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Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thaba Bosui honey, Lesotho, Southern Africa


I’m in Maseru, Lesotho for a few weeks doing a short term project and thought I’d take advantage of being in a new and wonderful place, and try to scout out some local honey. But before I get into that I want to give you a little background on Lesotho (or rather, The Kingdom of Lesotho). Most people that I talked to about my trip didn’t know where it was. To tell the truth, I had to pull out a map the first time I heard of it too.

Lesotho is a small, mountainous country completely surrounded by South Africa. If you look for South Africa on the map, you’ll see a circular country southeast of Johannesburg. That is Lesotho. If you pay attention to the markings on the map that show mountains you’ll see that Lesotho is just full of lots of mountains. The so-called “low lands” which border South Africa all around its edge are not very low at all, at about 1,000 to 1,600 meters above sea level. In fact, Lesotho is unique in that it is the only country entirely above 1,000 m, and is known as the ‘Kingdom in the Sky.’ Does it live up to being in the sky? 
You bet. 
Fascinating clouds at sunset in Maseru, Lesotho
I could do nothing but look at the sky all day while I’m here. It seems so close. I’ve never been to Montana (the big sky state) but I wonder if the sky there is as mesmerizing. In Lesotho the air is crisp and clear, the clouds take on the most unusual shapes from billowing puffs to sheets of feathery wisps- and they have such depth and expanse. Sunrises and sunsets are spectacular. The views from elevated spaces defy words. Magical does not begin to describe this place.


 However, before I arrived, given all the mountains on the map, I thought Lesotho would be like Switzerland, with needle sharp mountain ranges, and up and down and around driving on roads hugging the edges of cliffs. 

Sheets of clouds over a mountain at sunset in Maseru, Lesotho
Well, Switzerland without all the very cold, very snowy bits (although Lesotho does get snow in winter especially at the highest elevations) or lederhosen. I’ve since discovered that it isn’t like Switzerland at all. The mountains, at least in the low lands, seem old and weathered, with large flat plateaus on their tops, and they dot large valleys of flat lands where people grow maize, and sorghum (among other things).  For being so high up and having so many mountains there is A LOT of flat space. If you are in a valley looking at the mountains, they seem to come in ones and twos rather than as a range. However, I’ve not been in the interior, where the higher mountains are, so it may be different there.  

There are also A LOT of rivers (and dams) here, and water is an important export to South Africa. It is the end of summer, and there has been a drought for the last two years (although I hear from locals that this year has been much better for water). Many of the river beds are dry- and these are called dongas (not sure of the spelling). 
Puffy white clouds you can almost touch at Thaba Bosiu, Lesotho
These dry (or nearly dry) river beds carve deep cuts into the earth though, making it easy to imagine how much water they hold when the spring thaw comes.

But back to honey. It is my first time in sub-Saharan Africa and I was very excited to see what the local honey scene is. Imagine how disappointed I was when Me Zinnia, the owner of the house I’m staying at, told me that there is no local honey scene. Any honey produced, she said, is generally consumed by the family and not for sale, or is imported from South Africa. The Pick and Pay supermarket seemed to confirm this as they only have honey from South Africa (and seemingly mass produced at that). But I wondered if local honey was more likely to be sold in a local market than in a supermarket (hope springs eternal). I checked out the open market where small stalls sell everything from sandals to fruit and didn’t see any either. Not good. Not good at all. But just when I thought I’d cross the border into South Africa to get local (and not mass produced) South African honey (the next best thing to Lesotho honey), my luck changed.  

It changed as I was hiking Thaba Bosiu (the night mountain, so named because it seemed to grow in the night to those who tried to climb it then- at least that is one story; the other is that King Moshoeshoe and his people arrived at the flat mountaintop at night). 

Views from the plateau at Thaba Bosiu looking at the mountains in the interior.


But before I go on about the honey find I want to insert a little bit about Thaba Bosiu. It is spectacular and has an important place in Lesotho history. It can only be reached from a handful of passes that are easily defended (think rocky walking paths where you have to go one by one). On top there is a massive plateau where you have commanding views of all the valleys around it, and a natural spring feeds it. Moshoeshoe gathered his people on Thaba Bosiu and from this defensible mountaintop established relationships with chiefs throughout the country (mostly by marrying their daughters- 140 in total) thereby creating an extended political network, and ultimately uniting the country under one ruler, King Moshoeshoe I. 

View from Thaba Bosiu looking into the valley below.
This all happened in the 1820s. For more information, I recommend David Fleminger book “Lesotho Southbound Travel Guide.” On the hike you can drink water from the spring, visit King Moshoeshoe I (and II) graves (many Lesotho royalty are buried there), and see King Moshoeshoe I’s house. You can also be completely overwhelmed by the views. If you are near Maseru, it is a quick day trip to Thaba Bosiu and I highly recommend it.

But back to the honey. While I was hiking I noticed honey bees and asked our guide, a local man, about (what else) honey. He informed me that there was local honey production, in fact it was very local. 

Ntate Maccae's bee hives
After the hike he directed me to Ntate Maccae, an apiarist who was a stone’s throw away. After getting lost just a little and asking directions to Ntate Maccae’s house from a teenager looking after a small child (my friends and I speak next to no Sesotho and we were very lucky that she understood me), we found Ntate Maccae’s house and met his wife. Yes, they produced honey and yes, we could buy some. It came in a plastic honey jar with a yellow lid with no label. She said the two jars we bought were her last but her husband was out harvesting more and if we brought our own container they could fill it later on. I instantly thought of the 1 liter plastic bottle I had in my room… With luck we will make it back to Ntate Maccae’s before I leave for home.

The honey is a mellow, orange yellow color, clear in a small sample, but somewhat cloudy in the jar. It is a runny honey but medium runny- I could swirl some on a toothpick without too much effort. It has honey sweet first taste that is not complex, and then an herby, slightly medicinal taste (sweet not bitter) at the end. I liken it to a eucalyptus taste. 

Ntate Maccae's honey.
Very tasty and very different from other honeys I’ve had from Africa. My guess is that the floral sources are low growing shrubs and herbs (there are few trees in the area with the exception of some eucalyptus and a few others). On the hike I noticed a flowering herb (yellow flowers) that resembled sage to me but the leaves were much smaller- perhaps it was one of the sources.
I’m afraid you won’t be able to get this honey online or at the store. You’ll just have to come to Lesotho to pick some up. Directions to Ntate Maccae’s can be obtained from the guide at the visitor center of Thaba Bosui. What other excuse do you need to visit the Kingdom in the sky?

2 comments:

  1. Loved this well-written article and the photos. Makes you feel like visiting the Kingdom of Lesotho and tasting a very rare honey.

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  2. @ Benedicte- if you ever go and manage to find Ntate Maccae's house, give my regards to Me Maccae. She was very gracious in welcoming us into her home. And don't forget to take a liter container with you...

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