Rivers of Lesotho

Lesotho, home of the Basotho, is surrounded by South Africa. It is a relatively peaceful country, although South Africa’s invasion in 1999 didn’t do much to keep it that way. Travellers are welcome in the country, but commercial tour operations catering for tourists have not yet become common yet. The exception is pony trekking, which is a popular activity for visitors. It is a poor country; don’t try to rip the locals off.

Lesotho is the only country in the world with its entire territory more than 1000m above sea level, and the highest peaks in Southern Africa are to be found here. In this country any ground below 1800m is considered lowland, and a total of 25% of the country’s area falls in this category. The Maluti mountains stretch from the northeast to the southwest, while the inaccessible Drakensberg mountains dominate the eastern part of the country. All its rivers flow in the same direction, due to its geological profile. These isolated rivers offer enormous opportunities for the adventurous paddler in search of new runs.

For such a mountainous country, the major rivers are remarkably flat with small rapids. The deep basalt valleys are mostly U-shaped with wide, shallow rivers at the bottom. The exceptions occur where the rivers have carved through the basalt into sandstone and sometimes hard granite, resulting in narrow gorges with steep walls. Inside these gorges the water normally remains pretty flat. Some of the gorges have caved in, resulting in huge boulders blocking the passage. At low levels most of the water disappears beneath these rocks and portaging over them may be necessary. At high levels these boulders create horrendous monsters, and the gorges should then be avoided.

Travellers, and specifically paddlers, are advised to travel independently, especially in the rural areas, and preferably in 4×4’s. The new tarred road to Mokhotlong and Katse Dam and the Southern Ring Road both make access much easier than a few years ago, but the untarred roads are barely passable in a sedan under normal conditions, and after rains the roads become messy obstacle courses.

Lesotho experiences nearly 300 days a year of sunshine, with a short rainy season from December to March. To catch the water, paddling trips should obviously be arranged for this time. Beware of thunderstorms and furious lightning in the afternoons. Also keep in mind that even in midsummer the night temperature can plummet to below zero, due to the altitude. It must be emphasized that the valleys are deep and the rivers very remote, so don’t treat a Lesotho trip lightly. Because of the easy-going nature of the rivers it is unlikely that anything will go wrong, but if it does, one is far from help.

The Katse and Mohale dams dominate the interior highlands of Lesotho. While these dams may be triumphs of engineering skill (Katse is the highest dam in the Southern Hemisphere with a height of approximately 185 m above foundation), they have had a devastating effect, not only on the rivers and their ecology, but also on the people who lived in these remote valleys. So when you pass the dams, give a thought to the terrible cost that was wrought in their building. The dam building project is not yet over. Very soon more deep, barren and spectacular valleys may be lost to itinerant river travellers and everybody else.