But when you venture along rugged roads deep into the interior, along high snaking passes and through greener-than-green hills pockmarked with small villages, you really are in ‘the wild’.
Our route to Semonkong took us through Roma, home to the University of Lesotho and a Catholic mission, complete with Virgin Mary in a blue grotto. So deep is the Catholic influence here that you’ll even find local businesses with names like “Sisters of the Holy Names International Computer Driving Licence Training”.
Then it was up 3000 metres through the Thaba Putsoa mountain range, where we merged with an enormous flock of sheep on the road and had to stop as they oozed past. Before long there was another flock of sheep, and another. Traffic jam, Lesotho style.
The reason for all these bunched-up sheep became apparent at a bend in the road a bit further on: a huge sheep dipping was in progress, lots of men in colourful blankets wrestling the sheep into a pit of treated water, from which they emerged bedraggled, dirty and indignant.
There were higgledy-piggeldy gravestones too, some with fancy granite headstones, others with simple wooden crosses, many with tall wrought iron surrounding the gravesite, which made them look rather more like babies’ cots than graves.
Semonkong, just a bit south of centre, is the end of the road. Literally. If you want to go any further you need to make like the locals, who saddle up a hardy Basotho pony or a donkey to get to their outlying villages, perhaps three days’ ride away. Semonkong is a frontier town in every way, with something of the look and feel of a Wild West movie set.
We arrived on a busy market day, a cacophony of sheep, men in gumboots, donkeys, ponies and taxis milling around the iron shacks that form the town centre, a pulsing puzzle of people, animals and churned up mud. Donkeys are the transport system for everything here, from mealie meal to mattresses, even Maluti beer crates, two on each side of a donkey’s back, stocking up for the long trek back to outlying villages.
The small low shacks gave the impression of some kind of children’s village, but accommodated everything from a public phone booth to a post office or a bank; there was even a hand-painted sign announcing the Department of Forestry.
A sprinkling of brick-and-mortar buildings included the general store and blanket shop – owned, run and guarded by the inevitable Chinese with an R1 rifle – and a shop selling gumboots, just what’s needed for getting down and dirty in the summer mud.
But the highlights were people-watching on the bridge that crosses the river – a busy ‘highway’ for sheep, blanketed men on ponies, ox-carts and donkeys – and waking to the sound of cow bells in the morning.
After a night of rain, we travelled to the Maletsunyane Falls along a rough 4x4 road with some patches that would have been perfect for mud wrestling. A cold wind was blowing, creating spray off the falls as they dropped 196 metres in a single stripe to the pool below – one of the highest single-drop waterfalls in Africa. There’s a steep path to the bottom, where you can swim in the pool in summer. The pool usually freezes in winter but the waterfall keeps going, spraying the surrounding rocks with ice and forming an ice cage over the pool.
It’s down these falls that Semonkong Lodge operates what the Guinness Book of World Records says is the ‘longest commercially operated single-drop abseil’.
I lost my heart to Lesotho on my first visit two years ago; now I’m even more deeply in love. Semonkong may be straggly and muddy, and you couldn’t exactly call it tourist-pretty, but it’s the real deal.
Isn’t that what real travellers are always looking for?
[Update 2017: The road is now tarred right from Maseru, through Semonkong, to Quachas Nek, making it an easy drive in one day, even going to the Maletsunyane Falls viewsite.]
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