By Tsitsi Matope
MOKHOTLONG — High in the chilly and misty mountains of Mokhotlong are the stone-built, beautifully-thatched homesteads owned by a resilient people now enjoying the benefits of living in this undulating and spellbinding environment.
Just like the elevated landscape, the people of Mokhotlong are taking the development of tourism to a much higher level by turning their dwellings into ‘homestays’ — adding diversity to the country’s tourism and generating much-needed revenue in the process.
Mokhotlong, which is situated 290 kilometres from the capital Maseru, has many socioeconomic challenges, among them limited arable land and lack of formal employers.
To counterbalance these challenges, the villagers have been forced to devise other means of survival, and one such innovation is accommodating tourists in their homes and charging for the service.
Last week, the Lesotho Times visited Mokhotlong to see how communities in this district are taking advantage of their beautiful district to earn a living.
The popularity of homestays came as no surprise in this land of mystery, which sits on an elevation of well over 2,800 metres above sea level and attracts tourists from all over the world.
The traditional huts, which show off the mastery of the stone masons in the area, narrate a compelling tale of how communities in this North-Eastern part of Lesotho finally grasped the true essence of tourism.
Every year, hundreds of tourists travel by four-wheel drive vehicles to this end of Lesotho, which connects almost seamlessly with South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
The people here know of the many treasures still to be discovered in this largely unspoiled district and it was clear that inquisitive tourists enjoy exploring these rare attractions by going deeper into the valleys.
“This is where the villagers come in to provide food, water, horses and accommodation after a hard day or night of exploration,” a Mokhotlong-based tourism officer with the Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC), Molapo Matela said.
Because of the rough terrain, Mr Matela said a horse is a treasured possession in Mokhotlong.
And as the tourists dare to explore Mokhotlong, there is no way of escaping the strikingly unspoiled nature of the area, which for many years, has gripped many a visitor and never let go.
Along the rough, gravel road to the soaring Drakensburg Mountains, the final destinations are always the punishing Sani Pass as well as southern Africa’s highest peak, Thabane Ntlenyana.
At the Sani Pass, the steep tortuous climb of the escarpment takes you to an altitude of 2,874 metres above sea level, while the region’s ultimate peak touches the clouds at a staggering 3, 482 metres.
Interestingly, Mr Matela explained as these tourist attractions’ magnetic pull overpowers many tourists, the nudging urge to stop and spend days enjoying the scenery along the way is also irresistible.
“Villagers living before Sani Pass are aware of this spell cast by their environment, so they decided to fulfil the needs of the visitors.”
And over the years, some villagers living around tourist attractions countrywide have also realised that it is not only nature that fascinates tourists but also their simple way of life.
Over the last 13 years, for instance, hundreds of tourists who travel to view ‘where the earth touches the clouds’ as the tourists refer to Mokhotlong district, make a stop at a certain homestay situated at Number 10 Riverside.
Located close to a humming river, which is below a range of mountains of many colours which is the result of the blooming flora of the neighbourhood, it is no surprise tourists are intrigued by this area and forced to make a turn at Masheane Nkune’s homestay.
Here at Ms Nkune’s homestay, the feeling of seclusion in a land surrounded by mountains and away from the city’s commotion, is simply refreshing.
In the biting cold that however, seems not to bother the villagers, some happy children could be seen singing and dancing along the dusty road to Sani Pass.
Just a few metres away, Ms Nkune could be seen feeding her traditional chickens, which freely roam around her yard.
The chickens and eggs make a special meal she prepares for tourists, together with other traditional delicacies.
“Early this week, we had a group of 24 tourists who stopped by for sightseeing and to enjoy community-based cultural activities we had organised. They slept over and left for the Sani Pass Lodge the following day,” Ms Nkune said.
Sani Pass is just an hour’s drive from her homestay.
Ms Nkune, a mother of five daughters, related how the family’s homestay business started in 2003 after her husband, Thabiso Nkune, who is now late, decided to turn part of their home into a lodging facility.
This was after Mr Nkune had seen many tourists stop by to take pictures of the area.
“My husband partnered with the Sani Pass Lodge and that helped him market this place as a home where tourists can rest for a while and also get to experience the Basotho’s rural way of life,” Ms Nkune said.
With the help of one Russell Succhet, Ms Nkune said the family managed to make nine wooden beds which they arranged in their three-roomed thatched house.
The Nkunes also organised the local community to help provide traditional entertainment and horses for trekking for the tourists.
“The idea then and now is to involve the local community in order for them to also benefit.
“That way, we together provide diverse cultural activities such as Mohobelo and Mokhibo and also collectively ensure the safety of the tourists.”
The community also provides horses needed by tourists for pony-trekking.
However, as the business continued to grow, Ms Nkune said in 2008, the family decided to allow tourists to sleep over and have time to see more areas.
With one of her daughters, ‘Malerato Moloantoa, managing the facility, the Nkunes found themselves with visitors exceeding the capacity of their home.
“We are happy that we are becoming busier because with more visitors, our neighbours and partners in the business can also accommodate some visitors and earn some money,” Ms Moloantoa said.
For M100 paid by each tourist for the night in huts lit by some homemade lamps, the following morning, the tourists can enjoy breakfast for M55 before they head for horse-riding, which costs M30.
In the afternoon, they return to a M65 mouth-watering lunch of the staple food papa (the staple thick porridge) and samp, served with the special Sesotho traditional chicken.
For dinner worth M70, any of the staple food is served with locally produced vegetables and the famous, organically-produced mutton or beef.
Ms Moloantoa said although her family plans to expand the homestay, they do not wish to change the traditional concept that distinguishes their services from those offered by some modern facilities.
“I think it makes sense to provide different services, which many visitors are not familiar with. That way they can enjoy something different and unique.”
From the Riverside homestay, somewhere along the way, the Sani Pass Road takes an abrupt turn and branches towards St James High School, which is near Mokhotlong town.
Past the deep valleys, rich black soils and the many grazing horses, goats, sheep and cattle, which is the pride of the people of Mokhotlong, the jagged road becomes uglier and the surrounding scenery more beautiful.
This craggy road leads one to the site of the main feature of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Polihali Dam, which is a partnership between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa.
Other smaller routes that branch from the mother-road also lead to hot-springs, deeper gorges and higher cliffs that look somewhat broken before they become lost and suspended somewhere in the air.
Rich pure water is plenty in this area as seen by the many springs. However, some villagers who spoke to the Lesotho Times were quick to point out how they were disturbed by lack of snowfall in June and July.
Many of the villagers depend on the moisture produced by the snow to grow wheat, which grows taller and healthier in this part of the country.
However, ‘Mamojaki Mphongoa, who works at a homestay owned by ‘Mathabelo Morojele in Molalana village, said the piercing breeze showed the winter was not yet over and snow could still fall.
“It would not be strange for us here to have snow as late as September. It has happened before,” Ms Mphongoa said.
Molalana village in Malubalube area is about an hour’s drive from Mokhotlong town.
Ms Morojele established the facility in 2004 after noticing how tourists who visited the area struggled for accommodation.
In some cases, tourists were stuck in heavy snowfall and had no choice but to seek refuge in the village.
“I also noticed that despite the challenges, tourists loved this mysterious landscape and kept coming back,” she said.
Ms Morojele, who is a retired teacher, said the advantage of the homestay concept is in its affordability to establish and maintain.
“We serve the same food we eat and tourists enjoy being part of this community.”
With Polihali dam on the way, more people would be attracted to the area, which she said meant more revenue for her and compatriots in the same line of business.
“I think the dam will do us good in the sense that it will increase what we can offer tourists and present us with other areas of investment,” she said, adding although the area around the dam is going to be developed, the larger part of the area would still remain natural.
For a night at her homestay, Ms Morojele charges M100 per person and M120 for all traditional meals served.
However, not only does her place attract foreign tourists, every winter, the homestay is also home to young men who seek refuge from the harsher cold in the Sanqebethu and Mangaung highlands.
These young men, who include 22-year-old Mojaki Mphongoa and 20-year-old Mojalefa Kobile, are good with horses and every winter, come to temporarily provide tour-guiding services to the visitors.
Yet after an excitingly hectic overcast afternoon in Molalana village, nothing in these parts beat a mug of the traditional beverage motoho, made from sorghum and other secret ingredients. Its rare taste is influenced by the treatment of the concoction under bitter temperatures of Mokhotlong.
This is the magic brew which helped us survive the long journey to ‘MaMohase Homestay in the district of Butha-Buthe.
Butha-Buthe is Lesotho’s hub of skiing and the freezing home to the famous AfriSki Resort.
Legend has it that usually the trend is, once visitors breathe the cold air at AfriSki, Lesotho’s only skiing resort, and later decide to go river-fishing next to the magnificent Oxbow Lodge, they might not make it to Mokhotlong.
The trick, so the legend goes, is to start with Mokhotlong and then drive back to Butha-Buthe.
AfriSki remains the ultimate skiing resort in Africa and this is really a place where the southward looking icy slopes can freeze you before the ice burns you.
And many exhausted tourists who visit the ‘MaMohase Homestay, a few kilometres after AfriSki understand the importance of a warm home away from home after surviving the icy slope.
In 2002, two brothers Bolae and Morebane Ramonotsi found themselves unemployed after completing their education.
Their father had, years back in 1989, retired from the mines in South Africa. The family had no money.
According to their young brother Moruti Ramonotsi, who now manages ‘MaMohase Homestay, which they named after their mother, the two also noticed how tourists flocked to the district and decided to transform part of their home into a homestay facility.
The family put their hearts and souls in the enhancement of their large homestead and created an unforgettable homely environment.
The grass-thatched rooms are spacious and inside, the walls decorated in traditional fashion.
Cow-dung mixed with clay was used to make the floors and neatly plaster the walls, leaving the rooms scented with a beautiful musky and woody aroma.
This is definitely one of the cleanest five-star homesteads in Butha-Buthe district, and Mr Ramonotsi is clearly proud of his brothers’ plan to eradicate poverty in the family and going the extra mile to keep the facility simple but seriously neat.
“My brothers emphasise on attention to every detail, from the exterior to the inside rooms, in order to come up with a homestay of this nature.
“For us, it’s not just about simplicity but also not compromising on high quality service without disturbing the traditional style,” he said.
There is no hiding the family business is doing well, while the commitment demonstrated by the pioneers of the project also managed to open new doors for them.
“My brothers are now working at the AfriSki Resort. They are still committed to this place and come to help from time to time when they are off duty,” Mr Ramonotsi said.
However, Mr Ramonotsi said his brothers, in their grand plan, had wanted to closely work with the local community and create a tourism village.
“We still need to put a lot of work in the project to ensure the participation of the whole community. A tourism village is what we are aiming to achieve.”
Visitors spend M350 per night, which is inclusive of all the meals served.
“We grow most of the food served to our visitors. Food is one important component of our services, which we would like to be as addictive as our beautiful country.”
In an interview the Lesotho Development Corporation chief executive officer, Mphaipele Maqutu said the corporation has embarked on an exercise to sensitise the ‘homestay’ facility operators on the need to meet certain requirements for them to be officially recognised and accredited.
The exercise seeks to regulate this unique sector for the first time ever, in order to ensure the wellbeing of tourists.
Maqutu said while the corporation encourages local communities to provide various tourism-related services, the accommodation component should be regulated to ensure the safety of the visitors.
“We have set basic requirements, which we would like all homestay facility owners to observe. We will soon regulate this sector to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all tourists who enjoy staying in these facilities,” he said.