Into a wilderness
By Chris Westphal
Saturday, January 30, 2010
In the back of a pickup truck, with a fully loaded horse trailer rattling behind, we headed from Underburg, South Africa, toward the Lesotho border.
The last 20-some miles were on a well-maintained gravel road that passed a couple of country club-style family resorts replete with putting greens and play areas.
Our destination was Bushman’s Nek — Boesmansnek — the Lesotho border crossing where we would begin a three-day ride into the spectacular Sehlabathebe National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site since the 1970s, owing to the abundant wildlife, the spectacular geology and the presence of some 65 sites where ancient Bushman cave paintings have been discovered.
Lesotho is surrounded entirely by South Africa, though it’s never a part of it. Its lowest point is some 4,593 feet above sea level, and the majority of the population live at nearly 6,000 feet. Appropriately, the constitutional monarchy — among the poorest countries in the world — is known as “The Mountain Kingdom.”
Our guide was Steve Black, 55, owner of the Khotso Ranch in Underberg, and something of a legendary figure in the area. He has a herd of about 100 horses and 300 sheep and, among the Basotho, the tribe that inhabits Lesotho, Black is known as “Mountain Man.”
The title is well-deserved. Black speaks Sasotho, the native language, and has trekked across the country on bicycle, horseback and foot for more than 20 years, often in pursuit of sheep and horse rustlers and almost always successful in retrieving his livestock.
Black is, to put it mildly, an extraordinary athlete. Last year, he completed an 1,100-kilometer cross-country run in 22 days; the equivalent of 26 marathons, the event included swimming across 20 rivers, some of them infested with the vicious Zambezie shark.
And, yes, of course he’s a skilled horseman, too.
Having not been on a horse in three years, I was concerned that someone with such superhuman endurance would leave me, literally, in the dust. But as we saddled up and rode the 200 yards to the border crossing, Black was the soul of patience and humility.
Our party consisted of Steve; his wife, Lulu; one of Khotso’s employees, Cecily; and Anna, who was exploring activities for Outlook Expeditions, a UK organization that leads adventure and service travel for British high school students.
Just yards past the border, we were in pristine wilderness and it was clear why Black loves leading trips here. Flanked by the soaring Thaba Ntsu mountains, the Nuamenkane River meanders through a valley alive with wildflowers. Within a couple of miles, we had forded the river a half-dozen times as we slowly progressed up the valley.
Then we began climbing. Strewn with rocks and boulders, the trail switchbacked perhaps 1,000 vertical feet, a challenging climb at sea level, but this was starting at close to 6,000 feet.
Our horses were unshod — better for them to find purchase on the rugged terrain and a practical consideration, since finding a farrier in such a remote area would be impossible.
Though the horses were amazingly sure-footed — they leaped effortlessly up craggy, rock-carved steps as high as 2 feet — the climb was difficult for them and dangerous for the rider, so we dismounted and led the animals, coaxing them up the steep and sometimes slippery trail for a mile or so, until we reached a grassy plateau.
After a brief lunch, we were on horseback again, soon crossing another meadow dotted with shallow pools and dramatic rock formations.
The elevation increased gradually as we rode through grassy meadows toward the lodge, which finally came into view.
I had expected a rustic retreat but instead saw a modern frame building. It dates from the 1970s, and was originally constructed as a presidential retreat and is now part of the national park.
The lodge, tended by two full-time attendants, was surprisingly luxurious, with large bedrooms and bathrooms, incongruously ornate furniture, a fully-equipped kitchen, and a coal-burning fireplace.
Light was provided by gas fixtures, so despite the bitter cold, I was advised to sleep with a window open in case of gas leaks.
We were on the trail by 9 the next morning, moving over a 7,500-foot pass visible from the lodge.
We rode over rolling hills and as we approached another pass, a young boy sat on a rocky outcropping, watching his family’s small flock of angora goats, whose wool is an important component of the local economy.
The boy was probably about 12 and had only a heavy wool blanket to keep warm. Black said he would probably spend days away from his village tending the flock, and attend school only sporadically.
Soon, the tiny village of Thamathu came into view. It consisted of a few dozen round thatched huts made of stone, one of them under construction, indicating that the village is thriving.
Tidy fields of wheat and maize cover the distant rolling hills. Subsistence farming is a key component of the Lesotho economy, and it is an enterprise little changed over the past few centuries.
Fields are tilled and sown by hand, and the wheat is harvested with scythes and tied into bundles to dry.
Wheat and chaff are separated by beating the stalks and throwing them up into the air so the heavier grain falls to the ground.
Donkeys pack out the grain, and the stalks are used to thatch the roofs.
We stopped at a small store — one of the few buildings with a corrugated metal roof — and bought soft drinks, then continued past more rolling fields toward the Lequo River basin.
Paintings of the Bushmen
Here, giant boulders have fallen from the craggy bluffs, and dozens of caves line the creek. Many caves display ancient paintings by the Bushmen, who for 10,000 years inhabited this and many other areas of Southern Africa before the simultaneous appearance of European settlers and the mass migrations of the Bantu peoples from other parts of Africa.
Painted with pulverized stone mixed with blood, the paintings are a rusty red, and are 2,000 to 4,000 years old, Black said.
They are renditions of ancient hunts, groups of stick-figure men with bows and arrows, stalking antelopes and lions.
Shepherds seek refuge in the caves but are protective of the paintings.
After lunch, we rode through the valley, dodging around the giant boulders and crossing and recrossing the swiftly moving creek.
As we walked, storm clouds gathered. High winds, biting cold and vicious thunderstorms regularly lash the area, and every year dozens of people are killed by lightning.
Coming out of the valley, we moved again toward higher elevations, keeping a steady eye on the sky in case lightning threatened.
End of a long day
Around 4, we returned to the lodge for a hot meal and to share talk of the day’s adventures.
It had been seven hours in the saddle that day, and the next morning as we mounted up for the 15-mile return ride, I began questioning whether I could make it.
My inexperience on horseback led me to making the mistake of holding onto the saddle when the horse trotted or galloped, and as a result, my back was in agony.
The morning was foggy, and I thought naively that we’d move at a slower pace due to the limited visibility.
We took a slightly different route back than we did in, heading uphill and across a meadow.
Finding rhythm to ride
We crossed several creeks, then emerged onto a stream-laced meadow.
As we continued on, my hope of a gentle walk to the trailhead was squashed as we broke into a brisk canter. The bouncing and jostling were too much, and I could no longer hold on to the saddle; I finally let go.
Though it took effort, I found to my surprise that I didn’t fall off. What’s more, I seemed to find the rhythm of the horse’s stride, and managed at least briefly to rise and fall in time to it.
Pain is a good teacher.
Soon, we were again headed down the Nkamenkane River toward the border.
In total, the ride had been 40 to 45 miles over three days, but as we re-entered South Africa and walked our horses on the smooth, gravel-paved road toward the horse trailer, it seemed that we had crossed several centuries as well.
About the author
A writer who creates biographies for storyzon.com (http://www.storyzon.com), Chris Westphal of Ojai did not plan the three-day horseback ride through the remote region of South Africa. Here is how it came to pass, in his own words:
“I was in a little rondavel, and my arrival there had been entirely by chance.
“I had come to the area with Storyzon.com to work on a biography about Sister Abegail Ntleko, known as the Mother Teresa of South Africa. Among other accomplishments, Sr. Abegail, 76, founded Clouds of Hope, an orphanage that cares for some 72 AIDS orphans and is located in Underberg.
“Khotso was a convenient place to stay, and after the work with Sr. Abegail was finished, I had another several days on my own in the country.
“Utterly exceeding my skills and stamina as a horseman by riding some 50 miles in three days — while seeing a unique part of the world — seemed infinitely better than going to a game park or hitting the beaches near Durban.”
About the guide
Westphal elaborates on the life of his remarkable guide, Steve Black, 55:
“Born in Zimbabwe, Black has always been a runner. As a child, he lived some 13 kilometers from his school, and ran or biked there and back every day.
“He moved with his family to South Africa at the age of 11, and expanded his athletic repertoire somewhat: With his brother he was a competitive kayaker, and in his 20s he spent several years living on the coast and surfing every day.
“But distance running has remained his passion, and his Khotso Ranch — located at the foot of the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains some three hours from Durban — is a cross-country runner’s dream, with terrain ranging from gently rolling hills to long meandering riverbeds, and steep craggy mountains.
“The ranch was originally in the family of his late wife, Eve, who passed away in 2003, and Black operates it with his current wife, Lulu.
“Part working ranch, part B&B, Khotso has dorm rooms for travelers of the backpack set, several charming thatched-roof “rondavel” bungalows and a huge log cabin that sleeps 25.”