National Parks of Lesotho


Lesotho's only national park, Sehlabathebe, embraces 6500 hectares in the south-eastern corner of this mountain kingdom. The park, which is under the auspices of the National Park Section of the Department of Conservation and Forestry, was proclaimed in 1981. Its rolling green hills rise up to basalt peaks which top 3000m.

Small numbers of eland, oribi, baboon, Black-backed jackal, wild cat and otter roam the grasslands. It's also an excellent place to see the rare Bearded vulture, or lammergeier, and the Wattled crane. Its most famous resident is, however, the small minnow-like fish, Oreodaimon quathlambae, a species which was thought to be extinct until it was found in the chilly waters of the Tsoelinkana River.

I made the journey to the park a few years ago via a twisting mountain road. It was in terrible condition and the remains of many old cars, which did not make the distance, were littered on both sides of the road. Next time I'll certainly consider the second option, which is to ride in by pony from Bushman's Nek in South Africa.

Sehlabathebe Lodge, which is the only accommodation in the park, is a large self-catering house with beds for up to 12 people and a team of staff who light fires, polish floors and ensure the place is kept in shape.

Glancing through the visitors' book, I noticed that many of the previous guests had complained about blisters, cold weather and clouds. This is a hiker's paradise and, when the weather does clear, there are long mountain walks, guided trails, horse riding and swimming in waterfalls to be had.

There are proposals to make changes to promote Sehlabathebe, but the management plan, drawn up in 1991, has not been put into practice due to lack of funds and personnel.

However, changes are afoot in Lesotho. There is a realisation in government circles and among interested groups that the park - and conservation as a whole - has not been successfully managed in the past. Moves are being made to identify problems and, with the support of the World Bank and the African Development Bank, to put things right.

Whereas the history of conservation in Lesotho was a remnant of colonial influences, the current thinking is very much along the lines of using protected areas as the cores for an eco-tourism industry. The Natural Environment and Heritage Programme has started the move by spearheading the proclamation of four additional conservation areas including Bokong Nature Reserve, Ts'ehlanyane NP, Liphophung Cave Cultural Historical Site and Muela Environmental Education Centre.

These areas will increase the proportion of the country under conservation to 13,400 hectares - or 0.5% of the total- and provide economic and social relief to what is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Earthplan Lesotho, a skilled consultancy group, has been set up to run the project which includes establishing Community Conservation Forums in each area.

The Ts'ehlanyane NP covers some 5,600 hectares at the junction of the Ts'ehlanyane and the Holomo rivers on the western scarp of the Maluti Mountains. The area was chosen largely because it is situated near the entrance to a mountain tunnel where communities were most affected by the construction.

It also has mountain vistas, fine examples of Leucosidea sericea or ouhout trees and stands of berg bamboo, which is a host plant for the endangered butterfly species Metisella syrinx. A small tented camp has been established and plans have been put in place for a lodge.

There is also talk of the formation of the Maluti/Drakensberg Transfrontier Park - a chunk of mountains and grasslands including parts of Lesotho and South Africa's Eastern Cape, Eastern Free State, Kwazulu-Natal Drakensberg Park (now a World Heritage Site), Qwa Qwa and Golden Gate National Park. When that is proclaimed it will fall under accepted norms applicable to international biosphere management. However, it will take some time for Lesotho to become a mainstream tourist attraction - and, for the while at least, its NPs will remain a destination only for the adventurous.

Sehlabathebe

Established 1970, this 6500ha park lies in the Eastern Highlands on the South African border. It can be reached by hiking, horse-riding from Bushman's Nek or by road (though the section from Qachas Nek to the park is very rough). Easiest is to fly in from Maseru or Qachas Nek.

One of the highest and remotest parks in Africa. In the local language Sehlabathebe means 'plateau of the shield'. Rocky sandstone outcrops (notably the Three Bushmen peaks) date back to the Triassic period. Hundreds of caves. Plateau bisected by rivers; many waterfalls and small lakes. Peaks topped with snow in winter.

Few animals live here: an occasional eland or grey rhebok, or troop of baboons. Birdlife is prolific, including the Bearded vulture, Jackal buzzards, Rock kestrels, Black eagles, the Bald ibis and the Orange-breasted rock jumper. Excellent trout in Tsoelikana and Leqooa Rivers - and the tiny and very rare Maluti minnow (for many years thought extinct). Known for mountain adders.

Superb scenery and bracing air - a hiker's paradise (though be wary of extreme weather changes, particularly sudden thick mists). Trout fishing and horse-riding. More than 130 bushman (San) painting sites. A well-equipped self-catering lodge and small hostel, both with communal facilities. Camping permitted anywhere in the park.

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By David Rogers