Across the Lesotho border, over some breathtaking, high-altitude passes, beyond a few sparkling mountain streams, above a zig-zagging valley carved out by the magnificent Maletsunyane River, lies a little village called Semonkong.
Anonymous horsemen patrol its streets, and bleached-white Angora goats graze amongst the huts. Though not immediately apparent, it’s also home to a few very festive shebeens. But more on those a bit later. If you continue through the village, down into the valley, over an old concrete bridge, you’ll find yourself at the doorstep of Semonkong Lodge.
Over the Easter weekend, Kerryn and I booked ourselves into one of Semonkong’s stone cottages for 5 days of flyfishing, photo taking, birdwatching, hiking, Maluti Lager-drinking, and whatever else the mountains might throw at us. As it turned out, The Mountain Kingdom had a few very pleasant surprises up its sleeves, and it ended up being one of the coolest little trips we’ve ever done.
We pulled out of Jo’burg and onto the N1 at around 5 o’clock on a crisp autumn morning. At Kroonstad we turned left off the national highway, continued on through Steynsrus, Senekal, Clocolan and the Ladybrand Wimpy, and then into Lesotho at the Maseru border post.
The drive from Maseru up into the mountains is simply epic. After Ramabanta the road starts to climb pretty steeply and before you know it you’re up above the tree line at around 2 500m. We took it fairly slow along this final stretch, mainly because we were stopping every twenty minutes to high 5 the view. But despite being dirt most of the way, the road was in surprisingly good condition, and you could realistically get all the way to the lodge in a 2 x 4 with a bit of clearance. All in all, the trip from Jo’burg to Semonkong took about 8 hours. When you do eventually get there though, you feel a hell of a lot further away from civilisation than that.
Fortunately the heavy rains predicted for the weekend never really materialised, and although we didn’t have much sunshine, we were able to spend most of the next few days outdoors. The fishing exceeded all expectations, and by sheer coincidence our trip coincided with the monthly Semonkong horse race. When conditions are right, and the senior statesmen say so, the horseracing fraternity of Semonkong gathers in a wide, flat valley for a day at the races. The stakes are high. And plenty of money changes hands. Watching thoroughbred racehorses hurtling around a rough track in the middle of the mountains was actually a bit of a surreal experience, and it’s certainly something we won’t forget in a hurry.
One morning the lodge manager mentioned something about a donkey pub-crawl taking place through the village. After about 2 seconds of deliberation, we signed up. The next afternoon we gathered outside the lodge pub, along with about 30 other thirsty guests, and after carefully choosing our steeds for the afternoon’s mission, we saddled-up and plodded up the hill into town. At first we felt a bit sorry for the poor old, bandy-legged donkeys. But after seeing the massive loads of maize and beer that their mates were carrying through town, we soon began to feel like we were doing ours a favour. Before we had even got to the first shebeen, some dude had fallen off his donkey, so you can imagine the scenes a good few Maluti Lagers later, as a donkey race across the village soccer field got underway. There were loud thuds in all directions as riders and donkeys parted ways. Apparently someone crossed the line first, but I think the real winners were the throng of kids in complete hysterics, rolling around on the side of the field. Just after sunset, we bounced back down the hill and into the lodge pub, to cap off one of the most bizarre yet awesome pub-crawls we’re ever likely to undertake.
The most famous (and photographed) landmark in the area is the epic Maletsunyane Falls, a few kms downstream from the lodge. If the obligatory drive to the viewpoint isn’t enough for you, you can always do the abseil down the falls, which is apparently the highest of its kind anywhere in the world. There are also some seriously pretty horse trails in the area, if you’re into that sort of thing. But the magic of Semonkong is that you don’t actually have to do much at all to have a really sweet time. Just being so far into the mountains is a highlight in itself, and you could happily spend a couple of days just strolling along the river and around the village, without getting bored.
We’d go back to The Place of Smoke in a heartbeat. The owners are really nice, the little stone huts are amazing value for money, and there’s enough to see and do to keep you busy for weeks. There are also some very, very large brown trout swimming around in the Maletsunyane’s deep, mysterious pools. If you’re a flyfisherman, you don’t need any other reason than that.
For more about The Place of Smoke, visit www.placeofsmoke.co.ls