SETTING THE SCENE
The Kingdom of Lesotho (yes it’s a constitutional monarchy) or Lesotho for short, is a unique country in that it is one of only three globally that is entirely surrounded by another nation, in this case South Africa (the other two are Vatican City and San Marino, which are surrounded by Italy). I was always intrigued by this nation and how it gained its independence and remained a sovereign nation despite all the political turmoil in neighboring South Africa throughout the 20th century. As I read more and more about Lesotho I became drawn not only by its history but its natural beauty, known simply as ‘the Kingdom in the Sky’.
The country boasts incredible mountains and was actually the inspiration for the fictitious country of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. Some interesting facts: the country’s lowest point (1,400 meters above sea) is the highest lowest point of any country on earth, which is why its the Kingdom in the Sky. Also it has the highest ski resort (Afriski) in Africa (only 4 African countries have ski resorts – South Africa, Algeria, Morocco, and Lesotho).
I had limited time in Lesotho so after careful research I decided to visit the Maletsunyane Falls in the center of the country. The falls are 630 ft high, and one of the highest single drop waterfalls in the world with incredibly picturesque surroundings. That was my mission! And here is my journey to The Real Wakanda!
ROAD TRIP: First thing I had to do was figure out how I was going to get to Lesotho. I looked into flights but they were limited in terms of timing. So I then thought why not drive to Lesotho. I looked and found that the drive was technically 4.5 hours from Johannesburg to Maseru (the capital). There were tolls and no-toll road options (as you will see, I should have taken the toll roads since my rental had a fast track device which I did not realize until much later). I ultimately decided to rent a car from the airport and follow the route to Maseru (rented a GPS device since I had no data options in Lesotho, which again turned out to be a mistake since the Garmin device did not have updated maps for Lesotho). Once in Maseru I would head 2.5 hours to Semonkong, where the falls were located.
VISA: Thankfully Lesotho and South Africa did not require visas for U.S. citizens. You just get stamped at the port of entry! Phewwww!
COVID PROTOCOLS: I needed just to get a PCR test 72 hours before departure both to South Africa and Lesotho. Here is a quick side point. I got the test in the U.S. for South Africa but to be on the safe side, I then got a second test once I got to South Africa in the airport (super quick, affordable ($35~), and efficient). I then used that test to re-enter South Africa from Lesotho and
would later use it for further travel in Africa. Always be mindful of the time limitations on a test and always make sure you are getting the right test. For all of Africa, the standard is a PCR.
DATA PLAN: Sadly T-Mobile did not have data options in Lesotho but since I was there for only a few days I was fine to fly blind and bank on wifi spots (honestly its nice not to always be plugged in). Note the hack of hacks: you can download Google Maps of a set area and use it offline with turn by turn directions (See Hacks below)!!
ACCOMMODATIONS: I wanted something reasonable, safe, clean and close to the airport in Jo-berg. The Protea Hotel by Marriott was EXACTLY what I wanted. And they had a gym to boot. Meals were great, shuttles from the airport frequent, and service was on point. Definitely recommend it! I then decided to stay in Lesotho at a remote lodge near the falls. I was recommended the Semonkong Lodge, which was also perfect in terms of its uniqueness, location to the falls, and great customer service.
I arrived in Johannesburg in the evening and stayed, as noted, in the Protea Hotel. However, when I got to the hotel I was told by my travel buddy that he could not make it because he tested positive for COVID the day before he was leaving! Snaps! You definitely don’t want to be traveling with COVID not only because of the danger you pose to others, but also because you can end up getting quarantined in the destination for up to 2 weeks, often on your own dime. So I spent the evening replanning my trip, especially for the second part in Namibia. Always good to be adaptable and if possible buy tickets that are refundable in case things change.
The journey really began on the second day. I picked up the rental car from Budget (when you can, rent cars from reputable places in case things go south and you need recourse) and began the journey. Now in South Africa and Lesotho among others, they drive on the left side of the road. My car was also manual transmission so it was a challenge at first but I eventually got used to it. Second issue was the weather. For some reason, even though it was technically summer in the southern hemisphere, it was the rainy season and man did it rain!!
The third challenge was the road conditions, largely because of the rain but also because they are just not well maintained. Again stupidly I was avoiding toll roads since I did not think the car came with the fast track option. And since the time difference was largely the same as indicated by Google Maps, the road conditions were literally night and day, especially as I entered the Free State (south of Johannesburg). About 3 hours into the drive I entered a minefield of pot holes. No joke it was bananas, I had to constantly shift and avoid potholes every few feet. Not only was my trip now an hour or more behind schedule, I was having near misses with some major potholes.
That is until I did not miss and ran smack into one! And right after I started hearing a hiss sound. I thought I was just hearing things, until I got to a gas station in a tiny town and the attendant pointed out the flat tire! Thank God in that town (even though it was a Sunday) Patrick the Tire Guy was open and fixed the tire in a jiffy (not sure if you have ever witnessed a tire getting fixed, but its quite a production).
I was back in action and not too far from the border! By the time I got there it was raining so hard that there was street flooding just to add to the hazardous conditions. But I pulled through and was able to cross the border without any issues. COUNTRY 145 and my FIRST of the Final 50 countries!!!
I drove straight into the capital, Maseru, and decided to do a quick tour before heading to Semonkong. I checked out the Palace though it was not easy to see since its set back far behind the main streets. Remember the country is still a monarchy even thought the current regent (King Letcie III) is more of a symbolic figurehead. The country gained its independence in 1966 but had stood in the face of British occupation for many decades. During Apartheid in South Africa, Lesotho played host to many dissenents who had fled the discrimination and racism. I definitely can respect that.
I then walked over to the memorial square for those who died in wars fought in the last 100 years (many from Lesotho were recruited by the British occupiers to fight their wars abroad, i.e WWI and WWII).
Before I left the city I also run across the Letseng Diamonds head office. It turns out diamonds are one of Lesotho’s main sources of income, alongside other minerals, and at the Letseng diamond mine some of the world’s largest diamonds were found (the mine boasts the most dollar per carat of any mine in the world). Often diamond mining areas are off limits to any tourist since they are of extreme sensitive to the state.
After battling flooded streets again, I was on my way to the south central part of the country.
However, the clock was ticking! It was 5PM, I had about another ~2 hours to drive and I needed to get there before nightfall, since driving at night was treacherous. I didn’t know why at first, but I quickly found out why!
The drive to Semonkong was truly magical. I understood quickly why the country had been the inspiration for Wakanda. It was SO green. Full of rivers, mountains, green plateaus, unique rock formations, rivines, and little hamlets.
People tending to their livestock wearing colorful wool Basotho blankets living in their unique thatched roof and rock walled abodes (Basotho is the main ethnicity of the country at 99%+. In fact it is one of very few African countries that are so homogenous, leading to less internal tension). I seriously must have stopped so many times to take pictures and take it all in. Truly intoxicating beauty.
Basotho wool blanket is very traditional and comes in many colors/patterns
By 715PM I was getting super worried since at this point, not only were there some potholes, but also rockfalls in the road! I needed to get to the lodge before I got another flat and there were very few cars on the road in this remote part of the country. I thought I would never make it but finally around 720PM I got to the mud road that cut through the local village, which supposedly lead to the lodge. I had to park in the village since the little road to the lodge was washed away in the recent storm. Thankfully the village chief was kind enough to let me park in his garage (more on this later)!
Semonkong Lodge was perfect. Ideally situated near the falls.
My room was designed in the shape and style of the Lesotho huts with a beautiful fire place and a view of the river that cut right in front of the lodge. After a much needed lamb chop dinner (deliciously spiced by the way), I planned to go to sleep since I needed to be up at 415AM to start the hike to the falls by sunrise! I did try to make a fire in the fireplace but that failed miserably (I’m going to blame the wet firewood!) then the lights of the hotel went out at 10PM sharp and I was left to romage around with a candle. I loved it! Time for bed.
Battling jetlag for the past few days I woke up at 4.15AM and began to get ready under the candle light.
Earnest came to my room at 430AM and brought me straight up oversized rainboots, imploring me to wear them since it was SUPER muddy on the walk up. Now I consider myself to be a strong hiker but with these boats it looked like I was about to go fishing. Locals kept laughing and commenting about it lol! But wow the walk to the falls was so idyllic. Quiet and comforted by the noise of bells from the livestock in the distance.
Smoke/mist from the waterfall in the distance
After almost an hour we got to see smoke and knew we were nearing the falls. What I saw next just stopped me in my tracks. It was surreal. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
Those boots, smh…
The falls drop straight into the river which then has carved the valley that also has the same namesake as the falls.
No buildings in sight (save an oversized government restaurant/lodge on the hill) or people. I was truly at one with nature. Earnest and I then decided to hike down to the falls (super hard with those rainboots) and got to experience the sheer force of the falls!
After doing my traditional run (a run in each country visited) along the perimeter of the falls we headed back. What an unreal experience! Definitely worth the 10 hour drive the day before. But not going to lie, I was not looking forward to driving back. When I got to the lodge, I met someone who needed a ride into South Africa right along my route, so I offered a lift (always good karma to help others, you never know when you need help)! I had to collect my car the chief’s house (young guy who’s family line had overseen the local village for generations).
Giving the village chief a lift back into the town from his home!
After a very smooth exit from Lesotho and re-entry into South Africa (I thankfully got a negative PCR results from the test I took at the airport in South Africa and showed that at the border) I then embarked on the 5-6 hour hour drive back to my hotel in Johannesburg. Thankfully this time I took the N1, which was super smooth (even though it added more time to my route it was so much less stressful than dealing with potholes).
At around 9PM I got to the airport and dropped my little VW polo and took the shuttle to the Protea hotel. The next day I was walking up early to take my flight to Namibia to began another adventure and complete the countries of Southern Africa!
Lesotho was an incredible adventure. The people were warm and friendly, the countryside simply breathtaking, and the memories just unforgettable! Of course there is much to see in Lesotho: the mountains with incredible hikes, the ancient cave dwellings, skiing, rivers with some of Africa’s largest dams and so much more. But for the time I had I was grateful to have experienced the drive through the countryside, met locals, and seen the falls while learning about the people, traditions, customs and cuisine.
Earnest my intrepid guide
Thank you to the true Wakanda, the Kingdom in the Sky!
DOWNLOADING GOOGLE MAPS: So for the first time in a long time, T-Mobile did not provide coverage in a country I was visiting. So I was left to figure out how I would use GPS. I found out that you can literally open up Google Maps when you have wifi/service and search a location, say Semonkong. Then you zoom out of the location so you have a larger map of the area on your phone screen or in this case the western side of Lesotho. You can then scroll to the top and next to the share option is the three dot option menu. Click that then select ‘download offline map’ and download the map on your phone. You will then get turn-by-turn directions (minus traffic updates) of anywhere you want to go. Simply a game changer since GPS/maps is one of the most important reasons for having data abroad!
GETTING COVID TESTS IN AIRPORTS: Obviously I got tested before I got to South Africa. But the next day instead of trying to find a location to get a test in Lesotho where there are a lot of unknowns, I just went back to the airport in South Africa and got a test there so that I could have a back up from a reputable location that I could use on the next legs of my trip. Also there is almost always testing facilities at every major airport open every day of the week, which is not always the case in every major city.
WHATSAPP FOR BOOKINGS: So instead of booking some of the accommodations via booking websites or even emailing the hotel, I would just find the number on their website and see if that number is linked to a Whatsapp account. In the case of Semonkong Lodge it was. While I did email them, service up there was very poor and they depended more on Whatsapp and that is how I made the booking. Definitely would recommend this especially when booking in more rural parts of a developing country. And it also creates a closer bond with the hotel staff as you have a direct person to ask questions if you need.
CASH ON HAND: When you get to a foreign country, it is always good to have cash on hand. Especially small change because you want to tip those who help as often as you can. Nothing major but something to show your thanks. And it can go a very long way. So make sure you pull out cash, and break it into coins and small notes. This came in handy when I had to change my tire in the middle of nowhere in South Africa, and later when I used a guide.
GETTING A GUIDE: If you have a chance to get a local guide and it is not expensive then do it! Why, because (1) they can show you things and take you to places/routes you would just not see on your own, helping you get their faster and safer, (2) you get the inside scoop on the country from a local, which can be invaluable and more authentic then just from online sources, (3) you help the local population by giving them funds or at least tips straight to them. This was definitely the case with the waterfalls in Lesotho and meeting Earnest, learning about the pulse on the politics of the country, the culture, and local customs!
BORROWING ATTIRE: If you need something like lets say shorts or even hiking shoes just ask the hotel, guide, or anyone at your accommodation, rather then suck it up and go unprepared. Thankfully I asked the lodge if they could provide me with something that can withstand the mud and the boots, although oversized and cumbersome, were invaluable when dealing with the muddy terrain.
Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next journey!