Within South Africa sits the independent nation of Lesotho (population 2.2m). It shares no borders with any other country, nor has any coastline. This mountainous country (the highest in the world as measured by having the highest low point at 1,400m) is tricky to get around without a 4WD, so we approached it from both the north and the south, gaining eight stamps for our worn passports!
Drakensburg mountains and Sani Pass
Our first visit was to the Sani Top which sits above the steep and winding Sani Pass. This is a famous road into Lesotho climbing through the Drakensburg mountains of South Africa and is the highest pass in the nation. The route was established so the people of Lesotho could come down to South Africa on horses and donkeys to trade. Eventually an enterprising young fellow saw an opportunity to carry people and goods in his Land Rover and the road was widened for vehicles.
The hilly, windy and rocky road was definitely not suitable for our car so we joined a tour in a 4X4. It was an absolutely stunning drive through the green-covered ‘folding’ mountains with switchbacks all the way up to the pass.
At the top we continued to a small Sotho village set amongst the arid landscape (which was reminiscent of the South American altiplano). It is impossible to grow anything up here and so they make bread (we tried some: delicious) and beer to trade for meat and vegetables in the lowlands. We were shown into one of the simple round houses which are made of cow dung and straw and are comprised of just one room with a fire in the centre. It can take six months to build a house.
By now we were pretty cold so headed to to the highest pub in Southern Africa, for lunch and to warm up by the fire, before heading back down the bone-shaking road.
Ts’ehlanyane National Park
Our second visit was via a northern border crossing near the South African town of Clarens, but this time in our rental car. As we crossed the border the scenery was spectacular with snow-capped peaks surrounding the rolling hills and stunning countryside. We saw children on donkeys and men all wrapped up in balaclavas and their trademark multicoloured blankets which are an important part of public, social and private life. Obviously a necessity in the cold winters, they are also also a symbol of wealth. They became popular after the king was presented with one in 1860. And by the 1880s they were so popular that traders were overwhelmed with demand and were importing them from England!
We continued into the Ts’ehlanyane National Park where we were staying for a few nights and checked into a cosy cottage (with electric blankets and underfloor heating) on the river surrounded by mountains, some of which were topped with snow. In the cottage we enjoyed a roaring fire, drinking Pinotage and cooking. The next day we walked amongst the rugged wilderness following the contours of the hills up and down to the river. It was stunning.
Both visits were beautiful and well worth the short jaunt into this lesser known destination.
Next stops: the coast of KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland