Majestic mountains reign

2011-03-19 17:01

We’ve all done it?– cross-referenced our remaining holiday time, with upcoming public holidays.

Those who perused the 2011 calendar, would already have their Easter trip booked and be looking forward to a glorious 10 days off for a bargain three leave days.

If you’ve got the time but nothing planned to fill it, then why not consider hitting the tarmac?

Lesotho is conveniently placed a few hours south of Gauteng and north of the coast, accessible from both the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

So dust off your passport and visit a location where the only requirement is a sense of adventure, not a 4x4.

This fascinating country is called the Mountain Kingdom for a ­reason. Hedged on its eastern ­border by the formidable ­Drakensberg range, the rest is characterised by majestic highlands and foothills.

Maseru, the capital city, is on the main border crossing into Lesotho from the west. After a few hours of driving, this is an easily ­navigable and convenient location to stop and recharge.

Replete with a range of good shops, it is also a suitable place to stock up on food if a camping trip is on the agenda.

Crossing this well-used border is a simple and usually swift affair, with no filling of wordy customs forms necessary or the compulsory purchase of car insurance. After traversing the sliver of no-man’s-land, a palpable change in atmosphere can be felt.

The efficiency of South African immigration officials is mirrored by the more lackadaisical approach of their Basotho counterparts.

There is a certain charm to feeling as if you are rudely interrupting a conversation between two border guards, simply by tentatively approaching an immigration counter and asking for your passport to be stamped.

The changes in officialdoms’ outlook are indicative of the differences between these neighbouring countries. ­Lesotho is a bit more laidback; a bit more haphazard.

The physical changes in the landscape are immediate and arresting.

As a tract of land in the heart of South Africa, one can understand how Basotho tribesmen valiantly and repeatedly repelled well-armed invaders from natural borders. Massive sandstone faces surround Maseru, protecting it while providing a stunning backdrop to this relaxed city.

Lesotho is off-roader heaven, with endless mountain tracks and valley creeks to test your shocks, and some sites are only reachable by a high-clearance 4x4.

If your vehicle is more of a crawler than cruiser however, have no fear: there are still plenty of sites.

Katse Dam is situated in the centre of Lesotho, and is serviced by impeccably built and well-maintained tarmac roads. The road to Katse snakes into the highlands, traversing 3?000-metre passes and rewarding the traveller with views of breathtaking beauty.

Seasonally snow-capped mountaintops that layer into the horizon give way to the huge dam, which has slowly grown over the years from a trickling stream, providing ample photo opportunities.

The dam wall is an intimidating, immense and impressive example of grand engineering.

Excellent guided tours of the inside wall of the dam are available, and cost a negligible R10.

Accommodation is available at the nearby Katse Village, a picturesque and purpose-built settlement located on the water.

A few days can easily be whiled away here and activities are plentiful. Boat trips, trout fishing, pony trekking and extensive hiking are all options, as is a stroll through the well-designed botanical gardens.

African sunsets are legendary, and rightly so, there is little that is more awe-inspiring than a glowing red orb sinking into a savannah and acacia tree backdrop.

Katse sunsets offer something different yet equally dramatic. You could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Asia, with the countless misty hills folding into the lake surface.

If venturing this far from Maseru doesn’t appeal, the smaller but equally impressive Mohale Dam is a short drive from the capital on equally well-constructed roads.

En route, the mountaintop graveyard of the Lesotho royal family at Thaba-Bosiu is worth a stop.

It is here that King Moshoeshoe historically formed the Basotho nation, and masterminded the repelling of both English and Boer raiders.

At the base of Thaba-Bosiu a substantial visitors’ centre includes accommodation, conferencing facilities and a model village.

Edward, the wizened and knowledgeable guide manning the kiosk, eagerly informs tourists of local history, legend and myth after collecting the R10 entrance fee.

“It is a 30-minute climb to the summit.

Just go right at the ferns and follow the path to the top,” directs Edward.

Over an hour later, red-faced with aching thighs, we eventually stumble onto the peak’s plateau.

The hold-up has more to do with our physical deficiencies than Edward’s optimism.

A barefoot church group, complete with colossal drums, don’t seem to be suffering too much as they skip past us halfway up.

Views from the top are glorious and afford a clear sight of the hillock that inspired the iconic “Basotho Hat”.

At the zenith, as well as the royal graveyard, plenty of other sites are waiting to be unearthed.

Ruins of King Moshoeshoe’s ­simple stone homestead are slowly being reclaimed by rampant vegetation, and the giant eucalyptus tree that marked the settlement’s parliament is now lying on its side.

The area is also home to wild Basotho ponies that graze between the ruins.

Lesotho is an easy and delightful country to explore. Katse, Mohale and Thaba-Bosiu are just three comfortably available highlights in a land blessed with many.

Depending on how much time you have, following the asphalt to its conclusion will always yield a charm or two.

And of course, if off-roading is your thing, just keep on going.

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