The Highest Country in the World – A touristy example of Basotho life

A few kilometres further on we turned off the main road and visited the Basotho Cultural Village.  While a highly sanitized representation of a Basotho settlement, it offers an insight into the rich architecture, crafts and everyday living of the people.  The huts are well made and washed in dark ochres, purples and oranges strongly decorated with white and black diamonds , swirls or crosses.  Some were just stone, others covered in adobe, still more studded with intricate stone mosaics on the walls.  Inside were pristine artefacts of your average Basotho household, the pots, wooden mortar and pestle, the long wooden spoons, the knives, the mats, the hats.  Yes, there was that iconic conical shape once more.

I looked eastwards and consulted the map – I saw mountains to the south east that I realised were the ones at the back of the Royal Natal Park.  I had last been in this area some twenty years earlier when I had holidayed in South Africa with my friend Kirsty.  Funny when you have been travelling long enough that you start joining up the dots, seeing an old historical memory for real again but from a different angle.

We had to drive back the same way, but that was no hardship.  More game in the shape of impala and waterbuck were now out grazing in the late afternoon sun, and the colours in the buttresses were more vivid in the lowering sunlight.  It was hard to tear yourself away from this environment.

Fortunately we did not need to tear ourselves too far away.  As we reached our villa, Clarens was now in the shadow of a mountain to the west, but the valley we had just returned along was glowing in all the sun’s glory to the east.  We cracked open a bottle of wine and watched the sunlight play on the scene, a marvellous slow motion disco of yellow, red and purple.  We then settled down to make some dinner and flopped about feeling relaxed.  It had been a long but fantastic day.

The Highest Country in the World – King Moshoeshoe’s last resting place

Our other excursion outside of town on that first visit was a morning drive to a famous tourist site, a few miles north east of Maseru.  Lesotho is a monarchy, although the legacy and continuity has sometimes been disturbed.  One of the recent kings, King Moshoeshoe II, reigned from independence in 1966 to 1990, although he had a struggle with another guy who wanted more presidential power.  He was then forced into exile, only to return in 1995 to reign again. His second term was cut short by a tragic car accident, but he was buried at his family grave, which has now become a place of pilgrimage for many locals and tourists.

Chris and I drove east towards Roma once more, but then turned north just where the city peters out.  The grave sits atop a flat mesa, called Thaba Bosiu.  Although there was a sign on the road, with a car park, and a visitor centre was under construction, the pathway up to the grave was not marked.  We walked up the most likely route passing through a small village.  Two young boys were pumping water into their family’s containers and posed and smiled for us as we took photos.  After that we saw no-one else.  The route was rocky, but dried grass still bushed up either side of us, and the odd pine tree gave some much needed colour to the brown landscape.  We were walking up the vegetated scree, and the mesa like so many was capped by hard rock that formed a sheer face all round the edge.  I wondered how we reached the top, but the pathway led us into a small gorge between two massifs and before long we were on the flat summit.  The vista back to Maseru was stunning under the clear winter sky; every detail of every farm, road, field and tree was crystal.  We tore ourselves away from the view and commenced exploring, we only had a couple of hours before we had to get back to Maseru, pick up our bags and drive back to Johannesburg to catch our overnight flight back to the UK so we had to keep moving.

This natural fortress is a sacred site for Lesotho.  The Basotho people had been forced to resettle from further north west due to both tribal conflicts with others like the Zulus, and then being squeezed out as white Boer Voortrekkers took over the plains.  The highlands we know now as Lesotho became their home and they defended the territory fearlessly.  Thaba Bosiu was the location of some of the fiercest battles for the territory, and its attributes were well noted by the original King Moshoeshoe I.  He moved his capital south from Botha Bothe on the border with South Africa to Thaba Bosiu .

Once we were on top, we saw evidence of a settlement, some buildings in ruins, others no more than a footprint in the sand.  We tromped across the expanse of the mesa, but drawn to a set of erections poking above the long grass.  They were memorials and graves to the royal family.  The largest was a black marble frame, like a small Greek temple, surrounded by iron railings and set within a small grove of trees.  Across the top were inscribed the words “King Moshoeshoe II”, the grave itself marked by a small grey stone.  Surrounding him were many more graves, most no more than a carefully arranged cuboid of stones, some marked with hand painted inscriptions; one even had a curious naive statue, presumably a likeness of the man buried beneath, but recently painted in dazzling black and white.  There were a couple of hundred graves in this area set aside from Moshoeshoe’s mausoleum.