Lesotho: The Little Kingdom with the Big Landscape
Here’s a fun little piece of trivia: Can you name any of the three ‘enclaved’ countries in the world today? If you guessed Vatican City, and/or the Republic of San Marino, and/or the African nation of Lesotho, pat yourself on the back. For those of you who didn’t get past the ‘enclaved’ part, you’re not alone. I had to look this one up and here’s the definition: an enclaved country is one that exists entirely within the sovereign territory of another nation. The first two countries above are completely within the sovereign territory of Italy (…and yes, Vatican City is a sovereign state…); the third, Lesotho, is a tiny African Kingdom that sits inside the sovereign territory of South Africa.
I recently spent some time in Lesotho (pronounced ‘Le-soo-too’), and have to believe this is the most fascinating country most people have never heard of. For starters, it’s spectacularly rugged—it doesn’t just have mountains, it’s about 99% mountains. Flat ground is a precious commodity in Lesotho. All this rugged mountain terrain is packed into a tiny geographic package roughly the size of the US state of South Carolina. That’s as the crow flies. Now, if you could somehow flatten out all of Lesotho’s ‘wrinkles’, that is, all of its mountainous terrain, its land area would likely spread out to about the size of Mexico. Maybe larger.
Woman and traditional house, Lesotho
And it’s not only Lesotho’s magnificent landscapes that beguiled me. I soon found myself mesmerized by the country’s distinctive and colorful Basotho (yes, pronounced like name of the country…) herder culture. With their own breed of mountain ponies and distinctive woven blankets worn like a serape, these herdsmen move their sheep, goats and cattle around the mountainous terrain much as they have for centuries.
In fact, once you get outside the capital, Maseru, Lesotho feels like a place that’s checked out of the 21st century. As one of the writers in my guidebook pointed out, Lesotho offers a kind of real adventure travel, the sort that’s harder to come by in an age of predictable packaged tourism. I’ll second that. Unlike other parts of Africa I’ve traveled in, I did not see another foreign traveler my whole time in Lesotho. Roads could go from sealed tarmac to rock-strewn, gullied 4-wheel drive track at any time. On more than one occasion I had to share the road with herders and their sheep, cattle or goats.
Despite all this, Lesotho has somehow managed to fly under the radar of most travelers. That may partly be a result of location. It is, after all, enclaved within South Africa, completely surrounded by a much bigger nation with an abundance of its own stunning national parks, coastline and wildlife. There’s so much to see and experience in South Africa that most visitors can barely dent it with one trip, let alone squeeze in a side trip to Lesotho. My sense is, that will inevitably have to change once more travelers get hip to the fact that Lesotho has the kind of thriving, authentic traditional culture that has long since been assimilated in much of Africa. And let’s not forget that stunning mountainous backdrop.
The other thing that makes Lesotho a challenge for most travelers is the fact that it just doesn’t have much in the way of tourist infrastructure. Forget about hotels and restaurants. They are few and far between. The reason I was able to spend time here was my camper truck which allowed me a degree of independence. Of course, there were no campgrounds of any kind so I had to just ‘free camp’. It felt a bit dicey at first until I realized much of that was simply in my head.
In the morning I was awakened by the ‘clip-clop’ of herdsmen on their ponies or the ‘baas’ of sheep and goats passing by. Talk about a memorable way to enjoy my morning coffee, sitting there watching these Basotho herdsmen moving their herds past me as they’ve done for centuries. These herdsmen were often surprised and a bit perplexed to see this white guy drinking coffee in front of a camper truck. But they were always friendly once I said hello or gestured to them, and some often knew a little English, which certainly surprised me.
I found myself wanting to know how Lesotho came to be this enclave country buried within the territory of South Africa so I did a little digging and discovered just how much Lesotho’s destiny has been entangled with that of South Africa. In fact, I learned that if it weren’t for the savvy political maneuvering of King Moshoeshoe I, Lesotho might have failed to exist.
It was during the 19th century rivalry between colonial powers the Dutch and the British that Moshoeshoe shrewdly calculated that he could capitalize on that rivalry (think Boer Wars…) to achieve eventual independence for Lesotho. It happened simply enough. As more and more ‘trekboers’ were moving into Bantu lands in the 19th century, claiming those lands had been abandoned, Moshoeshoe signed a treaty with the British governor of the Cape Colony at the time, which irked the trekboers who were primarily of Dutch origin and not particularly fond of the Brits.
The state was briefly known as ‘Basutoland’ and gave Moshoeshoe and the Basotho people a breather. But there was still a lot of shaking out to come as the trekboers, Zulu interests and even the British, fought with Moshoeshoe for territory over the next decade.
By the time of the United States Civil War, the British and Dutch interests in southern Africa were still skirmishing for supremacy. Moshoeshoe found himself in the middle of this as the Boers, in what was then the ‘Free State’, came after Basutoland and took all of Moshoeshoe’s lowland territory, forcing him and his followers into the mountains. Fearing he might lose even this, he gambled on aligning himself with the Boers’ rival, the British. With a direct appeal to Queen Victoria, Basutoland was granted the status of British protectorate in 1868, thus stemming any further Boer incursions into its territory.
For the next hundred years, Lesotho would remain a British protectorate until achieving independence in 1966 and becoming the Kingdom of Lesotho. Getting out from under the yoke of colonial powers, however, is not the same thing as creating an enduring political stability. Rival parties have vied for control over the last forty-plus years, often violently, resulting in political chaos and periods of military rule. The last attempted coup was as recent as 2014.
Unlike its neighbors South Africa and, to a lesser extent, Namibia, Lesotho is a nation entirely made up of black Africans, Bantu-speaking people mostly, who consider themselves Basotho people. It did not become the kind of multi-racial ‘rainbow’ nation with a ruling/privileged class descended from white Europeans like South Africa, nor did it become a multi-tribal African nation with a history and cultural ties to Germany (and the Boers to some extent…) like Namibia. Thanks to Moshoeshoe’s political savvy, Lesotho feels very different from its neighbors in the region.
In many of the photos I’ve included here you’ll notice the herdsmen wrapping themselves in those colorful blankets mentioned earlier. You’ll also see them wearing balaclavas, which to some eyes, may come across as a bit sinister to western sensibilities, perhaps. The reality is, Lesotho is a nation of high elevations where it can get really chilly when the sun goes down. The balaclavas keep the herdsmen’s heads warm and the blankets, their bodies. What’s really cool about the way they use the blankets is, they wrap them in a way that keeps their arms free. And, the blankets do double duty as bedding when sleeping in strategically located mountain huts.