Back then, Chief Kome of the Basia (Cat) clan was the first to come up with the cunning plan of attaching a mud and twig hut to the rock overhang. This was a time when the wars of the Difaqane were unsettling the entire region and Kome decided he needed to get away from those stroppy Xhosa near Matatiele. Later, the caves served as a refuge for the Bataung (Lion) clan as well. Inevitably, Chief Kome’s daughter married a Bataung chief and the five families who live here today are all descendants of those clans.
There’s another disturbing morsel of history lurking in the shadows. The Difaqane was only one problem of the early 19th century; drought and the resultant famine meant that some people took to cannibalism to survive. And the area around Kome was cannibal country, particularly at the nearby Malimong cave (hangout of the cannibals who gobbled up Moshoeshoe’s grandfather) and the Bokhopa pinnacle (where cannibals used to lay traps to catch passers-by for their dinner-pot).
As we got out to walk the last few minutes down to the cave houses, we attracted a posse of small children wanting to hold our hands. They frolicked and giggled down the rocks with us and waited politely on the sidelines till we were ready for them to escort us back to our car.
The huts are attached to the cave, so that their back wall is rock. A low entrance tunnel means you have to crouch and creep to get inside. The comforts are sparse – a single bed with a bright blanket, cardboard boxes serving as tables and cupboards, a dozen or more large plastic buckets for storing water, a few tin plates.
The mud and cow-dung plaster that covers the huts is in pristine condition, except for a hairline crack here and there. But it’s by no means a low-maintenance cladding; one resident tells us it has to be repaired or replaced every three months. A decorative band of bright orange plaster around the entrance uses a different-coloured soil found in the area. No Plascon shops around here.
The people survive much as their forefathers did almost two centuries ago, growing maize, sorghum and beans, and keeping cattle and sheep. They also get a small subsidy from the Lesotho government to reward them for allowing their homes to become a tourist attraction.
Outside, something was cooking in a three-legged pot over a smoking fire. Eyes streaming from the smoke, we said goodbye, stepped out of the cool shade of the cave and back into the sunlight. The children swarmed towards us again, taking us back to the present.
How to get there from Maseru
Take the road towards Teyateyaneng (often called just TY) before turning southeast towards Mateka and Thaba Bosiu. About 18 kilometres along this road, signs to the caves will point you down a small, bumpy road towards the visitor centre, where you must pick up a guide to show you around. At just R10 per person it’s a steal. In addition, your guide will ask you to give some money to the people you photograph or those whose homes you enter.
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