Lesotho – Katse Dam

By Johnie Jonker

Over an Easter week-end our family of four visited the Katse Dam in Lesotho, entering at Caledonspoort.

We had grand plans to also head towards Sani Pass from there, and went on a (very) brief recce out on the road to Thaba Theka. If that first 3 km was anything to go by, you could possibly average 40km/h. Taking the distance to Sani Pass into consideration, this would turn out to be quite a trek.

We subsequently gave that idea up, due to it predicting to be a much more major outing than anticipated; a treatMENT rather than a TREAT.

The plan was to stay over at the self-catering guest houses at the dam. This used to be the constructors’ village, and is now available to travellers for a very reasonable R750/night, sleeping four people. There are also larger units which sleep six.

The first obstacle was to telephonically get through to the Katse Lodge, which is part of the Orion Hotel group. After trying many numbers, this one – 00268 28910202 – worked. But also only sometimes, as it seems that the connection is via satellite. With the poor weather conditions leading up to the week-end, this was a hit and miss affair at best. It just rings.

But we eventually managed to get hold of Violet and Mats’ele at reservations, and via email at could reserve and pay for the booking.

It is often cliché’d that the journey is part of the holiday, but in this case, very true. The scenery is spectacular, even though it rained intermittently all the way there – Caledonspoort, Butha-Buthe, Hlotse, Pitseng, Lejone, Seshote and eventually Katse.

[Source: Imagery ©2011 TerraMetrics, Map data ©2014 AfriGIS (Pty) Ltd, Google]

We reached a view point at 3098m ASL, but as we passed through the cloud base 98m earlier, found nothing much to see.

At the time we thought that perhaps on the way back the weather would have improved and we should be able to see down into the valley, 1.4km below.

And yes, the weather was good second time round, and NO we still could not see – same cloud base problem.  We were wondering why they bothered to call it a view point, being a waste of a perfectly good signpost.

Arriving at Katse, we were pleasantly surprised regarding the accommodation.

Under-cover parking, two bedrooms – each with built-in heater, lounge with DSTV (limited bouquet) and oil heater, and a north-facing kitchen – fridge, stove, microwave – with great mountain views.

The bedroom heaters were turned on when we arrived, making us feel very welcome. The bathroom was also up to scratch. Watch out for the hot water though – it seems to be just below boiling point.

If you did not feel like self-catering, you could have your meals at the lodge, with the bonus of a fire going in the lounge every night. The pub will also sell you beers to take home – at lounge prices.

Other than the very worthwhile (and cheap! – R10/adult, children half-price) dam wall tour – daily at 9 and 11 am, you can do a boat trip – although the price here depends on how many people, as the comPLETE boat is for rent – a guided village walk and visit the botanical gardens.

“Botanical Gardens” leans somewhat heavily on poetic licence, as rather than an image of Kirstenbosch, it is more a nursery – housed chiefly in plastic tunnels – to grow seedlings for the gardens around the hotel.

There are two tennis courts – with nets AND lights – and also two squash courts. The latter has been nicely renovated lately – floors, lines, walls – but failure to remove the pigeons nesting on top of the ample neon lighting, requires some bird-crap cleaning off the floor of Court 2, prior to playing.

There is really not much else to do – unless you bring it along yourself – and something which the hotel group could definitely improve upon to attract more visitors. Mind you, they were fully booked for the Easter period a week in advance.

But then again, if you were looking for a place to chill, you’ve found it. There is no cell phone reception there, in spite of claims: Only MTN. Not even.

Hence most visitors stay only the one night, leaving the lodge deserted from around nine – via a dam wall tour and then onwards – until 4 pm, when the next batch of travellers start arriving.

The next morning we also went on said tour.


Having had to (and still) attend countless boring presentations in my career, I can confirm that the lady doing THIS presentation, was absolutely top-notch. Even though she had a PR background, she could also give good explanations of the technical features within the dam wall.

Posters in large print formed a story-board in front of the lecture hall – which most people had read prior to the start of the information session. So, no, she did not read it off, or consult any notes, for that matter. Neither did she simply convey the information as it appeared on the panels from left to right. She also shared a lot of new information.

Some random facts – mostly in response to the visitors’ questions – are:

  • The cement was brought in pre-mixed from Ficksburg, a truckload every 40 minutes. It took us 2:30 to do that stretch, the trucks took closer to 8 hours. Doing the sums, beggars belief how anyone could even THINK this dam could be built, considering its remote location.
  • The wall is of double-curvature design and the second highest in Africa at 85 m. The highest wall was built 2 years ago, at 88m.
  • If the Vaal Dam was always at maximum level, it would hold more water than Katse. But as it is not, this is not the case. The dam at this stage needed an additional 40cm of water prior to overflowing, but this requires a huge amount of rain, as the catchment area stretches back for 54km behind the wall. But in January – peak rain season – this regularly happens.
  • Why is water let out now? This is to fill the coffer dam, below. Should the dam overflow, the power of the water would erode the foundations on the downstream side. Filling the coffer dam, allows the overflow to fall on water, eliminating the erosion.
    • How long did it take for the dam to fill after construction? Prior to construction, two tunnels were dug through the solid rock on one side of the dam. A buffer dam was then constructed upstream, from which water could be bypassed downstream along these tunnels when it became close to full. The construction of the main wall could therefore carry on unhindered, regardless of season.

As the dam wall was raised, the water level was also allowed to rise up against the completed section, so by the time the construction was finished, the dam was full. As our tour guide put it: “The dam was ALWAYS full”.

  • Where does the water go? Via tunnel, it gets dumped into the Ash River just outside of Clarens, on the way to Bethlehem. From here it flows to Gauteng for industrial use. The SA government pays R30 million rand/month for this water, although it is not supplied full-time.
  • What else does Lesotho get from the scheme? 72MW of electricity, generated by three turbines at a downstream feeder dam. This supplies 85% of the country’s electricity requirement.
  • Finally, from where the name Katse? Simply the name of the man and his family who lived closest to the site, and who was re-located prior to construction.

On the way back, I missed the low-down TDi grunt of my Tiguan, thinking that perhaps the saying:”There is no substitute for cubic inches” needs some clarification. Perhaps as follows: “Size DOES count – but only if there’s enough air to utilize it”.

The normally aspirated 3.2l i6 suffers from around 30% power loss at 3000m, and often kicked down to 2nd gear – whenever the engine speed dropped below 2000 rpm. This then shot up to 3500 rpm where it pulls like a train, albeit with a lot more noise.

I was concerned that due to the continuous up/downhill travel for around 150km – twice – that the fuel consumption would suffer badly, and that I may not make it back to civilization. Especially when the first leg of the inbound journey consisted of a 1.4km vertical climb over a very short horizontal distance, and you could see the fuel consumption following the same gradient.

But it seems that what you loose on the swings, you regain on the roundabouts, aided largely by the low average speed – you could rarely exceed 80km/h between Pitseng and Katse.

The consumption (at the pump) between Pretoria and Fouriesburg on the way down – indicated speed 123km/h on the GPS – came to 10.22l/100km, and the Fouriesburg/In/Out/Bethlehem consumption to 12.17l/100km. Not too shabby for a perceived gas-guzzler.

Loose rocks are generously strewn across the road at various intervals along the way, especially the stretch between Katse and Lejone – we were wondering whether this is cleared at regular intervals. So travelling at night is not recommended, due to the evasive action required from time to time.

One of the casual conversations overheard, was that a convoy of members of our Katse tour group was heading towards Oxbow Lodge afterwards, turning off the tar road at Lejone, following an unpaved road which meets up with the main Butha-Buthe/Sani Pass A1 route.

This sounded very interesting and something I also would like to pursue in the near future, so once home, I studied this route via Google Earth.  All I can say is: “Paper is patient”. It would be advisable to not attempt this by yourself. And don’t forget the tow rope, just in case.

All in all, a very pleasant outing, poor weather in spite.

Will we go again? Yes, definitely, but only if the weather is even worse – when it snows….