African Fixer

LESOTHO – Film Producers Slow Journeys Across Lesotho, The Kingdom In The Sky.

August 18, 2023

The hills along the border between South Africa and Lesotho that slope down gently towards the Orange River- or Senqu River in Sesotho- mark the end of the global village and the beginning of ‘The Kingdom In The Sky’, also known as’ the Switzerland of Africa’.

As isolated and unknown as it is as a filming location, this mountain kingdom that is completely landlocked by South Africa has attracted many foreign explorers since it became a nation in 1824. However, due to the remoteness of most locations in the country and the rugged terrain, it is only in recent years that film producers have begun telling the stories of slow journeys across Lesotho.

Missionary Excursion In 1840

It all began in 1840, when a missionary from the Paris Evangelical Society tasked with establishing a mission in the Eastern Cape was invited to ‘ Basutholand’, as it was then known. At the request of the founder of the nation, King Moshoeshoe I, Thomas Arbousset set off with the king on an expedition across the mountain kingdom to map the territory.

The expedition began at Thaba Bosiu, often referred to as the Hill of Destiny, on which King Moshoeshoe I had established the seat of his government. The king and his missionary companion set out on a long trek that culminated at Mont-aux-Sources in the Drakensberg mountains.

Although the Drakensberg is technically part of South Africa, most of the range spills over into Lesotho, and where it becomes the Maluti Mountains (Blue Mountains), explorers and adventurers have continued to initiate long treks across the kingdom. Today the most famous of these is the annual 3-day Moshoeshoe Walk and the Trek To Tugela Falls.

Journeys across the Kingdom In The Sky are still undertaken mostly on foot or horseback, as the remoteness of mountain villages is a large part of the country’s appeal, and taking time to learn about Lesotho’s traditional culture is an immersive experience.

Epic Trails

At the source of the Tugela River in South Africa, the Tugela Falls mark the beginning of the most important watershed in Africa, the mountains of Lesotho. Water from Lesotho is supplied to neighboring South Africa as well as Botswana and Lesotho and the Katse Dam that was built in the 1990’s for this purpose is one of the largest and most impressive engineering feats in Southern Africa.

The Sani Mountain Pass is a zig-zagging, steep dirt road winding up the mountainside towards Mokhotlong, a small town at the base of Thabana Ntlenyana (Beautiful Mountain), the highest peak in Southern Africa. Arriving at the Sani Mountain Lodge, you feel like you have arrived in heaven, as everything is surrounded by cloud cover. The lodge is famous for having Africa’s Highest Pub, at an elevation of 2,874 meters.

At dawn, the air is translucent and still. Smoke from mud huts seeps through thatched rooftops and clings to the side of the mountain, as though waiting to rise to meet the clouds that drift by. In the mountains, there are places of pure silence, which is why the Basotho never use sound equipment when recalling legendary stories. At this altitude, sound carries, echoes and rebounds across the landscape.

Ke Bona Leseli!” (I have seen The Light!) King Moshoeshoe I proclaimed when he arrived at the end of his expedition to Mont-aux-Sources. This symbolic cry has great significance for Basotho today; it has echoed down through the centuries in the oral tradition of praise poems, reminding people that the nation has survived and defended itself against incredible odds.

You can ride for a couple of days through the mountains without encountering another living soul; but then suddenly, out of nowhere, a smiling herd boy appears with a flock of sheep or herd of cattle he is driving to pasture. In the rural parts of the country, boys are sent out from the age of six to lead animals to pasture after the cold, harsh winter.

The Basotho are the only Africans to have adapted to living part of the year in snow. Once the snow melts in December, herd boys can spend a whole month away from their village, living off the land and a bag of mealie meal used to cook porridge over an open fire, sleeping in stone huts built for them at certain vantage points. These herd boys embody the soul of Lesotho and are often the best guides along the epic trails leading into the heart of the country. These trails involve an average of 60 kms of ascents and descents in a single day, and even on the famous, agile Basotho Pony, the going is slow.

While light aircraft can be chartered for aerial filming and drone filming is now used in many locations, almost everyone exploring the mountain kingdom wants to experience the raw adventure of an expedition that has inspired documentaries such as ‘Prince Harry In Africa’ and ‘Mountains of Hope- stories about the work of charities that provide healthcare and welfare services to remote villages.

The Home Of Adventure Tourism

Apart from short documentary films about immersive cultural experiences in Lesotho, only four  full-length feature films have been shot on location in the country.

‘This Is Not A Burial, It is a Resurrection’ by Jeremiah Monese has been well-publicized and drawn attention to Lesotho after being nominated for an Academy Award in 2020. However the three over feature films, ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’,  ‘The Mountain King’ and ‘American Ninja IV’ were overshadowed by the government and private sector’s focus on building and marketing the adventure tourism industry.

The centers of activity in the mountains are missions, large-scale infrastructure development projects and trading posts that serve as a network connecting remote villages to larger towns that attract tourists and adventure sports enthusiasts.

Most of these tourists and adventure sports enthusiasts use the Sani Pass route from the Overberg mountains in South Africa to cross into Lesotho, as traveling by road from the capital Maseru can only be undertaken during the warm months, from December to April. Once the snow starts falling in the mountains in June and water cascading down escarpments freezes, the road beyond the town of Butha-Buthe, where the highlands begin, is considered too dangerous for driving.

Snow capped mountain peaks in the Bokong Nature Reserve near the Mafika Lisiu Pass in Leribe, Lesotho

From Mokhotlong, visitors usually head to the Afri-Ski Resort, one of only two ski resorts in sub-Saharan Africa. In many villages that are without electricity, life stops at sunset and the Afri-Ski Lodge offers film crews all the modern amenities they need.

There are numerous tourist sites and film locations that offer raw adventure activities such as pony-trekking, hiking, abseiling, white-river rafting, trout fishing and dirt-bike riding. There is no film board or authority that issues permits for filming in Lesotho, and permission to film in a given location has to be negotiated with local chiefs on a case-by-case basis.

Contact African Fixer and request a comprehensive Guide To Filming Locations In Lesotho if you want to explore the sites that adventurers discovered during slow journeys across The Kingdom In The Sky.

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