Lesotho: Morija and Thaba-Bosiu

22nd June - 29th June 2002


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Rebecca and I used the guesthouse in Roma as a base to explore the surrounding area and on the day after we arrived took a day trip to Morija. Luckily the weather had cleared up and it was back to normal, blue skies and sunshine as we made our way on minibus taxis west to Mazenod and from there south to Morija. Morija is a very small town, more like a village and was very quiet and peaceful. Despite it's small size it has played a big role in the history of this kingdom. In 1833 Moshoeshoe the Great invited the French Protestant missionaries to come to the country to educate his people and they set up their mission station at Morija nestled at the foot of Makhoarane Mountain. Moshoeshoe the Great sent his eldest sons to Morija to be educated by the French missionary's and to learn the secrets of the West. The town soon became known as Sedibeng sa Thuto, meaning the Well-Spring of Learning, due to the contribution the town played in developing leadership in the country.

There is an excellent little museum in the town, called the Morija Museum and Archives, which was the main reason we came to visit. The small display covers the history of the nation including Stone and Iron Age relics as well as dinosaur fossils. There are also displays on Basotho culture and documents and photos detailing the history of the country. The museum is housed in a new building built in 1988 funded by the Ford Foundation and the Goldfields Foundation Netherlands. The museum collection is a lot older though and was founded as a private collection by one of the first missionaries to come to Morija, the Rev. Hermann Dieterlen, 1850-1933. There is also a good crafts centre in town, the Morija Iponeleng Handicrafts, which was established by five local women in 1994 as a centre to display their talents and to earn a living from tourists visiting the area. We went on a short hike up the side of the mountain to view a set of dinosaur footprints; there are many fossilised dinosaur footprints around the country. It was a pleasant walk through small forests and past reservoirs with stunning views across the valley from the top.

When we returned to the Trading Post in Roma from Morija some other guests had checked in during the day; the previous night we were the only people staying at the guesthouse. Tonight there was a mother and daughter from South Africa and a couple from the United States. In the lounge a fire was ready to be lit on this cold night and we spent the evening gathered around the fireplace keeping warm. The American couple, Chris and Mo had a hire car and the four of us agreed to go on a day trip to visit some more of the local sights tomorrow.

In the morning Jennifer, the guesthouse owner, photocopied a map and told us about three places that we should visit. The first were the bushman paintings at Ha Baroana, meaning 'The Home of the Bushman', not far from Roma. We drove the short distance along the road towards Mazenod and turned off at the small settlement of St Michaels, named after the church that sits on a hill overlooking the village, and drove on to Nazareth. Just before we reached this village there was a sign on the left pointing to the cave paintings, a distance of about 6km. The dirt road lead past empty fields and through a small village. Men on horseback rode past us, young boys herded cattle and villagers harvested maize in the still, desolate fields. Everyone waved at us and smiled as we drove past in a South African registered Toyota Tazz. As we neared the 6km distance the helpful signs that had lead us this far disappeared and we came to a junction. A man was coming up the road with an oxcart and we asked him directions and he pointed us along the correct road and very soon we were at a small visitors centre.

Two young girls were sitting on a wall; they looked like sisters, who led us to the paintings after we had paid an entrance fee of a few maloti each. This cave painting site is supposed to be the most important one in the country and a visit here was highly recommended to us. A lot of money, by Lesotho standards, had been spent here constructing the visitor's centre and building two bridges across the river in the gorge where the paintings are located. It was still early morning when we arrived and walked the short distance down into the gorge. In the shade on the opposite side of the gorge, where the early morning rays of sun hadn't yet reached, the ground was frosty and icicles hung from the trees and the rock face of the gorge. This was the second bushman painting site I had visited on this trip through Africa, the other being in Swaziland, and again I felt disappointed. This was a large site of great importance but it had been vandalised. There was graffiti on the rock walls informing us that some brain-dead idiot had visited this place at a certain moment in time. In addition, tourists had sprayed the paintings with water in order to achieve more dramatic photos with the consequence that the pigments had faded. Despite these disappointments the paintings here were fascinating and gave a glimpse into the past and how life used to be in this mountainous land. There were depictions of people hunting and dancing and many animals including lions, leopards and eland.

From here we drove back the way we had come along the dirt road and the tarred road to St Michaels and continued along the main road towards Mazenod. At Ha Makhalanyane we took a road to the right and after a short distance stopped at the tourist information centre at Thaba-Bosiu. The man at the tourist office was extremely helpful and eager to help us; he had a passion for his job that I hadn't seen in anyone else for a long time. He explained to us the history and significance of this flat-topped mountain that is now a national monument, before locking up his office and taking us on a tour of the mountain.

This mountain was the stronghold of Moshoeshoe the Great who founded the Basotho nation. He was born in a village near Butha-Buthe in around 1786 and it was at Butha-Buthe on a flat-topped mountain that Moshoeshoe built his original fortress until in 1824 he moved it to Thaba-Bosiu after hearing about this fortress like mountain. The mountain rises 107m from the surrounding valley and is surrounded by cliffs averaging 15m in height with only six passes leading up to the plateau that covers an area of 6.4sq km. Moshoeshoe named the mountain Thaba-Bosiu meaning, 'Mountain at Night' because he and his people arrived at the mountain during the evening. During this time there was conflict between the Zulu state and surrounding tribes resulting in a large number of refugees and people being forced off their land. Moshoeshoe gave refuge to these people and also gave them land and cattle and in return they helped to defend his mountain stronghold. He became a great diplomat and managed to placate the other stronger, local leaders.

During 1858 a battle erupted between the Free Sate and the Basotho, which Moshoeshoe won but the conflict continued to simmer until 1865 when another war broke out. This time Moshoeshoe was not so successful and in a treaty had to sign away most of his western lowlands forming the border with the Free State today along the Mohokare River. In 1868 Moshoeshoe called on the British Imperial government in London for protection during the ongoing hostilities with the Boers of the Free State and the country was declared a British territory and the Basotho people became British subjects. Moshoeshoe the Great died in 1870 and two years later Lesotho was annexed by the British Cape Colony. Today the mountain is the most venerated site in Lesotho as it is the place where the Basotho nation was founded and is also the burial place of Moshoeshoe and of all the leading chiefs of Lesotho.

Our guide led us up the Khubelu Pass on a buttress on the northern flank of the mountain. The pass was steep leading up through the cliffs. It was easy to see how Moshoeshoe and his followers managed to defend this fortress by hurling rocks down on invaders. Once we reached the plateau the path lead past a large cairn. All visitors to the mountain are required to leave a stone at this cairn as a symbol of leaving behind your weapon; we each placed a stone on the pile before continuing onto the plateau. There are still some ruins of Moshoeshoe's settlement on the plateau that we walked past towards the eastern side of the mountain. From this vantage point we had a superb view of the Qiloane pinnacle below in the valley. This extraordinary, conical shaped mountain with its pinnacle of rock at its summit is said to have been the inspiration of the Basotho hat, which is made of grass and is the national symbol and national headgear.

From here we walked to one of the eight natural springs on the mountain, which was enough to provide fresh water for Moshoeshoe, all his followers and their cattle. It was extraordinary to see this spring right on top of this mountain of solid rock, the crystal clear water pouring from the rocks and forming a small stream that cascaded over the cliffs. At the centre of the plateau is the Royal Cemetery that included the simple grave of Moshoeshoe the Great as well as the far more elaborate grave of Moshoeshoe II. King Moshoeshoe II became the first constitutional monarch after independence from British rule in October 1966. Today the great, great grandson of Moshoeshoe the Great, King Letsie III sits on the throne. Wandering around the royal graves was fascinating and it really felt like we were at the spiritual heart of the nation with the graves, some of them very simple, of Kings and chiefs around us. The tour of the mountain really opened up the history of this small nation and brought it to life for me; the guide from the tourist office was excellent.

By the time we had climbed back down the mountain it was early afternoon and we stopped at a small shop just along the road to buy some fruit and biscuits for lunch. We continued driving along the road from Thaba-Bosiu, which turned to gravel, past the Qiloane Pinnacle and on to our next destination, the cave dwellings at Ha Kome. Jennifer at the Trading Post had given us directions on how to find this small place out in the mountains, there was one complication and that was at the village of Mateka. No one in the village could actually agree where to build the tarred road, so we had to make our way along rough, narrow tracks winding through the village to get back on to the road towards Pulane. The road wound dramatically through the rocky, mountainous landscape and turned to tar at the small settlement of Fako. The road soon turned back to gravel and twisted down into a deep valley until we reached a large river that had no bridge.

We doubted the Tazz's ability, being a two-wheel drive car, of crossing this fairly large, fast flowing river. We stopped by the river and asked a nearby man who was herding cattle for directions for Ha Kome and found that we had passed it. We doubled back along the way we had come and drove back out of the valley. On the way we stopped again to ask directions and gave a lift to a local women who showed us exactly where Ha Kome was. Soon we were parked above the valley, which hid Ha Kome. It looked like a fairly long walk down into this valley to the cave dwellings. It was now 16.00 and getting late, the sun low in the sky, it wouldn't be long until it was dark. We didn't have time to walk all the way into the valley but stopped at a nearby viewpoint that looked down to Ha Kome, the sound of cattle bells clanging seemed to echo everywhere. We had almost made it, I didn't feel too disappointed though as the whole day exploring the mountains, villages and history of this country had been fantastic and the drive trying to find Ha Kome had been an adventure in itself.

We drove back to Roma as the sun sunk below the horizon, the last rays of sunshine illuminating the mountains in a spectacular orange glow. We planned to leave Roma the following day and to travel to Semonkong in the mountains. Jennifer told us that her husband, Ashley, would be driving to Semonkong in the morning to visit a couple of his mountain trading posts and that we were welcome to hitch a ride.

Continue reading this journey: Semonkong to Malealea trek