Lesotho – the Kingdom in the Sky – might be a wonderful overland destination, but it’s not a place that compact SUVs and crossovers often venture. Until now, that is. A tar road is being built through the heart of the country, opening up the interior of Lesotho and making it accessible for even the softest of soft-roaders.
The Maletsunyane Falls. The Place of Smoke. This waterfall near the small town of Semonkong is not only one of the most impressive scenes in Lesotho, but one of the most striking sights in all of southern Africa. At a height of 192m, it is the highest single-drop waterfall in Africa. Why is it called the Place of Smoke? Well, as water tumbles over the edge of the falls, a smoke-like mist is created.
But it isn’t only the height of the waterfall, or the smoky haze, that make it so impressive. It is the entire setting that makes it a very special place to visit. In this part of the Mountain Kingdom, the country truly lives up to its name. Mountains surround the waterfall – literally stretching as far as the eye can see. As you approach the falls, you first become aware of a massive tear in the countryside, as if some gigantic monster had descended from heaven and ripped a chunk of earth from the centre of this mountainous landscape.
As the road bends, the waterfall reveals itself. From atop a hill, water drops 200m into this unlikely, cauldron-like chasm. The first time you see it, it’ll take your breath away.
I had only been to the Maletsunyane Falls once, and it had been in May, when winter was fast approaching and water levels started dropping, so the waterfall wasn’t at its best. Because of this I was keen to pay the region a visit during summer when there was lots of rain to fuel the waterfall’s flow.
Getting to Semonkong and the Maletsunyane Falls has never been particularly difficult. The road was never in great condition – some might even have called it horrible – but as long as you were willing to take your time over all the ruts and rocks, you could get there in just about any vehicle. Many a maltreated rental vehicle had been forced there at the hands of brave (or, more likely, misinformed) overseas tourists.
Now, though, I had been told that getting to Semonkong was easier than ever. A tarred road – an autobahn-like highway by African standards – was being built that led straight to the town. Moreover, a tarred road leading from Semonkong to Qacha’s Nek was also being constructed, now making it possible for the first time to enter Lesotho in the Free State near Maseru, and cut through it to the Eastern Cape.
This development was certainly worth investigating, so I decided to head for Semonkong in an appropriately “soft” SUV: the Ford Kuga. Now, the Kuga is actually a pretty capable compact SUV, but still, our top-spec Titanium test model sported some pretty low-profile tyres, which made it the perfect guinea pig for this trip. It would give us an idea of how a road-oriented urban SUV with big rims fared in the Mountain Kingdom.
Heading for the Mountain Kingdom
To get to Semonkong, you need to travel through the small town of Ramabanta. It is only around 70km from Maseru, but the last time I travelled this road, it wasn’t in a great state, so getting to Ramabanta took quite a while. Because of this, we decided to spend a night at the Trading Post Lodge in town during this trip.
With my dad riding shotgun, we set off for Lesotho early on a Friday morning. We left Johannesburg around 06h00, and headed out on the N1 towards the Grasmere Toll Plaza. Once through the tollgate, we took the R57 turn-off towards Vanderbijlpark and Sasolburg, and headed for Heilbron. This isn’t the most popular route from Johannesburg to Lesotho, but it is actually pretty quiet and the roads are in good condition. And as an added bonus, there aren’t any tolls on this route.
At the next turn, we stuck to the R57 route, turning towards Petrus Steyn and Reitz. This section of road used to be in a terrible state, but it’s much better now.
We then took the R707 towards Lindley, which wasn’t in great shape, but was at least fairly quiet. We passed Lindley and Arlington, and then took the R70 towards Ficksburg.
In Ficksburg we filled the Kuga with 50ppm, and set off for the Peka Bridge Border Post. Peka is one of the best entry points into Lesotho. It is always incredibly quiet. In fact, nine times out of ten you will be the only person at the border. Maseru Bridge can be chaotic on a Friday, so unless you plan on crossing at a very quiet time, it is worth giving Maseru a skip and entering at Peka.
From Peka we headed towards Maseru. As you travel towards Maseru, there is a road that turns off towards Roma, which allows you to bypass the busy Maseru. We weren’t sure what sort of state the road was in, so we didn’t take it, but we were told later that it is actually a very good tar road.
Maseru was, as usual, very busy. If you venture into the city, especially on a Friday afternoon, you need to be patient. Taxis will inevitably stop right in front of you. Cars will force their way into your lane, despite the obvious fact that no space exists.
This sort of thing, however, is part and parcel of overlanding in Africa. Best just to relax, keep your head down, turn your radio up, and just slowly work your way through the traffic.
The road to Ramabanta
When I had driven the road between Maseru and Ramabanta about 18 months ago, they were working on that stretch of road, so I thought that it would be in decent condition. I wasn’t prepared for just how great this road now was, though.
As you pass Roma and the National University of Lesotho, you hit a small section of gravel. Once you’re through this, the road turns into a driver’s dream – a smooth, sweeping ribbon of tarmac that winds its way through the stunning Lesotho mountains.
We now had an opportunity to see how the new Kuga behaved on a challenging road. Could it live up to the reputation of its sporty predecessor? Since the previous Kuga had an ST 2,5-litre petrol mill and excellent handling, I had my doubts.
Luckily, though, the 2.0 TDCi Kuga quickly showed that it can handle a twisty road. It obviously didn’t feel as sporty and eager as the old 2.5, but it was undeniably fun to pilot on a mountain pass. The ride and handling was probably geared a bit more towards comfort than the previous Kuga’s, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. For this sort of vehicle, its balance between dynamic handling and comfort was spot-on.
The engine/gearbox combo was fantastic as well, especially accelerating from slow speeds. The Kuga certainly didn’t waste time getting up to speed.
While the road did give us a taste of what the Kuga could do, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t quite the dream pass it seemed like at first. How so? Well, since this road was still being tarred all the way to Semonkong, there were a lot of trucks on it. And due to the steep gradients, many of them were literally chugging along at walking speed. We couldn’t travel for long before finding ourselves up against the rear bumper of slow-moving truck.
And trucks weren’t the only problem. This part of Lesotho might boast a brand-new tar road, but it remains a very rural region of the country, meaning that you might find a herd of cattle or sheep around any bend. You have to look out for animals and pedestrians at all time, so caning a vehicle along this road would be very irresponsible.
My advice would be: don’t frustrate yourself by treating this stretch of road like a rally stage. Instead, slow down and enjoy the beautiful scenery on offer.
The Trading Post Lodge
Even taking the trucks, animals and pedestrians into consideration, you’ll be at Ramabanta before you know it. Thanks to the new road, getting to the town is incredibly quick and easy compared to what it was like when only a gravel road ran to town.
We certainly arrived at the Trading Post Lodge much earlier than we had anticipated, which gave us an opportunity to have a bit of a look around.
As its name suggests, it used to be a trading post, but it is now a very popular tourist destination. It provides the best accommodation you can hope for in the region – even the king of Lesotho stays here when he visits Ramabanta!
Hardcore off-roaders will probably know of it because it is situated very close to the start of the infamous Baboons Pass.
There’s no electricity in Ramabanta, which means that the lodge has to make use of a generator. Because of this, power is only provided between 18h00 and 22h00. But don’t let that put you off. The stunning views definitely make the Trading Post worth visiting. You can also count on clean and comfortable accommodation, excellent service and a peaceful night’s sleep.
Fighting through to Semonkong
The road from Ramabanta to Semonkong was one of my favourite stretches of road anywhere in southern Africa. So, as we readied ourselves the following morning to travel to Semonkong, I was very excited.
But I was also worried. How had the construction of the tar road changed this wonderful route? When I had driven to Semonkong in 2012, it was an unexpectedly magical experience. Soon after leaving Ramabanta, the small villages and other signs of human activity had disappeared, leaving nothing but lofty wilderness in all directions. About halfway between the two towns, I had switched off the vehicle and simply basked in the wonderful quiet and solitude. Lesotho is a small country, but at that moment I felt thousands of kilometres away from civilisation. I might as well have been on the moon.
As we now hit the road in the Kuga, It didn’t take long to realise that things had changed significantly. The road that I had so fallen in love with had disappeared. The 50km between Ramabanta and Semonkong was now nothing more than one long construction site. Virtually none of the work between the two towns had been completed.
As the odometer ticked over, I kept waiting for things to clear, but they never did. Not once were the road works out of site. Despite the fact that it was Saturday, construction was in full swing. Construction workers were everywhere. Diggers and other earth-moving equipment were busy on all sides. And trucks? Well, I had never quite seen anything like it. We often found ourselves stuck behind four or five trucks, giving us no option but to stay in formation behind them as they trundled ever so slowly up the steep inclines. It was a very frustrating experience.
Moreover, in some areas the road was now actually in worse condition than before, though this can’t be blamed completely on the construction work. Lesotho had received a lot of rain, and predictably, the areas where there was significant construction activity had turned into massive patches of mud. At one point, the road was completely washed away, so we were directed onto a temporary road that had been created next to the main road.
This was a frustrating and disappointing experience, but it has to be said that this situation will only be temporary. Soon all the construction equipment will be gone, and all that will remain is a beautiful tar road. And there is no denying that the road will be a boon to Lesotho as a whole, and make the interior of the country far more accessible, especially to tourists. The building of this road is definitely a good thing.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I was somewhat saddened by the loss of that previous gravel road. With a tar road stretching between Maseru and Qacha’s Nek, the area between Ramabanta and Semonkong won’t feel as remote and devoid of life. It simply won’t be as magical as it was before.
The Place of Smoke
About two hours after leaving Ramabanta, we arrived at Semonkong. Had the old dirt road still been in place, it would have taken us about the same amount of time to get to Semonkong, but it would have been far less frustrating.
Regardless, we were now in Semonkong. Time to visit the falls!
If you’re looking for a reason to justify the creation of a tar road, you need look no further than the Maletsunyane Falls. It is a natural wonder that deserves to place Semonkong on the tourist map.
The falls are on a dirt road about 9km from Semonkong. To get there, you need to follow a small gravel track. It’s in pretty bad shape – especially after it rains – but the Kuga traversed it without hassle.
As suspected, the falls were indeed looking good. Massive amounts of water tumbled over the edge of the cliff, falling 200m into the gorge below.
If you want a good view of the waterfall, you can visit the lookout point opposite it. It’s a great spot from which to enjoy the falls.
If you’re looking for a more up-close-and-personal experience, you can abseil down the waterfall. Semonkong Lodge operates an abseil at the waterfall, the longest commercially operated single-drop abseil in the world, in fact. The abseil descends 204m non–stop to the bottom of the gorge, and if you’re looking to get your adrenaline pumping, this is a great way to do it.
If you’re looking for a slightly more sedate experience, however, you can always go pony trekking or hiking, go fly-fishing, or simply explore the region’s countless little dirt trails on your mountain bike, or in your 4×4. All of these activities can be arranged at Semonkong Lodge.
Once we had had our fill of the falls, we headed for the lodge. The heavens had opened up, and the Kuga now faced quite a challenge getting back to the lodge. Thanks to all its traction aids, though, it performed admirably.
Back at the lodge, we watched as the Maletsunyane River’s water level rose dramatically. The river runs right past the lodge, and when the water level gets really high, it actually submerges the low bridge that runs to the lodge and makes the lodge inaccessible. Luckily, though, this doesn’t happen too often.
Like the Trading Post Lodge, Semonkong Lodge is a great place for those who want to explore Lesotho’s Highlands in comfort. Thanks to a nearby hydro powerplant, there’s electricity in Semonkong (except when the river is too low during the dry months to generate power), and food at the lodge’s restaurant is top notch.
After a day playing in the mountains, the lodge’s bar area and restaurant area is a great place to unwind and test the local Maluti Lager. But, if you want a more culturally immersive experience, then you can opt for the lodge’s donkey pub-crawl. Semonkong Lodge will provide you with a donkey, and will escort you to the town’s four pubs to enjoy your tipple the way the locals do.
After a night at Semonkong Lodge, it was time to head home, which meant that we once again had to tackle the road between Semonkong and Ramabanta. Thankfully it was Sunday, which meant that no construction was taking place. The road was now deserted, much like it had been the first time I travelled it. It was somewhat blighted by all the construction, but it was peaceful. So peaceful, in fact, that it regained some of that magic that had been completely missing the day before. And with no trucks on the road, it only took as an hour to traverse the same section that had taken more than two hours the previous day.
Soon this road will be completed and one will be able to travel on tar all the way from Maseru to Qacha’s Nek. This will be good thing for Lesotho, and for places like Ramabanta and Semonkong, but it also means that this route will become much busier. I’d recommend that you visit this region now, before this relatively undiscovered gem of an area is placed firmly on the tourist map.
Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge
If you’re planning on heading to Semonkong, we’d recommend that you spend a night at Ramabanta. The Trading Post Lodge boasts truly spectacular views, as well as comfortable accommodation and excellent service.
With the road now fully tarred from Maseru to Ramabanta, the lodge is very easy to get to. In fact, you could venture there with just aboutany car. There are few places that feel as untouched and remote, yet is so easily accessible. The Trading Post Lodge is one of Lesotho’s must-visit destinations.
Tel: +266 2234 0202 o/h; +266 2234 0267 a/h
Cell: 082 773 2180
Email: [email protected]
GPS: S2939’56.98” E2747’49.43”
Semonkong is one of Lesotho’s best adventure destinations. Not only does it have the Maletsunyane Falls, where you can abseil down a 204m drop, but it also offers countless mountain biking, hiking and 4×4 experiences.
If you’re looking for insight into Lesotho and its culture, Semonkong Lodge also offers pony treks into the mountains, during which you sleep over in a local village. Through the lodge, you can also go pub crawling to Semonkong’s local bars by donkey, and attend a unique presentation where you can discover the true meaning behind all those colourful blankets that the Lesotho people wear.
Tel: +266 2700 6037
Cell: +266 6202 1021
Email: [email protected]
GPS: S2950’35.3” E2802’36.4”
Camelroc – Fouriesburg
Camelroc is located right outside the Caledonspoort Border Post, a few kilometres from Fouriesburg. We stayed here on our way back from Semonkong to Johannesburg, and were blown away by the beauty of this wonderful lodge. It really is a fantastic place to stay.
The lodge gets its name from a well-known local rock outcropping that looks exactly like the head of a camel.
Views from all the chalets are stunning, and the self-catering accommodation is clean and comfortable. Moreover, its location right next to the Caledonspoort Border Post makes it ideal as stopover when venturing into the Mountain Kingdom. If you’re on your way to a destination such as Afriski, Camelroc is definitely worth a visit.
Tel: 058 223 0368
GPS: S28 41′ 35.1″ E28 14′ 23.4″