Lesotho: Africa's best kept secret.

Author:Ankomah, Baffour
Position:An IC Special Report

Pure Majesty

If you haven't been to Lesotho yet, you haven't seen natural beauty. The country of blue mountains and white cars is pure majesty. It does take the breath away. Any tourist worth his salt must see it.

The locals call it "The Mountain Kingdom" "The Roof of Africa" or "The Kingdom in the Sky". All three accolades are well deserved. For in some parts of the 75% of Lesotho dominated by the beautiful rugged mountains, you do actually drive in the clouds, high in the sky, as if you are flying in an aeroplane on the roof of Africa.

You have to see it to believe it. Nothing in your past prepares you for the experience--driving in the clouds, enveloped by the clouds, visibility a mere tens of feet.

It is magical. On the "highest road in Africa" at the Tlaeeng Pass near Mokhotlong in the north, 10,745 feet (3,275 metres) above sea level, thick plumes of white clouds swirl around your car, and for a brief moment you think you are being transported to paradise.

And all around you, beautiful white streams full of water meander their way down the sides of the mountains into the deep valleys below to form great rivers that feed into the riverine system of Southern Africa. Lesotho is the birthplace of many of the region's rivers. It is a wondrous sight. Absolutely fantastic. You will never see a country so devoid of trees but which has so much water. No wonder, water is the chief natural resource of Lesotho.

Welcome to the land of 2.2 million people mad about their white cars. Over 90% of vehicles in Lesotho are white, the only place in the world you will ever see such a phenomenon. The locals say white cars are cheap to buy and maintain, especially if the paintwork needs re-doing.

So where is Lesotho? Forget latitudes and longitudes. Just take your African map. Go down to the very south of the continent, to the country called South Africa. Pan your eye across the eastern districts of South Africa. And there it is! Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, one of the only three countries in the world (the Vatican and San Marino are the other two) to be so surrounded by one country.

Covering an area of 11,716 sq miles (30,344 sq km), landlocked Lesotho is the same size as Belgium or Taiwan. But while Taiwan has over 22 million people, Lesotho has just 2.2 million. You can thus imagine the freedom of space that the people of Lesotho (called the Basotho) enjoy, and how that adds to their quality of life.

In fact, the similarities with Taiwan are striking. Like Taiwan, 75% of Lesotho is mountainous, forcing mach of the population onto the 25% of "lowlands" in the north and west. In Taiwan, the harsh rugged mountains dominating the middle of the island, have similarly forced the country's 22 million people to live cheek by jowl on the strip of' lowlands along the coast, making land space such a premium commodity.

Small wonder then that Taiwanese companies dominate Lesotho's ho burgeoning clothing and textile industry (the higgest in Africa), employing scores of thousands of mainly Basotho women.

Talking about "lowlands", Lesotho is exceptional. "Low" here means over 4,550 feet (or 1,380 metres) above sea level. It is the only country in the world that has all its territory lying at altitudes higher J than 4,553 feet above sea level the lowest point in Lesotho). It is truly "the roof of Africa", the only country in hot Africa covered by snow from border to border in the winter months (May to July).

Unlike the Africa you know Lesotho has a somewhat "European" climate, with four distinct seasons. Spring starts from August to October, summer from November to January, and autumn from February to April, In winter (May to July) temperatures can get as low as minus 17 degrees. During this time, the cascading waters of the mountain streams are known to freeze. Something new always come from Africa indeed!

The "highlands" that make up 75% of the country consist of high mountains, deep valleys and cool rivers. This is where the beauty of Lesotho truly lies. As a result, you don't see the beauty of the country if you don't get out of the capital, Maseru, which lies in a shallow valley on the banks of the Caledon River.

The majestic blue mountains of the Maloti (meaning the range) run from northeast to southwest of the country. In the north and east, along the border with South Africa's province of KwaZulu Natal, runs the Drakensberg range (or "mountain of the dragon") whose high cliffs and harsh rugged terrain make access to Lesotho in that part of the country extremely difficult.

The highest mountain in Southern Africa, Thabana-Ntlenyana (12,600 feet or 3,482 metres) is found in Lesotho's Drakensberg range. It is here that the sources of two of southern Africa's most important rivers, Caledon and Senqu (or Orange River to the Boers) are found.


Below the Drakensberg range, the rocks (said to be more than 200 million years old) are imprinted with fossilised footprints of dinosaurs dating from the Triassic era, some 208 million years ago. And rock paintings abound -- signs that the San people (now found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana) were the original inhabitants of the land.

According to historians, the San had dominated the vast interior of Southern Africa (including Lesotho) for over 10,000 years before the arrival of modern-day Southern Africans from somewhere up the African continent.

Historically, the land now called Lesotho stretched all the way north to South Africa's city of gold, Johannesburg. The border was the Vaal River near Johannesburg. But by 1836, much of the Lesotho lowlands from the Vaal River in the north to the Orange River in the south, suitable for agriculture, had been seized by the marauding European (or Boer) settlers in South Africa.

Twelve years earlier, in 1824, Lesotho had emerged as a kingdom through the foresight and diplomacy of a young paramount chief, Moshoeshoe the Great. As war raged all around him, Moshoeshoe gathered the remnants of the Basotho people scattered by the Zulu and Matabele wars and established them at Thaba-Bosiu, an invincible mountain fortress that became known as the "Mountain of the Night".

According to legend, the mountain grew tall as the enemies (including the Boers) tried to climb it at night to attack Moshoeshoe and his people. By daylight, the enemies would still be stranded half way up the mountain, a perfect cannon fodder for the huge boulders that the Basotho rolled down on them.

Thus, Thaba-Bosiu was never taken by the enemy. It is now a national monument where both the Basotho and foreign tourists go to pay homage to Moshoeshoe's greatness. Not far from Thaba Bosiu is Mount Qiloane, the legendary conical mountain, said to have inspired Lesotho's national headgear (see cover photo).

Although widely acknowledged as a "great military and diplomatic strategist", Moshoeshoe later found that these attributes were not enough to hold back the better-armed Boers who continued to invade and seize his agricultural lands, pushing his people farther and farther into the rugged mountains.

For example, Major Warden, a magistrate based in Bloemfontein, just woke up one day and deprived Moshoeshoe of a huge slice of his land far into the interior to form, what is today, the border between Lesotho and South Africa's Free State province.

By 1865, Moshoeshoe had had enough of the Boers. So he appealed to the British for protection, and his kingdom became a British "protectorate" called Basutoland. Thus, Lesotho was not colonised in the classical sense, and was able to keep much of its culture, traditions and monarchy.

Maseru, the capital and only city in the country, was founded by the British in 1869. It was named after the red sandstone discovered in the area.

But, as usual, the British had other designs. Moshoeshoe died in 1870. A year later, Britain annexed his kingdom to the Cape Colony Initially Sir Philip Woodhouse, governor of the Cape Co1ony governed Lesotho on behalf of Britain, but from 1884 onwards, resident high commissioners directly under the British government governed Lesotho from Maseru until independence on 4 October 1966.

In fact, Britain did not have its way all the time. In 1910 when the Union of South Africa was formed, the Basotho resisted further British attempts to incorporate their kingdom into the Union. This explains why the country which finally requested and gained its independence from London and renamed Lesotho in 1966, came to be surrounded geographically by South Africa, with no access to the sea. Its original agricultural lowlands in the north, west and south of the territory had long been seized by the Boers.


At independence, with apartheid well grown and thriving in South Africa, the young Lesotho, then under the leadership of King Moshoeshoe II, had little room for manoeuvre. Its overbearing apartheid neighbour had all the cards. The apartheid regime even sent troops from time to time across the border to attack and kill suspected ANC guerrillas based in Lesotho. Many Basotho were killed in those raids.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, Lesotho today has a much...

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