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To some, Lesotho is a mountainous sanctuary when compared to the political turmoil and violence that has hit other areas on the African continent. It has managed to maintain its independence but has sometimes struggled in the shadow of surrounding South Africa. Poverty is deeply entrenched, with almost half of the population living below the poverty line.
The urban centers are increasingly dangerous, but Lesotho's inspiring rural landscapes mean there's little reason to hang around town.
Tourism is strong but still developing, however the people are incredibly friendly and the pace of life is enticingly relaxed, making it a promising holiday destination for cautious travelers.
Most people visiting will just be passing through the cities on their way to one of Lesotho's beautiful farm lodges. Even so, urban crime is probably the biggest issue for tourists. The threat of crime in the capital Maseru is considered critical by the US department of state. Nearby border towns of Maputsoe and Hlotse are not much better.
Strangely enough, increased security in South Africa due to the 2010 FIFA World Cup has contributed to crime in Lesotho. Ramped up border security has remained in place and criminals who used to slip over to hit wealthier South African targets are now being forced to look closer to home.
In addition, lots of Lesotho men used to enjoy good incomes as miners in South Africa. However, as the mining jobs dry up these guys are returning home in hordes and settling in the city centres. Inadequate jobs and income mean even more are turning to crime in desperation.
Unfortunately, with South African raids off the menu, tourists stand out as an alternative source of easy cash.
As always, avoiding this situation entirely is preferable. Keeping a low profile is a good start. If possible, don't go out by yourself. A lone foreigner is a tempting and vulnerable target. Try to conceal your cameras and any jewellery as much as possible and it's best to take a cab if you're carrying lots of luggage.
You shouldn't spend much time on the streets after dark and definitely don't stray off well-lit and busy streets. The stretch between Maseru's hub of hotels and the business district is notorious for robberies.
High unemployment means there are groups of men loitering all through the streets in most cities and, while we're not in any way suggesting they're all criminals, it makes it hard to pick out potential threats.
Nights and weekends are the most dangerous times but daylight robberies are becoming increasingly common so don't assume you're safe in the sun. You'll need to keep on your toes at all times in any Lesotho city.
The last Friday of the month is payday in Lesotho and you should be especially careful heading out at this time. Alcohol-fuelled arguments and violence are a threat as people head out to spend some of their pay. More people on the streets and more money in pockets means more thieves as well.
Knives are used in most robberies but gun crime is on the rise, especially in Maseru. If you are targeted don't put up any resistance. Thieves here have no qualms about using violence to subdue you and get what they want.
Hand over your things quickly and quietly. If you have a bag or a big camera, it's a good idea to throw it away from you rather than wait for them to grab it. Changing your attacker's focus can give you time to escape, or at least help avoid a potentially violent close quarters encounter.
Lesotho's sometimes slow and unpredictable transport and some fairly rugged terrain means many tourists end up hiring a 4X4 to get around. While this can save you putting yourself at the mercy of Lesotho's maniacal minibus or "kombi" drivers, you will need to take care to secure your car.
Vehicle theft is common in Maseru especially and if you leave the car unlocked, even for a moment, you're likely to lose it, or at least whatever's inside.
Smash and grabs are common too so choose a conspicuous spot when you're parking, somewhere with a lot of light and plenty of people. This can be a little tough in Lesotho's isolated rural towns so don't leave anything of value visible in the car to avoid tempting potential thieves.
Keep your doors locked and windows rolled up while driving as well. Carjacking can be a threat in the cities and in the country so be vigilant at intersections. Keep a bit of distance between you and the car in front so you can make a swift exit in the event of an attack.
Driving at night isn't recommended, because of the threat of theft as well as the danger of traveling on poorly maintained roads in the dark.
There have been reports of criminals targeting slow-moving vehicles on tough, isolated roads. Slow down, but don't stop for people beside the road.
Kids often hang on the roadside and ask tourists for sweets, which they assume you're carrying. Be careful of them but don't stop. They might be a little peeved and some even throw stones but handing out presents only perpetuates the begging problem.
Don't even think about picking up hitchhikers.
Unauthorised police checkpoints designed to extort a bribe are apparently a problem, although not common. As long as you have your passport, car hire paperwork and a license to show when asked, you will be let go. Do not pay bribes if you are asked to do so, as this encourages future behavior, and should be avoided.
The majority of tourism in Lesotho is focused on the magnificent mountain trails and epic scenery. Hiking, horse riding and cycling tours are the big draw cards and so travelers generally spend most of their time in isolated rural areas.
Unfortunately, these isolated rural areas are also used to grow marijuana or "dagga" which is a big problem in the region. Smugglers then use mountain trails to slip into South Africa and sell their product.
The Drakensberg range in the east is particularly popular with dagga smugglers and livestock rustlers, who'll duck over the border to nab some cattle and lead them back home.
While a donkey train or cattle herder high in the mountains might be a promising photo opportunity it's best to give them a wide berth. If they are criminals they are unlikely to appreciate the attention. Leave them alone and you should get the same courtesy.
The threat of livestock theft can also affect your stay in rural towns. Tourist accommodation is generally very secure, with lodges surrounded by fences and patrolled by security guards but the farmers rely on guard dogs and their own vigilance to keep their crops and flocks secure. Wandering around towns or farms late at night can put people on edge and isn't a great idea.
Lesotho's Moshoeshoe I international airport in Maseru is tiny, the only flights coming in leave from Johannesburg in South Africa.
Unfortunately, baggage theft and tampering is a problem at Johannesburg's airport, especially on some of the smaller airlines like those that service Lesotho.
Even if you're continuing overland to Lesotho it's a good idea to have locks on your bags or to use a luggage wrapping service. Take any electronics or valuable items in your carry on, they're less likely to get damaged this way as well.
Laying your luggage out and taking a picture or cataloguing your things before a trip is a handy way to keep a record of what you took away and can help you pick out anything that's missing.
Pickpockets can be a problem on Lesotho's crowded buses and kombis as well so be sure to keep an eye on your bags while traveling.
Homosexuality is a tricky subject in Lesotho. It is no longer illegal to be homosexual, although Lesotho's complicated legal system makes the issue rather unclear, and local attitudes towards homosexuality are not always accepting. Attitudes are improving, but it's important for LGBTQ+ travelers to be aware that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is not illegal.
Openly gay relationships or affection between same sex couples can attract aggressive and violent attention, so it's best to be discrete in public.
The Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) keep the peace across the country but limited funds and personnel mean you can't really rely on them for a rapid response. If you are the victim of crime you'll often have to go to a police station to report the incident or pick up an officer and bring them to the scene.
To contact the LPMS call +266-22-317-263 or +266-5-888-1010. If you're calling from a landline in Lesotho you can simply dial 112.
The prevalence of HIV and AIDS infection in Lesotho, as much as a quarter of the population is affected, means you should seek immediate medical assistance in the case of any violent attack or sexual assault.
Because of the heavy burden HIV/AIDS places on Lesotho's already inadequate medical facilities it can be more efficient to head over the border to South Africa for treatment. Bloemfontein is the nearest major city, just 1.5 hours from Lesotho's western border. If youre in the east, Durban's your best bet.
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