I’ve never really been a horsey type. I prefer my transport to respond predictably and promptly. Stop means stop and go means go, sort of thing. Left is left and right is right. No kicking you in the face as you load the groceries.
“But dad,” whined Mia, my typically angelic, nine-year-old daughter, “I don’t want to go hiking again. I’d rather ride.” I was online, searching for a family holiday and, as usual, the internet had led me to a list of slackpacking trails. It’s what we do as a family. We hike.
But my daughter stamped her feet and moaned about blisters, while my son Sam just glared. So I made a compromise, which is how, two weeks later, we found ourselves in the charming little town of Underberg in the Southern Drakensberg of KwaZulu-Natal, from where we would set off on a four-day expedition into Lesotho.
“You can ride or walk. Or you can do a bit of both. It’s up to you,” said Steve Black, owner of Khotso Lodge and Horse Trails, as we saddled up our Basotho ponies close to the entrance to the Maloti-Drakensberg Park. The giant transboundary park and Unesco World Heritage Site is made up of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa, and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho.
I was to ride a mare named Mzanzi while the rest of the family was assigned to Ranger, Bruce and Kuduzela. Charles Molatelle, a horsey type from Lesotho, was perched on his own steed and looked every bit the competent Mountain Kingdom horse whisperer that he is.
“I’ll be your guide,” he said. “And don’t worry, these ponies are perfect for beginners. You just have to sit on them. They’ll do the rest.”
I’m not sure how he knew we were novices. Perhaps it was the way my riding helmet had slipped to one side, or my son’s look of barely contained panic (he’d never been on a horse before). No matter, we drew confidence from Charles and off we trotted, first to Bushman’s Nek border post, where passports were stamped without us having to dismount. I’ve never gone through immigration on the back of a horse before, and this was the first of many unique experiences on our adventure into the highlands of Lesotho.
Slow and steady through the grasslands
Our trek started in a wide, grassy valley where we saw Grey Crowned Cranes, Kori Bustards, and Secretarybirds patrolling on skinny legs. Beside us, also on skinny legs, walked Steve, with the rest of our group. They had chosen to hike, rather than ride, and were easily keeping stride with the five of us on horseback. Our pace was slow and steady.
Of course, this bored my daughter no end. She rides rather well and, when no one was looking, slyly approached the front of the line and whispered to Charles that we all would like to canter. Without warning, off we went at a speed entirely unconducive to staying in the saddle. In alarm, I watched helplessly as my son clung on for dear life, legs flailing and poor little backside smacking up and down on unyielding leather.
He didn’t quite scream, I’ll give him that, but his forlorn despairing sounds were not easy to hear. Mercifully it came to an end when Sam fell off and lay moaning and crumpled in a fetal position in the grass. “I’m walking with the boys,” is all he said.
But that didn’t last long, either. Sam’s only 12, and the other lads were fit and in their early 20s, and Steve himself is one of those cross-country, endurance types, a wiry man who thinks nothing of trail running a few hundred kilometres. An hour or so later, on a particularly steep uphill segment, Sam announced that his legs were too short to keep up, and that he would retry some horseback.
But soon we all began to feel quite at home in the saddle. Indeed, the horses were kind and easy. They were strong, they knew the route and, thanks to my wife Sasha telling Charles to discount any further instructions from my daughter, there were no more unprompted fits of galloping. Sam was smiling and exclaiming to the world how able he was on a horse, and how agreeable he found the experience. Must say, me too.
We had climbed to about 2 500 metres by lunchtime, when we dismounted at the edge of an escarpment and, surrounded by peaks and plateaux, feasted on sandwiches. Above us, Cape- and Bearded Vultures circled, no doubt hoping we might expire. They were left disappointed as we returned to the trail, slowly making our way through grassy meadows in the shadow of the mighty Drakensberg.
Through the official border between South Africa and Lesotho we passed, to find it now nothing more than a rusty old fence, and continued up on switchback trails through swathes of pretty flowers.
“It’s lovely up here,” said Mia, who had now cheerfully resigned herself to a sedate pace. “And so, so quiet.” Yes there’s something to be said about riding through the wilderness on horseback. No sore feet and only the sounds of silence. And those views, like towards sundown when we crested a saddle in the mountain peaks and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the hilly, green world that is rural Lesotho.
Rondavels peppered a landscape of tilled slopes, and between them wandered sheep, horses and goats. Children dressed in the signature Lesotho blankets waved and greeted us as we ambled into Thamatu village.
Modern fittings and comfortable beds
Duncan and Nikki Stewart of Thamatu Lodge were waiting to welcome us. The lodge is built on the very edge of Sehlabathebe, Lesotho’s only national park, and was our home for the next three nights.
“We wanted our camp to fit into the surroundings, and built it in the local style,” said Duncan, as Charles went about untacking our horses. A large fire was already on the go, and in the kitchen two local ladies were busy baking pot bread.
“We employed resident masons to cut the stone and bring us the bricks, and we hauled in roof thatch by the bakkie load. It’s taken us a few years to get everything up and running, but now it’s more or less complete.”
The lodge is an authentic-looking set of rondavels which, from the outside, look pretty much the same as all the other huts in the village, although inside they have plastered walls, modern fittings and comfortable beds.
Around the fire that evening, we enjoyed steak and wine while Duncan and Steve gave us some background to the camp.
“I’ve been running horse trails into Lesotho for more than a decade,” said Steve, “but we have always needed reliable and comfortable lodging for hikers and riders.” Duncan chipped in that his background was rural development projects. “So we partnered up and I took on the job of developing what you see here. It’s an end-of-the-road destination, and a great base for exploring.”
Next morning we gave our horses (and our posteriors) a bit of a break and set off on foot to a beautiful single-drop waterfall in the heart of the park. Quite a trek, about 15 kilometres return, but through picture-perfect scenery of pastures and fields surrounded by grassy hills dotted with wind-sculpted rock formations.
Jackals serenaded our hike home, as did the warning barks from small herds of grey rhebok and baboons. And come sundown, we sauntered back into the lodge where local ladies had already prepared for us a steaming potjie. Once again, we dined outside under a glittering starscape, made all the more beautiful by the lack of any artificial lighting.
Up here in Thamatu, no one has electricity.
Exploring the valley
Back on our horses the next day, we ventured into the Thamatu River gorge, to cross a labyrinth of sculpted sandstone, narrow and sheer in some places, wide and spacious in others.
“These bushman paintings have been here for centuries,” Steve explained, as we dismounted beneath a huge overhang. “Some scientists reckon they might be thousands of years old.” Sheltered from rain, the lower walls of this wave-shaped cave were covered in lustrous depictions of antelope, hunters and shamans. A snapshot of times long gone. “They look as if they were painted just a year or two ago,” said Sam as we contemplated the art.
In the kloof, dassies hopped about on the boulders, as a Black Eagle circled above, no doubt waiting for an opportunity to swoop down and grab a fuzzy ball of lunch.
We spent most of that day exploring the valley, all alone but for the wildlife and the sound of water, all of us beguiled by travel in the saddle. Certainly, I’m still of the notion that horses are not as reliable or as responsive as vehicles, but so what, quite frankly. If my horse were to pause to munch some grass and refused to acknowledge my instructions, or if it suddenly took off at a trot without asking my permission, that’s just the animal I travelled with. And at least it wasn’t a bakkie.
On our fourth and final day, as we followed the same path down from Lesotho and back into South Africa, it was sad that the bond we had all formed with our horses was about to end. “But don’t be down,” said Steve, as we unsaddled for the last time and let our new friends loose into the pastures surrounding Khotso Farm. “We have numerous trails here, and you’ll just have to come back someday for another one.” And that’s exactly what we promised ourselves to do.
Khotso Farm, Khotso Horse Trails and Thamatu Lodge www.khotso.co.za
If you liked this you may also like: A brief history of Lesotho’s Basotho pony