering vehicle up the pass. Seven years later David Alexander started construction on a proper road to open up a trade route for his Land Rovers. Fast forward to 2017 and as we crawled around hair pin after hair pin, I could only imagine how tough it would have been back in the day. Lucky it provides such amazing views and perfect spots for a morning coffee.
Four days exploring Lesotho: Sani Top
At the top of the Sani Pass we stopped momentarily at the Lesotho border post for arguably the easiest border crossing of our trip. A few minutes later we had crossed and headed around the corner to the Sani Top Lodge, otherwise known as the highest pub in the world. We were met by one of the managing partners Brian who over the course of our 24 hour stay was a total legend. While we stayed in Bertha’s master suite (the rooftop tent), we spent a good part of our time at the lodge yarning with Brian and taking in the view back down the pass.
In between yarning about the peculiarities of travelling through Africa we took some time to enjoy our first taste of Lesotho. The lodge and border post is part of a small and ramshackle little village of stone rondavels. On either side of the village, barren, snow clad slopes extend away into the distance while rugged up locals meander about their business. We took in a short mountain climb up the distant slopes and got our hands dirty ensuring Bertha had enough antifreeze in her to not turn into an over night ice cube. Some of our favourite moments though were simply spent with a cup of tea in hand, sitting on a step in the sun. It’s that kind of place. After a few days spent in the more anglicised and affluent South Africa, this felt like one of our first tastes of real Africa. We liked it.
Four days exploring Lesotho: chipping ice
The next day we had a long drive to get us through the guts of Lesotho and across to Malealea on the western side of the country. After coming to terms with ice on the inside of our freezing tent we packed as quick as we could and charged out onto the open road. Well, for a few kilometres anyway. Just up the road from Sani Top the Lesotho A2 winds even higher into the mountains. There are little stone shepherds huts and seemingly endless views of vast, frozen mountains, and, icey roads. We tried in vain to coax Bertha across the 30m stretch of ice but got no where. In the end we got out the shovel and spent nearly an hour chipping and scraping the ice of the tar. At over 3000m of altitude, it was exhausting work made tougher by the slightly bemused grins of locals sliding down the other way.
Four days exploring Lesotho: the back roads
Eventually we were on our way and it was beautiful. As we descended from the frozen peaks the road wound it’s way down barren valleys dotted with little villages and gurgling streams. Herds of Mohair goats and Merino sheep could be seen clambering over the slopes, driven by young herdsmen. At first the road was a perfect paved highway but an hour in we turned off onto the dirt and things rapidly deteriorated. At Brian’s recommendation we had decided to cut through the centre of the country and while it took us through epic scenery, it was so rough that for much of it we barely got our of second gear. Our dear Bertha is many things but a frisky mountain goat it’s not. Compounding this was a brakes failure in the middle of the mountains and a faulty fuel gauge which saw us run out of fuel halfway up a steep slope. Not fun. Still, 11 hours and 350km later we arrived in one piece at the friendly Malealea Lodge.
Four days exploring Lesotho: Malealea Lodge
Malealea Lodge was started as a trading station owned by Englishmen Mervyn Smith in the early 1900’s. In 1986 the site was bought by the Jones family who turned it into a simple lodge which has grown into the awesome oasis it is today. The Jones family still own Malealea today and their rambling farm lodge is a haven for shaken up travellers. It also provides the perfect base for all manner of exploration in the surrounding countryside. We happily parked Bertha for a few days and got amongst some horse riding, local beer tasting and wandering in the local village. After our bone rattling drive the day before, it was glorious to saddle up and take in the majesty of the surrounding countryside from horseback. Every where we went people waved while children would boldly yell out hello and then giggle amongst themselves as they reached the limits of their english and bravery. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, the surrounding mountains changed from burnt red to a soft purple. It was so relaxing.
While we didn’t stay long in Lesotho it was pretty awesome. For such a tiny little country it really seems to pack a bit of a punch in it’s own humble and scruffy way. Hopefully more people will continue to come and visit this mountainous paradise.
Four days exploring Lesotho: the fine print
- Entering Lesotho with Bertha was super easy. We had to pay R60 as an entrance fee, they recorded our registration number and that was it.
- Whether you’re entering or leaving the country, we thoroughly recommend driving the Sani Pass and staying at Sani Top Lodge. While we camped for R105/person, they have a range of well catered accommodation from a backpackers to cosy little rondavels up near the pub. Technically, Sani Top is in South African territory but apparently Lesotho is trying to claim it as their own. Given it’s one of the busiest and best kitted out guest houses in the country we can see why.
- While our route through the centre of the country was undoubtably beautiful the roads aren’t great. At the time of writing the stretch from Molumong to Thaba-Tseka, especially the 30-40km immediately after Molumong, was extremely rough and broke one of the cylinders in our rear brakes. Take it slow and you’ll be fine but if you’re in a hurry consider another route.
- Malealea Lodge thoroughly deserves it’s reputation and is worth a few nights at least. There are so many activities to get involved in or you can just lie on the grass and enjoy the view. We paid R120/person/night to camp and self catered. If self catering, there are little shops in the village where you can buy basic dry goods and fruit and veg but for anything more, bring your own.
- Surprisingly fuel was a lot cheaper in Lesotho than South Africa (around R10.50/L for unleaded versus R13.50 in South Africa). However, we didn’t find an actual fuel station until we were in the more populated western side near the capital. You can probably buy fuel somewhere in the eastern and central villages but we didn’t see anywhere.