By Rosh Sewpersad | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.nirvanafynbos.co.za
The Kingdom of Lesotho is a small, mountainous country located in the heights of the Drakensberg mountain range that forms an escarpment dividing the east coast of South Africa from the interior. These majestic rolling hills and mountains reveal varied landscapes from gently-swaying grasslands to rocky cliffs and plateaus to giant boulders and overhangs and, always, the all-encompassing sky.
Winters are bitterly cold, bringing much snow that turn into many water courses, steeps and rivers in summer. At this altitude, the air is bracingly pure, the landscapes loom large, and the feeling is one of wide open space, where time stood still.
Tony and I, both experienced horsemen, first heard of Khotso Horse Trails from our fellow horse lovers Isabel and Lloyd, who successfully undertook a cross-continental horse ride in aid of horse welfare. We mentioned our love of trail riding to them, and that all our holidays, when we can afford to take one, involved horse riding. Lloyd immediately recommended Khotso. This idea was put on hold for at least 2 years due to our own constraints running our nature reserve on the West Coast when, by chance, we came across an article in the Sunday newspaper mentioning Khotso again. Serendipity.
From Cape Town, it’s a 2 hour flight to Durban, and then a straightforward, ever-upward drive to Underberg. At Khotso, we were welcomed by our engaging host – strapping, young English adventurer Adrian, who is brimming with interesting anecdotes and facts. The sense of excitement was palpable as the penny dropped for Tony and me – we were here and we’d be setting off in the morning!
TThe following morning, clear and warm, saw us driving to the South Africa-Lesotho border with Eric, our local guide, and horses in tow. Excited to meet our horses nose-to-nose for the first time, I must admit we were initially a tad disappointed at first sight. But our opinion of these hardy Basotho ponies would soon change. After our passports were stamped, we mounted, secure in trail saddles, with our belongings packed in saddlebags, and off we set.
The change in landscape and sensation was immediate. A paved and fenced off border control point gave way to grass-covered hills ringed by mountains, with no signs of other humans in sight, save for our well-worn footpath. And the horses knew exactly what to do – crossing fast flowing streams strewn with loose boulders and tackling steep ascents and descents. It soon became apparent to us to entrust the decision-making to our sure-footed, hardworking, honest horses.
Our first day saw us following steep trails, hugging mountain contours with sheer drops and, at some points, dismounting to lead the horses over boulders, literally jumping from rock to rock and scrambling over shale paths. Photo opportunities abound, although pictures cannot do justice to the multi-layered, depth of landscapes. We also encountered antelope, baboons and a multitude of birds.
A bracing canter through grassy hills dotted with lunar boulders led us to our beautifully-located home base, Sehlabathebe National Park. Welcomed by a large herd of resident horses, we allowed our horses a well-deserved rest and settled in for a night at the gas-powered king’s chalet, reflecting on an exhilarating day with Eric, our guide. We fell asleep surrounded by the sounds of horses, with our thoughts galloping wildly imagining what the next day held in store. What was to be found on the other side of those beckoning hills?
A few splutters of rain didn’t deter us after a sustaining breakfast of Jungle Oats. A quick fry up of bacon and cheese sandwiches packed into our saddlebags, and we were away. We swopped horses for fun. Myself on Jackie, Tony on Storm and Eric on HP. Vast swathes of burnt veld on either side of the mountain passes had our noses and eyes protesting. Icy wind sweeping up the mountain side carried the smell of burnt earth and a sense of primeval desolation. I found myself in a meditative state, in tune with my horse, and truly felt a connection with generations of Basotho who had worn these trails. Soon the landscape gave way to hair-raising yet spectacular and exhilarating shale ledges, across which our brave steeds skilfully picked our way. The distant lowing of cow bells in the depths below us, finally gave way to natural terraces where, in a pastoral scene, herdsmen clad in traditional blankets, accompanied by their sheepdogs, drove sheep across the river, amongst whom we also crossed.
Breathtaken by the quality of the experience, we arrived at a rock overhang for lunch. Amongst goats and ancient Bushman rock art, accompanied by the sounds of braying goats and bubbling streams, a better repast of bacon and cheese sandwiches, followed by tepid tea, could not be had.
Numerous rock overhangs feature dry stone shelters built and used by shepherds in adverse weather conditions. Unfortunately some of the rock art has been severely damaged by successive generations of fire made in these shelters. Nonetheless, this may truly be the highlight of the trail for me.
Lesotho is a country where herds of Basotho horses roam the landscape, grazing freely along with sheep, donkeys, goats and cattle. Small villages with rock and adobe houses were an opportunity to meet and mingle with locals. Friendly dogs usually heralded our approach. White flags flapping in the breeze indicated the availability of the traditional brew, tasting of fermenting porridge, but packing a lingering kick against the cold and our re-ascent of the ledges. Incongruously, we came across a Chinese shop, the only trader, in the remote village of Mavuka, where Tony distributed lollipops to local schoolchildren.
A welcome coal fire and handmade bread back at the chalet tempered the bitterly cold nights. Joy was lying wrapped in blankets on plush couches contemplating the misty peaks, with book and Old Brown Sherry in hand.
Our final day saw us criss-crossing the landscape at various paces, with numerous river crossings, eventually leading to a spectacular waterfall where we had lunch. A few fast canters over rolling grassy rises, snug in my coat, had me feeling like a Mongolian on the steppes. Passing the abandoned Lesotho border post in the middle of nowhere truly brought the isolation of the area into focus, and the privilege of having been able to traverse this land in such a down-to-earth manner.
What goes up, must come down, and that is what we did – rock-hopping and scrambling in places, as we descended back to the South African border. Troops of baboon hailed our passing – a delightful end to a memorable experience.
– Ensure you have a valid passport.
– Pack a warm, wind-and-waterproof jacket, hat, scarf and gloves.
– A sunhat should have string to prevent it from blowing away.
– Travel light.
– Your riding shoes must have grip.
– Pack munchies – you can always distribute leftovers to children you pass.
– You can stock up beforehand at the Spar in Underberg.