My friend Michelle and I have a tradition of meeting up somewhere in Africa over the Christmas holidays. Last year we went to Namibia. This year, Michelle wanted to go somewhere new (not easy, as Michelle has been everywhere), and I wanted to go somewhere within driving distance of Joburg (peak-season flights are too rich for my blood). We decided on Lesotho.
Lesotho is beautiful. (If you read my previous post then you already know this.) There’s something about the way the light shines on the mountains. It’s not like any other place.
Neither of us had time for trip-planning, so we booked at the Malealea Lodge without doing much research. I’d heard Malealea was nice, although I couldn’t quite remember from whom, and we knew it was a good base for hiking and pony-trekking. The name sounds pretty and the price is right. So, off we went. It turned out to be a perfect choice.
Just before arriving at Malealea Lodge, we drove through the Gates of Paradise.
Malealea is five-and-a-half hours from Joburg and one-and-a-half hours from Maseru (the capital of Lesotho). Although it feels like the edge of the universe, Malealea is easily reachable in a 2WD car.
Malealea is like a backpackers’ hostel for grown-ups, and the lodge is very enmeshed with the surrounding community. Don’t go there if you want to be pampered, or if you want to ride around in a fancy safari vehicle looking at animals. But if you like being outside, meeting nice people, and are up for something a little wilder (and more exhausting) than an African safari, Malealea is for you.
Our thatched rondavel room at Malealea.
This sign sums up the vibe at Malealea. But what’s the forecast when the rock has a bird on it?
Jonty, one of Malealea’s resident dogs.
We initially booked three nights at Malealea but wound up staying four. We found it difficult to leave, mainly because there were so many cool hikes to do.
On our first full day we did a six-hour hike to some ancient bushman rock paintings and to a nearby waterfall. The scenery was amazing but it was freaking hot and tiring. By the time we reached the waterfall I was too tired to take photos. Here are some sheep we saw on the way to the waterfall.
Our guide, Michael, near the rock paintings.
On our second day, we took a break from hiking and did a two-hour pony trek along Pitseng Gorge. It was Michelle’s first time on a horse. Basotho ponies are very tame — no prior riding experience required.
Some new friends we met during the pony trek. (Photo: Michelle Stern)
Look, more sheep! On our second afternoon we did a short hike through some of the small villages in Malealea.
On our final full day at Malealea we did the “Gates of Paradise” hike, which involves climbing a very high, very steep plateau, walking along the top for a while, gazing at one of the prettiest views on earth, and then climbing down again. See the tiny brown road in the distance? The lodge is somewhere down there.
Our guide, Mora, admires the view from the top. Halfway up the mountain, as we all stood around panting, I asked Mora how often he does the Gates of Paradise hike. Mora thought for a minute. “About five times,” he said. “Five times a week?” I asked. “No,” said Mora. “Five times.” As in five times ever. Apparently we are among the few Malealea visitors crazy enough to undertake this expedition “for fun”.
We encountered many beautiful and wonderful-smelling plants during the Gates of Paradise hike.
One of the other great things about Malealea is that almost everyone who stays there is really cool and fun. Michelle and I met Rose (left) on the evening we arrived and we became friends. We met lots of other great people at Malealea too, and my friend Caroline — a fellow American expat living in Joburg — happened to be there at the same time with her sister Quince. (Photo: Mora Lebona)
I’m glad we were crazy enough to climb that mountain. It was totally worth it.
Can you see me? (Photo: Michelle Stern)
In addition to the hiking and all the fun people, my other favorite thing about Malealea was the music. Every evening at 5:30, a Basotho choir puts on a performance, followed by a local band. There are two bands that play: Sotho Sounds and the Malealea Band. The bands play handmade Basotho instruments made of oil cans, rubber tires, metal barrels, and other random stuff.
The Malealea Band.
Words can’t describe how much I enjoyed these bands. I recorded a few video clips, but I’m not going to post them because they don’t do justice to the real thing.
I could go on about Malealea but this post is too long.
Here are a few tips for anyone thinking about going:
1) As I said before, Malealea is not fancy and the amenities are basic, so put aside your diva mentality and be flexible. The electricity is on for five hours a day, from 5:00-10:00 p.m., so bring a flashlight. There is no wifi. (I wasn’t prepared for the lack of wifi and suffered a bit of withdrawal at first.)
2) If you want a private, en-suite room, book a farmhouse bedroom for R240 (about $24) per person per night. As far as I can tell, the farmhouse rooms are the same as the rondavel rooms but cost R60 less per night. Malealea also offers cheaper huts with communal bathrooms, as well as a camp ground.
3) Bring along some jugs of bottled water. The water at Malealea is not drinkable and buying water at the bar gets tiresome.
4) Bring snacks and breakfast food so you don’t have to buy every meal at the restaurant. Meals are not included in the rates and food is relatively expensive — eating three meals a day in the restaurant, together with drinks, will cost you more than R300 ($30) per day. If I go again I’ll bring breakfast stuff because I found the breakfasts mediocre. Dinner, on the other hand, was fantastic every night.
5) Build in time each day to sit at the little coffee shop, which is lovely and serves yummy baked goods. The coffee is just okay (bring a plunger with you if you’re a coffee snob because Nescafe is the standard at Malealea), but the view makes up for it.
6) Do not attempt to hike without a guide. You will get lost. Also, do not attempt an all-day hike unless you’re reasonably fit. (If in doubt, ride a pony.) Hiking guides can be hired at any time of day with ten minutes’ notice. (An all-day hike costs around R50 per person, plus tip.) The guides are great but not all of them speak fluent English.
7) Lesotho has crazy weather. The climate can yo-yo quickly from blazing-hot sun to cold rain and back again. Dress accordingly and wear lots of sunblock.
8) Have fun.
The end. (Photo: Michelle Stern)