We stopped on a corner at the bottom of a hill. A big hill. The man in the front seat of our mini-bus got out and the driver flipped to seat up to get to the engine. In the back we waited, just the two of us and a mother and father with their young daughter. A man on crutches came down from a house above and helped the driver top up his oil; they chucked the empty jug aside and stood chatting. The family got out and stood nearby. Then there was a bit of bustling and yelling in Sesotho.
“Come. Get in this truck and they will take you,” the driver told us.
Our mini-bus couldn’t make it up and over the mountain pass leading into the town of Semonkong; the driver had flagged down another car to take us the rest of the way.. Along with the mother and father and daughter, we got into the seats in the back of the truck, while our bags were put in the bed.
We chuckled quietly about the patchwork, piecemeal, clown car nature of getting around in this part of the world. And up and over the hills we went slowly, wondering how this pass compared to Colorado’s Berthoud Pass, which we had to cross each time we wanted to get home to our little mountain town.
“Is it steeper?” I wondered aloud. “Or am I just not used to it anymore?”
We watched the scenes pass out the window: the primary schools perched on hilltops that seemed so far away from any houses where the students might live, the wild calla lillies, the shepherds and their shaggy sheep.
We were dropped outside of Semonkong, before a police checkpoint for cars, as we had now become hitchhikers in a car with an insufficient number of seats. We walked into the town center, noticing the hints of wild west mixed with modern day that we would continue to see over the next few days here,like the man on horseback with a patterned wool blanket wrapped around him and a big ‘ole bag of Cheetohs strapped to the saddle.
By the next morning we ourselves were riding through the hills around Semonkong on horseback, but without wool blankets and Cheetohs. We were staying at the Semonkong Lodge-a beautiful place spread out up a hill next to the river- and had arranged a ride with a guide. It was just the two of us and our young guide, riding through the quiet countryside to go see a waterfall. We didn’t follow a set trail, but made our way through town and then up and down hills and across fields, being careful to keep the horses from stepping on young corn plants. And our horses weren’t made to follow the guide in a line, but often began to stray off and, in the case of mine, seemed to really enjoy picking up speed on the downhills.
At the edge of the gorge we perched for some time, watching the thin waterfall on the other side be taken by the wind as it fell to the river below. We watched sheep munching grass on the rocky cliffs, wondering where the shepherd was. We chatted with our guide about schooling in Lesotho and the Kings and missionaries and colonialism and independence. And when we were ready to go, we went: across fields, down to the river, across a bridge, up a ravine and on to the lodge.
The next day, too, was characterized by a trip to a waterfall, this time by foot. We left the lodge with loose directions: go up that hill behind the lodge, walk through the town until you see you a tin building, then keep going to a clump of pine trees. Our horseback guide pointed us toward the right saddle between the hills on our way out. We picked our way through the muddy tracks from the rain the afternoon before and dropped down into a small village. We asked a young girl for directions.
“Just go there,” she said, pointing across the river, uninterested. “Give me a sweet.”
We left her passing a number of small tin shacks in the direction she had pointed us, some flying the flags outside indicating which type of local beer was sold there: yellow for ginger beer and white for sorghum beer.
“Do you think that was the tin building they meant?…Or that one? Maybe that one up there…”
Before too long we saw the king of all the tin buildings and the clump of pine trees in the distance. When we arrived, we saw a small, thin waterfall falling delicately down the gorge wall, and we wondered how to best position ourselves so as to get a view that wasn’t blocked by any rocks or trees. While wandering around the clump of pine trees searching for the best view we soon looked left to see a waterfall much more grand than the one we had been trying to get a view of.
“I think it’s that one actually,” I said to Alex as we laughed at ourselves.
Feeling a bit sad for the delicate baby waterfall we had thought we’d come for, we moved on for a better view of what we had really been looking for: Maletsunyane Falls, Southern Africa’s highest waterfall at 192 meters.
Planning a trip to Semonkong:
Getting there: We were travelling from Roma to Semonkong and were told that only one mini-bus per day does this trip, leaving Roma around 10a.m. At the bus station, we were told by an exceptionally kind Basotho woman that it is easy and safe to hitchikie for this trip, as long as you pay the driver the same amount as you would a mini-bus, 70 Rand. We did catch the bus to Semonkong..and you know the rest already. Warning for your mini-bus travels in Lesotho: bring good earplugs. Our bus ride back to Roma proved to be the loudest ever, with ‘Basotho Soul’ music blasting out of 6 speakers in the roof of the mini-bus. The teenage girl next to me at one point asked if I liked the song. “WHAT??” I shouted, her face about a foot from mine. “Oh…yes…I like it..it’s just a bit loud…”
Lodging: We stayed at the Semonkong Lodge, an easy and well-marked walk out of the town center if you are arriving by public transportation. As it was busy season, we reserved ahead of time. We paid 200 Rand per person per night to stay in a clean and cozy rondavel hut that had 3 sets of bunk beds and a bathroom. There was a great kitchen for self-catering and a grill area; we cooked every night as it was so clean and well-stocked with cookwear. The lodge offers a variety of activities, including day and overnight pony trekking, guided hiking, a pub crawl via donkey, guided rock climbing and fly fishing, and the longest commercial abseil in the world down Maletsunyane Falls. They also have private rooms, family rooms, and camping and a restaurant and bar.
Money Matters: We did not see an ATM in Semonkong or at the lodge. We paid for our lodging and activities with credit card and only needed cash for the 70 Rand bus ride each way and groceries in town.
Other Notes: There are a number of supermarkets in Semonkong where we bought materials for basic meals like rice and beans, eggs and toast, and soup. Secondly, if you are crunched for time, I think it is possible to get a taste of Semonkong with just two nights. We stayed longer and enjoyed lingering around the river, playing cards, and walking around town eating a few “fat cakes”…delightful hot, fresh, fried dough balls. The town and lodge are a great quiet place to relax for a couple of days.
Most photo credits go to Alex Romanyshyn… but a few to Cece too!