Kingdom of Lesotho Africa: Exploring a different culture
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Lesotho is the highest country in the world, a tiny spec in Southern Africa whose lowest point is 1,400 metres(about 4500) above sea level, the highest low point of any country. Despite being completely surrounded by South Africa its isolated mountainous location has enabled it to avoid western influences on their culture.
Shortly after becoming teenagers these two shepherds were circumcised and spent months alone in the mountains, a manhood ritual significantly harder than waiting for the passage of time to bring about your eighteenth birthday.
They've never seen a television and communicate by sending messages with horsemen who ride past. But I'm not the first tourist they've seen. Every year a few intrepid Europeans, come to these hills in winter to participate in Africa's only skiing.
In a country without roads ski lifts would be an outrageous excess, therefore every five minutes downhill must be followed by a two hour trek uphill. With my guide translating, the shepherds point to a distant ridge and explain; they send the sheep down one side, and laugh at the skiers on the other.
As a mode of transport they are in awe of efficiency of skis. They just can't understand why people want to just keep going up and down.
In the North Eastern part of South Africa the mountains rise dramatically, marking the start of the Great Rift chain that surges through the whole continent. They climb almost vertically from the province of Kwazulu Natal, culminating in plateaued peaks of 3000 metres plus.
In a Landrover we'd sluggishly taken the eight kilometres of no mans land that separates Lesotho from South Africa on the Sani Pass. Admired from below the ascending switchbacks were comical, tightly packed into a minuscule gap between the mountains.
Every stop for photos was dangerous, the loss of momentum causing a lurch back downhill as the driver attempted to restart. The rough gravel track started at 1577 metres above sea level, passed Haemorrhoid Hill at 2250 metres, before winding around perilously named corners; Suicide, Steps, Oh My God, Reverse (requiring a three point turn), Icy, Grace (say a prayer), and finally Big Wind Corner.
The border post was one for stamp collectors, the chance to outdo peers with evidence of entering a country that few people know exist. And behind the border post is another trump card, the highest pub in Africa serving beer at 2874 metres above sea level. From here I looked down on the Sani Pass, watching intrepid drivers test their breaks and nerves.
On the Lesotho side of the pass there is no descent. The land levels, ascends, and continues into the distance. The shepherds explain: "In most of Lesotho you see mountain-valley-mountain. But sometimes you see mountain-valley-river-village-mountain." Surveying the kingdom there is nothing that contradicts this; herds of obsequious sheep occasionally jangle along a mountainside, the odd shepherd's hut stands lonely, and ridiculously furry goats amble past like inventions of a sci-fi author.
"How many animals do you own?" the shepherds ask. I lie, mentioning every deceased pet since a childhood tortoise that ran away. "No sheep! No goat!" they laugh and my guide confirms what I suspect: I am definitely not a man.
Further north along the plateau I visit a village attempting to comprehend a recent technological advancement. Last month a telecom tower was installed and people can now use mobile phones.
"I have phone" says a proud school teacher "but nobody else have so I don't use."
He asks for my phone number and raises his phone aloft in impromptu celebration.
Completely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho's isolation has been key to its existence. In the early 19th century King Moshoeshoe led his Besotho people into these mountains to resist invasion from the marauding Zulu leader King Shaka. They hid on the peaks and rolled boulders downhill; causing Shaka to claim bad magic was at work and have the mountains renamed "Ukhahlamba" -- burier of spears.
Walking away from the village the country plays out its daily routine; men intermittently ride past on indomitable horses, circular huts stand isolated, and flags act as signposts. On high flagpoles each colour has a particular meaning, so horsemen can see from a distance whether a particular hut is worth visiting.
Green means vegetables for sale, red indicates meat available, white equals maize beer, and I stop at a yellow flag. It's the least frequent of the colours, signifying a purveyor of pineapple beer.
It's sour, frothy, riddled with floaters, and sold in a rusty two litre tin. But if you have to ride two hours across the mountain to get a drink this is most definitely a sellers' market. I'm this old Mama's first customer in four days so I ask for a second helping out of politeness. She nods, and sends her daughter to bring a bigger rustier tin.
It's powerful stuff and back out on the mountainside the solitude begins to engulf me. The silence is absolute, the lack of audio cues therapeutic yet alien. At every angle the view matches my guide's simplistic description. As a visitor it's an extraordinary sensation. But imagine being a shepherd, living on these hills for over six months at a time with only livestock for company. Perhaps they converse with their enchantingly bearded goats?
The odd shepherd we cross is hardened, not easy to get a smile from but welcoming and appreciative of our presence. Our interpreted conversations are brief. First they ask practical questions to my guide; where did you come from, how is the weather there, did you see my brother. Then they turn to me. "How are your animals?" they ask.
"I don't have animals."
"Oh, you are not a man, how will you find a wife without animals."
And as I'm ridiculed for my sheepless existence I realise how differently I'm perceived here.
While across the world remote indigenous people are seeing their culture irrevocably changed by westernisation, Lesotho looks like it could never even entertain such an idea. By continually treating me on their terms, they show a firm belief in their own culture.
I'm tempted to say Lesotho is a place time forgot, but I wonder if time ever registered its existence in the first place. And most endearing about this country is the feeling that it will remain like this for centuries to come.
If You GoThe Sani Lodge in South Africa's Southern Drakensberg Mountains is my recommended place to start. It's situated at the bottom of the infamous Sani Pass, and the owner Russel Suchet has written six editions of A Backpacker's Guide to Lesotho.
His tour company Drakensberg Adventures offers very affordable 4x4 multi day trips into Lesotho and his knowledge of the people and country is excellent
For those looking for a single day trip, a remote area of Lesotho can be accessed from the Northern Drakensberg Mountains. Ampitheatre Backpackers offer one day trips for ZAR500 (approx. $50).
It is possible to self drive to Lesotho from South Africa although you must have a 4x4 vehicle and excellent driving skills. Bring lots of food and a tent as accommodation is scarce and Lesotho is not a country with convenient stores. This is not recommended in winter when ice and snow cover the mountain passes.
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Stephen Bailey is a freelance writer and videographer from the North of England. After living in the sun of Ibiza, Cape Town, and the Middle East, he's somehow ended up in the rain ravaged Dutch town of Delft. He writes for a variety of publications, as well as tourism boards across the world, but his speciality is the stories that have no commercial value and nobody really believes; like surfing with Zulu witch doctors, entering Iran illegally, and hanging out with Afghani tribal chiefs. Find him at TheFatDogs.com or email him at: email@example.com
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author