Lesotho is a country in Southern Africa. Known as the Kingdom in the Sky because of its lofty altitude — it has the highest lowest point of any country in the world (1400m) and is the only country to be entirely above 1000m! Lesotho is totally surrounded by South Africa and is a fantastic adventure holiday destination.
Originally, the Sotho-Tswana people lived in what is now Free State in neighbouring South Africa. They were a farming people, and when the Zulus started attacking villages and the Voortrekkers started encroaching on their land, they fled up into the Lesotho mountains. Here, continuous attacks from the Zulus forced local tribes to join together for protection, and by 1824, King Moeshoeshoe had established himself as king and Thaba Bosiu as his mountain fortress.
Moeshoeshoe allied himself with the British Cape Colony government in a bid to protect the Basotho from the Boers' rapidly increasing presence in the area. Much fighting followed, forcing Moeshoeshoe to go straight to the imperial government of the British, and in 1868, Basotholand (as it was then called) became a protectorate of the British Empire. It was granted independence from the British Empire on October 4th, 1966.
The Kingdom of Lesotho was formed through the pursuit of peace, and this peaceful nature still exists in the Basotho. They are a friendly and welcoming people and do not have the aggressive history some of the peoples of neighbouring countries have. People are especially grateful to Brits, and the older generation will come up to a Brit and tell them how much they thank them for saving them from apartheid!
Lesotho has 300 days of sunshine. The rainy season extends from October to April in which Lesotho gets 70mm of rainfall, mostly during severe thunderstorms. Extensive snow falls are possible in winter but may occur in any month on the high mountains. Night time temperatures go below freezing in winter (May — September)- and houses do not feature central heating, so bring a jacket.
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
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.
If you require a visa to enter Lesotho, you might be able to apply for one at a British embassy, high commission or consulate in the country where you legally reside if there is no foreign mission of Lesotho. For example, the British embassies/consulates in Al Khobar, Almaty, Belgrade, Budapest, Damascus, Geneva, Guatemala City, Jeddah, Prague, Pristina, Riyadh, Rome, Sofia, Vienna and Zurich accept Lesotho visa applications (this list is not exhaustive). British diplomatic posts charge £50 to process a Lesotho visa application and an extra £70 if the authorities in Lesotho require the visa application to be referred to them. The authorities in Lesotho can also decide to charge an additional fee if they correspond with you directly.
Moshoeshoe Airport is located 18km from Maseru. South African Airways and Airlink operate daily flights between Maseru and Johannesburg, typically costing around ZAR1400. Luggage is lost very regularly and there is no lost luggage reporting system. You should arrange taxi pick-up in advance as often there are no taxis at the airport. Taxis charge around LSL50-80.
There is no train line within Lesotho, but the South African railway line Bloemfontein Bohlokong (freight only) runs along the northwestern Lesotho border, with a stop in Meqheleng.
You will be coming from South Africa when entering by car. The 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. Please note that some of the border posts can only be accessed by four-wheel driven cars, and only Maseru Bridge and Ficksburg Bridge are open 24 hours; other borders can close as early as 4PM. Be aware of the fact that routine searches of vehicles at customs checkpoints do take place and that multiple bags in the trunk do cause the officials' suspicion. Usually, such searches do result in nothing but a sometimes significant delay.
The main roads in Lesotho are similar to minor roads in Europe — they are sealed, and surprisingly free of potholes. The A1 road (aka 'Main North') is tarred from Maseru to Mokhotlong, and the A2 (aka 'Main South') is tarred from Maseru to Qacha's Nek. 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; it is always quicker to take the A1 to get to Katse, Thaba Tseka and Sani Pass.
If setting off in to the mountains, check your car over before the trip (top up the oil, pump the spare tyre etc). There are some steep climbs which require 2nd or even 1st gear to get up — so don't attempt to drive to Qacha's Nek with 5 people squeezed into a hired 1.3 litre CitiGolf!
If in doubt, please ask locals if the road you are going to take is okay, especially during wintertime. The truth is that if you keep to the main roads you are likely to drive on a road smoother than Eastern Free State (RSA) roads. However the stretch from Oxbow to Mokhotlong is not tarred (regardless of some maps that claim it is) and very potholed.
When taking a rented car, be sure to get permission from the rental company to take the car into Lesotho. You will need to show written permission from the rental company at border control. Be clear with your rental agency about what's covered and what's not in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. Full coverage doesn't necessarily mean full coverage.
Minibuses run pretty much anywhere from the Maseru Bridge border, but you must get there early in the morning (07:00) as there may be only 1 bus a day.
If travelling in from Bloemfontein you could hitch-hike easily enough (look out for Lesotho number plates). If going from Maseru to Bloemfontein, hanging around the border (especially on a Saturday morning) should get you a lift.
By regular taxi
Regular taxis (you phone, they pick you up) and 4+1s — have a yellow stripe down the side and squeeze in 4 passengers. Always check the cost of a taxi before you get in.
Phone +0026662745199 for Khosana at Comfort Taxis Phone +266 631 66000 for Perfect taxis - well run and partly owned by an English Ex-pat Phone +266 584 01360 for a local guy who has a good car and is extremely reliable. Call him Tom Taxi and he will know that you are legitimate and that you know the right fares.
By minibus taxi
As with most of Africa the minibus 'taxi' (aka combi / Toyota Hiace) is the transport of the people.
Be sure you are clear on where the minibus is going (there should be a sign in the front windscreen), you'll be asked for money after a minute or two, with money being passed down the minibus. Try to get the front seat by the driver for more leg room. Prices are fixed by the government. There is a risk of overcharging foreigners — ask the other passengers if you are not sure of the price. Be warned, the reason the Minibus taxis are so cheap is because of the way they fit so many people in! Don't be surprised to see kids sitting on laps four or five high, or to be told to have large amounts of luggage on your lap or wedged in around you. The Minibus taxis tend to be poorly maintained and are not insured. However, very few accidents involving taxis occur.
Intercity travel by taxi will cost no more than LSL50 for a single way ticket, and inner city minibus taxi rides will cost you around LSL2.50 (4+1s will cost you LSL20 for the whole car, no matter how many are with you, provided its within a city.)
Always check the cost of a taxi before you get in.
Finding a taxi
Upon arrival in one of the main towns, you will notice that all the minibuses are hooting their horns, which is to signal that they have space for more passengers. To flag one down, just wave to a taxi as it approaches, the conductor (who will be leaning out of the window on the kerbside of the van) will usually be shouting the destination of the taxi. If you are not sure it will be going where you want to go, ask before you get on!
In Maseru, there is a place called Setopong on Moeshoeshoe Road, near to the Shoprite by The Circle / Cathedral. This is where all the minibus taxis leave from, and if you want a taxi out of town, you should head here. However, it is a very busy and bustling place, heaving with people. It is easiest to take a 4+1 taxi toward Setopong and ask the driver to drop you off near the taxis that travel to the part of the country you are headed.
It is also possible to hire a car and travel around. The Sun hotels in Maseru both have hire car places, as does the airport. If you hire your car in South Africa (probably cheaper than hiring in Lesotho) be sure to get permission to take the car across into Lesotho (the hire car insurance may not cover Lesotho).
However don't discount travel by public transport, for many it's a good way to get up close to the locals and chatting with them!
There is an ongoing road upgrading programme underway in Lesotho, and you don't need a 4x4 to see the main sights in Lesotho. The road is tarred to Mokhotlong (via Leribe) and is now tarred all the way to Qacha's Nek going south from Maseru. The road to Katse and the road to Thaba Tseka are tarred, and the road to Semonkong is (as of April 2014) tarred for all but the last 15km. In the towns some side roads are unsealed but you can bump along in a saloon easily enough — If heading off in to the mountains on unsealed roads (eg to the Kao diamond mine) then a 4x4 is a must. The same goes for going up or down the Sani pass.
Be aware that although many roads are now tarred, they are still steep and slow going. Keep this in mind if visiting in a small car with 3 or more passengers, it will be very slow going up some of the hills, in first gear a lot of the time.
When driving it's not advisable to stop at junctions or traffic lights at night if there is no traffic.
The official languages are Sesotho and English.
Most people in the larger towns or tourist attractions speak English to a reasonable standard and a few words of Afrikaans; however, outside these areas, these languages will not be understood.
The official currency of Lesotho is the loti (LSL) (plural: maloti), which is subdivided into 100 lisente. Lesotho (along with Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland) is a member of the Southern African Common Monetary Area, and as such the loti is pegged 1:1 to the South African Rand (ZAR). Both the loti and rand are legal tender in Lesotho, though change will usually be given in loti.
There are ATMs at banks in most towns, although you will not find them elsewhere. Most banks will change travellers cheques for you, but it can be a very, very lengthy process if they are in any other currency apart from ZAR. Credit cards will be accepted in Shoprite and the main hotels, but not elsewhere. Your cashcard from home may work in some Maseru cash machines (FNB or Standard Bank), but it is best to get cash out in South Africa beforehand.
Restaurants outside of Maseru (and most in Maseru) will probably not accept credit card as a means of payment.
There are several Western style supermarkets in Maseru, which are good for stocking up on supplies in before heading elsewhere in the country.
If you're after locally made goods and crafts, your best bet is to give Maseru a miss, and head to TY or Hlotse, where the markets are far better and cheaper. You can buy traditional Basotho hats, sticks, rugs and various other curios.
There are many Western style restaurants in Maseru. For a more traditional meal, why not befriend some locals and see what they cook you?! The local speciality is deep fried harajja with Golumbi paste - spicy but not ridiculous. To praise the food offered by one's hosts is a very high compliment in Lesotho, particularly if such praise is accompanied by lip-smacking.
Maluti beer is superb.
There are broadly two types of accommodation in Lesotho; those aimed at tourists, and those aimed at government officials visiting from Maseru. This second category is present in most towns but tends to be more functional and are OK to rest overnight and have a simple meal, but are unlikely to offer good service, nor any recreational activities. It is advisable, if possible, to book in advance in order to arrange budget accommodations.
For current happenings in Lesotho the weekly Public Eye newspaper is a good source of info.
Lesotho is far safer than neighbouring South Africa. However, it is risky to walk in Maseru alone and you should check UK government travel advice since that government is one of the few with a substantial mission apart from South Africa.
As with pretty much everywhere else in the world, you may find friendly chats with locals turn in to veiled requests for money — stick to your principles and only give to registered charities.
At night time, it is the norm to drive through red lights — this is more just to speed up your journey (the police won't care), but also a precaution against carjackings.
The HIV/AIDS incidence rate in Lesotho is the 3rd highest in the world at around 25% or 1 in 4 people infected. Even more worrying is the prevalence rate is around 50 percent for women in urban areas under 40.
Consult a doctor as to which vaccinations you will require, but they will most likely include Hep A, Hep B, and Typhoid. If you are staying in rural areas for a long time then a rabies shot would be a good idea.Tropical diseases such as Malaria, Yellow fever and Bilharzia are not present in Lesotho.
It is a very good idea to carry some sterile needles and dressing in your first aid kit — the hospitals throughout Lesotho are not of a very high standard.
If you do have any serious health problems while in Lesotho, get in contact with your country's embassy either in Maseru, or in most cases, in Pretoria in South Africa, as there are very good hospitals across the border in SA for those who can afford to use them.
Lesotho is at a very high altitude, and the air is very thin especially in the Highlands, be warned that you may suffer from altitude sickness when you first arrive. Drink a lot of water and keep covered up, skin burns quickly in the thin mountain air. It gets very hot in the sun in the summer!
The water in Lesotho is not clean and should not be drunk untreated. Be warned about street vendors who sell fizzy drinks as these are usually in unclean reused glass bottles.
Pack moisturizer! Lesotho's air is very dry and everyone will suffer from dry skin!
Try and learn a few Sesotho words before travelling to Lesotho. The locals appreciate a foreigner who has made the effort to learn their language. Always refer to an elder person, or a person of higher social standing as N'tate (male) or M'e (female).
Lumela (pronounced due-mela) is hello. So you would say Lumela N'tate or Lumela M'e. Kea leboha (sounds like ke-la-bore) - is thank you U phela joang (O-pila-joan) - how are you Respond with either hantle (well) or Ke phila hantle (I am well) Sala hantle (as it is written) is "stay well" if they are staying and your are going. Equivalent to goodbye. Somaya hantle is "go well" if they are going and you are staying
Always respond to people, it is very offensive to ignore someone who greets you. As a foreigner, locals will be keen to say hello and ask you what you're up to in their country.
Never get angry at anyone; in the Basotho culture, people never show frustration towards others, and if you do, then you can easily offend someone. You will almost certainly get frustrated when dealing with Lesotho officialdom, always keep your cool no matter how much buffoonery you are subjected to. To show respect when giving and receiving items, use both hands. Also show a respect for food — don't throw it around, or eat whilst walking.
In Maseru, there are several internet cafes, although fairly cheap (usually LSL0.20-0.50 per min) they are pretty slow at best.
The cellphone network is OK in the towns, but pretty poor out in the countryside. The only British cell phone network that works is Vodafone. Unsure about other simcards. There are two mobile operators in Lesotho, Vodacom and Econet Ezicel. Vodacom has the widest coverage outside the towns, but is the (more) oversubscribed, and hence the less reliable. 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.