Saturday, June 26, 2010

Maliba Lodge, Ts'ehlanyane National Park

On our roadtrip in South Africa in late February we only had a few fixed destinations. Maliba Lodge was one of them and we planned our trip around that arrival date. When looking for places to stay in Lesotho, Maliba had caught my attention by advertising the "highest botanical garden in the world". 'Nuff said. We're going, I announced and booked the most expensive* night of our trip, within the borders of one of the poorest countries in the world.

* (It cost R1,360 - approx. $190 - for a self catering lodge. By comparison, the lovely Doornberg was R400. The Chalets are R1,370 per person per night).

We packed up camp and left the Golden Gate National Park in the nearby Eastern Free State, separated from Lesotho by the brown Caledon River. Border officials at Caledonspoort waved us through for a small R40 (approx $6) fee, and no one asked us about wine. The advice not to take wine into the country (based correctly on the fact that alcohol is not permitted across the border, to protect the interests of local merchants) had come from two lawyers (one my father) who travel to Lesotho frequently on legal business. I have a theory about lawyers, though: they talk too much when questioned, and are conditioned to be on the defense, so they look and sound suspicious. As a result, they are searched. That's my theory, anyway.

Above: the Hlotse River

Within metres we were in a different world. This is extraordinary because Lesotho is tiny and entirely landlocked by South Africa, so you'd think it would be familiar territory.

Differences: people on the road. Many walking, with sunshades or hats, the occasional passenger on a little donkey. Most of the people were school children, in droves, and all of them seemed very, very small, and all of them in uniform. Lesotho has a very high literacy rate.

No fences. Animals roam free, herded by boys and men, who watched over the grazing, standing alone in a field or on a hillside, carrying a kierie.

The speed limit was a snailish 50km an hour, and we stuck to it. Being pulled over on foreign ground didn't seem a good idea, and we'd been warned (by books, not lawyers) that speed limits were enforced. The locals, of course, screeched past us in their bakkies and taxis. There were lots of sedan taxis on the country roads, as opposed to the mini buses of South Africa, many people taking them to and from the border in a country where owning a car is rare.

At first I would smile and give a brief wave to people on the road. Pretty soon I realized with discomfort that no one, with the exception of a few of the youngest children, was smiling or waving back. So I stopped, reluctantly. It's a country thing to do in South Africa, but it didn't wash here. I wanted to know why. The car started to feel very big, I started to feel very conspicuous.

Driving through bustling Butha Buthe we took the road out and headed for the mountains, not hard to do in a mountain kingdom. Soon rushing mountain water was visible in a broad, shallow river in the valley. Women did washing, stock drank. Mealie fields spread left and right, each tended, it seemed, by a different family. Houses were all over, randomly, on this or that side of a hill or river, in a way that made their relative poverty seem dangerously picturesque. Each had some fruit trees, some animals, all had space surrounding them.

Is it better to be poor here or in a shanty town? Is the question itself obscene?

My inner troubles were beginning.

The road, pretty good tar, led to the Ts'ehlanyane National Park, part, I believe, of the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Project, a massive conservation initiative. Much of the information available is on the Maliba Lodge site and is pretty much reproduced with many typos from several other sites. One can stay in the park without paying dues to Maliba Lodge, as there seems to be a basic camping facility and accommodation at the park's visitor's centre. See below.

After being admitted beyond a guarded boom, and paying a park entrance fee, we drove up a dirt road to the Lodge's reception area (below), a massive riff on the theme of rondavel, with pitched thatched roof, poised high above forested, intersecting valleys and looking across a breathtakingly beautiful vista of mountains. The South African manager who greeted us could not tell us anything about hikes in the park, also one of the reasons we'd come, and advertised on the website. He said he was 'new to the area.' Not my kind of answer.

I wandered down to the much-anticipated botanical garden, below, and found a couple of silent ladies defining the planted areas, which had been overgrown with grass.

The idea of the garden is laudable, and exciting in this sub alpine montane area, and many species were identified with labels showing Latin and seSotho names. I was able to identify the Hesperantha coccinea here for the first time as it was in full crimson bloom.

In an email I had received the following information from Bongani Ntloko:

It's a reasonably young aged garden based at an altitude of above 1800 m.a.s.l.

We are managing a special collection of high altitude (2900 -3200 m.a.s.l) plant species from the mountains of Lesotho.

Some of interesting species would be dwarf helichrysum species such as Helichrysum adenocarpum, Helichrysum ecklonis, Helichrysum witbergense etc

We are developing a showcase collection of the following indigenous plants:
  • National flower of Lesotho (Endangered/red listed Aloe polyphylla)
  • Useful (medicinal plants species) plants
  • Irridaceae section
  • Aquatic species
  • Fuel wood species and etc.
  • Water wise display
  • Sensory garden
  • Alien species
  • Lesotho grasses
We have a database of all plants with pictures from both in the wild habitats and in the garden which we can happily share with you. We have also initiated a collection of seed material and propagation of some species for conservation purposes.

So it's a wonderful idea, and I had hoped to gather more information on site about why it was started and whose idea it was - whether it was a condition of the Lodge's existence in the national park, and so on. But the managers seemed vague. I had questions, but no one there could answer them.

Leaving the massive space of the main building, its lonely customer-less barman (we should have had a drink), the empty dining room and the eyrie-like views, we drove back down to our self catering lodge, one of six lining the rushing mountain river, and less expensive than the rondavel 'chalet' accommodation higher up. Just behind these river lodges was a series of rather claustrophobically wooded camp stands, very narrow, and possibly never used as they were quite overgrown.

The location was stunning and the lodges were enormous but McMansion-like in terms of their proximity to each other. Unlike McMansions they were built of stone and mortar, not drywall and plastic. We were the only guests and were shown each and every room by a sweet and very unsophisticated young woman. Clash of worlds.

Interior Decoration had happened. Red and black. Velveteen. A black dining table with dinner service for six on it.

The next day we saw a very good looking, early 20's, bejewelled guy negotiating the 4 x 4-worthy driveway in a low-slung, hot-off-the-presses Audi; the decor may have been for him.

It was a curious mixture. Great linen on the beds, then a kind of cookie-cutter closet and surface treatment, with vinyl finishes, as if from a generic motel in America.

The deck outside was right above the roaring mountain water, so much so that we had to speak loudly to hear each other. We ate lunch - the first snackwich I have ever made, created on the brand new, never-used snackwich maker in the huge kitchen. I felt like I was in the twilight zone. It was a good snackwich.

Below us, native berg bamboo grew in a drooping stand. It is Thamnocalamus tessellatus, and is called tsehlanyane in seSotho.

After lunch I explored the pristine river bed below where I had seen these stunning plants, at least five feet high: Phygelius capensis.

It is used as a charm against lightning.

The lodge from the water...

Also a native diascia, but I am not sure which one.

And a miniature Pelargonium capituliforme.

Then we walked up the damp dirt road along the river, following a map we'd found in a folder in our palace with lots of detailed information about plants. It pointed to a short hike on the other side of the narrow valley, following the water.

When we reached the end of the road, with a deep pool beyond it, I saw these: orchids.

My objections to black suede sofas began to melt away, fast. Probably Neobolusia tysonii, in seSotho - mametsana-a-manyenyane, according to Elsa Pooley's Mountain Flowers (2003, The Flora Publications Trust).


Our path lay on the other side of the stream and we waded across the top of the little fall, through icy water.

Then the Canadian got into the water. He said it was warmer than Lynn Canyon in Vancouver...the next day I found that out for myself. But he did approve of the colour, a clear dark green, as opposed to the transparent tannic brown of some South African waters.

And so our walk began, in the middle of the afternoon. And it is for this brief, 3 or so km ramble that I will remember Maliba Lodge, and consider its place on a map for flower hunters.

The path was grassy and not much used.

In the shade on the slope grew Plectranthus, probably grallatus.

And here for the first time, I saw the only poppy indigenous to southern Africa, the diminutive and delicate Papaver aculeatum, sehlolo in seSotho. Elsa Pooley says the young plants are used as pot herbs.

Clematis brachiata was entwined with the low trees on the slopes.

Crassula natalensis grew in damp spots.

A geranium...multisectum?

Another orchid!

Light was fading, a breeze picking up and the pictures are not good, but hopefully someone can see enough to help me ID. Disperis somethingis?

A beautiful grass...

Wahlenbergia, but not sure which one, again.

A terrible picture of a third orchid, about 18 inches tall.

And here was something amazing, We actually saw this oenothorea (can't find which it is) open before our eyes. In about 10 seconds flat from closed capsule to sprung-open moon. It was magical. There we were, all alone, the water below, the mountains above and the silent unfurling of the white petals. All along the path they opened, solitary, propelled by DNA and the time of day, like satellite dishes tracking something beyond our reach and understanding.

Zaluzianskya microsiphon. Pass wodka, Vladimir...what a name. The beautiful wine red blush to the backs of the petals.

Glumicalyx nutans, a striking flower rising leafless on long stalk from bare earth.

It was late afternoon and we saw and heard no animals. My father says there are few animals in Lesotho because they have all been eaten.

And a closed gate and a high fence. No way over. Our hike had come to an end. Instead of having another few hundred metres to walk to the lodge, we had to backtrack all the way to cross where we had started. Later we found literature in The Folder saying we should call reception to have this gate unlocked. It was all a bit mysterious and, hopefully, as more visitors stay here, these kinks will be ironed out.

We braaied that night, in the brand new Weber grill situated carefully beside a brand new fire extinguisher.

We fell asleep to the roar of the water.

In the morning, after espresso on the deck and a splash in the freezing water, we packed up, and headed out. Some Basotho ponies were saddled up in the parking lot.

It was a strange and beautiful experience, though I felt as though we were test driving the new place. As such, more information needs to be on hand for visitors who want to do more than look at the view passively. Perhaps if we'd gone on a pony ride we would have had a better feel for it...

And perhaps we are not the target market.

For comparison's sake, here is Vincent's post about Maliba and the drive there.

Lesotho cannot be dealt with in few words. I hope you forgive me.

Next stop will be Sani Pass.

For info about the Ts'ehlanyane National Park, overnight hikes and basic accommodation, click here, or contact:

The Booking Officer
LHDA Nature Reserves
PO Box 333, Butha-Buthe

+266 229-13206

For luxury accommodation at Maliba in the park, click here for their form.


  1. Very interesting. There is an article in the latest Veld and Flora on the Katse Botanical Garden in Lesotho, the first aplpine botanical garden in highland Lesotho - by Bongani Ntloko and Jill Scott, botanist who has spend much time there and who lives in Constania ! And you are correct about lawyers.....

  2. I found Lesotho (approached from Ladybrand side) to be a spectacular, yet very sad country. Dramatic mountains and sandstone, erosion leaving red scars. Men in blankets and gum boots, young children playing barefoot. Old women bent over smoky fires. Cannabis in large plantations in village vegetable gardens. The middle generation had disappeared, probably to the mines, for a life not really better. I read an article somewhere where an old states "they come home to die".

    So a confusing mix of beauty, honesty and pain.

  3. hi marie,

    Saw at the end of the post you were heading to Sani, if you are ever in the Midlands again, and perhaps in Nottingham Road(Town) there is a Sangoma at Fordoun Spa that cultivates African healing plants in couple of tunnels for the manufacture of herbal oils and creams, very interesting. Also look at the images of Ruaan Smith taken of Basuto Herdsman, raw but beautiful and powerful.


  4. Hen - actually, I should email Bongani to ask for some ID help, I hadn't thought of that.

    You would not have liked NooYawk today: blerrie, blerrie hot and disgusting.

    jvdh - hoe gaan dit??? Yes, I did notice a big gap between little and very old. AIDS, also, maybe, though Rian Malan now has me rethinking AIDS.

    Hi Marita - I would love to return to that part of the country...thanks for tip.

  5. I wouldn't mind taking a dip into that stream right now, with NYC sizzling and melting under a brutal 36F heat index....

    Very well written and shot, you made me rethink my own approach...

  6. I'm in love with that miniature pelargonium!

    And the beautiful noon v sunrise (sunset?) photos of the view...

  7. Thanks for this, Marie, the Neobolusia was a great find! The damselfly is Mountain Malachite, Chlorolestes fasciatus, the males can have that wonderful white banding which makes them appear to flash in flight. The Disperis is a member of a tricky species-group, and the shape of the hood is important, but I think it looks most like Disperis stenoplectron, but email me on and I can send you some more info on that. The tall green orchid is tough to say without a close up of flower but it looks to me like a "Devil Orchid", Satyrium parviflorum. The evening primrose, a (lovely) alien weed of course, is likely O. tetraptera. Cheers, Callan.


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