Lesotho Diaries Part One

After literally months of planning and interruptions related to COVID regulations last year we finally got our moment ‘in the sun’. Our trip to the Bokong River in the highlands of Lesotho was on.

It’s a long trip from Cape Town, on the Southern tip of the African continent to reach the “Mountain Kingdom”, even longer to reach the Makangoa Community camp on the banks of the Bokong River, tucked away on the furthest corner of the massive and convoluted Katse Dam.

The Journey from Cape Town to Makangoa Community Camp is a long one, we are praying it will be worth it.

Katse is part of the “Lesotho Highlands Water Project” which supplies both hydroelectric power and water to the Witwatersrand area of South Africa. It is a truly massive impoundment with a maximum capacity of 1950 Km3. That is a LOT of water; enough that during construction the mass was sufficient to cause “induced seismicity”, that’s man-made earthquakes to you and me. Causing your own earthquakes seems a bit extreme but then there is the positive side, a lot of water available in a country rather devoid of such resources, and a pile of yellowfish trapped within the system and nowhere to spawn but to run up the Bokong River.

If you have ever fished the Bokong when the yellowfish are running up river, you would have to ask yourself if at least a few cubic kilometers of the above estimate are not in fact simply fish. Not two years back the dam dropped to 17% of capacity, during one of the worst droughts on record, and one has to wonder exactly how much of that 17% was really water. It might not be a far fetched fantasy to imagine some soccer mom in Sandton, turning on the faucet and having fish drop into the sink. Put plainly the system holds a lot of fish!!

Smallmouth Yellowfish running the Bokong River

So, phase one of the plan, after exhaustive fly-tying sessions, truck servicing, brake disc skimming, packing and more, was to drive for 12 hours to Bloemfontein. It is serious commitment but, in some respects, the easier part of the journey, at least the road is pretty straight. (There is no such thing as straight road once you enter Lesotho).

Our overnight stay was at “Tuff Top”, a grass turf growing and accommodation/wedding venue which offers far more comfortable and friendly lodgings than one might expect from the less than romantic name. That said we really only needed beds and a shower, the focus was on sleep and moving forward with our journey in the morning.

Sleep on these trips can be something of a fitful affair, one is tired from the journey, but excited and worried about the prospects at the same time. The mosquitos did their best to interrupt our fevered sleep and we all said silent prayers for good conditions on the river.  Fishing the Bokong is a crapshoot, too much rain and you are crying into your beer for days on end, too little and the river runs low and the fish depart. It is a gamble, as are many fishing trips, so we scratched “mozzie bites”, dreamt of crystal clear water and had nightmares about raging floods.

It should, of course, be pretty apparent that a watershed which can fill a dam of nearly two thousand cubic kilometers gets a lot of rain, we were simply hoping it wouldn’t fall during our stay.

The following morning, we were off before dawn, on our way to Ficksburg and the Lesotho border post, armed with, apart from tons of fishing gear and donated clothing and other paraphernalia for the community, a plethora of paperwork proving our citizenship and more importantly COVID test negativity. We had all needed to be tested within 72 hours of crossing the border and after last year’s debacle it was a relief to test negative. The alternative, would have been another year lost and possible a good deal of money too. A fishing trip with great mates can be one of the most relaxing things one will ever do, but the price is untold stress prior to departure, especially in this day and age.

Ficksburg is a small town, showing plenty of evidence of decline, the roads have more pot-holes than tar and traversing the town we frequently had to dodge vehicles on the wrong side of the road. The drivers, with good reason, more afraid of the gaping crevasses than the prospect of head on collision. You need a four-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance to drive all the way to the fishing camp, but then again, the same functionality proves pretty darned useful just driving through Ficksburg.  That said, the town has more than a few upsides, it boasts a “Cherry Festival” for which it is famous, and one of the best “Fresh Stop” shops where we always pick up a breakfast of toasted sandwiches and crispy chips. (although generally a “flexitarian” who normally eschews fast food I have to confess that junk food is near mandatory on a road trip, on a fishing road trip, doubly so.)

Crossing the border, although we have done this trip more than a few times, can prove taxing. There is no apparent order to things, and little or no signage. Cars park all over the place, an entirely haphazard array, it is less than apparent which window you need to go to with your passport and COVID paperwork, and of course, apart from the vehicles there is a good amount of foot traffic too. Having crossed the Mohokare River and once again dealt with paperwork and payments we were in Maputsoe, the Lesotho border town which effectively twins with Ficksburg, unexpectedly the roads here, whilst bad, showed some improvement compared to those on the South African side.

Maputsoe on the Lesotho side of the border is an exercise in organised chaos.

The strip, of what is officially titled, Sir Seretse Khama Road, is a hive of low-level entrepreneurship. Tiny tin shack “shops” with scribbled signage in fading paint; offering everything from walking sticks and hats to cooked “Mealies” (corn on the cob). There are endless hovels selling Vodacom airtime, haircuts, ladies’ fashion and of course more “mealies”. Mealies appear to be especially popular and numerous little barbeque fires line both sides of the street roasting them ready for sale.

Apart from the low level, but bustling, roadside commerce, one becomes immediately aware of fleets of taxis, designated, and I can’t find out why, by yellow stripes down the sides of the vehicles and little “taxi” light up signs on the roofs. Lesotho is a poor country and vehicle ownership (other than ox wagon), is for the privileged few. As a result, there are yellow striped taxis everywhere, that means not just in all locations but all over the roads as well. Whether the roadside piles of wrecked vehicles, most of them sporting yellow stripes and lights on the roofs, are a result of bad driving or the mountainous terrain isn’t easy to tell.

As we drive we think on the fishing prospects, we hope we will be fortunate

One thing is for sure, once you head to the central highlands, it is obvious that this is mountainous country, there is no such thing as a straight road in Lesotho, not too much by way of level road either for that matter. One seems to be perpetually traversing hairpin bends, gut wrenching climbs or brake smoking descents.

There are few places where one could safely exceed 60km/hr and thus as we near our destination progress slows as anticipation builds. We passed through several police check points and it seems, from the pressed uniforms and hospitable interactions, that the cops take more pride in their appearance than do their South African counterparts across the border. In fact, the Basuto people seem to be remarkably friendly, happy and proud of their country, we were frequently asked in broken English if we were happy to be there, and indeed we were very happy. The weather was looking good and the fishing prospects more than promising.

A brief attempt to capture some of the elements of our tortuous journey and the sights and sounds of glorious Lesotho

Having traversed the verdant lowlands past Pitseng, we headed into the hills, and the geographical barrier of the Mafika Lisiu pass. It is the most glorious, if terrifying, drive, with serpentine climbs, amazing views and water and rock falls in equal measure. The apex is some 3000 metres above sea level and the truck struggled a little in the thin air and progress was slow. Even up here you will find shepherds and their flocks wandering the roads, sheep and cattle provide as much of a road hazard as hair pin bends and taxis, but goodness me it is spectacular.

Once we summited the pass, we crossed the very top of the Bokong river, but are still hours from our final destination at the Makangoa Community camp. Katse dam isn’t simply large but boasts a complex and extensive coastline. It is in effect, a combination of two flooded and very large river valleys, made up of the Malibamatso River and the Bokong River, meaning that driving around it to reach camp takes a LOT longer than you might imagine.

The size of Katse Dam is deceptive, but it is huge. The camp lies at the top end of the Bokong arm on the left of the image.

We are on the long descent now and pass-through small hamlets and increasing numbers of donkeys, horses, sheep, cattle and remarkably school children. The children all dressed in neatly laundered regulation uniforms. Anyone considering complaining about walking to school should check out the distances and terrain these kids endure, all at an altitude equivalent to a third of the way up Mt Everest.

We stop at a “Shebeen” (informal liquor outlet) to buy a few cases of Maluti Lager, parking the truck between half a dozen donkeys whilst we go inside. As always, the proprietor is cheerful and pleased to have visitors. The shebeens are easy to spot, the primary indication being locals lounging on the front porch sipping out of beer bottles and of course the taxi rank of donkeys outside. These hamlets all appear somewhat disheveled in a quaint sort of way, but one never feels threatened or unsafe. When it comes to minimalism the Basutho have it aced.

Maluti Premium Lager - Maluti Mountain Brewery - Untappd

We pass through Lejone and are on the final leg to Katse Lodge and the kidney juddering track around the western arm of the dam to the camp. We are almost there. The dam and surrounding countryside is breathtaking, all the more so now that Katse is once again full. Levels rose from 17% to 100% in less than two years, we start once more to worry about the rain.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: