Lesotho – The Kingdom in the Sky

kingdom
Lesotho, the Kingdom in the sky

Source: Out there Travel, autumn 2010

Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky, is a land for explorers, photographers, writer, historians and dinosaur hunters.

It’s not quite the Swiss Alps, but Lesotho does have a ski slope in the Maluti Mountains. Okay, so the main slope is just a kilometer long and snow guns work through the night to ensure an even spread of powder, but the Alps are a R10 000 flight away, whereas Afri-Ski Resort, perched at a 3 222m near Oxbow village across the boarder from Fouriesburg, is a 4.5-hour drive from Johannesburg, and four hours from Bloem. Besides snow in June, Lesotho has several things the Alps don’t. For one, it’s a real-life Jurassic Park, with one of the world’s best dinosaur fossils and prints. There’s even a critter named after it: Lesothaurus was a small, plant-eating lizard from the early Jurassic period, and an artist’s impression shows it as an agile green beast with a flat black head like a snake.
Fossilised footprints are found at two places near Quthing in southern Lesotho – on a huge slab of rock beside the road to Mount Moorosi, and at Masitise Cave House, where dinosaur prints run across a whitewashed ceiling. The massive rock overhang first sheltered San hunter-gatherers, then in the 19th century was converted into the discreet hillside home of Swiss missionary David-Frédéric Ellenberger and family. Their rooms have become a museum, with glass cases holding Ellenberger and dinosaur relics. We had a fascinating tour with the pastor of the church at the foot of the hill, who doubles as keeper of the cave house key.

Further east, past Quithing town, the footprints of ostrich-sized tridactyls dash across plates of sandstone. They were preserved on a riverbed sandwiched between sandstone layers and discovered when the road was built in 1963. At face value, the Quithing prints – protected from the elements by only a roof, from curious tourists by a small wall and advertised by a dusty signpost to drive past three times – are a prosaic attraction. But all it requires is a little imagination…

French couple Sonia and Alexandre Poussin came this way on their 14 000km walk across Africa and, for Alexandre, envisioning how the S-shapes might have been created by a giant tail dragging through the soil triggered a revelation. In their book Africa Trek: In the footsteps of mankind, he writes: “And what seemed to us the passage of fat chicken becomes the proof of flesh and bones that large biped saurians have walked right along the edges of an ancient lake, a 170 million years ago…

As impressive are the dinosaurs’ prints on a mountainside above Morija, the town south of Maseru, founded in 1833 by three Protestant missionaries, one of whom became an adviser of King Moshoeshoe the Great. We stayed at Mojira Guest Houses; where hostess par excellence Brigitte Hall-Cathala hooked us up over sundowners on their magnificent terrace with Dr Bernard Battail, a paleontologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History. He has been coming to Lesotho for almost 40 years, and as well as being a fascinating character with an irrepressibly wicked sense of humour, Battail is one of the world’s few Sesotho-speaking Frenchmen (he learnt the language listening to tapes on the Paris Metro).

Perhaps it’s the quality of our guide or the beauty of the location, but under a vast blue sky with villages and valleys rolling out below, it’s truly possible to imagine Lesotho as a land dinosaurs once roamed (even if, Bernard is quick to point out a landscape in no way resembles that of the Jurassic era). The eight or nine dinosaur footprints on a sandstone slab are a 180 to 200 million years old and remain hidden in the bush with no barriers, signpost or uniformed guardians to temper the wilderness. Locally the beast responsible is known as “Nonyana ea Makhoarane”, the Giant Bird of Morija Mountain, because people not unnaturally assumed the three-toed prints belonged to a bird.

“Three toes indicate it was a theropod, a carnivorous bipedal”, Bernard explains. T-Rex is the most famous theropod, and this dinosaur would have been a third of that size – two to three meters tall. Its ephemeral have been preserved across the millennia, possibly as the mud dried, was covered in another layer of sediment, then turned to fossilised stone.
Erosion finally exposed them.

In 1885, an account of the ”discovery” of these footprints by a French missionary appeared in Leselinyana la Lesotho (The Little Light of Lesotho), Africa’s oldest vernacular newspaper. It was the first fossil footprint find reported in sub-Saharan Africa.

Morija is a cultural hub (visit during the festival in October), also known as Selibeng sa Thuto (the Wellspring of Learning). It’s home to Lesotho’s oldest printing press and church, with a roof made of ship’s masts transported from Port Elizabeth by ox wagon. To explore, pick up a copy of A Guide to Morija by museum curator Steve Gill.

Morija Museum is the chief repository of Lesotho culture, holding everything from Moshoeshoe’s china tea set to dinosaur remains, including the femur of a prosauropod, one of the largest petrified bones discovered in southern Africa. Its archives are a researcher’s goldmine, with many rare and first editions of African books and papers. Several authors have spent time here piecing together the past, including journalist and poet Antjie Krog, whose latest literature tour de force, Beginning to the Black, includes an examination of the life of Moshoeshoe.

Award-winning writer and historian Tim Couzens spent time here investigating the 1920 poisoning of pastor Édouard Jacottetand evokes the time, the place and its missionaries in fascinating detail in his book Murder in Morija. For those curious about this murder mystery, several sights are worth visiting, including Jacottet’s home, where he was poisoned over lunch, the book depot where his (possibly patricidal) eldest daughter worked, and the square rondavel where she lived and may have consummated an affair with a black student. For those on a road trip, Couzens recommends the spectacular drive along the tarred road to Mokhotlong (Place of the Bald Ibis) in Lesotho’s east, the original Roof of Africa Rally Route. “The countryside up there in the mountains is totally different from what you would expect,” he says. “No trees, barren, rather like the moors outside Dublin or in Yorkshire, and these huge, deep, deep, valleys where the Orange and other rivers cut through.” Off this road is a cave known as Liphofung, Place of the Eland, with a waterfall and a stream inside, and San paintings on the walls. Well worth a visit, explains Couzens, “because it’s a cave in which Moshoeshoe took refuge in the 1830s. It’s quite extraordinary, it just reeked of history.”

About 35km from Morija lies the most important Moshoeshoe site, Thaba Bosiu, the mountain fortress where the man – many refer to as the Nelson Mandela of the 19th century – held out against the forces of the Ndebele leader Mzilikazi and the Boers and where the Basotho nation was founded. Brigitte recommends taking a guide to the top: “It’s not a very long climb, though a bit steep, and the walk on the plateau is extremely pleasant.” Couzens has another tip: At the foot of Thaba Bosiu is a church with a small room attached. Inside that room is a single stone said to be the seat King Moshoeshoe used when he came down from the mountain. “If you ask at a house nearby or any of the kids, a woman will produce a key and let you in.”

For those wishing to explore the capital, Couzens highly recommends Maseru: An illustrated History, by David Ambrose.

Lesotho is an eco-tourism diamond in the rough, with soaring mountains, deep valleys and waterfalls that freeze into columns of ice in winter. It’s also a hiker’s paradise, with great trails in Drakensberg’s rugged Sehlabathebe National Park, where the average altitude is 2 400m, and, in the Maluti Mountains, the breathtaking Ts’ehlanye National Park and Bokong Nature Reserve, famed for its birdwatching – look out for the bearded vulture.

This landlocked state also offers pony-trekking, offroad driving, fishing, horse racing and blissful solitude. Its bewitching nickname, Kingdom in the Sky, is because no part is lower than 1 000m. in the recently released Rough Guide anthology Clean Breaks: 500 new ways to see the world, Lesotho garners two mentions: the first a trek on Basotho ponies over Sani Pass to Sani Top Chalet – at 3 482m Africa’s highest pub, then on to Thabana Ntlenzana, the highest point south of Kilimanjaro, and the second pony trek starting from Malealea Lodge, home to the world’s longest commercial abseil – a 204m drop down Maletsunyane Falls.

Malealea is the favourite base of photographer René Paul Gosselin, author of a new collection of portraits, Basotho: People at work, and an adventurous spirit who has spent the best part of a decade documenting the nation. “If there are “key lines” going around the world, this has to be one of those points where they cross and attract cool people from around the world,” he says.

“It’s not unusual to find an English prince or a member of the Lesotho royal family and to hear languages from several countries.”

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