To give myself credit, I had absolutely no idea what was about to take place. When I arrived I thought I was going deep into the Lesotho mountains in the luxury of a 4×4 to look for stolen horses. To learn about the ongoing stock theft from South African farms into Lesotho and the tragic fate of these horses, most often death. Though I acquired plenty of information about this issue, looking for stolen horses would not be the focus of this trip and would be saved for another time. Somehow and in hindsight, stupidly, I had got the memo completely wrong! I’d be doing something entirely different.
The man who would be responsible for this impromptu adventure, is Mr Steve Black, owner of Khotso Horse Trails in Underberg. I’ve since learned that Mr Steve Black hardly ever uses ‘wheels’ as a mode of transport and is the real life, living version of ‘Forrest Gump.’ This man will wake up one day, put on his running shoes and on the spur
of the moment, decide to run across the entire country or run up the Drakensberg mountains into Lesotho with few supplies for days on end in search of stolen horses. And if he’s not on foot, he’s on horseback!
And so I ask myself, was it really any surprise that after 20 years, today was the day that I’d be presented with a smallish Basotho pony named ‘Flash’ as my mode of transport into the Kingdom of the sky? That we’d be doing the Khotso horse trek into Lesotho, travelling 28 kilometers up the Bushman’s nek Pass on a rocky, most spectacular foot trail?
Don’t knock this down to nothing. This is someone who has not been on a horse for a very long time; not stretched their thigh muscles to ‘that height’ for so long that they needed help to lift the actual hiking boot into the stirrup. On top of that, the hiking boot itself had been pulled out from the depths of a dark cupboard, a hibernated pair of boots from way back in the late 90’s. This was their big comeback!
We’d be doing a 3 day horse trek into Lesotho and back to South Africa via Bushman’s Nek border post. There would be Mr Steve Black, our most adventurous and magnificent story-teller guide, a horse-crazy German Ambassador, a Travel blogger/sail boat maker/pirate dodger and a hardcore horse trainer who gets bucked off wild horses for a living. And me….
We set off around 10am, stamped our passports and trotted out into the Drakensberg wilderness. I practiced my trot, remembering the days I’d grown up on horseback, rising up and down in time with the Basotho pony’s steady pace, leaving behind ‘my everyday’ and following my new trek buddies up into the mountains and into the ‘now.’
I soon realized that this is not one of those lightweight ‘resort’ horseback experiences; this is a proper adventure. It’s a challenge. This is ‘you’ on a horse that must navigate the rocky terrain. This is ‘you’ who must duck beneath the protea bush or lead your horse up or down when it gets too steep. This is ‘you’ who must ride with confidence, hooves thundering across the Lesotho plains.
Thankfully I’d been given the most relaxed horse in the herd, undeterred by my bouncing camera bag and tripod and couldn’t give a ‘carrot’ about being the last in line! Absolutely nothing bothered her. She was the matriarch of the group and she’d done this trek plenty of times. She was the perfect Basotho pony for me, positively patient as I merrily clicked away, capturing the different angles of the Basotho ponies in front of me and the spectacular Drakensberg views all around us. Though I regularly felt pangs of guilt about this little pony taking me all the way up the mountain, I was assured that Basotho ponies are the ‘toughest’ you can get, steady on the foot and built for exactly this!
“And though she be but little, she is fierce.” – Shakespeare
We rode for 6 hours on the first day, breaking for lunch after navigating a particularly rocky and steep section. It was also around this time that something didn’t feel right, like my feet were partially bare. I looked down to see both outer souls of my shoes flapping freely, detached from the old hiking boots. This was not good, especially since they were my ONLY pair of shoes! There was just one thing I could do: strap the old souls to the shoes with my shoe laces! Though far from perfect and despite walking around like a duck for the next few days, my feet were at least not exposed to the cold Lesotho elements!
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken over-civilised people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home, that wilderness is a necessity.” – Anon
“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir
The Camp Life
As we descended the Thamathu Nek, a small Basotho village came into focus. This would be home for 2 nights. We’d stay in the ‘Khotso ’ private Basotho-style lodge, with a blazing fire and all the basics one needs (including hot water) after a long and rewarding day of horse-riding! Here we were joined by another 3 riders for the evening and as the afternoon turned into night, it became apparent that this experience is not only about the horses, the friendly Basotho people and the striking landscapes but very much about the people you are trekking with. That night I heard stories of war, of being chased by pirates, (and also chasing pirates) of tracking stolen livestock in the Lesotho mountains, of extreme adventures and of near death experiences – a night of story-telling beside a lively fire. And while these riders were all so different, they had one thing in common – the immense appreciation and feeling of peace and freedom that comes with riding on horseback in the vast wilderness of Lesotho.
“In riding horses, we borrow freedom.” – Helen Thompson
I woke up early that morning and was fairly surprised that I had not frozen in the night and that shafts of sunshine pierced the frosty windows despite the weather forecast predicting possible snow. It was a beautiful day and most surprisingly, the various muscles in my body that had not been used for so many years, were still in working order and hardly stiff. I was ready to climb back on the saddle and to explore this arid but intriguing land.
After we’d warmed ourselves up with a few hot mugs of coffee and a cooked breakfast, we set off into the valley, following a river that would lead us into a spectacular sandstone gorge. It was one of those places that you imagine would be a good alternative location for a Western movie. Where agile riders would follow the river deep into Western territory. Come tea-time, my little daydream came to an abrupt end when I tried to get off my horse on the wrong side. I attempted to elegantly swing my leg over the rear of ‘Flash’ and hop off like some cowgirl in a John Wayne Western. Instead I found myself sliding down head first, attempting to grab onto her mane in a final attempt to save myself but nevertheless, landed with a thud under the belly of my horse. ‘Flash’ gave a little snort – presumably thinking along the lines of ‘Oh for goodness sake, here we go again!’ She calmly and mercifully stepped aside as I untangled my clumsy, dust-caked legs! Thank god no-one was looking! And thank god I got Flash! I like to think that there was method in my madness when choosing to be at the back of the pony line!
“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.” – A dlai E. Stevenson II
Epic picnic spot in a gorge; surrounded by great sandstone rocks, caves, ancient bushman paintings, Angora goats and sheep!
Later that day we rode into another village, one with a fully stocked shop with things like shoes….specifically gumboots! Though the red stilettos were tempting, I opted for a sturdy pair of rubber gumboots. You could never know how happy I was to be done with those damn hiking boots! And it was good timing because the wind was picking up and candy floss clouds were literally tumbling down the mountain sides into the valley. That cold front had seemingly arrived and I didn’t fancy the thought of frozen chipolata-looking toes. The gumboots came in the nick of time!
“One day you will wake up and there wont be any more time to do things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” – Paulo Coerlho
We were very lucky with the weather. As so often happens, weather changes quickly in the Kingdom of the sky. As quickly as the clouds came, they disappeared behind shadowy mountains like ghosts in the night. Once again, we were woken by the morning sun and by the enchanting singing of a Basotho herdsman as he walked into the hills, reporting for duty.
We took an alternate route back home. I’d say it was the scenic route! It was well worth it, but while leading my horse over the steep terrain, my lungs gasped for air with the high mountain altitude and the muscles in my legs trembled as though I’d run a marathon! I’d say you need to be fairly fit for this particular route or moderately fit as Steve would say….ahem,coming from someone who would leave Forrest Gump in the dust!
How could I ever forget this view and this experience? And Mr Steve Black’s voice echoing in the mountains as he shouts, “Now THIS is real adventure, this is what life is all about!”
And this, I must agree.
“The seeker embarks on a journey to find what he wants and discovers, along the way, what he needs,” – Wally Lamb
Check out Khotso Horse Trails and Accommodation for more information and book this epic pony trek!
Phone Khotso: +27 082 4125 540