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Landlocked in the centre of South Africa, Lesotho is one of the few countries in Africa with natural boundaries created by tribal demands rather than those imposed by colonial decree. There are few natural resources and population pressures have decreased the agricultural potential, but the country has an almost overwhelming natural beauty coupled with welcoming, generous people.
Much of Lesotho is covered by the high Maluti Mountains. Even the lowlands, where most of Lesotho's 1.5 million people live, is 1300m above sea level. This is the highest lowest point of any country in the world.
The Maluti is a rugged and wild mountain range that is ideal for trekking holidays. The mountains do however create their own climate, which can lead to sudden temperature drops, low clouds and thunderstorms.
Evidence of human activity in the Malutis go back at least 30 000 years, with cave paintings and other Bushman relics found in numerous scattered sites. For many thousands of years dispersed nomadic hunters, the San, inhabited Southern Africa. Their rock art has shown us many facets of their lives. We get deeper insight from their images of dancing, hunting and fishing and scenes of semi-settled family life. Sadly, outsiders persecuted the San (known as Bushman by white settlers and as Baroa by the Basotho tribes of Bantu origin) from they spotted them. The San retreated a long time ago to the Kalahari sands, their last refuge.
In the early 19th Century, at the height of power of the Zulu king Shaka, many of his subjugated chiefs took flight and attempted to form their own dominions. The result was a period of terror throughout central southern Africa known as Difaqane, or "Time of Calamity". The Sotho-speaking tribes of the highveld were scattered. The Maluti mountains formed a natural defence against marauding invaders, and many small tribal groups attempted to take refuge in the region. One such group, led by the enterprising chief Moshesh, selected a small steep-sided plateau at Butha-Buthe. They successfully defended their position for two years before moving to a better fortress at Thaba Bosiu - "Mountain of the Night".
For ten years Thaba Bosiu proved impregnable to threats and it rapidly gained fame. Fugitives from the Difaqane flocked to the Mountain at Night and were incorporated into the tribe. By 1830, the tribe had become a large cohesive unit of people. Whereas before they had skulked in the surrounding hills and valleys to escape slaughter and famine, they had newly discovered pride. They began to call themselves Basotho, or Sotho people, and referred to their small kingdom as Lesotho.
Moshesh, by now known as Moshoeshoe, grew in stature as his military skill and diplomacy matured, and his kingdom remained unconquered until shortly before his death, in 1870. The British were called in to rescue the situation after the successful Boer invasion of 1868 and the protectorate of Basutoland was declared soon after.
Multi-party politics took hold in the 1950's and independence was eventually wrested from the British in 1966. There followed the almost inevitable 20 years of conflict, in-fighting and coups d'etat. When the long-time strongman, Chief Jonathan, turned towards Marxism and a one-party system South Africa imposed a full blockade on land-locked Lesotho. In all probability it was them that instigated the coup of 1986 that overthrew Jonathan and re-instated the authority of King Moshoeshoe ll, (great-great-great grandson of Lesotho's founding father), as Head of State. Since then the government has remained successful, stable, and popular.
Moshoeshoe ll died in a car accident in January 1996 and has been succeeded by his son Chief Letsie lll.