South Africa · Southern Africa travel · Travel

Lesotho-part 1

When you look at a map of South Africa, it might seem weird that there are two small circles within its borders that are colored differently. These small circles are actually sovereign countries; the one in the interior being Lesotho and the other, near the eastern coast and bordering Mozambique, being Swaziland. Both are former British colonies, as is South Africa, and the reason both are independent, is because they were kingdoms that fiercely guarded their freedom from neighboring tribes and the Afrikaaners and British. While they also became British colonies, they were governed as separate entities.

On a stay in KwaZulu-Natal’s Northern Drakensberg area, I went on a day trip into Lesotho, which borders the Drakensberg. While the Drakensberg is a spectacular mountainous area that spans over 1,000km and has many peaks that exceed 3,000m, Lesotho, being entirely mountainous, holds it own and boasts the tallest mountain in Southern Africa. Lesotho, as our guide told us, is the highest nation in the world as the entire country is over 1,400m. Unfortunately it is also one of the 3 poorest nations in the world. Its high altitudes and mountainous terrains are what helped its people, the Basotho, hold and maintain their kingdom after initially fleeing the expanding and mighty Zulus (KwaZulu-Natal is the homeland of the Zulus whose great 19th century king is commemorated by having Durban’s new airport named after him). Some Basotho live in South Africa as well, most in neighboring Free State province, and their language Sesotho is one of the country’s 11 official languages. Interestingly enough, the people of Botswana, a country that borders South Africa in the north, are said to be a related tribe and they are called the Batswana.

Getting to Lesotho requires driving up to and crossing border posts that are high up in the mountains. While we didn’t take the Sani Pass, which is a route that is well advertised by many tour operators with a highlight being the highest pub in the world, we traveled through a pass that was over 2,000m and took us into the North of the country into the Butha-Buthe region. First, we took a circuitous driving route that took us out of KwaZulu-Natal, passed the scenic Sterkfontein dam (SA’s third-largest according to our guide Sim), and through the Free State. The surrounding landscape was fascinating to observe, with its vastness, the yellowness of the maize in the surrounding fields and the distinctive flat-topped hills seemed reminiscent of the U.S. Prairies, Australia, and Arizona (the last being what my American friend said). The vast flatness of the land seemed to stretch for miles into the distance, broken up only by frequent flat-topped peaks, and save for grass and maize, devoid of much vegetation. This being winter in South Africa, the landscape seemed particularly arid.

We also passed a dusty but populous town with an incredibly difficult name that I can’t pronounce – Phuthaditjhaba. During the apartheid era, it served as the capital of QwaQwa, a bantustan homeland. Some parts along the side of the road were charred black from being deliberately set on fire, a sight that would be all too common in the next 2 days. This was a tactic to protect against raging wildfires, burning the ground to make it so dry that fires would not spread.


Coming close to the SA border post to Lesotho. Our van drove up the bumpy, unpaved road just a few feet from the edge.

One of the first sights after entering Lesotho.

Getting into Lesotho border-wise proved a relatively simple matter because there was no Lesotho border post. Once we cleared the South African post, we entered Lesotho just like that. We drove for a while on a bumpy, unpaved earth road, with roadwork actually taking place at some parts and cattle walking on the side, while the slopes on both sides were sparse and dusty. Eventually we entered a valley surrounded by mountains and actually featuring some semblance of vegetation. There were huts scattered throughout, most of them being rondavels and featuring the traditional round conical shapes and thatch huts, more cows and the occasional scrawny horse grazing along the side of the road and people walking around covered up in traditional woolen blankets draped over their upper bodies. Finally a crude, flat patch of earth that was clearly in the form of, and served as, a football field came into view and we disembarked. The area’s primary school was right at the side of the field and one of the teachers came out to greet us. Kabelo introduced himself while asking us to introduce ourselves in turn. We were a mixed group of Englishmen, Aussies, Americans, French, a Singaporean and myself.

We finally reached our destination, the school with the field in front of it.

Children start running to come see us.

As he gave us the lowdown about the school and village, some children ran over from the nearby houses, apparently wanting to greet us as well. Not surprisingly the requisite picture-taking of cute little black village kids started taking place, and I proved just as bad as some of the others. My favorite picture was of one kid carrying another on his back all while running across the football field though I also liked a picture I had taken of a guy taking a picture of a little angel wearing a red jacket and with two upright clumps of hair being oblivious and looking away from the guy’s camera and mine. Both pictures are below.

The primary school had grades one to seven and was made up of several small one-storey buildings. Not surprisingly the classrooms were crowded. There were some sobering facts about the school such as that many of the students were orphans due to their parents having mostly died from AIDS (This is a harsh reality in some poor and rural communities in SA as well). The village had no doctor so if somebody is sick, a car needs to be fetched or the person would just have to tough it out or die.  The nearest secondary school was two hour’s walk away and not many students go on to it. Most boys would be made to go tend their families’ cows and goats or work in the fields. In addition, most young people who go on to secondary school and even university did not return to the village to work, instead, in an echo of similar choices made by their peers in other countries, preferring the towns. This village-to-town migration plus the scourge of AIDS meant that “everywhere only the old ones (besides the kids) are left [in the village].” Life certainly seems harsh, but as Kabelo said, “it’s how we live, guys.”

The school was supported by the backpackers where we were all staying at, as well as the buying of crafts made by the community, which the teacher asked us to consider as he ended with a little sales pitch. Several people bought things but not me. At one point, when I walked up to him to ask him some questions, he thought I wanted to buy something and he clearly seemed disappointed when it was apparent I didn’t. I can’t say I didn’t feel a little guilty myself.

After the school visit, it was time for a hike to a nearby hilltop accompanied by laughing and screaming children who streamed out of huts along the way. The land seemed desolate and dry, especially since this was winter, with the grass yellow and what few trees there were mostly leafless, contrasting vividly with the scenic attractiveness of the mountains. On one side, the mountains looked like giant lumps of clay with folds pressed in on them while the mountains seemed to be coated with a sheer outer gold-black-brown surface. Those were where we going. By the time we got to where we needed to go, the children had become our “new guides,” as Sim put it, leading us while running up the trail effortlessly without any care as little children do. After stopping at the flat outcrop of rock that overlooked the valley, we started to eat our lunch, provided by our backpackers, which brought about an uncomfortable feeling over a typical development dilemma for me. As we munched on our cheese sandwiches and hardboiled eggs, the children played around us and I wondered whether we should be sharing our food with them, especially given their underprivileged statuses. Sure, they might have eaten already and their meal might have been much more sumptuous than ours, but maybe not, and besides, was it polite to eat in front of little children without offering them anything? But at the same time other thoughts went through my mind — our lunch wasn’t exactly much and also, there were quite a bit of kids so I shared with one or two, would the others feel jealous over not having any? Being the indecisive sap that I am, I decided to eat part of my lunch and put the rest away, while deciding to decide late on. This situation would resolve itself a little later on, which is a good effect of procrastinating in making decisions sometimes.

A lot of space, a lot of dirt, but too few trees and vegetation.