Adventure in Lesotho: 7 Safety Tips for Outdoor Activities

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Traveling to Lesotho? No doubt you're planning to spend your time in the rugged mountains. Here are our essential tips to keep you safe on your adventure.

Pony trekking in Lesotho Photo © Getty Images/Nadine Swart

If you're taking a holiday in Lesotho you'll almost certainly be spending most of your time in the mountains. Whether you're riding along ridges, searching for dinosaur footprints, relaxing in a mountaintop lodge or camping in the valley below, the Drakensberg and Maluti ranges are sure to impress.

But the downside of impressive scope is volatile weather, floods and landslides and if you head out into the mountains you need to be prepared.

Locals are incredibly friendly and helpful and there are plenty of guides to keep you on the right track.

Planning your path

Hiking is the most popular activity in Lesotho. The unspoiled Drakensberg and Maluti mountains that have provided sanctuary to the Basotho since the 19th century also offer a taste of seclusion to tourists.

Although there are some popular routes, there are no set hiking trails in Lesotho. Instead there's a network of paths that spread across the wilderness like a web.

It's great to have the freedom to wander where you like but it also means you need to take extra care planning and preparing for your trip.

You can easily arrange your own trekking itinerary in Lesotho but even the more popular routes, like the Drakensberg Escarpment or Semongkong to Malealea, require a bit of experience and navigational skill. Don't ever set off without telling someone where you're going and how long you think you'll be gone.

Maps covering the entire country are available from the Department of Land, Surveys and Physical Planning in Maseru. Most lodges or hotels will have hiking maps for the surrounding areas as well.

If you'd prefer to let someone else show you around, there are plenty of tour companies and guides who can arrange day trips or longer treks to suit your schedule. They will sort out accommodation, find the best paths and perhaps even organise activities along the way.

Equipment checklist

In terms of equipment you'll need to be ready for all sorts of conditions. Because of the altitude, Lesotho's weather can change quickly and wildly at any time of year. You should take warm clothes, rain gear and, if you're planning to camp, a sturdy tent and a quality sleeping bag. Even if it's cold the sun can be savage in the mountains so make sure you have a hat and plenty of sunscreen. Tough walking shoes are essential, of course.

Once you get above the villages the water is generally very fresh and good to drink in Lesotho. Purification tabs or drops can be helpful if you're travelling in the valleys or if you're uncertain about water quality. There's not a lot of fuel to be found on the mountainside so if you're planning on cooking or boiling water you'll probably need a camping stove and some gas.

You should carry at least an extra day's worth of food, even if you're not planning to cook for yourself along the way. Intense, unpredictable rainfall can lead to flooding in the valleys and could leave you trapped or force you to change your route.

If your plan is disrupted, don't just wander in the general direction of your destination. Sit down, consult your map and work out exactly where you're going and how you'll get there.

Take me to your leader

In most Basotho villages, which tend to be found in valleys and further down the mountains, you'll be able to rent a hut for the night. Just find the chief and have a chat. Even if you're planning to camp it's best to get the chief's permission and some advice on where to set up your tent.

Talking to the chief and the locals can also help you avoid imposing on traditional Basotho tribes.

You don't want to head off to a nearby waterfall only to find you've interrupted a nearby tribe's washing day.

A guide would steer you away from that stuff but while wandering by yourself it's easy to come stumble into an uneasy situation.

You should take care to avoid the secretive initiation schools, especially in the Maluti Mountains.

These traditional institutions are becoming more contentious and less popular because of the harsh discipline they employ, some of the values they instil and the circumcision that ends the process, for boys and girls.

Most don't want to attract attention and a camera-wielding foreigner might not get a great reception.

That said, the growth of the tourism industry has seen more and more traditional Basotho practices on display for tourists so if you're really interested you might be able arrange something through a local guide.

Setting up camp

Camping in the open on Lesotho's mountaintops can have shocking results. Storms can roll in very quickly and in the event of lightning you really don't want to be the highest point around.

Any mountaintop campsite will be dangerously exposed to the weather. You are in the "The Kingdom in the Sky" after all. It's best to find a sheltered spot a little further down the mountain.

Don't camp too close to rivers or in steep gullies either. Runoff from the mountains can lead to flash flooding and leave you, at best, a little bit damp and, at worst, a little bit drowned.

Once you're set up you need to make sure you're careful with your gear. You should bring everything you can inside the tent at night, even your stinky shoes. Theft isn't a huge problem in rural Lesotho but you don't want to risk waking up to find yourself with three days walking ahead and no boots.

Stray dogs are problematic in around the villages. Any food left out can attract unwanted canine attention. Rabies is a risk in Lesotho so don't pat or encourage any dogs, no matter how cute they may seem.

Smugglers and rustlers

Dagga (marijuana) smugglers and cattle rustlers operate in the Drakensberg Mountains so if you're camping in remote areas, don't assume everyone you see is friendly.

In order to stop drug trade across their border the South African army (SADF) has been known to venture into Lesotho's side of the mountains to catch or pursue smugglers.

The drug gangs don't like the SADF and the farmers don't like the rustlers so you don't want to be mistaken for either.

There are reports of tents being pelted with rocks or even huge boulders being rolled downhill into campsites.

Again, talking to village chiefs before camping, especially along the Drakensberg Escarpment, can help prevent a dangerous case of mistaken identity.

Horseriding safety tips

If you feel like giving your own legs a rest you can always jump on a Basotho pony. These tough mountain horses were so popular throughout the 19th century the breed was almost exported to extinction.

They are now enjoying a revival and, as well as being the primary mode of transport among locals, horseback treks are a big part of Lesotho's tourism industry.

The Basotho are expert horsemen and their ponies are gentle and sure-footed, perfect for novice riders or even if you're just a little rusty. Those experts among you can try and master the two bonus Basotho gaits: tripple and pace.

You can rent horses for independent trips in some places but unless you're a very experienced rider we recommend taking a guided tour.

The mountainous landscape is very tough and, while the ponies are very nimble, you don't want to be screaming across the valley on a horse you can't control. Even the calmest pony has the potential to panic or lash out when startled.

Aside form the danger to yourself, if you manage to injure or lose a farmer's horse it could have a devastating affect on his income and his family, which you don't want to be responsible for.

Wearing appropriate clothes is a big factor when horse-riding. Shorts and coarse horsehair don't mix. After hours of rubbing against a pony's flanks on a long ride any exposed skin will be raw and painful. Dirt and bacteria in the hair often causes infections as well, which isn't ideal when you're in a remote mountain region.

Light shoes and sandals aren't recommended. Anyone who's had a foot squished by a horse can tell you why.

Wear a helmet if you can find one. The majority of riding fatalities are the result of head injuries and Lesotho's landscape has lots of rocks.

How you behave around a horse is also very important. Rule number one is never walk behind your horse. It puts them on edge and puts you in range of incredibly powerful hind legs.

Stay calm and quiet when handling or riding the horse, so as to avoid scaring or startling it.

Ride to your skill level and always maintain control. The faster you're riding the faster things can go wrong.

The foof of Africa

Lesotho has the highest low point of any country in the world. It starts as a highland plain at 1400m and things only go up from there.

Its peaks don't reach right up into the stratosphere, topping out at 3482m but altitude sickness is still a concern.

A combination of thin air and exertion can cause hangover-like symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, disorientation, dizziness and shortness of breath.

Dehydration can make things worse so make sure you drink plenty of water. An actual hangover doesn't help either so don't hit the bottle too hard, especially during your first few days at altitude.

Although unlikely in Lesotho, chronic altitude sickness can cause bad headaches, fever, loss of consciousness or even death. If you start to feel really unwell, head back downhill immediately.

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