Although this article, Lesotho Tourism for the Off-road Traveler, deals mainly with 4×4 trails in Lesotho, it is one of a series of fifteen articles that will briefly describe the geography, climate, terrain, must-do activities, must-see places, and much else besides, of all nine South African provinces, as well as some of the countries bordering on South Africa.
Taking up an area of 30,355 sq/km, and with a border of only 909 kilometres long, all of which bor-ders on South Africa, Lesotho has the twin distinctions of being the only country in the world that lies entirely above 1000 metres above sea level, and that its lowest geographical point is the highest in the world- at a lofty 1 400 metres above sea level.
Consisting of three distinct geographical regions, the Lowlands that follow the banks of the Caledon and Senqu Rivers, the Highlands that consist mainly of the Drakensberg and Maluti mountain ranges in the eastern and central parts of the country, and the hills that divide the Lowlands from the Highlands.
The highest geographical point in Lesotho is the peak of the Thabana Ntlenyana mountain at 3 482 metres, while the lowest point is at the confluence of the Makhaleng and Orange (Senqu) Rivers at an elevation of 1 400 metres. More than 80% of Lesotho lies at elevations above 1 800 metres.
Due to its high elevation, Lesotho has a continental climate, but the coolest of any other country or region at the same latitude. Depending on the altitude, weather conditions in Lesotho can vary greatly: the hot rainy season runs from October to April, which is when the highest rainfall occurs during violent thunderstorms. Summer temperatures vary from about 300C in the humid Lowlands, to about 180C in the mountains of the Highlands.
Winter runs from May to September, when temperatures range between -70C in the Lowlands to as low as -180C in the high mountains. Special care must e taken in the Highlands, since weather conditions can change very rapidly right through the year- from hot sunshine to rain, mist, and sub-zero temperatures in a matter of an hour or less, although on average, Lesotho experiences more than 300 days of sunshine in any given year.
Rainfall averages around 600 mm in the Lowlands to about 1 200 mm in the Highlands. However, the difference in rainfall between the two regions can be erratic and unpredictable, and droughts are common in the Lowlands. Snowfalls in the highlands can be severe, and care must be exercised at all times.
Consisting primarily of mountains, and with only about 10% of its land area being arable, Lesotho offers unremitting mountain scenery- endless hills, mountain peaks, valleys, and a few small rolling grassy plains in between them. However, the scenery is also unremittingly spectacular, which is why Lesotho has a reputation among international tourists as “…one of the most starkly beautiful places on the planet.”
Especially striking is the flame-red flower spikes of the Spiral Aloe, Lesotho’s National Flower, that cover the slopes, hills, meadows, and mountain sides in their millions. Lesotho is also home to more than 3000 plant species, many of which are endemic to the country, and which include many Cape Alpine varieties that cloak the meadows and high mountain cliffs in carpets of colour during the flowering season.
Due to its small size, it is perhaps understandable that Lesotho does not have very many National Parks and Reserves, and that those it does have, are small by any standard. None of the parks in Lesotho accommodates big game, but the sense of peace, tranquillity, and spectacular scenery of its parks go a long way towards compensating for this.
Sehlabathebe National Park
Due to its 2 400-meter elevation, most of the vegetation here is of the Afro-alpine, and Sub-Alpine types. The main attractions of the park are the exquisite scenery, dramatic and even bizarre rock formations, swimmable rock pools, and the various types of grassland that occur here. The park houses several endangered species of plants and small animals, as well as several vulture species. This park is a must-see destination for those seeking peace and solitude.
The Bokong Nature Reserve
This reserve counts among the highest on the African continent, at the top of the Mafika Disiu Pass leading to the Katse Dam. Much of the park consists of Afro-Alpine Wetlands that accommodates various species of buck, birds, and the exceedingly rare Ice Rat, which is a small rodent that lives under rocks. Several walking and hiking trails are offered, and guides are available to ensure nobody gets lost. Accommodation is available in a campsite and chalets constructed from local rock.
Almost all the roads of Lesotho can be described as a scenic drives, but in a land of plenty, some scenic drives are more scenic than others are, and one such route defies description here:
Malealea to Maletsunyane Waterfall at Semonkong
This full day drive takes in several mountain passes, the Botsoela Waterfall, and some, if not most, of the most spectacularly scenic panoramas in all of Southern Africa, if not the African continent. The route is better driven than described, and the only way to appreciate it is to drive it yourself, but be prepared to spend an entire day driving only 150 kilometres through the most scenic parts of Lesotho. You will be glad you did.
Due to its small size and poorly developed infrastructure, Lesotho does not have as much to offer the off-road tourist as some of its neighbours do. However, despite its small size, there is nevertheless a variety of things to do, see, and experience in this Kingdom in the Sky. Below is a random selection of must-do, and must-see activities on offer in Lesotho.
Dinosaur footprints and fossils
For those with a paleontological bent, Lesotho offers the highest concentration of dinosaur fossils and foot prints in the world, as well as the most fossilized trees, shells, and plants. Lesotho is also the origin of the oldest link between reptiles and mammals, and there are many sites to visit to see dinosaur footprints and other relics from the distant past. Some locations are:
Leribe Dinosaur Footprints- S 28º 49′ 23.4/ E 028º 04′ 29.7
Morija Dinosaur Footprints- S 29º 37′ 57.9/ E 027º 30′ 47.8
Quiteng Dinosaur Footprints- S 30º 23′ 41.5/ E 027º 41′ 35.2
Due to its 192 meter-high-uninterrupted fall into large pool, this waterfall is one of the world’s premier waterfalls and the best-known landmark in Lesotho. Its spectacularly beautiful setting among high cliffs also make it one of the most beautiful, especially in winter, when it partially freezes over, and large icicles hang from the surrounding rock walls. This is a must-see attraction on any tour of Lesotho.
The Maletsunyane Falls is famous for another reason; it is possible to abseil its full 204 meter height, which makes it the highest commercial abseil in the world. If you have a head for heights, this experience is an unforgettable thrill, and a must do-activity.
There is no doubt that exploring Lesotho on a pony is one of the best ways to experience the soul of this Mountain Kingdom. Although prior riding experience is not required, it is definitely recommended, for some tours that are up to six days long. Basotho ponies may be strong and sure-footed, and the views you get from atop one are unsurpassed, but be prepared for aching joints and muscles.
Lesotho offers the longest skiing slopes in Africa, and while prior experience is recommended, it is not required since Afri-Ski Leisure Kingdom provides instruction on the basics of both skiing and snowboarding. However, due to the variability of the snowfalls, it is strongly recommended that you make enquiries and arrangements before you leave for your skiing adventure, and best time to go is from June to August.
For rock climbers Lesotho is a paradise, since it has more peaks and rock faces than any other coun-try on the African continent. However, it is strongly advised that no climbing is attempted by inexperience persons, and that local advice is sought on climbing conditions, weather, and required equipment, since the rescue services in Lesotho re not as well developed, as it perhaps should be.
Apart from the Sani Pass, which is well known to almost all off-road drivers, and which has been described a million times, Lesotho has a few other dangerous passes that require proper 4WD vehicles, advanced driving skills, and nerves of steel. Below is a selection of some of the more notorious passes that are not as well known as Sani Pass.
Although this 7.9 km-long pass is tarred, and links the towns of Butha-Buthe and Mokhotlong, it should not be attempted by inexperienced drivers. Occasional patches of ice, especially in winter, make this one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and snow tyres or chains may be required for much, if not most of the year. The elevation gain on this pass is 1113 vertical metres over a road distance of 24.7 kilometres with an average gradient of 4.4%.
An extension of the Sani Pass, the Kotisephola Pass is the second highest pass in Lesotho at an elevation of 3 240 meters in the Black Mountains. Although there is no reliable information on gradients, altitude gains etc, it is considered dangerous by many experienced off-road drivers.
At an elevation of 3 255 metres, this dangerous, poorly maintained tarred pass is also considered to be an extension of the Sani Pass, and it is not recommended for novice or inexperienced drivers. No reliable information on gradients and altitude gains/loss is available.
From an off-road tourism perspective, Lesotho has nothing to offer the off-road tourist, and the only town worth visiting is the capital, Maseru, and then only to stock up on essential supplies for excursions deeper into the interior.
Maseru, the biggest city in Lesotho has virtually no tourist attractions, although the surrounding area offers activities like horse riding, swimming, fishing, and the like. Western style shops and facilities are almost non-existent outside of Maseru, and sadly, there is nothing to attract the off-road tourist to any other town in Lesotho, except to say that is possible to refuel in most of them.