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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Child from a village in the Lesotho High Lands
April 04, 2007

The Land that time forgot

I would like to tell you a story about the land that time forgot, while you read this fable, please feel free to whistle the tune to “The Man From Snowy River” or “Raw Hide”, we did. It is a bit long so you may want to grab a cuppa or a cold beer and pull up a comfy chair...

As it turns out, the only way to see the real Lesotho is by foot or by pony, and in a moment of madness we signed our selves up for a six day, five night pony trek from Malealea up into the high country, through several of the mountain villages, taking in the highest waterfall in southern Africa before looping back around to Malealea. Whilst Donna comes from a horse riding family, neither of us have any real horse experience.

To start with I feel its a little de-emasculating to call it a Pony Trek, in reality the ponies are full size horses. For our trek, the kind folks at the Malealea Lodge lined up Tsepo Eric Ranotsi, a local Bosotho from the nearby village to provide our horses and guide us on our adventure. Donna’s beast was suitably called Black Power, a stubborn mare that was destined to plod along at the back of the pack, my horse was Mashai, a gelding who was born to lead. As we were self catering and had to basically bring along everything we would need for the six days we were accompanied for the journey by a pack horse fully laden with our gear.

Lachie never mentioned that horse riding was a great way to get shaved legs, intersting...

Lesotho Pony Trek Day 1
As the sun rose over the Gates of Paradise, clear skies greeted us for our first morning in the saddle. After a quick bowl of weetbix and that all important last cup of coffee, we mounted up and moved slowly out of the yard. The day promised six hours of riding as we endeavored to cover 15—20 km’s to our stop for the evening, the small village of Sekoting.

After a brisk 30 minute ride through the surrounding plains we unexpectedly and with little warning plunged down a steep ravine, the mountain ponies shore footed as they walked steadfastly down a small track, clattering over rocks, with the occasional piece of debris tumbling down to the river below. With no prior warning of the descent, all Eric told us to do was hold on, lean back, and push your feet forward. Sound advice from someone was been riding since he was four, even if he sports a pair of gumboots for riding shoes.

The horses were sweating and panting by the time we reached the valley floor and were all to keen to drop their heads for a drink from the icy stream. After a short break we pushed on, straight up the opposite side of the valley, the horses jumping up the steep pass, sometimes the gravel track gave way to clean smooth rock, other times we were pushing through tangled undergrowth. Eventually we came out at the top and into a village where we stopped for morning tea to wipe the sweat from our hands and to calm our nerves. As part of the true bush experience ablutions were done behind a tree.

With the scene set for an amazing adventure, (or as Eric liked to put it, if we made it through the first section, we should be alright for the rest of the trip) the remainder of the day was similar to the first two hours. Lesotho is not called the Kingdom in the Sky for nothing, we ended up fording several rivers and streams, while constantly climbing higher and higher into the mountains, all sign of civilisation disappearing behind us.

Without helmets, our only thoughts of safety were as we climbed up and down the near vertical mountain sides, zig zagging our way along. Some sections were so steep the horses had to jump up the rocks. Little did we know it the beasts underneath us were packed full of attitude as much as muscle. On one section we were winding our way up a hill to stop for lunch, Donna’s horse tried to move in front of mine, as she drew level mine swiped out, biting it on the neck. A few strides later her’s kicked out with its back leg in retaliation, lightly contacting with my leg and knee.

As the sun started its downward descent and the clouds started darkening, the village of Sekoting appeared on the horizon. The landscape had changed dramatically from that of the morning. Gone were the trees and forests of the lowlands, replaced instead by low shrubs and cactus plants. Fields stepped their way up the mountain slopes, planted with wheat and maize, and the occasional crop of sourgum for the local beer.

As we finally rode into Sekoting, we found it to be deserted, the whole village was high up on a surrounding hill, reaping their crop of wheat before the rains came. Eric took care of the horses while we moved the gear into our home for the night. A small stone hut, thatched with straw and cowdung for a floor. Quite prestigiously we found out it was owned by the Chief whom we met later that evening, a wrinkled old man who welcomed us into his community.

It was not until the sun had set that all the villagers came down from the hills for the evening, with no electricity, and very little wood for burning, Sekoting was quiet by 7pm. We were left with a starry sky as we cooked up our dinner for the evening, and as the candle flickered, we were in bed and sleeping by 8.

Lesotho Pony Trek Day 2
Today we rose at 7am to be ready by 8am. With the weather looking like rain we wanted to cover as much ground as possible before we got drenched. We ended up leaving by 8:30am which was extremely slow considering there were no showers. Facilities are very very basic, we cooked the previous evening on a gas stove, carting the gas bottle with us on the back of the pack horse, the hut had some cups and bowls, a couple of pots and a kettle. Eric fetched fresh mountain water from a spring which we used to cook and wash with, we slept on thin mattresses thrown onto to the floor of the hut.

When we finally hit the trail it was with some pain, dismounting yesterday evening  was fine, but this morning, the legs were sore, the knees were sore, and the inner thighs were bruised from rubbing against the saddle buckles  After a little stretching the pain eased and we headed again into the hills.

Our initial ride was across the amazingly fertile valley floor, while yesterday all the villages had been in the fields working, this morning they were all in front of their huts, waving and shouting as we rode by. The kids new “bye bye” and  “sweets”. The village was not clustered together like a modern town, instead it was spread widely throughout the whole valley, each family building one or two huts closely together, yet well away from their neighbors. The richer families also had a small stone kraal to keep their animals in the evenings.

Basotho life is fairly simple, they work the fields, basically farming only enough to survive the year. They cook in their huts, cooking with green shrubby bushes which causes smoke to billow out of the doorway. The kids would sleep in the “cooking hut”, the parents in the newer cleaner hut (obviously only the more well off).

On the far side of the valley floor, we climbed up and over a mountain pass, with no track to follow we went straight up a rocky river bed, clearly used only when it was flooding. As we neared the top we were confronted with a herd of cattle being pushed down the mountain by a group of herd boys, closely followed by sheep, and a small herd of long haired mountain goats.

It was a fast paced morning, the cliffs were steep and the valleys small, so we managed to cross three peaks before coming out into a long green valley, a small stream running the length of it, and sheep and goats lined the lower mountain sides on either side. It was here that we dismounted to stop for lunch. Eric our guide had sharp enough eyes to spot the very rare Spiral Aloe plant growing in the think grasses. And while we ate, surrounded by nothing but the silence of nature, we were surprised by a lone shepherd boy who joined us for a chat and an apple.

The Shepherd boys live lives so far removed from our own. They live in small stone huts, basic versions of the basotho hut, that they build in the high country at the start of a season to protect them from the elements. They live off Mealie Meal Pap, wearing the same thing day in day out, their prized possession being their blanket, which they wear 24hrs a day, no matter what the weather.

Due to the long morning’s ride, Eric estimated we had about two and half to three hours riding left, and with the dark clouds moving over us he thought we would make it before the rains came. It was not 30mins though before we donned our rain coats and the first light drizzle started to fall.

This cleared briefly for an hour or so, then with approximately 30 minutes to go before we hit Kitane, the sky opened and the rain fell. We pushed on through for about 10-15 minutes before it started hailing, spurring the horses on Eric took us into a small village on the side of a mountain slope, Pulling up at the nearest hut he asked the owner if we could step inside till the rain passed. The owner was great, as we quickly dismounted, he through covers over our saddles to keep them dry, while his wife welcomed us into their hut.

The hut was very small, yet remarkably clean, a few blankets were piled into one corner, presumably for them to sleep in. As she cleared some space I noticed two small white eyes peering at me from the darkness, when the owner offered me a chair (basically a small stool) to sit on, I noticed not one, but four small children huddled in the corner of the room. Pretty soon all nine of us were sheltered in this small hut while the rain and hail belted down outside.

When the rain finally eased to a gentle drizzle we re-mounted for the final ride to Ketane, this was one of the scariest trips as rode the horses around a mountain side, a wet slippery path etched into the mountain which dropped away below us. Finally we arrived in the village where Eric ushered us under cover while he attempted to find the local chief to ask for permission for us to stay the night.

Georgina, the Chief’s wife was great, after showing us into our hut for the night she brought out some blankets to wrap Donna in to keep her warm. Then the sun broke through the clouds and we all stood out side, steaming in the warmth as we dried off from the drenching we had had.

After a quick cuppa and a bite to eat the chief organized for one her herd boys to guide us to the local waterfall. Vincent took us around the mountain across some crazy path ways, to a steep descent. After maybe an hour of walking we came in sight of an amazing waterfall. Unfortunately to get to the bottom was a three hour walk down a crazy steep valley. I a’m sure Vincent could have managed the walk in no time, these herd boys are like mountain goats, with his gum boots, blanket and stick, he jumps up and down, across rocks and slippery pathways, without a thought or a worry.

Our last view for the afternoon before heading back to the huts for the evening was two small mountain goats, perched halfway down a sheer cliff, each standing on a small rocky outcrop. Lesotho is an amazing country, and today was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. The country is still raw, set in the old ways, the people are friendly and hospitable, which is such a contrast to our previous six weeks in South Africa. Courteous, whenever we pass someone, no matter if they are on the same pathway as us, or 200 meters away perched on the precipice of a mountain, greetings are hailed back and forth, long after we have passed conversation transpires in a series of calls and chants.



Lesotho Pony Trek Day 3
Yet another early start, after getting dumped on yesterday we decided to be up and out by 8am sharp, thankfully we awoke to clear blue skies and a gentle breeze. After a quick bite to eat and that all important cup of tea (how English) we set off into the hills, this time taking a completely new path. Last night Eric and Georgina, the village chief, had spent a good hour babbling away over this new path that had been found linking Ketane with Semongkong, it was supposedly quicker than the original method. Eric was keen to try it out and so after consulting us we gave it a wack.

Immediately we had some challenges. After yesterdays rain the paths were very slippery and as we wound our way down to the valley floor below for a river crossing, the pack horse slipped over twice, nearly going down the cliff. All Eric would say as he slapped the horse with his rope was that it was a bit sleepy this morning.

After giving the horses a drink we hit a very steep climb up the mountain side, Donna’s horse as usual held back and although Eric offered to help Donna up a few sections, she was stubborn and made it up to the top herself. Not too long into the ride we emerged out of a landscape where steep mountains tumbled down perilous cliffs to the valleys below, running with crisp spring water streams, to that of long rolling plains.

We wound our way up and through the hills till we were on top of the world. Only once getting lost, when some shepherd boys pointed back the way we came to a path spiraling up the mountain. Eventually we came out at a place Eric recognised where we stopped for a well deserved lunch.

Lunches on the trip had been pretty sedate affairs, sandwiches, fruit and biscuits were all we could manage without the help of an esky or refrigeration, beef in a can was brought, but not eaten, instead we went for cheese and jam (separate of course).

An easy two hour ride took us into the sprawling township of Semongkong. Semongkong really signifies the changes happening in Lesotho right now, on the outskirts, huts are built in the traditional style, as you move closer into town, thatched roofs are replaced by tiles, and then in the centre of the village, the houses are buildt using cinder blocks in a western style.

The final descent into town was a tricky affair. I am sure if Lachie was watching he would have winced once or twice and wished we were wearing helmets. While Eric walked the packhorse down the steepest section, my horse got the bit between its teeth and just leapt down, all I could do was hold on and lean back. Waiting patiently at the bottom I got some great footage of him then leading Donna down, followed by his own horse that had run back up to the top section.

With the town in sight, my horse just bolted for the finish line, several times I attempted to stop him, but he just kicked on anyway. Taking the lead as we rode to the lodge for the evening. Our initial impression of Semongkong lodge was not good, especially after the fantastic hospitality we had had over the last few nights. The lodge is set right in the middle of town, as opposed to Malealea which is in the middle of nowhere. After six to seven hours riding all we wanted was a hot shower and a bite to eat, instead of being courteously shown to our rooms, the lady in reception basically just grunted at us and told our guide to take us up to the backpacker lodgings. Thankfully one of the owners found us midway up the hill, and mid slander as Donna cut loose on the place, and gave us the run down, as well as organising some fresh towels and food.

At this point in time we are only half way through the trip, but are extremely thankful that we have a great guide. Clearly one of my highlights is riding along in silence for maybe 20 minutes, when Eric would turn around with a massive grin and ask if we were alright. It has been great to be outside in nature, camping in the mountain villages, and being in the absolute middle of nowhere. It was almost depressing to see that Semongkong was a township rather that a remote village. Still, after 50km’s of riding the shower was great.

Funnily enough, we assumed, like at the other villages, Eric would sleep in the guide accommodation. It i’s against Basotho custom for a single man to sleep in the same hut as a women he is not related to, so we were somewhat surprised when the owner approached us and asked if it was acceptable for him to stay in our dorm, all other accommodation was fully booked. Apparently Eric was very worried, not only because of Donna, but also because he did not want to offend us as his clients. Of course we said no problems.

That night, after a hearty feed of Mexican food we downed a few beers with the guys from Clowns without Borders. A group of guys traveling around Lesotho entertaining the children in all areas of the western Lesotho. We also managed to play a few games of pool with some of the locals who were very friendly.

Lesotho Pony Trek Day 4
After a relatively early evening (the power cuts out at 10pm), we planned on sleeping in and enjoying the comforts of a bed, yet the body clock had other ideas and by 8am we were up and about. First thing was a hearty meal of bacon and eggs washed down with a few cups of coffee. Then we walked into the town centre to resupply, even on a Sunday morning it was fairly bustling with people.

On the advice of the Lodge owners we visited the “Chinese” shops who were supposedly the best in town, procuring everything we needed, plus a few things we had not managed to find in Maseru. On the way back we ran into the Hardware store owner who was quick with a wave (one of the locals from the previous evening).

After returning to the Lodge we grabbed our guide and took a three our hike out to the Maletsunyane Falls. The longest in Southern Africa and home to the Guinness Book of Records certified longest single drop abseil in the world. Clear blue skies watched over us as we walked through empty fields, passing locals on the backs of donkeys and ponies going about their business. When we reached the viewpoint we opted out of the additional three hour hike down to the base of the falls, a rest day should be just that – a rest day.

Semonkong means place of smoke – because when the falls are fully flowing the mist rises out of the gorge like smoke.

On our final night in Semongkong, two young students from Cape Town moved into our room, three women in one room was too much for Eric who was moved into a recently vacated dorm around the corner.

Lesotho Pony Trek Day 5
Day five, our longest day in the saddle, in Basotho terms when ever we asked just how long it was, the response was – it is long. By 8:20am we were mounted and on our way out of the village. After two hours of steady riding we reached the place where we lunched yesterday, before turning off to the right towards Ribaneng. It was fast paced riding on an dirt track till 1pm and lunch, we had wound our way along a very long valley, over a pass, and up a hill that gave fantastic views of the country side.

After lunch the ride became a lot more interesting, to be honest, the riding around Semongkong was a little less exciting due to the flat nature of the hills, Donna and I clearly enjoy the excitement of the steep gorges.

After winding our way up and down a couple more mountains, we emerged onto a plateau, which after dismounting and walking gave us a birds eye view of the Ribaneng falls below us. With the rain clouds closing in we donned our rain coats and took a mad scramble down the mountain side, this time with Eric cracking the whip to get to the bottom before we were soaked. It was an adrenaline rush to be going so fast along a steep windy track.

As the first drops started to fall we pulled into the village of Ribaneng. Unfortunately two other groups had arrived before us so we were relegated to a small hut up in the middle of the village. After scrambling around and haggling we managed to put together enough gear for the evening.

The rest day had eased our muscles so at the start of the day we were not that sore, yet after riding for a good eight and half hours we were stiff, and the knees were killing from the last hour’s descent.

Lesotho Pony Trek Day 6
It has been interesting waking to the sounds of cocks crowing and donkeys braying.

During the night an animal broke into our room through the window space, and ate our bread which we had planned on eating for lunch on our final day. I was awoken by Donna freaking out, after scrambling around for a good few minutes I eventually found the head light, and after scanning around the room for a bit realised the animal had fled the scene.  I rolled over to go back to sleep, which just caused Donna to freak out again, not sure what she wanted me to do though.

On our final morning we were up by 7am and ready to leave by 7.30am, we sat around sipping hot tea while we waited for Eric to ready our horses. Our mornings entertainment was another group who had arrived on the previous day and were pissed off that the waterfall was not closer to the village and that they had to hire a guide to take them on the two hour hike. We all sat around having a good old laugh at them. In the end they did not pay the $3 for a guide and rode two days to see a waterfall which they did not end up walking to see.

Our last day in the saddle was pretty cruisy, after riding for so long we both feel pretty comfortable and capable on the mountain paths. With only a four to five hour ride ahead of us we set off in high spirits.

After heading down the mountain to a stream below we watered the horses before climbing up the opposite mountain. After two hours of threading our way up the steep path we stopped for a drink and biscuit. Within minutes of dismounting a herd of kids streamed down the mountain side. They were fascinated by us both, even more so by the camera as Donna took their pictures and showed them on the camera. They loved to touch our hands, and what began as shaking hands degenerated into some kind of game. After maybe half an hour of playing with the kids they were well worked up into a frenzy, we rode off the to they happy sounds of kids laughing and yelling “bye bye”.

The following two hours in bright sunshine was an easy jaunt across some green plains, passing women working in the fields tending the corn, and through villages of people going about the daily lives. To cap off six excellent days we were treated to a final hair raising descent into a valley, with a rough ride out the other side. When we finally dismounted at the Malealea yard, they were kind enough to upgrade our roof to a double with an en suite, fantastic after the trip.

After washing off an inch of dirt and donning what clean clothes we had left, we sent our dirty gear off to the laundry women to be cleaned, before heading to the bar for a well earned beer and some chow. Over the last week we managed to wear or use just about every item we had packed for the journey. Our only regret for the trip was not being able to take along the super zoom lens due to weight and space limitations.
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That is an awsome story, I can't believe what you guys have encountered. I'm in envy. Must be so much fun. Take care.

Darren - April 12, 2007


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