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day-tripping in the kingdom in the sky

“There’s not much to do in Lesotho,” a South African friend told D, “except to look at it.” This struck D as reason enough to plan a brief visit to this, the highest country in the world. Having already decided to spend several days in the Drakensberg Mountains – Lesotho’s spiritual homeland, according to another South African acquaintance – it seemed silly not to make at least a day trip to Lesotho. Getting there, however, proved a bit of a challenge.

Flying into Maseru would have meant foregoing the spectacular Drakensberg hikes on the South African side of the border, which D was loath to do. Driving in also appeared like a sub-optimal option from D’s limited research, as the roads are extremely rough and only accessible to 4×4 vehicles. D wound up organizing a day trip through a backpacker hostel, which enabled him to satisfy his curiosity and add a new country to his list while staying in South Africa (which has much better accommodations and food) for the duration of his brief visit to the Drakensberg Mountains.

Lesotho gained independence from the United Kingdom in the 1960’s – long after South Africa, which completely rings this tiny mountain kingdom, had secured its sovereignty. The irony, of course, is that the same jagged peaks that guaranteed the Basotho people their autonomy now cut them off from potential job and education opportunities. The country’s 2 million inhabitants have preserved their ancestral culture, but a variety of demographic indicators paint an otherwise grim picture. Life expectancy is under 50, according to UNDP estimates, and the HIV/AIDS prevalence stands at 25% – among the highest in the world. And despite a series of education reforms, only one in two children enroll in secondary school; far fewer earn a degree.

Because D went with a hostel group the visit felt a bit staged. The hostel sponsors a school in a small rural community just across the border, and it was in this Basotho village that D wound up spending the day. There was a schoolteacher, who welcomed the group and talked about many of the country’s economic challenges. There was a sangoma­ – a traditional healer – who spoke about the mysterious illness she experienced as a teenager that nearly left her blind. It was a way for her ancestors to call her attention to the afterworld and set her on the path to spiritual healing, she said. There was an elderly couple that opened their home and cooked a traditional meal consisting of greens and an ugali-like maize meal porridge called pap.

Stage-managed though the visit may have been, it was certainly more than D would have accomplished had he arrived in Lesotho on his own. Speaking with the sangoma was the clear highlight of the day, but the hiking was also glorious. The guide led the way up a scraggly slope to a sheltered overhang where several San rock paintings could be discerned. Half of the group opted for an extended picnic lunch while D joined the other half for a longer walk up to a plateau that offered sweeping views of the village and surrounding landscape below.

It’s unlikely that we’ll have the opportunity to return to Lesotho in the immediate future, but if D’s day trip is any indication, this is a country that is certainly worth exploring.

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