High class

2011-03-12 00:00

HANDS up those who have been to Lesotho. One, two ... just two ... no, no, over there in the corner, three. That’s it, then, not too many.

And that is funny, not funny ha-ha but funny peculiar. The landlocked Royal Kingdom of Lesotho, an enclave entirely surrounded by South Africa and offering stunning scenery and the most peaceful of retreats, is largely ignored by those on its very doorstep.

Lesotho, scenically, climatically and financially, has much to offer the traveller. It is one of the most mountainous countries in the world, the only one that lies entirely above 1 400 metres with 80% of the country over 1 800 metres (or nearly 6 000 feet).

The purpose of our trip was to take a peep at the new and ambitious Maliba­ Mountain Lodge in the highlands of northern Lesotho, but much of the fun was just getting there.

The leisurely, 400 kilometre trip from the KZN midlands takes you past Winterton and Bergville and up into the Drakensberg, along the impressive Sterkfontein Dam to the Golden Gate National Park and one of the country’s most scenic drives. This park in the Maluti Mountains is home to an assortment of wildlife, but most spectacular are the colours, the brilliant and varying shades of gold and yellow on the sandstone cliffs and the lushness of the vegetation.

Hurrying past the arty, crafty village of Clarens — and this might depend on who is driving — it is then but a short drive to the border post at Caledonspoort. The formalities are quick and painless and it is then just a 45-minute trip to Tsehlanyane National Park and our destination at Maliba Mountain Lodge. The trip should take four hours, but if you have a photographer (or a shopper) in the car, it could stretch over days.

This five-star luxury lodge, the first in Lesotho, is sandwiched between high mountains and situated in a pristine valley. Two Australians with business interests in South Africa­, Nick King and Chris McEvoy, along with Lesotho engineer Stephen Phakisi, hatched the plan to build a luxury lodge back in 2003, but negotiations were protracted and the two-year construction only started in 2006.

In their determination to provide a boost for the villages in the area, the directors used local Basotho in the construction of Maliba (“an abundance of water”) and taught them new skills.

“We now employ 33 staff and 75% of them helped build the lodge,” says lodge manager Andrew Mostert. “They have been with us from the very start and feel it is their lodge.”

Their pride is obvious. Warm and friendly, they are desperate that visitors return and that reports of “our lodge” are spread far and wide.

The stone and thatch main lodge is spacious and exquisitely furnished and yet comprises only six separate luxury chalets. That’s just 12 guests when it is chockablock. Crowding is never a problem.

Rich in indigenous fauna and flora, the area is a botanist’s dream. There are more than 220 flowering plant species present while the vegetation is dominated by mature Che Che trees.

The lodge has also established the highest sub-alpine botanical garden in the world, designed by world-renowned South African botanist­ Elisa Pooley.

The weather in this sub-alpine wilderness valley is comfortably cool, but the winters can be cold with snow often falling between May and September. There is a heavy emphasis on guests keeping toasty with open fireplaces, electric blankets and underfloor heating in all the chalets.

The main lodge features a gourmet restaurant and head chef Elayni Prinsloo, who has a battle keeping the resident eland away from the spinach in her veggie garden, provides three high-quality meals a day and the accent is on nouvelle cuisine. We didn’t know whether to photograph the culinary delights or eat them — so we did both.

The rugged mountains and paths are a challenge for the hiker. Picnic breakfasts or lunches are provided for the ambitious ones planning a day’s hike or a ride into the mountains. You can pick your way over a number of trails, some going up into the Maluti mountains, others dropping down into the deep recesses of the valley where there are waterfalls and clear pools to refresh the achy bits.

This, it should be pointed out, is pure hearsay. My hiking days ended in an undignified heap while scaling the dizzy heights of Bot Gardens. A conspicuously displayed bulky knee guard and strapped ankle served as the most convenient of doctor’s notes and we spent much of our time sipping cocktails on the lodge’s wide deck.

We were there when a delightfully friendly couple from Joeys, plastered with tattoos and sunscreen, and carrying high hopes, water bottles and their lunch, departed into the mountains. We were there when they returned, flushed with success, exhaustion and sunstroke, four hours later. It was as if they had scaled the north face of the Eiger and they insisted on celebrating by buying the non-hikers rounds of drinks. Mountain air does funny things to people.

You can also climb mountains and ford streams on the back of a surefooted, well-trained Basotho pony with the trail taking you through the natural bush, over the clear springs and further into the mountains. But the serene emptiness and quiet of the valley, surrounded by 5 600 hectares of protected wilderness mountain terrain, is the most remarkable feature and, as we found, you do not have to venture far to savour it.

Mostert says that in-house spa treatments will be introduced once the local staff have been trained. They also hope to make Afriski, Africa’s highest ski resort (seasonal between June and September) and nearly two hours’ drive away, more accessible to their guests by providing luxury overnight accommodation en route.

The tariff of R1 370 a night might seem excessive for a casual hiker, but this is good value particularly when one considers the style, the food, the attention to detail, the pampering­ — and that equivalent five- star lodges in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana charge two to three times more for similar service.

And Maliba does offer a cheaper alternative. The nearby Maliba River­ Lodge provides self-catering accommodation on the river and guests can stay for R230 a night if they book out one of four large fully self-contained chalets.

The visitors’ book at the main complex is laced with glowing tributes with the staff, the food, the comfort and the peacefulness of Maliba Mountain Lodge earning the highest marks. Most of the comments are posted by European and American visitors who seem surprised to have stumbled on such luxury in a remote mountain wilderness.

Indeed, Maliba Mountain Lodge, described as “beautiful and smart”, was voted one of UK Tatler magazine­’s top travel picks for 2010 and was included in its list of “101 best hotels in the world.”

Now (as Michael Caine might have remarked) there’s not many South Africans who know that.

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