Sunday Express, 21 March, 2010

The kingdom in the sky

Lesotho is blessed with astonishing natural beauty and some of Africa’s friendliest people, as DUNCAN CRAIG discovers during a stay in a luxurious mountain retreat

I DON’T recall Clint Eastwood giggling uncontrollably whenever his horse broke into a gallop. So it was a touch disappointing to find myself behaving like an overexcited schoolgirl on my debut ride.

A devoted student of the Western, I was expecting to be something of a natural; cinematically saddle-hardened, if you will.

It started promisingly enough, me clip-clopping along the dusty track squinting heroically at the horizon. Then my guide Marti muttered something to his horse in Sesotho and it accelerated away. My untrusty steed followed suit and suddenly the Maloti Mountains rang with my alarmingly high-pitched screeches and the rhythmic thwack of posterior on rising saddle.

Thankfully there was no one around to witness the scene. That’s the thing about Lesotho and particularly its awe-inspiring highland region: it’s deserted. You can amble for days without seeing another person, let alone tourist.

Prince Harry’s gap-year visit in 2004 boosted the mountainous kingdom’s profile but most would still struggle to place it on a map (surrounded by the South African provinces of Free State, KwaZuluNatal and Eastern Cape, since you asked) or indeed pronounce it correctly ("Ler-suit-to"). Yes, in tourism terms the "Kingdom in the Sky" is very much in its infancy.

I visited with my wife Eleen and mother-in-law Annette. Both are South African; neither had contemplated visiting before. Indeed, for the duration of our three-day stay we had the sneaking suspicion that we were the only tourists in the country.

We saw no one resembling an outsider during our passage through the endearingly chaotic border post at Caledonspoort, a four-hour drive from Johannesburg. Here we had our first encounter with the Basotho people, who are renowned for their friendliness and comprise 99 per cent of the country’s population.

Our passports were scrutinised, not with haughty suspicion but with fascination and, in one case, open laughter (creative facial hair was big in the early Nineties, alright). We were waved on our way like departing friends, me sulking.

Herd boys dressed in their flamboyant Basotho rugs and white Wellingtons flashed us huge smiles

Once beyond the bustling border town of Butha-Buthe, signs of life thinned out dramatically; just the occasional cluster of circular huts alongside neatly farmed plots. Women hoeing the fields straightened to wave and herd boys dressed in their flamboyant Basotho rugs and white Wellingtons flashed us huge smiles. The only traffic we passed had hooves or was pulled by oxen. It was like stumbling across a medieval heritage park.

Our destination, Maliba Mountain Lodge, was not hard to find. It lies at the end of the road, in glorious isolation 6,660ft up, nearly twice the height of Mt Snowdon. Manager Andrew Mostert led us to the decked terrace with the barely concealed glee of someone accustomed to unveiling the astonishing.

A panorama of verdant, towering peaks awaited, their undulating emerald slopes nicked with flashes of silver as the sun caught distant streams and waterfalls. Wispy clouds floated overhead projecting a roving khaki on the untouched landscape.

Maliba is not the place to come if you crave distraction. The list of activities is pleasingly limited, cajoling you into a restorative indolence. Most guests do little more than sample the array of loungers on the terrace, which fans out from the steeply conical lodge with its open fireplaces and Asian-influenced furnishings.

Some don’t even make it that far, preferring to rest up in their private chalets. There are six arranged in a tiered arc. As with the main lodge, they are hand-built in the style of an African "rondavel", with such luxurious touches as underfloor heating and queen-size four-poster beds.

Leaving floraphile Annette to mosey around the lodge’s botanical garden, Eleen and I set off into the Tsehlanyane National Park, which surrounds the lodge. Deforestation is rampant in Lesotho, a natural consequence of poverty and cold winters, but this mountainous, 5,600-hectare area is protected, enabling indigenous woodland species such as the squat, culturally revered che-che tree to flourish.

So too some intriguing wildlife: African wild cat, black-backed jackal, clawless otter and the occasional leopard. There are several walking routes mapped out by the lodge. We opted for the "waterfall trail".

We cooled off beneath the icy torrent, tasting the sweet, pure water that serves much of South Africa

It sounded romantic; arriving two hours later caked in sweat we felt anything but. However the exertion was quickly forgotten as we cooled off beneath the icy torrent, tasting the sweet, pure water that serves much of South Africa.

A bit of intrigue never did an establishment any harm and we learned of Maliba’s during dinner that night on the boma, a walkway-accessed octagonal platform that "floats" above the forest. With open fire crackling, we feasted on spicy tomato soup and wonderfully tender lamb shank slow-cooked in red wine.

Andrew joined us and told us of "the box", an unmarked, Portakabin-sized container that sits on the apex of a distant, inaccessible mountain. No tracks lead to or from it. The mystery seemed to grip Annette who spent time studying it through the deck’s star-spotting telescope. An arms cache? Jetsam from the International Space Station? Bin Laden’s hideaway? Andrew has pledged to hike up and find out.

Our stay passed in a flash. We took a guided tour of a nearby village, where we bought sweets for the children and were seen by a sangoma, a spiritual healer venerated among Basothans.

My pony trek was on the final day. I came to a tacit agreement with Lion, my sure-footed if impetuous horse: if I responded quickly enough, I’d look as if I was calling the shots. Passively, I crossed streams and laid down virgin tracks as rock kestrels soared above.

That night we were treated to a performance of traditional songs and dancing from the staff at the lodge. Cast outnumbered audience by a factor of six as we sat and marvelled. We were encouraged to join in and to the amusement of the largely female performers I leapt at the chance to prove it wasn’t just horse riding that I couldn’t do.

For the second time during our stay, the hills of Lesotho were alive with the sound of high-pitched giggling.

* GETTING THERE: Audley Travel (01993 838 500/www.audleytravel.com) offers six nights in Lesotho and the Drakensberg from £1,590pp (two sharing). Price includes three nights, full board, at Maliba Mountain Lodge with pony trek and village tour, and return flights from Heathrow to Durban. Europcar (0870 607 5000/www.europcar.co.uk) offers car hire from £18 per day.
Lesotho tourism: www.lesotho.gov.ls
South African Tourism: 0870 155 0044/www.southafrica.net