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Landlocked by South Africa, Lesotho is much more than an idle passing-through place. It is itself a magnificent destination, best enjoyed by hiking, or, alternatively, pony-back riding. Surrounded by stunning mountain ranges, which have been an essential strategic element in warding off invaders, the country (which is comparable in size to Belgium) achieves the somewhat confusing distinction of having the highest lowest point of any country in the world, riding high at over a kilometre above sea level. It's an impressive geography that has had notable impacts on the country's development. While modernity has caught up with Lesotho, traditional life has been maintained effortlessly. Maseru, the capital, has a relaxed setting, though it is rapidly developing into a tight urban centre, much like the nation itself - a picture of laid-back life in the midst of fast modernization.
The area now known as Lesotho goes back as many as 40,000 years. The present Lesotho (then called Basutoland) emerged as a single polity under paramount chief Moshoeshoe I in 1822. Under Mashoeshoe I, Basutoland joined other tribes in their struggle against the Mfecane associated with the reign of Shaka Zulu from 1818 to 1828.
Subsequent evolution of the state was shaped by contact with the British and Dutch colonists from Cape Colony. Missionaries invited by Moshoeshoe I developed orthography and printed works in the Sotho language between 1837 and 1855. The country set up diplomatic channels and acquired guns for use against the encroaching Europeans and the Korana people. Territorial conflicts with both British and Boer settlers arose periodically, including Moshoeshoe's notable victory over the Boers in the Free State-Basotho War, but the final war in 1867 with an appeal to Queen Victoria, who agreed to make Basutoland a British protectorate. In 1869, the British signed a treaty at Aliwal with the Boers that defined the boundaries of Basutoland and later Lesotho, which by ceding the western territories effectively reduced Moshoeshoe's kingdom to half its previous size.
The extent to which the British exerted direct control over Basutoland waxed and waned until Basutoland's independence in 1966, when it became the Kingdom of Lesotho. However, when the ruling Basotho National Party (BNP) lost the first post-independence general elections to the Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Leabua Jonathan refused to cede and declared himself Tona Kholo (Sesotho translation of prime minister). The BCP began an insurrection that culminated in a January 1986 military coup forced the BNP out of office. Power was transferred to King Moshoeshoe II, until then a ceremonial monarch, but forced into exile when he lost favour with the military the following year. His son was installed as King Letsie III. Conditions remained tumultuous, including an August 1994 coup by Letsie III, until 1998 when the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) came to power in elections which were deemed fair by international observers. Despite protests from opposition parties, the country has remained relatively stable since.
Lesotho is bordered on all sides by South Africa and is one of the smallest countries on mainland Africa. It has the highest lowest point of all countries in the world, at around 1,400 metres above sea level. Especially the central and southeastern parts of the country are very mountainous but you will have good views almost anywhere in the country. It borders the famous Drakensbergen in South Africa.
Lesotho is comprised of 10 districts.
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There are several excellent places in Lesotho to go for some ponytrekking, of which the country is famous for. The best known places are around Malealea in the west of the country and Katse near the Katse Dam.
Sani Pass is home to both the highest mountain road as well as the highest pub in Southern Africa. It is the road that connects South Africa's (KwaZulu Natal) Drakensbergen with Lesotho but a 4wd is advisable especially when it has been raining or snowing! In winter there is even the opportunity to ski 300 metres down the slopes of the Sani pass.
These 200-metre high waterfalls are located near Semonkong, a small town in central Lesotho, about a two hour drive from the capital Maseru. The area is great for walking, ponytrekking and is even accessible with a 4wd.
On March 11, Bosotho people get together in celebration of the life and reign of Moshoeshoe the Great, Lesotho’s first king who died in 1870. A great leader and talented diplomat, the king was responsible for the preservation of much of the cultural heritage still thriving today, as well as the establishment of Christianity through his welcoming of European missionaries.
Family Day in early March is a celebration of one of the pillars of the country’s culture. Family get-togethers involve workers returning to their villages for the day to eat, drink and have a great time.
Easter week, usually in April, is the year’s most important religious festival, with all the usual parades, church attendances and family get-togethers. Most Basotho take their Christianity very seriously, with Easter Sunday a day of pure joy.
The favorite event in Lesotho, the Arts and Cultural Festival, is held every September or October for five days in and around the capital. It is a feast of theater, poetry, dance, music, song, crafts, art exhibits, and everything in between. The festival showcases performances of jazz, modern music, African movies, and much more, and draws tens of thousands of visitors.
Independence Day, which falls on October 4, celebrates the country’s release from British colonialism and its emergence as a free state. The day is a national holiday, celebrated all over the little country with traditional events, costumes, songs, dance, and musical performances. The city streets and villages come alive with revelers, while the Lesotho Royal Family greets foreign diplomats and important visitors from other African countries.
The Lesotho Jazz festival takes place in the capital every December, attracting musicians from other southern nations as well as from all over Lesotho. Jazz is popular all over Africa, with this event focusing on music as an integral part of social development. Set in the heart of the tourist season, the event draws spectators from many countries.
Almost all Basotho are Christians, with the faith’s religious holidays celebrated in true African fashion with church services, family gatherings and the glorious full-voiced African harmonies used in full effect in a capella Christmas hymns. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve is a not-to-be-missed experience.
The welcoming of the New Year takes place with typical African enthusiasm, involving street celebrations, fireworks at midnight and parties all over town.
Lesotho's climate is harsh and mainly because of its elevation quite different from many other surrounding countries. In summer it is mostly warm to hot with occasional showers. Temperatures are between 30 °C and 35 °C during summer days and around 15 °C at night. Winters are relatively dry with temperatures around 10 °C to 15 °C during the day and below 0 °C at night from June to August. Sometimes, some snow is possible but not often.
There are no trains to and from Lesotho.
Lesotho is totally surrounded by South Africa and major border posts are Caledonspoort, Ficksburg Bridge, Makhaleng Bridge, Maseru Bridge, Ngoangoma Gate, Peka Bridge, Qacha's Nek, Ramatseliso's Gate, Sani Pass, Sephaphos Gate, Tele Bridge and Van Rooyen's Gate. Note that some of the border posts can only be crossed by 4wd cars, including Sani Pass. Only Maseru Bridge and Ficksburg Bridge are open 24/7 while some smaller ones may close as early as 4pm, though usually later during summer.
Buses travel between the capital Maseru and the South African city of Bloemfontein, taking about 2 hours to cover the route, minibuses require a switch and usually takes longer. Vaal Maseru has buses between Maseru and Johannesburg.
No sea or river access to and from Lesotho exist.
There is no Lesotho Airways anymore, but some private charter airlines might help you to get to remote places. Mission Aviation carries passengers as well, based on the airport near Maseru.
You can rent cars at the airport or in Maseru, but most people entering Lesotho will have their rental car from South Africa, which is much cheaper. Be sure to have permission though from your car rental agency, which in case of Lesotho normally is free of charge. Although it is a popular way of getting around, be sure to go prepared. Check your car (oil, spare tyre, tyre pressure etc.). Also note that petrol can be hard to find and fill up in Maseru. The main tarred roads out of Maseru are the A1 towards the east and from Oxbow travelling south to Mokhotlong and the A2 from Maseru going south along the western part and eventually going east towards Qacha's Nek. The mountainous conditions can be hard and you need to drive carefulling as the roads can be narrow and winding. Some roads might be impassable after heavy rains or snowfall and icy conditions in winter. The roads to Roma, Mohale Dam and Katse Dam are also tarred. For the visitor, the only unsealed roads you are likely to use are the road to Semonkong (4x4 only most of the year although some drive in 2x4 hire cars) and the last 20km to Malealea, which is easy in a saloon. Note that the road running east-west to Thaba Tseka is unsealed and in terrible condition. Traffic drives on the left and you will need an international driving permit, although your national driver's licence is valid when written in English. It is advised not to drive at night, nor in mountainous areas in winter.
There are a number of long distance buses travelling around the country, but these can take much longer and involve stops in small towns as well. It is better to use the more extensive minibus network which are faster, a bit more expensive and cover shorter distances.
Foreign nationals of the following countries/territories can enter Lesotho visa-free:
For up to 90 days: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Dominica, Fiji Gambia, Grenada, Guyana, Hong Kong SAR, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kiribati, Malawi, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Monaco, Namibia, Nauru, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, San Marino, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe
For up to 14 days: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland
Your passport needs to be valid for another six months and you need at least two blank pages. The proof of a return or onward ticket or your future travel plans might be asked, but this should not be a problem.
See also Money Matters
The loti (L, prural Maloti, M) is the currency of Lesotho and is subdivided into 100 lisente. It is pegged to the South African rand on a 1:1 basis and both are accepted as legal tender within Lesotho.
Coins are in 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 lisente, L1, M2, M5
Banknotes come in denominations of M10, M20, M50, M100, M200
The national language is Sesotho (or South/Southern Sotho), spoken by the Basotho people.
English is widely spoken on the other hand and generally most people will understand you.
Xhosa and Zulu are languages spoken by minorities as well.
There are many Western style restaurants in Maseru. For a more traditional meal, head out to the countryside.
New places are opening up all the time and there are fairly good places to stay around the country, both budget as well as upmarket.
Some examples throughout the country include:
There are many options more, most of them in Maseru and the ponytrek base of Malealea.
Maluti beer is superb.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Lesotho. There is one exception though: you need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Lesotho) where that disease is widely prevalent.
Still, it's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Lesotho. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also both hepatitis A as well as typhoid would be recommended.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS. Also note that Southern Africa and thus Lesotho as well has a high percentage of people with AIDS.
Note that there is no malaria in Lesotho.
See also Travel Safety
Lesotho on the whole is a very safe country to African standards and safer in general than South Africa. The normal precautions should be taken, including not walking at night in Maseru, rather take a taxi.
The main concern probably would be the driving conditions in winter and after heavy rainfall. Also note that Lesotho receives an above average rate of deaths by thunder! So stay inside if you can during these periods, especially when you are high in the mountains.
In Maseru, there are several internet cafes, although fairly cheap (usually LSL0.20-0.50 per min) they are pretty slow at best.
See also International Telephone Calls
Lesotho's international telephone code is 266.
The cellphone network is OK in the towns, but pretty poor out in the countryside. There are two mobile operators in Lesotho, Vodacom and Econet Ezicel. Vodacom has the widest coverage outside the towns. You can buy a Vodacom or Ezicel Buddie pay as you go sim card for under LSL50 in Maseru - worthwhile if you are staying for a while. Cellphones are available for hire in Maseru. Lesotho uses GSM900.
If you have a South African Vodacom Sim Card, you can use it in Lesotho only on the Vodacom network. Be sure to enable roaming.
To start getting a basic idea of the possibilities in this small country, check the official Lesotho website on tourism.
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