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Breathtaking travels in Lesotho and Swaziland

Lesotho and Swaziland, landlocked within South Africa, are enthralling destinations in their own right. Take a step off the beaten track for a taste of hidden Africa

Views over Swaziland's Mlilwane region (Julien Lagarde)

The first one hit me on the shoulder, and as I turned to retaliate I caught another in the face. Snowball fights are not exactly what you expect from travel in southern Africa, but in Lesotho's Oxbow region the springtime air was still cold, and the hillsides dusted in white.

Known as the 'Kingdom in the Sky', Lesotho has the highest low point of any country in the world –something that requires a second take to appreciate, but which meant that whilst the days were warm during my October visit, snow was still visible in the highlands. And whilst Western-style dress was the norm in Maseru, the capital, patterned blankets were the usual, and very effective, protection from the cold out in the countryside.

Lesotho is an independent kingdom the size of Belgium that stands like an island, surrounded by South Africa. It was created in the 19th century by the remarkable Moshoeshoe the First who led the Basotho people into the region and then repelled a succession of potential invaders, from the Zulus to the British.The flat-topped hill of Thaba-Bosiu, used by Moshoeshoe as his fortress, was one of my first stops.

Ponies: Lesotho's public transport

We arrived at night, and as its dark shape loomed above us it was hard to believe that an 'easy' walk up was promised. The following morning, though, it looked more like a Surrey hill; it was no surprise to learn that according to local legend it grows after dark – which is why its name translates as 'Mountain at Night'. Moshoeshoe's last resting place is on the summit, his grave lying alongside those of other royals. From here there were magnificent views over the surrounding valley, and of the strange conical-shaped Mount Quioane, the inspiration for the traditional Basotho hat.

This is still predominantly a rural society with the unfenced land communally owned. Villages of just a few circular thatched huts dot the open grasslands and the hillsides. Small flags fly outside some of the huts – their colour denoting whether vegetables, meat or alcohol are for sale. The most common colour seemed to be white – the sign for homebrewed sorghum beer, an acquired taste.

As yet, Lesotho has been slow to attract the tourists that have taken to South Africa in such numbers in recent years, but the distinct culture and scenery have definite attractions. The Basotho people traditionally used tough, surefooted ponies to get around. Indeed, horses are still the most common form of transport in the rural areas, and it is pony trekking that now draws many of the country's visitors.

I checked out the Basotho Pony Trekking Centre at the worryingly named God Help Me Pass. The ponies and equipment were scruffy, but this was compensated for by a picturesque ride over high passes and through twisting valleys to a hidden waterfall.

Even better for riders is a stay at Malealea Lodge. This former trading post is owned by Di and Mick Jones, who were both born in Lesotho and are passionate about the country and its people.

A visit with a difference

The couple found that once they started to take guests in, many of their visitors took an interest in helping the local villagers. As a result four classrooms have been built for the village school and other projects have been kicked off. "We're not goody-goody people," insisted Di, "It's just the way it happened." Now visitors can take guided walks, visit a traditional sangoma (healer/fortune teller), or buy handicrafts produced by local artisans. A community vegetable garden is being built, with the idea of providing organic supplies to the lodge and employment for half a dozen.

Local children can also be hired as guides to show people around their village. "They show visitors their homes and their relatives," said Di. "You can see the confidence grown in them as a result."

Other children are members of the excellent local choir, and perform at the lodge on request, while others have formed a little band, using home-made instruments. "At least two of them are putting themselves through school as a result of the money they make from performing for visitors," explained Di.

The horses that the visitors ride belong to the villagers, and the local chief, Mafa, led our ride himself. He cut a dashing figure dressed in a traditional red blanket, conical hat and wellington boots. Another guide tried his best to look just as impressive for the camera, although the effect was lost slightly when I realised that a price tag was hanging from his hat.

Mafa is chief to over 5000 people and our first stop was at the small village in which he and his family live. He showed us into his spotlessly clean circular hut and insisted we signed his Visitors Book. From the village it was a short ride downhill to the top of a steep gorge, where we dismounted and followed a narrow path down to some ancient rock paintings, drawn by the San people who once roamed this area.

The weather is particularly changeable at this time of year, and in the morning I had met an American couple who just returned from a five-day pony trek where they’d been snowed in for most of the time at a village. Although it was warm and sunny when we set out, fast-moving clouds now scudded overhead so that the weather constantly alternated between hazy sunshine and cool gloom.

Wild adventure

We rode over wind-blown hills, and into sheltered valleys carpeted with the first wildflowers of spring, before stopping for a picnic lunch on a hillside that overlooked a beautiful waterfall. With unspoilt scenery stretching away in every direction, I regretted having so little time to spend in Lesotho and almost wished I could be snowed in at one of the villages.

"Fast, fast, fast," hissed Patrick, his voice getting higher with each word. We were in single file, cutting through a gap in the thorn bushes, a black rhino purposefully following us.

Swaziland's Mkhaya Game Reserve is home to both white and the rare black rhino. We had high hopes of good wildlife spotting, but we’d only been on the game drive for ten minutes or so when Patrick's sharp eyes spotted the black rhino camouflaged behind some bushes.

We'd been thrilled at the view, so it was a surprise when he invited us out of the vehicle and we slowly followed the rhino on foot. Patrick explained that we were safe providing we stayed downwind of it. Which was all very well until we rounded a bend to find ourselves directly in front of the rhino – and most definitely upwind.

As it moved towards us a Belgian tourist stood his ground, filming it with his camcorder. I'd already abandoned any idea of getting a picture for Wanderlust and scarpered after the others. Just in time, the imprudent Belgian came to his senses and followed our getaway. I scanned the trees but there would be no refuge there - they were all covered with thorns, and one had already pierced the thick sole of my walking shoe like a knife cutting through butter. Fortunately rhinos have lousy sight, and once we moved back downwind, it turned and lumbered off.

This private reserve was set up by Ted Reilly, a controversial figure. The son of a British soldier, he was born in Swaziland in the 1930s and, seeing the threat to the country's wildlife from poaching and farming, he made it his life's work to fight for its conservation. With his influence on the king, and his tough anti-poaching methods, he is not the most popular person in political circles. However, his single-minded determination has been a success story for the country's wildlife.

On the rest of the drive we saw so many white rhino that we almost became blasé about them, as well as numerous ostriches, antelopes and zebras. Patrick had asked which animals we particularly wanted to see. "Elephants!" came the response.

A stroke of luck

Things were looking gloomy until Patrick spotted a white helmet shrike in a tree. "That's a lucky bird," he said. "When my father's cattle were lost I knew if I saw the shrike I would soon find them. Maybe we will find elephant." I laughed but within a couple of minutes Patrick stopped the jeep and turned off the engine, listening intently. He beckoned us out of the vehicle again, and we walked slowly away from the road until we could see what he'd heard: four female elephants and a baby.

Patrick's reference to his father's livestock wasn't surprising. As in Lesotho, much of Swaziland's rural life revolves around cattle – more than one local told me that someone who has looked after the family's cattle as a child will often go on to do well in business life because they are used to responsibility.

This little kingdom is in many ways strongly traditional and conservative – "Virginity is a good word. Teach it to your children." one roadside sign read. So it's surprising to hear that in the bad old days of apartheid in South AfricaSwaziland was a den of vice. South Africans would cross the border to savour the liberal access to drink, gambling and prostitutes.

Times have changed, as the status of Mbabne's Mountain Inn testifies. There are Bibles in the rooms and flyers advertising religious meetings. Mark and his genteel wife, Liz, run a respectable and welcoming establishment, yet when they bought the hotel over 30 years ago it was, by their own admission, a racy spot with 'ladies of the night' frequenting the bars.

More than a short-break destination

These days, Swaziland's tourism industry revolves around the fact that it's a route to Kruger National Park from Johannesburg. The tiny country, about half the size of Lesotho, is used by South Africans as a short-cut; they pick up some handicrafts en route and perhaps stay a night.

Some visit for the annual Umhlanga, a reed dance festival in which young Swazi women of marriageable age honour the queen mother.It also serves as a showcase for the king to choose a wife if he wishes. The present king, Mswati III, has just seven wives – small fry compared to the 70 his father married. Unlike in Lesotho, the king still has real power and commands the respect of most of the people, ensuring that traditional Swazi culture survives.

Certainly, the ex-pats I met were unanimous in their praise of the country, in a way I haven't come across elsewhere in the world. The liberal atmosphere and friendly people were constantly mentioned, along with the favourable comparison to neighbouring South Africa in terms of safety: "You can feel the difference as soon as you get to the border," they said. Many had similar stories to Ruth Buck of the Foresters Arms Hotel: "I came for two weeks but just never left."

Ted Reilly's family runs two other reserves besides Mkhaya – the next one I visited was Mlilwane, close to the capital. This beautiful reserve has none of the 'Big Five', but is excellent for walking, riding or simply relaxing. Warthogs root around the lawns of the rest camp, and hippos and crocodiles lurk in the pond below the restaurant's deck. We took an early morning ride out on beautiful Arab horses, passing small herds of antelope and zebra that took little notice of us.

Just outside the reserve is a small village and I arranged to visit the chief, who I was surprised to find was a woman. Inkhosikati laMtsetfwa, a greatgrandmother, took over her husband's chieftaincy when he died. We sat on grass mats, at right angles to the charismatic Inkhosikati, as she welcomed us to Swaziland and to her family compound.

Over the next hour or so, we learnt how to plait the grass that covers the traditional beehive-shaped huts, how to grind maize and how to do a traditional song and dance. We tried out a wooden pillow and sampled a few handfuls of a typical meal – a spinach-type dish served with a maize porridge, known as pap.

Not for the first time, and just as in Lesotho, I wished that I had more time to spend in the country. I'd met the country's director of tourism the night before and whilst he bemoaned the fact that the average number of nights spent in the country by visitors is just one, the government's goal of raising this to two seems sadly unambitious. While Swaziland continues to market itself as nothing more than a stopover destination it will probably stay that way. But having seen the country through European eyes I can happily recommend it as a destination in its own right. This microcosm of southern Africa has the game reserves, scenery, culture and activities that merit more than 48 hours. It might not have the awesome scale of some other destinations. But don't they say that the best things often come in small packages?

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