Maseru - Most people who visit Lesotho focus on the Sani Pass, Khatse Dam, and Oxbow’s ski slopes.
Southern Lesotho is often overlooked by the traveller, yet it has much to offer by way of dramatic scenery and delightful villages, where life still unfolds at a less scurried pace.
Hearing that Philip Rawlins, the owner of Resthaven Guesthouse in Matatiele, offers his guests weekend day trips into South Africa’s mountainous neighbour, I hastily packed a bag, eager to take on the passes of Ongeluksnek, Qacha’s Nek and Ramatseliso.
Fate dealt us a stunning hand of good luck - thick falling snow one day, and brilliant blue skies the next. So hop into Philip’s Toyota Land Cruiser and get a taste of what we experienced.
The wind was icy when we set off from Matatiele, and soon we encountered heavy drifts of snow as we climbed Ramatseliso’s pass. Horses cast dark shadows as they plodded by in the mist. At the border, we found the gates locked, with not a soul stirring. Clearly the border officials felt the snow was too thick for travel, and the weather warranted a lie in bed!
Clearly not one to be easily deterred, Philip turned around and headed towards Qacha’s Nek, stopping en-route for a picnic breakfast at the now-deserted French Evangelical Mission, which once served a Basotho congregation but closed in the 1980s when the last white priest died.
At Qacha’s Nek, all was functioning. Our passports were stamped and we were on our way. Soon the visitor finds friendly locals. Their stone huts are works of art, with colourfully painted window-sills and doors, and neatly swept pathways. Blanket-clad people walk from village to village, or ride the sure-footed Basotho pony. Farmers still plough by hand, walking behind their oxen. We met a young man wheeling a barrow full of cabbages. He said he had fetched these from the family garden further up the mountain. Hard work is a keyword. It’s nothing unusual to find people working on the roads, laying culverts, or shoring up the steep verges with stones.
In one village, an evocative scene revealed itself through falling snowflakes, where a group of men were gathered alongside a smoking fire.
Suspension Bridge Pass is fascinating. Here road and pedestrian bridges are within nodding distance of each other. These green-painted pedestrian bridges throughout the countryside make life easier for people who formerly had to regularly ford rivers.
A new gravel road, in the south-east of Lesotho, opened some six months ago. It leads to the Matabeng Pass, which at its summit (2 940m) is higher than Sani Pass (2 874m). At the base of the Matabeng one comes across the Bob Phillips camp spot, an oasis of flourishing green trees. You can camp here if you wish.
There is also some good San rock art in the hills above the camp spot. In fact, such art is waiting to be explored in many rocky overhangs around the country.
But back to the Matabeng Pass. Summiting, we inched our way down the other side. Rama’s Gate (as Ramatseliso’s is popularly known) border was now open. Much of the snow had melted, and the border officials were amazed to hear we had tried from the South African side earlier in the day.
That evening, Resthaven guest house (which offers reduced rates over weekends) was a welcome sight after our day of adventure. All mod-cons, comfortable beds, pillows and tasty food were a fine alternative to spending the night in the vehicle (which at one stage had seemed a distinct possibility).
Early the next morning it was up Qacha’s Nek again. The sun shone brilliantly, only the mountain peaks were still clad in snow.
Following the sinuous Senqu River, we came to Horseshoe Bend, a scenic spot where the Senqu takes a U-turn, and where rocky cliffs survey themselves in the water below. At Mount Moorosi, chief Morosi and his people retreated to a fortified cliff when the British government decreed him a trouble-maker. A siege followed, and you can see the grave which houses the bodies of some British soldiers.
A particularly scenic road follows the tranquil Quthing River. At one spot, you can see the Devil’s Staircase - part of the original road. It must have taken nerves of steel to use it, and I stood in awe of earlier travellers. And then there’s Ongeluksnek Pass, which was used by Adam Kok and his Griquas when moving from the Orange Free State to their new home in Kokstad. Now that’s a real 4x4 challenge.
* Contact 039 737 4067; e-mail [email protected]; www.resthaven.co.za