Hopes Up High In Lesotho

C. Fraser Claire

Leaving wishes for the future in the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho

The concept of 'high hopes' takes on new meaning in the height of the Lesotho mountains.

Lesotho Links:
Lesotho Quick Travel Tips | Hopes Up High In The Mountain Kingdom: Destination Inspiration from Sani Pass and Lesotho | What To Pack For South Africa and Lesotho |

Lesotho Travel Destinations by The Safari Store

Encircled by South Africa, Lesotho is the world’s highest country. Geographically, it looks like some hidden realm from a fantasy story. Known as the Mountain Kingdom, it carries on this feeling on the ground too – a nation of blanketed shepherds, steep and sometimes unforgiving passes, rare bearded vultures (also called lammergeiers), and extraordinary mountain views. The longer I spent in Lesotho, the more I was taken aback by the warmth of its people, the sometimes desolate views, and the abundance of daily scenes that marked my experience of the place into memory.

The lowest point above sea level in Lesotho is 1500m. Arriving at Sani Mountain Lodge and the famous Highest Pub in Africa, it really felt like I was taking a glance over the edge of the world and there is a clarity of mountain air at that altitude – a stop on an elevator ride to heaven.

My early childhood was spent in the beautiful Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa. When I was growing up, Sani Pass was the very definition of adventure. It was accessible only by 4x4 and required some driving prowess and a whole lot of bravery.

Sani Pass is known as the Roof of Africa, a snaking pass of sometimes rocky gravel – a very African road leading through what sometimes feels like European big mountains. While the pass has been graded, there are still sections that give it its adventurous appeal. This is especially so in fog, where visibility of everything in front, beside, and below disappears into whiteness.

We drove up through the Drakensberg Mountains – a highly recommended South African travel destination. Named for dragons, it makes sense that this should be the launchpad to the Lord of the Rings landscape of Lesotho. Rocks looked like elephant skin as we did gradual climb up the pass, taking in the hardy, lacelike flora. We had a quick sighting of the Drakensberg Rockjumper (a striking bird, which is endemic to these mountains) as it hopped up towards Lesotho, a feathered skyward messenger. →

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Walking Sani Pass in the Drakensberg mountain range from Lesotho

Living On The Edge
I walked my descent of Sani Pass, which was a sharp downward trail directly into the clouds. Gradually, the mountains disappeared into a screen of wet whiteness. Mountains and remote places hold a perfect stillness that can't help but invoke grand-scale contemplation - a connection to the truest form of self that merges steps and spirituality through scene.

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Sani Pass and the Drakensberg Mountains from the Highest Pub in Africa in Lesotho

It makes sense that this otherworld should have its own majestic, mythical bird inhabitant in the bearded vulture – one of Europe’s rarest raptors. It is legendary in many ways: a Persian symbol of luck and happiness; considered the phoenix in Middle Ages Europe. It has been regarded as both a symbol of spiritual and physical regeneration and a totem of death and suffering. They are remarkable in many ways. They have a long life span – 10 to 12 years, which is extraordinary in bird terms – and, during the course of their lives, their plumage and appearance changes enormously. This metamorphosis resonates with me - the sense that this mountain life will leave one changed. This fabled flying marvel is precious in its scarcity – and Lesotho is an amazing place to see them.

When I was growing up, we would drive up Sani Pass as a day trip – and this was my first overnight adventure in Lesotho. Unbuffered by undulations of the earth, the wind howls along the plateau of Sani Top. We sat in the cosy warmth of the pub and watched the sky change from blue to lavender, into darkness – co-ordinates a step closer to the stars.

If the presence of myth needed reinforcing, elements of the country’s history play into this almost perfectly, such as Thaba Bosiu. This is the mountain upon which the Basotho was built. King Moshoeshoe arrived and erected barricades around the mountain in a single night, using the place as a refuge from war – a place chosen in the pursuit of peace as a sanctuary for Moshoeshoe and his people. →

Painting of a bearded vulture at the top of Sani Pass, Lesotho

Features Beyond Feathers
The bearded vulture is identifiable in the sky by its diamond-shaped tail and dark, pointed wings. Robert Lynd said, "In order to see birds, it is necessary to become part of the silence." Nothing captures silence better than this place up high in Africa - and, if you're lucky, you'll be rewarded with a familiar silhouette.

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Thaba Bosiu means ‘Mountain at Night’ as the place was secured after sunset, but also because the mountain is reputed to grow larger at night – a great deterrent to warring enemies. Through the imperial age and beyond, Thaba Bosiu was never conquered by invaders, lending some credibility to the impregnability of this mountain fortress. It is also said that, if you take a handful of dirt from Thaba Bosiu, you will wake to find it gone – having returned to the mountain. This too is something I can almost believe for the magnetism of the mountains in this country. Thaba Bosiu stands today as a national monument and popular tourist destination in Lesotho.

If Sani Pass is steep, the tarred pass to Mokhotlong underscores the vertical nature of the country. We drove up and up and up past patches of snow. If we'd considered the summit of Sani Pass the apex, we watched as it diminished into the relatively low distance. The huts went from crude mud huts with low doors and ruffled thatch to more organised looking villages as we moved closer to ‘town’.

We passed shepherds wrapped in signature Basotho blankets, herding their sheep, trailed by their dogs. We saw them riding their short and hardy ponies – a natural partnership between man and steed that has spanned generations. In a passing moment, I saw a blanketed man leading three horses down the mountainside in silhouette – sure-footed and quick in their trainlike descent. On another occasion, I saw a man walking through the wind, blankets billowing. For me, this was reminiscent of a 19th century bronze called Horseman in a Storm by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier, which I'd seen at the Musee d'Orsay. This was a moment of timelessness, a flash of connection, between the rural lives of Basotho farmers and 19th century France. →

Basotho shepherd on the road to Mokhotlong in Lesotho, near Sani Pass

We saw bearded vultures from above and below - soaring, wings beating, landing for a moment and plunging back upward to dance to the invisible rhythm of the wind.
A section of the Drakensberg mountain range from Sani Pass, on the way to Lesotho

Dragon Scales
Flanked by mountains named for dragons, Sani Pass feels like taking steps beyond the wardrobe wall. Formed approximately 182 million years ago, they are the rise and fall of slow-breathing, dreaming giants.

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Basotho shepherds - Sani Pass, Lesotho

We looked down on the huge wingspan of mountain raptors – watching them lift on the air and dive in line with the earth at great speeds. Eventually, on closer examination, we saw the diamond-shaped tail and unmistakable beard of the lammergeier through our binoculars. This Fu Manchu moustache is just another thing that contributes to the agelessness and worldliness of this amazing bird. We saw them from above and below - soaring, wings beating, landing for a moment and plunging back upward to dance to the invisible rhythm of the wind.

On a Sunday drive, we took a closer look at the mountain flora, quivering in the wind like it was waiting for take-off. We passed the Church of the Good Shepherd, fringed with Basotho waiting to pray. I was reminded of a trip to the Sacre Coeur, where I found myself thinking of the millions of whispered prayers that echoed in that great cathedral over time. What do Basotho pray for? And, in that spiritual moment of hope, surrounded on all sides by mountains and the clear air between earth and the heavens, that building felt more like containment than conduit somehow. The health of oneself, family, friends. The wish for a wife. The call for flourishing flocks, rain, a good harvest, in these modest fields. The hope for better days when times are hard. →

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Lesotho, Sani Pass - African travel destination inspiration from The Safari Store

Celebrating Simplicity In The Mountain Kingdom
The mountaintop life in Lesotho reveals highland views and a silent celebration of simplicity. The Mountain Kingdom makes the peaks and valleys palatial; the birds in the sky and the beast on the ground taking on noble stature.

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The next day, we stamped our passports at this high-altitude border post. Rather than getting into the car for the winding road back into South Africa, I decided to walk. The earth along the pass was consumed by cloud and it felt like I was walking into the void. Great birds with feathers like fingers flew past me, became vague, became white nothingness. What do shepherds pray for? I attached my hopes to those mountain birds, willing my longings upon the world in powerful silence – up, up into the stratosphere and beyond into light. And, as my descent continued, traces of them were felt in every mountain flower, the trickle of waterfalls along ancient rocks, in the twitching antelope ear, and rippled pool of this extraordinary Mountain Kingdom. →

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Sani Pass flowers, Lesotho

Walking down Sani Pass, Lesotho - destination inspiration from The Safari Store

High Hopes On The Edge Of The World In Africa
As I walked over the edge of the plateau on to the pass, I marveled at how mountains make mankind minute. A human lifetime goes by in a heartbeat in mountain terms - and the history of the earth is so monumentally captured by these great forms of peak and depression.

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Basotho man on the road down Sani Pass from Lesotho

A Common Commute
While my walk down Sani Pass was a novel adventure, this is a well-trodden path for the local Basotho. The area at the top of Sani Pass is historically dependent on South African supplies and - on foot, on horseback, or by car - this is certainly a remarkable route to stock up on essentials.

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Basotho village near Sani Pass, Lesotho

At Home In Mountain Hollows
Beyond the border, the road to Mokhotlong is dotted with Basotho villages - simple huts nestled in hollows or perched along the ridgeline.

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A pass on the road to Mokhotlong near Sani Pass, Lesotho

Mountain and Machine
As we drove up the steep and winding pass on the road to Mokhotlong - a road that is a feat for its gradient - our car seemed to struggle and choke as we gained altitude. Machines almost seem to give way to manpower in the high mountains - the steady gait of the shepherd, the dusty hoofbeat of mountain ponies.

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Lesotho Links:
Lesotho Quick Travel Tips | Hopes Up High In The Mountain Kingdom: Destination Inspiration from Sani Pass and Lesotho | What To Pack For South Africa and Lesotho |

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