Not for nothing is this part of Lesotho called the Roof of Africa. The Drakensberg Mountains soar into the clouds, and Thabana-Ntlenyana is the highest peak of Southern Africa. Dramatic mountainscapes offer some of the most spectacular scenery in Lesotho, while the tiny villages, all but cut off from vehicular traffic, display traditional lifestyles unchanged for generations.
This tourist route is called the Roof of Africa Scenic Route. The greater part of the Lesotho part of the circuit is in Mokhotlong District, where the top of the Drakensberg Ridge is found. This includes Thabana-Ntlenyana, which at 3482m is the highest peak in Southern Africa. Sani Pass, Thaba-Tseka, Katse and Hlotse form an alternative section of the Roof of Africa Scenic Route where 4x4s are most suited.
On request for small groups, a specialist operator can offer an exciting soft adventure programme involving canoeing down the headwaters of the Orange River (the Senqu River in Sesotho) as far as a point close to the town of Mokhotlong and then pony-trekking to the Sani Pass.Most people arrive in Eastern Lesotho from South Africa via the spectacular Sani Pass, but the route from Caledonspoort is easier, and the main road can be reached from the Monontsa Pass with a 4×4.
From Oxbow, the road climbs to the high part of the journey, going over high alpine country. The road passes Letseng-la-terai, a large diamond mine, now abandoned. From well over 3000m, the road drops down eventually to the village level. Mapholaneng is the largest village along the route, and while the bus is stopped, local women come and sell delicious flat breads. The journey to Mokhotlong is just on 200km, and the brand new tar road has jusi been opened, making the journey much quicker and easier.
Mokhotlong is the main centre of a vast mountainous area in the east of the country. Until the 1950’s, it had no road connection with the outside world, and all goods came up from Natal on pack animals over the Sani Pass. Now it has three different road connections, yet it still retains something of the isolated outpost’s atmosphere. Far more people come to do their shopping on horseback than by vehicle. Basotho in striking blankets hitch their horses outside and enter a modern, computerised bank to do their banking. The Sunshine Bar has a TV satellite dish. Sheep and goats are sheared by hand in sheds around the district.
There are joint plans with South Africa to improve the circuit on both sides of the border from Butha-Buthe and then along the Drakensberg Ridge from Mont-aux-Sources south to the Sani Pass.
Besides two small hotels at Mokhotlong, there is limited accommodation between Oxbow and Sani Pass, but plenty of excellent sites at which to camp.
‘Mokhotlong’ in Sesotho means ‘The Place of the Bald Ibis’ (mokhotlo), and the area is rich in high montane birdlife, including Bald Ibis, Verreaux’ Black Eagle, Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture.
Farmer Training Centre: In Mokhotlong they offers accommodation at M25/night. They have rooms with 3 beds in each. Linen is supplied. Cold water ablutions are also available. The FTC is right through the town, past the Mokhotlong Hotel.
Molumong Lodge: This is situated about 15km from Mokhotlong on the Thaba Tseka Road. The lodge is run by Mike Campbell who lives in Kwazulu Natal, but Gilbert or Julius are always around to help you. The lodge is an old colonial trading post homestead, high on the mountainside affording great views. Viewing an electrical storm from the large lounge windows is an unforgettable experience. Accommodation costs M30/night with your own sleeping bag for dormitories and R50lnight in double rooms (including bedding) and the lodge includes a fully equipped kitchen. Basic supplies are available. A bottle store is close by. There is no signpost to the lodge from the road, but it is a large red-roofed building with “Molumong” painted in large white letters on the roof. Confusingly, it is not in Molumong village, but in upper Rafalotsane village. Many hikes are possible in the area, and horses can be hired from local villagers
One bus a day runs each way between Mokhotlong and Butha Buthe and one bus between Mokhotlong and Maseru. From Mokhotlong, the buses leave from opposite PEP Stores in the main street. They arrive in Butha Buthe in time to catch taxis to Johannesburg if required The journey costs M34 between Mokhotlong and Maseru, M27 as far as Butha Buthe. Since the opening of the new tar road, minibus taxis now also run the route. They charge M42 from Maseru and M30 from Butha Buthe.
Mission Aviation fly between Maseru and Mokhotlong
Thabeng Air fly between Mokhotlong and Qachas Nek for M120. If operating, they leave Qachas Nek in the morning and return from Mokhotlong around midday. To check if they are operating, ask at the airstrip or phone them on (0373) 7373038 or 7374289.
There is a fair amount of traffic on the road, but with the length of the journey it is best to start hitching in the morning. Mokhotlong is about 5km off the main road, it is worth trying to reach this junction no matter which direction you’re heading.
To Molumong Lodge, there are 3 buses a day from Mokhotlong town centre (and return). They go as far as Janteu village at the base of Menoaneng pass.
This recently created District includes the new town of Thaba-Tseka, which came into being following the construction of the new road from Molimo Nthuse, which joins the Hlotse to Katse road beyond Katse at Thaba-Tseka.
This is a new and exciting area just opening up to tourism. Once the two roads are fully tarred, the most attractive circuit will be Maseru – Hlotse – Katse Dam – Thaba-Tseka – Molimo Nthuse – Maseru. However, the Katse Dam to ThabaTseka section is untarred as yet .
There are pony-trekking facilities already at Thaba-Tseka, with a stud farm south of the town, and these are to be linked with those at Molimo Nthuse and Semonkong.
Mokhotlong to Sani Pass
This is a spectacular route, winding and climbing up. the Sehonghong River Valley to the Kotesipola (or Black Mountain) Pass at 3240m, then down to the Sani Flats and Sani Top village. The highest mountain in Southern Africa (south of Kilimanjaro) is a 15 km hike from Sani Top. Called Thabana Ntlenyana, this high hill on the mountain plateau is at 3482m.
The Lesotho border post is at Sani Top, then the road drops down the torturous zig-zags of the Sani Pass as the road descends from the mountain plateau down the Drakensberg mountains and into the South African province of KwaZulu Natal. The Sani Pass was originally a bridle trail for pack animals and was opened up to vehicle transport in the 1950’s.
The hair-raising pioneering of this route was done by Mokhotlong Motor Transport, a company still operating tours from its base at the bottom of the pass. In the early days, there were several bends where 3 point turns were needed to get around. Today, the road is better, although it is still only open to four wheel drive vehicles ascending. Although the descent can be made an ordinary vehicle, it is not recommended. The South African border post is 8km from the top of the pass, and one reaches Sani Lodge a further 16k on the right. A further 19km brings one to the town of Underberg.
The Sani Pass is the gateway to Lesotho’s Roof of Africa circuit that links the spectacular scenery of the Drakensberg with the attractions of Northern Lesotho, as well as South Africa’s Golden Gate National Park via Caledonspoort or Monontsa Pass.
Sani Top Chalet
Hotels in Mokhotlong
The Sani Top Chalet: This is located at Sani Top, right on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the pass itself. The views are superb from this, the highest pub in Africa. Accommodation in the backpackers’ section is self-catering. Meals are available in the more up market section of the Chalet. Horses can sometimes be hired locally, ask at the chalet to arrange it. Hikes include those to Thabana Ntlenyana and, 6km to the south, to Hodgson’s Peaks where a superb view south to Sehlabathebe and down into Kwazulu Natal rewards your effort. The weather at Sani Top can be extreme, particularly in winter. One can stop off for a meal or a hot drink even if not staying at the chalet.
Sani Lodge: A back packer’s hostel, situated at 1580m. The new location affords superb views of the mountains. The lodge has a cosy common room with an open fireplace, hot showers and lots of information on activities and tours in the area. Many excellent day walks start at the lodge including waterfalls, mountain pools to swim in, superb views and very good Bushman paintings. The ideal base to plan and launch a trip if coming from Durban.
The Wild West: also offers budget accommodation. It is located at Ha Makhakhe, 10km on the South African side of the border post.
Taba Tours run tours twice a week from Sani Lodge to Mokhotlong or Molumong Lodge. They will take you one way for R60 (RI 10 return). Phone Sandy on (033) 7021228 or ask at Sani Lodge. Drivers are good about giving lifts. Most traders in Mokhotlong do their shopping in South Africa, so during the week there is plenty of traffic. Weekends can be slow. In Mokhotlong it may be worth going to some of the stores the day before you plan to make the journey, to see if you can organise a ride. (Ha Makhakhe store and Gany’s supermarket are two worth trying in this regard).
Durban connections: Sani Pass Carriers, a transport company based in Underberg, offers a door to door service between the Durban hostels and Sani Lodge on Mondays. Wednesdays and Fridays. This costs R80, (R150 return). Every weekday they run between Underberg and Pietermaritzburg for R60. The service leaves Underberg around 9a.m., arrives in Durban (or PMB) in the middle of the day. You leave Durban around 3p.m., or Pietermaritzburg at 4p.m. and arrive at Sani Lodge in the evening. Phone (033) 7011017 or 7011030. Silvawood Tours offer a similar service, leaving Durban in the morning and leaving Sani Lodge around lunch time. They charge R60 one way from Durban and R45 from Pietermaritzburg. Phone 082 5796514. Interstate buses connect Underberg with Pietermaritzburg and Kokstad (see pg 28Y
Minibus taxis operate between Underberg and Pietermaritzburg. The journey costs R16. From Pietermaritzburg there is plenty of transport to and from Durban and there are buses to Johannesburg. The Baz Bus and the early Johannesburg to Durban bus reaches Pietermaritzburg in time to connect with the Sani Pass Carriers service to the Sani Lodge.
Sehlaba-Thebe National Park
This is the only designated national park in Lesotho, and comprises 6500 hectares at an average elevation of 240cm. It is both important and extremely interesting to those whose special interests are bird-watching or alpine flora (in fact, it forms the centrepiece of the proposed Drakensberg/Maluti Alpine Park Project). There are some hardy mountain buck to be seen, as well as small mammals, a wealth of birdlife, and a diverse Cape alpine flora. Of particular interest is a small minnow-like fish (Oreodaimon quathlambae) which was thought to be extinct, but has been rediscovered in the upper reaches of the Tsoelikana River.
The most practical entry point from the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. It has an airstrip which is an important centre for charter flights into the highlands. The charter company is actually based in South Africa at Matatiele 24 km to the south.