Picture: Inga Hendriks

It’s like falling in love with the girl next door; the mountain kingdom of Lesotho sneaking up on your emotions, stealing your heart and suddenly leaving you breathless with excitement.

And it all started with a seemingly innocuous challenge from a friend who observed: “You’ve stood on the summit of Kilimanjaro and trekked to Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas, but have you experienced the wild, untamed beauty of Lesotho, the country with the highest low point in the world?”

My friend Ashley Thorn, founder of Trading Post Adventures and a fourth-generation Mosotho, had cleverly homed in on my passion for exploring high places.

Think Lesotho and most conjure up romantic images of blanketed Basotho tribesmen astride surefooted ponies with breathtakingly beautiful mountains as a scenic backdrop. But that’s only part of the picture, according to Thorn.

To make his point he put together an adventure programme that would push all my buttons, including some gentle scenic drives, an extreme 4x4 excursion, two major hikes, a pony trek, the world’s highest commercial abseil and a visual feast of Maluti and Drakensberg mountainscapes.

“Why travel halfway around the world,” he argued, “when you can have as much fun close to home and save money while reducing your carbon footprint and supporting some worthy grassroots tourism initiatives?”

Point taken.

It is the country boasting the highest low point – 1 400 metres – with more than 80 percent of the kingdom soaring above 1 800m and earning the reputation of being the Roof of Africa.

Once regarded as one of the poorest countries on the planet, it is slowly picking itself up with exports of its two main resources: diamonds and water from the massive Highlands Water Project. Tourism is still in its infancy but has great potential.

Happily, while there is an ever-improving road network and new tourism initiatives, South Africa’s landlocked neighbour has lost none of its rugged charm, appealing to outdoor adventurers who’d rather stay in a modest B&B or rustic lodge than characterless 5-star hotels.

Even if you don’t own a 4x4 Lesotho is a viable and affordable holiday destination, although for me it is the wildness of those parts not yet linked by tar roads that is a special attraction.

Accepting Thorn’s challenge, I also joined friends John Willoner and Bryan McCarthy on the spectacular 27km Pied Piper Trail where the only humans we spied were some villagers and herders on the lower slopes, who greeted us warmly with great curiosity. Would we be up to this hike which peaks at above 2 700m? It was a fair question and it was after more than nine hours, with lungs heaving and legs turning to jelly, that I could look back on an unforgettable trek.

A few days later Thorn decided we’d tackle Baboons Pass, a 23km boulder-strewn bridle path that has become one of the most daunting 4x4 drives in Africa, but one only suited to experienced drivers at the wheel of much-modified 4x4s.

It is breathtaking in its grandeur and I was delighted that we proved that walking is often better than driving, and not just for health reasons. We accomplished our task in six hours feeling exhilarated where many a 4x4 adventurer has either failed, or finished days later feeling utterly shattered, with thousands of rands’ damage to the vehicle.

It is a walk I highly recommend and I’d suggest using the picturesque Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge as a base from which to launch your adventures – it is conveniently central, the views are stunning, the accommodations comfy, the food wholesome and the enthusiastic staff are friends in the making.

It is an easy drive to Malealea Lodge, which is internationally acclaimed for its hikes, pony treks and authentic African experience.

Malealea dishes up more memorable experiences. It is a model of community empowerment and an example of what is possible when lodge owners, visitors and rural people interact in meaningful ways. Rarely have I met as many smiling, friendly locals anywhere.

A highlight is my first experience aboard a traditional Basotho pony and I’m awed by its surefootedness along slippery, rock paths too narrow for any 4x4. This is a way to live in the now, shedding city tensions and slowing the pace right down.

But the ultimate fix has to be the adrenaline rush of the world’s longest and scariest abseil alongside Maletsunyane Falls, one of Africa’s great but lesser-known waterfalls.

It earned its place in the Guinness World Records some seven years ago as the longest single-drop commercial abseil –however, torrential rain cancels all abseiling because there is too much water flowing everywhere.

The tarring of the Sani Pass to Lesotho is in the planning stages, so there’s a compelling argument to drive it sooner rather than later.

My routine is to overnight in the KZN Midlands at “Notties”, the longest continuously running hotel in the province, and then head up Sani the next morning.

A scenic two-hour drive takes you from Nottingham Road to the South African border post and the start of the Sani Pass – a high-clearance 4x4 with low range gearing is recommended, although these days the 8km climb can be managed in an hour by any reasonable 4x4, provided the weather holds.

Border formalities are a breeze and you soon find yourself at Sani Top Chalet – the highest pub in Africa at 2 874m. Like most Lesotho accommodations it is more rustic than luxurious, but plusses include great views, cheerful service and good cooking. In winter opt for a hot shower on arrival as the plumbing can freeze during the night.

If you have the time, you can devote a day to hiking to southern Africa’s highest peak, Thabana-Ntlenyana, soaring to 3 482m.

Instead, we set off towards the historic Trading Post Guest House at Roma that is owned by Ashley and Jennifer Thorn. Although roads have improved in recent years the drive is still an eight-hour undertaking.

If You Go...

l Nottingham Road Hotel and Gowrie Farm Golf Lodge

Tel 033 266 6151 or cellphone 082 610 1286

Website: www.nottieshotel.co.za

E-mail [email protected]

l Sani Top Chalet

Tel 033 702 1069 or cellphone 082 715 1131

Website www.sanitopchalet.co.za

E-mail [email protected]

l Trading Post Guesthouse in Roma and Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge

Tel +266 (0) 2234 0202 or cellphone 082 773 2180

Website: www.tradingpost.co.za

E-mail [email protected]

l Semonkong Lodge (Maletsunyane Falls abseil)

Tel +266 (0) 2700 6037 or cellphone+266 (0) 6202 1021

Website www.placeofsmoke.co.ls

E-mail [email protected]

l Malealea Lodge (pony trekking)

Tel 051 436 6766 or cellphone 082 552 4215 - Saturday Star