Horses are spectacular creatures, and I have spent most of my life admiring them from a safe distance while my horsey friends regularly broke their necks and arms and collar bones ….. Anyway, despite this guiding philosophy, seven of us found ourselves booked on a four day pony trek in Lesotho in December (myself included). When we audited the situation only one person in our group (a persuasive teen) was found to be a horse enthusiast and the rest of us were anxious and vaguely uncertain about whose idea the whole thing had been in the first place or how we had come to sign up. The guides at Malealea were soothing and reassuring: Not to worry they insisted. Most of the folk who do the treks have no riding experience. The ponies are very docile and sure footed. Just chill out, relax and leave it to the horses, they know what they are doing they said. We were assigned two fabulous guides (Michael and Phakani) each leading a packhorses, which had to carry the food, clothing, bedding etc of 4.5 people in 2 large panniers and packing light was therefor a necessity. I felt like I was preparing for an adventure race, allocating limited food and equipment into sealed packages marked days 1-4 and feeling a sense of mild panic.
Too soon the moment of truth arrived and we were ushered forward to meet our horses. It felt like an arranged marriage. I was as fretful as if it were. I was allocated a pony called Santa who was apparently a female but seemed gender neutral. I referred to her/him as “evil beast” for the first 3 days and finally (on the last day, by which time we had reached an understanding,) as “good boy”. Santa was an unusual horse which had the markings of an Nguni cow rather than a horse. From the first moment it was clear that he/she was an off-road junkie determined to find it’s own path. He/she completely refused to docilely follow the others, was hangry (hungry and angry) a lot of the time and seemed very competitive. Apparently the horses reflect the traits of their riders. I wasn’t sure I liked him/her.
We set off rather apprehensively, bumping along the relatively flat jeep track, trying to get used to our new mode of transport as quickly as possible before we headed directly down a cliff face into a flowing river and across to the other side. As we entered the river, Santa made savage thirsty lunges at the water (nearly catapulting me over his/her head), no calm sipping like the others. This frantic approach to food and drink was clearly the norm for him/her. Despite feeling no particular fondness for my steed, I was concerned about it’s health and safety. It’s complex being an empath and sitting on a horse as it labours up or down a mountain. I was overcome with guilt the whole time and kept wanting to leap off Santa on steep ups /downs (pretty much all the time) so as not to cause him/her unnecessary discomfort. Also I much preferred my feet on the ground. Fortunately there were so many beautiful crystals and agates everywhere that I could dismount at whim (although with great physical difficulty) under the guise of collecting semi precious stones. We stopped for a picnic lunch on the edge of a steep ravine and then a short detour to Ribaneng Lodge – there was afterall the pressing business of acquiring cold quarts of Maluti to attend to. Phakani and Michael were endlessly accommodating.
From the lodge we began the mother of all climbs heading up a beautiful mountain pass. Are we nearly there? We started to wonder. I jokingly told the teens that they should manage expectations and always imagine that we were headed for the very highest and furthest, altogether most remote peak, swathed in mist in the distance. Alarmingly, this turned out to be true. Every time. But first we had to traverse a hectic pass into the Misty Mountains past solemn herdsmen, standing like sentries on rocky outcrops and leaning thoughtfully on their staffs. An electric storm lit the purple sky as we toiled up the mountain and we felt much like extras in a Lord of the Rings sequel. Extraordinary peach coloured poppies unexpectedly dotted the rugged terrain and sometimes elaborate white cactus flowers, their achingly delicate blooms weirdly contrasted with the robust and spiky plant. Ragged barefoot urchins followed us up the mountain grinning and chatting and pointing the way.
And above and beyond their chatter, the lilting music of cowbells followed us (always the cowbells) as we climbed and climbed and climbed. We arrived at our overnight hut late in the afternoon just as freezing rain began to fall, and were so deeply grateful to be out of the stormy torrent that the dark thatched mud hut felt (almost) luxurious.
Later, when the rain cleared, we were able to venture outside in the beautiful early evening light, bundled up against the freezing cold. Kids from a cluster of distant huts came over to look at us in astonishment. Soon a game of “Simon Says” was in full swing, a litter of puppies emerged from under a log to join in the fun, our horses grazed peacefully nearby as our supper simmered on the gas cooker and the pain in our nether regions began to subside. All seemed right with the world and we felt surprisingly at home.
We awoke to a freezing misty day (our previous destination had been the Kalahari where the temperature was 40+’, so 5’ felt colder than it was) and after the confusion of finding all our belongings and cramming them haphazardly back into the pannier bags we set off wearing at least four layers of clothing. After another steep climb we stopped at the top of a blustery pass to add even more layers and have a snack in a desperate effort to warm up. All the horses (and Santa in particular) tried to graze at every opportunity, lunging aggressively at any inviting tuft of grass. As an efficient and focused eater myself, I felt able to relate but it remained disconcerting to have the reigns ripped out of one’s hands every couple of meters as Santa hauled his/her head down for some urgent eating.
After descending from the pass, and for much of the day thereafter we ambled along a beautiful, sheltered, lush green valley (endless eating opportunities for Santa) next to a gurgling stream. The wind died down or disappeared behind a mountain, the temperature was pleasant, the sun shone, the terrain was now much gentler and aurum lilies and bright wild flowers were everywhere. A spectacular wild looking black horse frolicked over to say hello. (I had a brief moment of feeling as if I was in a 1980’s Timotei advert until Santa broke into an excited, flirtatious trot and I almost tumbled off him/her with all the grace and beauty of a sack of cement).
We stopped for a leisurely picnic on the banks of the stream overlooking a waterfall and dozed in the sunshine as our ponies foraged happily. We were reluctantly roused by Phakani and Michael and set off again after a brief detour to show us a fabulous clump of aloes, peculiar only to that region.
On and on we went, now following a contour path until we saw a lovely village in the distance. We hoped the hamlet was our overnight stop but already knew better than to ask. Phakani was reluctant to point out our final destination, or estimate the time or distance of our daily journey. He urged us to embrace the timeless nature of the experience and insisted that we would arrive when we arrived. He was right of course, but this sort of approach is challenging for A-type personalities and we all made a conscious effort to be obediently zen-like and embrace the (often painful) journey. As we came closer to the picturesque thatch and sandstone settlement I felt as if we had stepped way back in time, possibly into the Iron Age. There is no access to this place other than on foot or pony and it showed in the simplicity of the structures and building materials and in the dress and demeanor of the people. Not far beyond the quaint village was our journeys end and we thankfully dismounted and made ourselves at home.
The teens where incredulous when we suggested a walk to a waterfall later that afternoon. “After 7 hours on a horse? Have the parents utterly lost it?” they asked each other, eyes wide with disbelief. We left them lazily lounging and (eye rolling) in our hut and followed Phakani towards the dramatic cliffs along an astounding contour path, and then down a treacherous climb to a view spot which we approached on our bellies. We peered over a precipice, hugging the ground to keep out of the strong wind and gaped in awe at the majestic waterfall plunging into a dark pool eons below. Jeepers. And that waterfall just keeps performing every day with nobody to admire it. It was so worth the walk/leopard crawl. We resolved to regale the teens with endless tales of regret for having missed it. On the way home, still breathless with awe, I was disconcerted to come across two grinning, ragged, knife wielding girl-children. They had a distinctly wild glint in their eyes, mirrored (also) in their (substantial) blades. I found it mildly disturbing. Phakani chuckled and reassured me that they were off to reap wild spinach. Still, I was relieved, that I had not yet identified a suitable alternative to the long drop when they appeared and that they didn’t come across me with my buttocks exposed – I feared they would have been unable to resist the temptation of slicing off a plump haunch to supplement their spinach dinner.
In our absence Michael had managed to conjure up some more quarts (of Castle this time). How? HOW? I was relieved and pleased that once again I would not be obliged to share my rapidly dwindling ration of red wine. We sat on the steps of our hut in the setting sunlight, cradling tin mugs of beer, engaging with our neighbour’s small, delightful children, admiring their baby goat and studiously avoiding the long drop where Peter had recently had a bad experience: the chimney pipe, through some quirk of engineering, was sucking instead of blowing. This resulted in random updrafts of air rushing dangerously from the bowels of the long drop, sometimes with disastrous effect. A used wad of toilet paper had (for example) assaulted Peter from below, landing damp side down on the back of his head while he was going about his business. He was now suffering from PTSD and we were hysterical with mirth but also very anxious about any future need to ablute. I decided the lush aurum lily patch would make an excellent alternative.
The children were called home to supper and we couldn’t help but notice how smart and engaged they were. We wondered what access they had to educational opportunities and speculated about what successes they may achieve with first world opportunities. This led to a heated discussion around the nature of success and we concurred, eventually, that remaining on their mountain, raising a happy healthy family, sustainably producing their own food, not endlessly consuming would make them arguably more successful than being rocket scientists. But what about having a choice? By then the beer had run out, it was time for bed, and we didn’t know all the answers….
I woke in the early hours of the morning to the noise of an A380 landing and felt some moments of anxiety before I realised it was the wind. I immediately felt renewed anxiety. There was a gale roaring outside, doing its utmost to tear our flimsy hut off the cliffs and hurl it over the precipice. I lay in my sleeping bag shivering and wondering what the day would hold. Weather conditions had been pretty extreme already but this was in another league and at an altitude of nearly 3000m anything could happen meteorlogically. Our horses were skittish and unhappy as they were rounded up (so were we so we couldn’t blame them), tending to shy or panic every time they were smacked in the shins or elsewhere by anything that was not nailed down. Despite being mid summer, it was even more freezing than the previous morning and this time we really put on every mismatched item of clothing in our saddle bags. Our twisting, turning route meant that sometimes the wind machine was suddenly blocked by a mountain and it was as if the gale had (mercifully) been switched off. This, although very pleasant, quiet and suddenly warm, meant that we were equally suddenly rendered overdressed and a heat fit would often ensue. Sandy’s was the most impressive: He had his rain jacket on as an outer layer and for some reason, (possibly related to his riding helmet and jacket hood), became trapped in the outer layer of his rainwear, was accordingly unable to remove any of the fleecy layers below and had a very impressive raincoat tantrum complete with groaning, frothing and arm flaying. This greatly improved the collective mood of the teens especially – nothing like the joy of another’s discomfort or misfortune. Of course he was no sooner out of his raincoat and we moved out of the lee of the mountain back into the teeth of the freezing gale and the entire undressing process had to be reversed (while balancing on the back of Sonny Boy). Fun and games.
Sandy staged a comeback by being especially exasperating, jostling for position, annoying the teens by insinuating Sonny Boy between their horses and goading everyone with his annoying little switch. Sonny Boy was subversive, had a mean streak and was prone to excessive flatulence. Accordingly everyone was reluctant to be positioned anywhere near him. That thing I said about horses being like their riders…that.
For the entire morning there was no sign of life other than the odd donkey or a distant herdsman and we felt as if we were all alone at the top of the world. We came eventually to a sheltered valley and decamped for lunch in the most exquisite field in the world. It seemed to be entirely carpeted in tiny yellow daisies, springy moss and grass, an abundance of clover and dainty purple wild flowers. Lazy bees and bumblebees buzzed contentedly around us, the sun shone brightly, the gale had been switched off again and in the distance was the sound of cowbells and a gurgling stream. A day of mood swings for sure. We could hardly believe we were in the same place as we had been an hour ago. Phakani decreed that we would have an extended lunch break to allow the horses to feed and so we settled down gleefully to picnic and nap in the fragrant grass. We feasted on delicious wraps, biltong and dried fruit, and washed it all down with alternate swigs of condensed milk and spring water. It felt like being in an Enid Blyton story, the Secret 7 perhaps? Soon we were all snoring contentedly, lulled by the sound of the bees and the rhythmic chomping of the horses jaws.
We were reluctantly roused for a walk to another breathtaking (though life threatening) waterfall view point. The teens covered their eyes while the dad’s skipped provocatively around the edges of yet another precipice, risking death for the perfect shot. Wendy and I (the long suffering moms) rolled our eyes and ignored them (having found they got quickly bored with risk taking if we stopped shrieking and imploring them to wear safety gear).
To my great relief the massive, rocky descent into the next over night village was to be done on foot. In fact the horses had their reigns tied to the stirrups and were encouraged to make their own way down the mountain with us bringing up the rear and free to pick up crystals to our hearts content. I was elated to be on foot, relieved to be descending to a less extreme altitude but forlorn to leave the wilderness we had had almost entirely to ourselves. The village which was our destination for the evening was a veritable tourist Mecca with two other sets of guides and pony trekkers with whom to swap news and war stories. The teens went off to the river to swim and Pete and I decided to run to the waterfall and pool we had admired from above before we began our descent. We needed to do it fast if we were going to be back before nightfall. The run was worth it on every level, especially for the opportunity to stretch our legs, get some brilliant photos and frolic in the icy pool to remove the grime of the last 3 days.
We returned as the sun was setting, the hilarious and quirky Angora goats were being herded into their kraal in front of our hut, and the quarts of Maluti were being delivered by our enterprising guides. Phakani served us a starter of pap and nettles (there was a mixed response to this local cuisine) while we chatted and drew pictures with the village children and queued for the gas cooker. We were beginning to feel some nostalgia associated with the fact that this was our last night in the wilderness. Peter put an end to any melancholy by initiating a sack race (in his sleeping bags) just before bed time. Stormin Norman Pete inadvertently triggered operation dust storm from pogo-ing around on the dried mud floor. Soon we were all choking and sneezing and manifesting alarming allergic reactions. Mission accomplished. No more nostalgia. We fell asleep to the sound of nose blowing while Sandy and Pete tried to outdo each other with horse idioms and proverbs: He’s a dark horse! Don’t kick a gift horse in the mouth I say! No point in closing the stable door after the horse has bolted… etc etc they were delighted with their cleverness and their guffaws mingled with the more subtle noise of teen congestion.
We were woken before dawn (again) this time by the bizarre goats, (most of which had escaped their makeshift enclosure long before the arrival of the shepherd). As they sensed his approach in the distance they were all (like naughty kids) tumbling over each other in an effort to return to the kraal as if they had been there all along, obediently waiting to be let out. The horses (possibly influenced by the dodgy goats) had also all wondered off on various frolics of their own and were half way up a mountain. Phakani and Michael had been missioning since first light in an effort to retrieve them. As I stiffly clambered onto Santa’s back, it was hard to believe that this was our last day. Despite finding the riding terrifying sometimes and both physically painful and challenging, I had by now made peace with Santa. I realised that he/she was in fact a brilliant pathfinder, who wasn’t intent on murdering us both and we now had arrived at a place of (grudging) mutual respect.
Every day of our trek had a distinctly different quality and the last day (through a combination of the terrain, surroundings and atmosphere) created the distinct impression of being pilgrims on the Spanish Camino de Santiago. We passed through a number of villages, admired the astounding sandstone rock formation, noticed the very different and more lush vegetation 1000 meters lower than the day before. The horses were elated, they seemed to love the activity and stimulation of the villages and were no doubt excited and relieved to be heading home. We stopped at a remarkable spring gushing straight from the mountainside under a stone, and stood in line with the village children to refill our water bottles. What a simple and satisfying ritual it would be to do that every day.
We journeyed on and on, passing a young mother and sturdy granny taking it in turns to carry an extraordinarily beautiful, plump baby boy child. He was literally glowing with good health. They all beamed at us and said they were taking the child to the clinic, a long walk away. (We imagined the visit was to show him off rather than for an intervention in respect of any ailment.)
Sandy continued to jostle for position with the still flatulent Sonny Boy and the teens began to tire of his antics and make plans put him in his place. They needn’t have bothered because Sonny Boy was a step ahead and felt it was time to put his foot down with his annoying human. As we approached our lunch stop, Sonny Boy went on strike and simply sat down in protest. With Sandy on his back, (feeling rather foolish). The guides were incredulous, they had never witnessed anything like this from their long suffering herd. We were convinced the poor horse was injured, but he had simply had enough and was perfectly happy to continue as long as the journey didn’t involve Sandy.
By now, in an effort to allow us the experience of all the seasons in 4 days, the day was boiling hot and we began to fantasize about our arrival back at the oasis that is Malealea. Images of icy rock shandy for the teens and beer shandy for us began to swim before our eyes. There was one enormous descent to the river valley we had crossed on day 1, followed by another enormous climb out of the same gorge and soon our destination was in sight. The ponies were sedate and controlled to the very end, and as I dismounted (with difficulty) for the last time, I felt a mini twinge of nostalgia and even fondness for my Santa.
Suddenly the billboard I had noticed at the Lesotho border post made sense to me: “Go in peace,” it said. And that’s exactly what we had done for the last 4 days.