Lesotho…I find myself reflecting on this country more often than one would think, considering the mere cursory visit we gave it (4 days out of several months in Southern Africa). Here are my quick snapshots of a country surrounded, a much poorer country than the one that encircles it and drinks from its waters. The precious rain that falls on its grassy plains, flows just as quickly to lower land in South Africa via the Drakensberg Plateau, slipping through Lesotho’s fingers, leaving behind a thirsty, poor land. This water shortage is not initially visible, as there are vast green plains receding into a distant horizon of pointed peaks. The scenery speaks of a country that is rich with natural beauty. Jagged mountains loom in the east and rust colored canyons crack open below. Simple shacks belay apparent poverty, but the wealth of beauty, revealed in the landscapes, rivals what is manmade.
The first detour that us “know-nothing” tourists make is to visit the Kome Cave Dwellings, a place I learn of through Lesotho brochures, as there is barely a whisper in my guidebook. These cave homes were originally built, in the late 18th century by Basothos as a hideout from cannibals(!). They are still inhabited today by 3 elderly women, the descendants of the original residents. You now must pay to enter this area, but it is in no way a “touristy” destination with multiple visitors. The unpaved roads, and far distance from the main highway, make it a difficult destination to get to (although this seems to be the case for all noteworthy sites in Lesotho). Here we hiked along a road that was impassable for our non 4×4 vehicle, and to the nearby village, where a guide brought us to an overhanging, which conceals 5-6 mud dwellings that have been built into the side of a shallow cave. We were invited into one of the homes, which is a single, small room with packed dirt floors, its main function as a simple bedroom. The exterior fenced area is where they cook their meals. There is no plumbing or electricity, so I imagine that the ladies (two of them are in their 80’s) rely on assistance for gathering food and water from some of the nearby villagers. They will likely be the last of their line to truly reside in the Kome Caves.
While in Lesotho, we opted to bypass spending time in the capital, Maseru, in favor of being in less crowded cities, closer to natural attractions. Our first night was spent in Roma at the Trading Post. Located in the foothills of the Maloti Mountains, this lodge/farm/general store is owned and run by the 4th generation of Thorns, since it was established in 1903. From this valley we went on a short guided hike into the nearby hills to be shown dinosaur prints preserved in rock. Supposedly, scientists have determined their authenticity, but it was a real stretch for us to believe. It just seemed odd that there were a couple of sketchy, 3-toed prints, faintly scattered around in different directions without any consecutive order, as a dinosaur might walk.
The best part of our side trip from South Africa, was our two night stay at the Malealea Lodge. Once again, we had to drive several hours down an unpaved dirt road, that became bumpier, rockier, and less maintained the closer we came. All of our fear for our tires was well worth it, as this accommodation was one of the best in Africa. Malealea Lodge was also established in the early 1900’s, first as a trading post, which slowly evolved into the lodge that it now is. It is situated in the small farming village, Malealea, and contributes to the growth and welfare of the community through a Development Trust. Guests are encouraged to use a local guide to go on tours of the village, where you can meet locals, sample the local beer made out of maize or sorghum, which is sold in shebeens (informal drinking establishments), shop for handmade crafts, visit a museum and a pre-school, and learn about the lifestyle and distinct customs of the native Basothos. We also were treated to nightly singing and dancing performances by a local choir group and a “jug”band with homemade instruments.
However, the best thing to do at Malealea is to go on a pony trek. These can be extended camping trips over several days, or a couple of hours to visit waterfalls and rock paintings from bushmen of long ago. This was the first time the children had ridden a pony and they really enjoyed the experience. I was just thankful to be in such a beautiful and peaceful place, trotting along at a relaxing pace.
The property had everything we could need, comfortable private mud hut accommodations, a coffee-shop lounge area with stunning views of the distant mountain range, solid, home-cooked meals, a playground for the kids, a quirky bar, and a large patio to talk and drink the hours away with fellow travelers. I will remember the woven straw conical hats that many local farmers and shepherds wore, the plush and vividly colored Basotho tribal blankets that would be draped around their bodies like shawls, and smiling children playing with tires and tin toys.