The wall of jagged mountains in the distance loomed closer and closer as we rode from South Africa toward Qachas Nek Pass into Lesotho. As our bike climbed in elevation, swerving back and forth along switchbacks, we realized that it was going to be a long time before we'd dip back down in altitude. Because now we were entering Lesotho: the Kingdom in the Sky, a tiny country completely surrounded by South Africa, and a mysterious land of mountains that feels lofty and untouched by the rest of the world.
And despite almost dying on the first day and afterwards Tim coming down with Spotted Fever, Lesotho deeply impressed us, and has become one of our favorite countries.
If you're not South African, I wouldn't blame you if you'd never heard of Lesotho, and I'd be shocked if you knew how to pronounce it. Said like le-SU-tu, yet written Lesotho, one would think it should be spelled differently. But spelling aside, I hope after you read this post that you'll never forget this regal country that feels lost in time.
If you've seen the Marvel superhero movie Black Panther, then you might be familiar with the fictional African country of Wakanda, which was inspired by Lesotho. Though Lesotho is not some super technologically-advanced nation, it is an African kingdom that has been somewhat overlooked and forgotten by the rest of the world. And it feels as if Lesotho is content to keep it that way.
Plus, if you watch the movie again, you'll see plenty of characters dressed in the traditional blankets that everyone in Lesotho wears. They're beautiful, practical, but I also think anyone wearing them looks like a superhero.
I can completely see why someone might believe this kingdom is full of near-magical secrets. Though the Basotho people are mostly shepherds and herders, they look far from ordinary as they walk the mountain crests tall, lean, with walking sticks and staves, their blankets like cloaks billowing behind them in the wind. They sometimes wear their iconic straw hats (a symbol on their flag), either that or they cover their faces ninja-style, all giving them an air of mystery and majesty.
Besides walking the mountains, the Basotho people also ride finely-bred horses, and you might see them galloping across the valleys while waving their whips in the air, hollering at their cattle to move in a certain direction. These are truly rugged cowboys of the wild west, except African-style. And instead of being gritty outlaws having shootouts in saloons, the Basotho people are friendly, generous, and kind.
I kid you not, absolutely every single person we passed in Lesotho smiled and waved at us. These people may sometimes look intimidating by having scarves covering their faces, but they are as welcoming as can be. The women who wear their blankets like colorful dresses will wave with their free hand while the other holds a water jug atop their head, and children come running up to the motorcycle, not begging for food or candy, but with joyous smiles and a thumbs up.
For a country that's not very modern, Lesotho surprisingly has perfectly paved highways that zigzag up and down the country. For motorcyclists, these tarmac roads are heaven, making your tires happy as you lean into the curves, and the changing landscape of green valleys and reddened peaks is like candy for the eyes.
And for off-road adventurers, Lesotho can also provide some of the toughest tracks out there (as they say here, only a monkey with a stick can get through them).
All of Lesotho is mountainous, and over 80% of it is above 5,000 ft. in elevation (1,500 meters). They even have ski resorts, and hitting ice and snow is not infrequent. Luckily, the entirety of our time there was blessed with perfectly warm days with blue skies.
Yet if it wasn't for the incredible people, stunning scenery, and perfect weather, we might have hated our time there. Because our first destination in Lesotho was one of the deadliest stops we've ever made, and I hope not to break that record. It's called Maletsunyane Falls, and it's not the lovely waterfall that made it dangerous. It was our own stupidity to want to get a picture of the bike right in front of it, right along a cliff's edge.
The picture turned out great (below), but the problem was that the steeply sloping ground leading to the sheer cliff was made of loose rocks and shale. Not the best material for the tires to grip onto. Tim asked me to turn on his helmet cam while he maneuvered his bike around to get back up the hill because he knew that it would either capture his success or his death... what it ended up capturing was right in-between. Because as the back tire kept kicking out rocks, it lost its grip, and eventually Tim and the motorcycle toppled over and tumbled down toward the cliff's edge!
I screamed, thinking I was going to lose my husband, but thankfully both the bike and Tim stopped their slide right before the edge. It took us about 15 horrible minutes of pushing and pulling to finally get the motorcycle into a position where Tim could ride it up and away from the cliff.
Once we were back up the hill, we took a breather at the top to drink water with shaky hands, and I said good riddance to the waterfall where Tim nearly died. This was pure stupidity on our part (Tim admits it was mostly his part). And to think that he almost became one of those people that died at the Grand Canyon from taking a selfie! Horrible.
We spent the night appreciating being alive as we camped at a traditionally thatched lodge in the village of Semonkong. You had to go down a donkey trail into a ravine to get there, and it was such a surprise when we arrived to see a proper bar with blond people sipping pints of beer under Coca-Cola awnings, I just couldn't believe my eyes. The place offered hikes, abseiling, pony rides, and even did something called a Donkey Pub Crawl. Yup, you guessed it, they take tourists from pub to pub on donkeys.
The next day we wove our way north past the grimy capital city of Maseru, and into a canyon-filled area that reminded me of New Mexico. We hadn't done any difficult roads, in fact, the day had been easy, but Tim kept complaining of feeling overwhelming exhaustion.
And that night, his fevers started.
I thought maybe it was just road fatigue. So we decided to stay in Hlotse another day to give Tim some rest, but when his fever got worse the following night, I started getting really worried.
A fever in Africa could be a sign of any number of awful things, from the Sleeping Sickness, to Dengue Fever, to malaria. Tim continued to feel chills and was foggy-headed on the third day, but he said he was well enough to move on.
So we headed to Katse Dam, which is an impressive dam, but more importantly for us, the road there is stunning.
We wild camped that night near a stream with sheep and cows grazing all around us, their bells around their necks sounding like soothing wind chimes. But poor Tim could not enjoy any of this as his nightly fever returned with a vengeance, and I found myself staying up all night making sure he was breathing. This was certainly not your typical flu. This was bad.
I thought about mosquito bites and the diseases they carry, but then I started thinking about a particularly nasty bite on Tim's leg. I noticed how red and swollen it had gotten. Wasn't that where I had pulled a tiny tick off him just five days prior?
I inspected his leg closer and noticed another swollen red splotch on his foot where I had previously taken a second tick off him. Though I was sure I'd gotten the heads out with both these ticks, maybe his wounds had gotten infected. Surely they looked infected. But could it be possible that these infections had become severe enough to cause his fever?
Either way, I smothered his bites in disinfectant, and then started Tim immediately on a round of antibiotics that we carry for emergencies like these.
The next morning he felt a bit better, but still had a headache. We had a difficult dirt road ahead of us as we made our way east from one major highway to another, but Tim tackled the challenge with flying colors. I was now feeling confident that he was suffering from an infection caused by the tick bites, and that the medicine was helping.
That night as we stayed near Mokhotlong, we finally got internet, and first thing I did was Google “African tick bite". The results couldn't have been more exact to Tim's bites and his symptoms; Wikipedia should have just written his name in there.
It turned out that he had ATBF, African Tick Bite Fever, which is a form of Spotted Fever caused by a bacteria transmitted through a specific type of South African tick. So we had a diagnosis, but best of all, it's easily treatable with the antibiotics Tim was already taking. Thank goodness!
Our last day out of Lesotho was going to be our most challenging, because we had decided to do the infamous Sani Pass that leads from the Lesotho highlands down into South Africa. It's hard enough going up the pass as most people do, but we decided to be extra crazy and go down it. Actually, we didn't really have much of a choice at this point since it was the way we were headed, and the only way out of Lesotho in that direction.
The first part was full of tight, steep switchbacks with loose rocks and gravel. Where the rocks were too loose for traction, I would hop off and walk portions of the switchbacks. It was convenient for me to take pictures as well. Even so, Tim fell three times. I even fell while walking! I slipped on the loose rocks walking downhill and landed hard on my side like I had been skating on ice. Sani Pass is no joke!
It was pretty gnarly in sections, but Tim handled it like a pro. Fortunately, he was feeling great by this time as the antibiotics were working their magic, and we made it all the way down Sani Pass and into South Africa once again.
Now we're in Pietermaritzburg, preparing ourselves and the bike for our next ventures. Yet as I think back, I cannot fathom that there will be many places on this earth that will have touched me as Lesotho has. It's been adventurous, gorgeous, friendly, almost deadly at times, and all around an experience to remember.
This week we'd like to thank Tabby and Elijah for giving us a taste of local Lesotho cuisine and helping Tim when he was not well, and to Barry for your kind hospitality and assisting us with our motorcycle repairs.
And thanks to all of you out there who keep up with our adventures! Stay tuned, and we'll keep you updated!
Next up: Dragon Country (Drakensberg)...
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