data Bisbocci Abroad: The Kingdom in the Sky

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Kingdom in the Sky

              Situated at the rooftop of Africa, smack in the middle of the continent's southernmost nation and encircled by dramatic, mist-shrouded peaks, sits a tiny mountainous kingdom that packs a lot of punch into its miniscule size. 
            The tiny speck of land that makes up the Kingdom of Lesotho sits perched atop the Drakensberg and Maluti mountain ranges and is entirely surrounded by the much larger and more powerful South Africa. Despite its small size and relative obscurity, however, Lesotho has a lot to offer.
           Lesotho, also known by some as The Kingdom in the Sky, The Mountain Kingdom or The Rooftop of Africa because of its geographic features, is quietly establishing itself as a premier ecotourist destination and was recently named one of the world's top ten value destinations by Lonely Planet.            

         Despite having read wonderful things about the country, Lesotho was not a place that I had initially expected to visit. Yet, when Dan confirmed that he would come to Africa at the end of December, I subsequently tacked two more weeks onto my travel plans and began to broaden the scope of my itinerary.
          Most of my fellow WorldTeach friends had plans of flying back home in time for Christmas, so they justifiably decided to spend their entire vacations in the Cape Town area as a result of time constraints. However, since Mariella had visited the city in May and since I had plans of traveling to the Western Cape later in my travels with Dan, we began looking for alternative places to visit.  

         In August, after I found out that Dan would be able to get the days off work, I spent a significant amount of time looking up destinations throughout the area. I soon became enraptured by the photographs of Lesotho's misty peaks and expansive vistas. To me, the mountainous nation of Lesotho seemed to be nearly everything Namibia was not. And while I knew that I would miss Namibia terribly after stepping off of the country's soil, I was ready for a change of scenery.
            I was ready to once again be surrounded by the color green. I was ready to get lost in the mountains. I was ready to bundle up in layers and breathe the fresh mountain air.
         What I was not quite ready for, was the slap-in-the-face wealth and elegance of some of South Africa's fancy neighborhoods. Lesotho seemed to hold the perfect balance I was looking for, by offering me many of the things I missed from home, while simultaneously keeping me from jumping too suddenly into a world driven by consumerism and materialism. 
            So on one afternoon when I had made up my mind about visiting the tiny country, I logged into my e-mail account and shot a message to Mariella, asking if she'd be interested in pony trekking amidst Southern Africa's highest peaks.
           Luckily, she was. 

        Reaching Lesotho took countless hours, a variety of different buses and a handful of patience. Our journey began early in the morning of December 7th and lasted three days.
       On December 7th, my friends and I said goodbye to our respective villages and headed to Windhoek for one last night in Namibia's capital. That night, we met with our field director for dinner and said our final farewells. The next morning, Mariella and I departed early for the airport, where we would catch a flight to Johannesburg, followed by a series of buses.
              In traveling from Johannesburg to Malealea, Lesotho, we relied on a variety of modes of transportation, from fancy double-decker buses spewing messages of Christian salvation, to the unofficial minibus taxis that pack as many smelly people as possible into their limited seats.

         If you are coming from South Africa, a journey into Lesotho is like a venture across time and space into a different world, for the tiny kingdom is not only geographically separated from its larger neighbor by the mountains, but it is also culturally and historically very distinct.
           As soon as we crossed the Maseru Bridge Border Post and set foot on Lesothoan territory, everything felt different. The air was crisper. The mountains were higher. The fields were more fertile. The vegetation was greener. All around us, the proud Basotho people milled about, clad in rubber boots, mohair blankets and straw hats.
Beautiful Scenery in the Mountain Kingdom
Fertile Pastures, Lesotho
           The Basotho have inhabited Southern Africa since the 1400s. In the beginning of the 1800s, they congregated in the area of present-day Lesotho under the leadership of the powerful and heavily idolized King Moshoeshoe I, a village leader who rose to prominence when he called for greater unity among the Sotho tribes. The calls for unity came at a time when the neighboring Zulu tribes began encroaching on Sotho land and Moshoeshoe found the need to create a Sotho stronghold in order to defend the territory of his people. 
         When the Europeans scrambled to slice Africa into different colonies, King Moshoeshoe stood firmly against occupation by the Afrikaaners. For strategic purposes, Lesotho's king decided to side with the British Cape Colony in order to avoid the fate of the rest of South Africa. This allegiance with Great Britain eventually led to the British annexation of the area and the country was able to gain full independence from the British in 1966. It has been recognized as a sovereign monarchy ever since. 

            Today, despite its proximity to the larger and much more powerful South Africa, the landlocked country retains an independent identity and culture that is unique to the region. Lesotho may be among the smallest of Africa's sovereign nations, but Mariella and I realized quickly that, despite its lack of geographic area, the country merits far more than the passing glance it so often receives.
           I was happy that we had abandoned our ambitious plans of visiting large swaths of South Africa and decided instead to focus our time on the highlands of Lesotho.
         For, in the end, we may not have seen as much as we initially set out to see, but we instead spent nearly a week exploring the area around Malealea, and relished every moment of it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment