Words by Jess Fogarty. Pictures by Jess Fogarty and Alexander Bailey.
My brief seemed to be a simple one: drive Lesotho’s circumference, never crossing the border, but staying as close to it as possible.
However, I discovered that this would mean driving over one-and-a-halfthousand kilometres, following a spider’s web of gravel roads, named and unnamed, traversing three provinces and ticking off just about every point of the compass.
We set off from Joburg, bombing down the N3 towards our first destination, Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge. Here, at Lesotho’s northernmost tip on the border between the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, looking down into one of the many glorious amphitheatres of the Drakensberg, we were to rendezvous with the rest of our party: my folks, both avid travellers who’re spending the majority of their retirement travelling Africa. They were in their much-loved and fully-equipped Hilux, while my codriver friend Alexander (known to us as Zandy) and I were piloting a beautiful new Amarok auto which we’d collected in the big smoke.
I discovered that Witsieshoek had formerly been a state enterprise, owned and run by the Batlokloa community, (the local Sotho-Tswana people,) and now belongs to Morena Mota, the current King of the Batlokoa community. Witsieshoek was to close down in 2010, but management was handed over to the Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD) in order to conserve the area.
These days it’s in the midst of redevelopment, and fast becoming a tourist attraction for adventurous souls, with its hikes and mountain bike trails – and the challenge of a climb up the sheer rock face of Sentinel Peak. Zandy decided to take full advantage of our location and hike to the Tugela Falls – at 948 metres, the secondhighest waterfall in the world. The falls are located in the Royal Natal National Park, next door to Witsieshoek; and the hike begins a mere eight kilometres away at the Sentinel car park, on a dirt road accessible only by 4WD.
It’s a five-hour round trip, not terribly challenging; but as there’s a section of vertical chain ladders bolted into the rock face, it’s not for the faint-hearted. The water falls only between November and December, after the rainy season, but can also be seen frozen over when the temperature drops along with the snow.
Zandy was accompanied by Kevin, the Witsieshoek manager, other staff members, and Samson, the mountain guide – a knowledgeable and informative man from a nearby town, willing to take people up the mountain at whatever pace they can muster.
I stayed at the lodge, keen to see another attraction: the Bearded Vulture, or Lammergeier, which is endangered in the area, and distinct from any other vulture with its feathered head and orange plumage. The Lodge has a “Vulture restaurant” ledge not far from the chalets, where the staff leave bones and carrion out for the vultures – a prime spot to get a good look at these birds, and for the KZN-Wildlife programme to record their details and movements. When the hikers returned, we set off, turning off the R712 onto the R74… and smack bang into road works. However, there wasn’t a single soul on the road between the stops to tell you when it was safe to proceed; just one single tarred lane and a sign at both ends saying RY/ GO. Unfathomable, and undoubtedly very dangerous. We trundled through slowly, fortunately not coming across much oncoming traffic.
The views en route were memorable. The R74 skirts the easterly edge of the Sterkfontein Dam, after which we took the gravel road to Cathedral Peak. This brought us closer to Woodstock Dam, on which the sun was setting as we passed, creating magnificent reflections on the water’s mirror-like surface.
Didima camp was our stopover for the night, and much of the fireside chatter was about what we would see the next morning. And what a sight it was!…