Lesotho. The Mountain Kingdom. Famous for its incredible mountain ranges, this country was that one little circle on the map of South Africa I was confused/intrigued about upon moving to SA. It’s completely surrounded by South Africa, is its own country, and was never a part of South Africa. How did that happen? Nevertheless, I made a weekend trip to Lesotho (about 5 hours south of Joburg) just for the hell of it. Our destination was in Semonkong, a village in the middle of the country, high up in the mountains.
Why not? Who needs an excuse to get away for the weekend and why not have another stamp in the passport? Lesotho makes for a great weekend trip from Johannesburg or Durban, as well as an easy way to tack on to any South African travel itinerary.
The history of Lesotho
Lesotho is completely engulfed in SA, like the inner circle of a donut. Lesotho’s history closely follows that of South Africa as its history involves much interaction with its large neighbor. Lesotho is known for its incredible mountain ranges. In fact, the entire country of Lesotho is at least one mile above sea level. People lived in and around modern day Lesotho for thousands of years but it was not until the 1800s when the Zulu tribes of the time led by Shaka Zulu started waging war that the people moved up to the mountains to better defend themselves. When the Voortrekkers came a short time later (Afrikaners), the king of the area allied themselves with the British Cape colonies.
With Lesotho’s tough terrain, they were successfully able to defend their territory. They became independent from Great Britain in 1966 and was completely separated from South Africa. The population here was able to completely avoid the effects of Apartheid and perhaps one of the reason the people here are some of the nicest, and warmest people I’ve ever met.
Nowadays, Lesotho is still a country that lives the old ways, especially high up in the mountains where we visited. Horses are still the main form of transportation and only a handful of cars can be seen in a town. Lesotho provides about half of South Africa’s drinking water and is home to the largest dam in the southern hemisphere at the Katse Dam.
As a country, Lesotho is high up in the mountains with some of the most naturally stunning views in the world. It’s breathtaking mountain ranges, dramatic peaks, and wide array of flora and fauna. It’s hard not to feel a sense of instant relaxation and calm when you come here. The mountain ranges remind me of Zion National Park in the American Southwest but the entire country is covered in such landscape. It’s quite surreal and Lesotho is perhaps one of the most underrated places in Africa.
Getting to and around Lesotho
As the whole country is a mountain range, it is not easy to get around Lesotho. Driving from Johannesburg to Lesotho’s capital of Maseru takes 5 hours. The roads are for the most part fine but there are some nasty potholes as soon as we deviated from the N1. Maseru is right on the border of SA and Lesotho and it is a proper city. As soon as we left the capital to go further inland and deeper into the mountains, the roads were still being constructed and there were long, horrible stretches of just rocks.
A 4×4 is HIGHLY recommended to drive around Lesotho. This country’s infrastructure is still being built and perhaps in a year or two, this country will be more suited for the average car. We were the idiots that decided to rent a Hyundai i20 thinking it’d be all fine. We survived, but it is an experience I won’t soon repeat. The drive from Joburg to Maseru took around 5 hours and the drive from Maseru to Semonkong (our end destination) took 3 hours but was only 130km! There was a 20km stretch of pure rocks that took us over an hour.
All in all, it took us 8 hours to get from Johannesburg to Semonkong. Certainly a weekend trip that requires 3 full days!
Semonkong Village – Link
Arriving in the town of Semonkong, it was clear that we had left modern society. It’s incredible how a city so close to South Africa still lived in such a simple fashion. People on horses are the norm, kids were herding their sheep and cows, and everyone still dressed in traditional attire. There are no ATMs, banks, or grocery stores and technology as a whole is only slowly being embraced. As the roads through Lesotho are still being built, this part of Lesotho has not seen the huge influx of tourists yet which was great for us.
As amazing and basic as the town is, there is still an accommodation option for the western palate at the Semonkong Lodge. This place is in the town itself but don’t worry, the accommodations are very nice. All our meals were eaten here as it was the only real restaurant within 50 square km radius. The restaurant served quite decent food and the local bread they served was like crack and I couldn’t stop eating it. Accommodations are 300-400R a night and food is not included.
The rest of the village is quaint and small. There isn’t much to do in the town itself but walk around for a few minutes and you’ll be enthralled by the way of life that these people still lead high up in the mountains. I was fascinated by how people here still get around on horseback. Like the Masai tribesman of Kenya and Tanzania, the Sotho people of Lesotho have a very distinguishable attire. I saw many people dressed in their customary African blankets, which I must say makes quite a lot of sense because it can get very cold at night. Their pointy hats resemble that of Chinese bamboo hats which I found interesting as well.
Abseiling at Malesunyane Falls
There are a few activities that can be booked at Semonkong Lodge, the most exciting being the abseiling/repelling at the waterfalls nearby. The abseiling here is the highest in the world at 204m! It’s also based right next to an actual waterfall, also the highest single drop waterfall in all of Africa! For 825R, booking this was a no brainer. The most anything in the world is reason enough for me to do it. While this experience wasn’t as scary as my bungy jump at Bloukrans, my adrenaline was still pumping nonetheless.
What to bring for the abseiling
- Waterproof pants: I wore khakis which was stupid because this is an abseil that goes into a waterfall, very high chance you will get wet. We got completely drenched
- Gopro: The helmets have GoPro attachments. In fact, any waterproof camera will be excellent here
- Give your camera to the guide that is taking pictures from the bottom as his camera is terrible
Practice Abseiling run
The abseil activity is a 6-7 hour endeavor starting early in the morning as the guides woke us up and proceeded to give us training on how to abseil. The training was straight forward and was done right next to the lodge on a 25m cliff. In comparison, the real thing is 8 times the height! We learned the basics of abseiling quickly as we were a schedule. Even on a 25m practice descent, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach as I slowly leaned back first towards the edge of the cliff. Nevertheless, it went quickly and I was feeling great about how easily I breezed through it all. Breakfast followed suit, and we loaded up the car and drove the 40 minutes to the waterfall to begin the real deal.
Abseiling at the Waterfall
As we approach the waterfalls, it slowly dawned on me that the practice run really was really just a practice run. The waterfall was huge! This whole area was a large canyon and I’m about to walk vertically down this? Damn. Our guides (who were excellent the entire way), set everything up and the next thing we know we were getting strapped up and harnessed in. Unlike bungy jumping where you can see someone jumping to their doom, all I could see was the person slowly vanishing over the edge.
One by one we went, and as I got strapped in, I could feel the nervousness kick in but also my adrenaline. I was used to this by now and I would not be caught wimping out again. Without a word, I proceeded to walk backwards slowly and next thing I know, my back is parallel to the ground 200m below me. The scariest part of abseiling is the initial descent as one walks over the cliff because you’re entrusting your entire life in the solidity of the setup.
This abseil, at 200m, takes a damn long time. The secret is to get over any fears immediately. Looking down as soon as possible is best because it made me realize I was safe, and I could soak in some breathtaking views. I followed that up with some no hands on the rope action and kicking off the cliff to get some air. After these things were done, nothing else was scary anymore. I cruised on down, kicking off the cliff the entire way. Ten minutes into this, I started feeling some mist hit me.
I figured this abseil was right next to a huge waterfall so it’s inevitable. As I kept descending, the mist turned into a full on shower so strong that I had trouble breathing at times! This was without a doubt the scariest part of the whole abseil as none of the guides warned us about the strength of the falls. I thought for sure I went the wrong way because there’s no way I should be getting this soaked. Eventually, after a few more moments of panicking, I descended quickly and made it through the waterfalls COMPLETELY soaked. Nevertheless, an experience completely worth any amount of soaking from a waterfall.
Unfortunately, there is no elevator at the bottom of the waterfall and an hours hike up steep mountain awaits the victor.
Horse Riding Tour Through Semonkong Village
I’ve come to realize most of the sightseeing I’ve done through Africa involved me being in a car. Sometimes, to get a little closer involves just walking around. It’s perfectly safe to walk around these parts but the lodge just happened to offer horseback tours around the city. For 250R per person, we each had our own horses and an English speaking guide that took us around the village. There isn’t much knowledge to impart but it is cool to get close up and personal with the locals and go to places where cars can’t. Children run next to you and the grown-ups are all smiling when we ride by.
No horse riding experience is necessary as the ride is relaxed (although experienced individuals can gallop as they wish) and the whole thing took about 3 hours. We rode through the villages and into the mountains and back. Totally worthwhile experience.