Early 1900's & The Recce Pony Trek in 1991
Merwyn Bosworth Smith, founder of Malealea Trading Store,
was born at Harrow School, England in 1878. His father was Assistant Master there for 37 years. Merwyn had five brothers and three sisters. All his brothers were educated at Harrow, but Merwyn went to Rugby, where he excelled at rugby and athletics. He was also a brilliant scholar, writing Latin prose at 14 years old. On leaving school he went to Oxford University.
Mervyn Smith at his Desk
Early view of the shop
In about 1898 he came to South Africa and taught/coached rugby at Bishops. This was too tame for him, so he went to try his hand on the Diamond Diggings at Lichtenberg, where he did not have much luck. He decided to join the B.S.A.P. in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), where he said he did not do much police work, as he played rugby most of the time.
At the outbreak of the Boer War, he returned and joined the Dorset Regiment and served throughout the war. At the end of the war, he went to Maseru to visit his brother, Reginald, who had joined the Colonial Service and had been sent to Basutoland as Government Secretary.
Merwyn was fascinated by the country and spent months riding around the country, shooting for the pot, as he went along. One of the places he camped at, was Malealea. He fell in love with the place and decided to open a Trading Station there. He had to return to England to get permission, and was assisted by some of his school companions, who were by now in high places. On returning to Malealea he started in a tent, first building the store and sheds and then starting on the house, which was built of cut stone and under thatch. A swimming pool, covered by thatch, was also built, and a tennis court. As Merwyn was a fanatic for bridge and billiards he had a billiard table brought to Malealea by ox-wagon, as were all the building materials. The big verandah had all his shooting trophies on the walls. Many also hung in the Bloemfontein and Rand Clubs. The lounge and billiard rooms were wood panelled. The lounge was a replica of the lounge at Binghams Melcon Dorset, which was the family house, when his father retired from Harrow.
He was well established, when the 1914 - 1918 war broke out. He returned to England and again joined the Dorset Regiment, who he served with throughout the war. He developed "Trench Leg", which was a problem for the rest of his life. After the war he returned to Malealea and in 1919 got married. These were golden years. Trade flourished and they used to go on shooting safaris in Rhodesia, Caprivi Strip and the Zambezi Valley, - on one occasion, taking Basotho Ponies with them. They also had frequent trips to England to visit his family. They entertained a lot at Malealea and used to ride to Qaba to play tennis with his great friend, Jarvis. Merwyn's wife had a cheetah as a pet, but it had a depressing effect on trade, so was given to the Johannesburg Zoo!!!
The depression years nearly put Malealea out of business, but a Johannesburg friend gave Merwyn 12,000 pound bond to tide him over. many of the local Basotho had credit to buy food during this period and they never forgot "MOFANA" for this. He was called "MOFANA", because when he first arrived he spoke "Fanagalo". Later he spoke Sesotho fluently.
The war years brought prosperity, which continued to his death in 1951. During the war R.A.F. pupil pilots were entertained at Malealea. Pay for serving Basotho in the army was paid out to local families at Malealea. Merwyn arranged that on this day the R.A.F. sent a plane over Malealea to do a few acrobatics and Victory Rolls. At the end of the war, he had name plates made with the name and rank number of all the Basotho, who had fallen in the war. Oak trees from Malealea were planted at the police camp in Maseru and the idea was that each oak tree would have one of the name plates nailed to it.
During and after the war he had two partners, first Scholl, then Crooks. He also had The Falls Store at Maletsunyane, but sold this to Frasers at the end of the war. All supplies went up by pack horse and the mohair, wool and wheat used to come to Malealea in big pack pony trains, and then he classed, graded and sent it off by transport to Rail Head Wepener.
During the last years of Mervyn's life, he used to spend the winter months on the Zambezi at a Shooting Lodge he built. He had rondavels and a motor boat called "Queen Elizabeth". At this stage his one car was called "George" and the other "Elizabeth". He used to go up to Johannesburg for a week just to play Bridge.
All his life he had a passion for road-making and had to make the road from the "Gates of Paradise" to Malealea, to get building supplies to Malealea. In his latter years he used to set off with labourers, spades, picks and wheelbarrows to repair the road. One corner was known as "Tickey Draai" and another as "Sixpenny Draai". The original wording at the "neck" as he called it, was: "Wayfarer Pause Behold The Gates of Paradise". He always did this when he came home to Malealea.
His other passion was letter writing. He used to write to "The Friend" newspaper in Bloemfontein entitled "Basutoland from within", which covered every subject from Incorporation in the Union to strip roads for Basutoland on the Rhodesian Model.
During the Royal Visit the King and Queen were to have visited Malealea, but only the rest of the Royal Party came for a luncheon. The well known BBC announcer Wynfred Vaughn Thomas gave a report of the visit in one of his BBC reports. Mervyn attended all the functions in Maseru and he proudly wore his war medals at the Ex Service Mens Parade. The King stopped to speak to him and said, "I see you served in the SA War, as well as 1914-1918". To which Mervyn replied, "No Your Majesty, not the SA War, I served in the Boer War". A cousin of Mervyn's was one of the Ladies in Waiting to the Queen, so he got a few `behind the scenes' stories of the tour.
Mervyn died suddenly in January 1950 and was buried in the garden, by the Bishop of Basutoland. He had no headstone as Malealea is his memorial. Malealea was left in trust to his son, Anthony, but his partner, Crooks, had an option to purchase under the partnership agreement. After a long and expensive court action in the Supreme Court, it was ruled that the Trust Deed was not valid, because it had not been initialled on one page and Crooks exercised his option to purchase.
The Old Bird Bath still exists at Malealea
Soon after Crooks moved into the big house from the Cottage, the big house burnt down. There is only a bird bath, built out of stone, with ANNO VIC, chiselled around the top, that remains from the original house. Mervyn had this bird bath built at the end of the war "Year of Victory".
Mervyn always maintained that the first thing a person saw, when visiting a Trading Station in Basutoland, was the "Long Drop or Kleinhuisie". He built his, hidden away inside the bank below the house and had a beautiful view of the Thaba Putsoa range of mountains to gaze upon, in complete privacy. It has now been restored.
Many tales were told by Government Officials, Police, Tourists, who used to stay over at Malealea, before trekking into the mountains. They all enjoyed great hospitality at Malealea and if they played Bridge and Billiards, even more so. Snooker was only tolerated for Ladies. The leather bound billiard score books also stand as a diary for important happenings, such as bomb raids over Germany, The Invasion, Visits by Important People etc.
Stories about Mervyn begin with how he used to ride to Maseru of Mafeteng on a pony to play rugby, with an alarm clock tied around his neck, which he would set for half hours ahead, in case he dozed off and could wake up to check if the pony was still on course. He is reputed to have galloped down the gorge into the Ribaneng River, and that path was always known as "Mervyn's Ladder".
AFTER A WILD PARTY IN BLOEMFONTEIN, Mervyn and his friends decided to go back to Malealea to continue the party. A stranger, they had met, came along as well. In the car he was lolling to one side, then to the other side, but no one took any notice of him as they thought he was drunk. On arrival it was found he was DEAD !!! A wake lasting a few days was held and he lay inside on the Billiard Table and was duly buried under the Cherry Trees. Mevyn always referred to the grave as "The Stranger's Grave".
View from Top Lodge
An extract from Kate Cretchley’s version of the Stranger’s death! " I doubt it was the fact that the hitchhiker was DOA when Mervyn and his pals reached the mountain station of Malealea after a fairly lively weekend in Bloemfontein. I also doubt that it caused much of a headache when they stowed the old guy under the snooker table and went ahead with the intended game. However, it must have been a bit annoying to have been awoken by the scream of the early rising housemaid who found the old boy rather difficult to rouse, even when the best Malealea coffee was offered. A wake was held lasting some several days to see the dear departed on his way to the pearly gates, during which time he lay in state on the snooker table, and the grave of this total stranger still can be seen not twenty yards away from that of old Mervyn Smith who, out of the kindness of his heart, brought the old man to die in peace and tranquillity of Malealea, over fifty years ago. "Mervyn and his friend, Kenneth Nolan, were also known to have ridden through the Wepener Hotel on their "Trusting Steeds"
Keith Jandrell bought Malealea in 1961 from Norman Crooks. Various managers lived at Malealea operating the trading station. An airstrip was built at Malealea and the Jandrell family visited Malealea regularly for week-ends and holidays.
Mick & Di Jones bought Malealea in December, 1986. The idea was to start a very casual lodge and continue with the Trading Station. The Trading Station burnt down on 6th March, 1987 due to a gas deep freeze. As the floors, walls & ceilings were all wood, the shop went up in flames within minutes. Mick was awakened in the early hours of the morning with a comment by the night watchman "There seems to be a small problem at the shop!!!"
An enormous steel structure was erected for the Trading Station - (nicknamed by Simon Fourie, The Malealea Emporium.) Over the years the Trading Station has declined and the lodge has grown from 10 to 60 beds. The shop was made smaller and the space was used to build Bacpackers Accommodation, a games room, a diningroom & kitchen. Over the years, Nick King, an Australian friend, after driving overland trips from London to Harare, has spent a couple of months at Malealea renovating the lodge.
Pony Trekking was started at Malealea in February, 1991. Di, Caroline, James & Sonja pony trekked into the mountains on a 6 day recce trip with Simon Mokala, now one of the main pony trekking guides for the various overnight treks. Cultural Tourism has developed at Malealea.
THE RECCE PONY TREK TRAIL IN FEBRUARY 1991
Caroline James story below about the Pony Trek in 1991.
She had a tragic snow ski-ing accident in the French Alps in April 1998 and passed away.
We all miss her cheerful presence and wonderful sense of humour.
SONYA, DI & CAROLINE SETTING OFF FOR THE RECCE PONY TREK, WITH TSELISO MOKALA, February, 1991.
(The highest rainfall in years!)
“What kind of saddles did you say these were?” “Old South African army, I think, made for long distance riding”
she replied with a grin. “And the sheepskin covers are provided for extra comfort?” I asked wryly.
“Well, just imagine how you would feel without them”. We continued bouncing along the uneven ground in
We live in a world of constant change, where development holds the key to the future. A frightening depletion of isolated wilderness and other rural areas, bear the testament to this progressive trend. There are still however, places where the passage of time moves in a slow more measured way, and life continues in a similar vein, regardless of events elsewhere.
Since my first visit to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho five years ago, there hae been noticeably few changes, even within the towns. In the villages a few new houses have sprung up amongst the traditional rondavels, but these apart, things remain the same. Development is minimal, there being too little money available for these projects. There are still aid programmes active within Lesotho . Many of these involve improving farming methods and teaching farmers about modern techniques, thus increasing production and output.
An independent country, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho has the unusual distinction of being completely surrounded by another - South Africa. It is a place of infinite beauty and rare contrasts, of towering mountains and lofty peaks, meandering rivers and mighty waterfalls, rolling valleys and shadowy ravines. Each season is well defined, and cloaked in its own colours; wavering plains of pink Cosmos, bright red summer Aloes, delicate spring peach blossoms, and winter white snow capped peaks. The country is home to the Basotho people a tough resilient tribe who are, for the most part, subsistence farmers. They graze their herds on the steep terrain and high passes, whilst planting their mealies on terraces cut out on the mountainside. It is a country whose lowest point of 1500 metres above sea level, is the highest in the world.
The history of Lesotho goes back millions of years, and yet the nation itself is very young. Before the Basotho arrived, the country was inhabited by Bushmen, whose many rock paintings have enabled subsequent visitors to understand and visualise their way of life.
In the early 1800s, peaceable communities of cattle owning people, who spoke dialects of Sesotho were scattered across the Transvaal highlands. During the 1820s, however, these Chiefdoms were disrupted by widespread Difaqane disturbances.
Between 1815-1829 Moshoeshoe the Great, possessing the intelligence and sensitivity to unite the fugitives of these wars, gathered the remnants of the tribes dispersed by Zulu and Matebele Raids, and created Basutoland withing the natural refuge created by the Maluti Mountain ranges in the west, and the Drakensberg in the east.
It was only in 1966, after a century of hostilities with its neighbours, that Basutoland gained independence from the British authority and became the Kingdom of Lesotho, ruled by King Moshoeshoe II - the third great grandson of Moshoeshoe the Great.
The mountainous topography of this country dictated that the horse become the universal form of transport. This led to the breeding of the traditional Basotho Pony which is descended from Javanese horses imported for their strength, sure footedness and calm temperament. They are called ponies because, as a result of their harsh environment, they grow no larger than a European riding pony.
Outside the major urban areas, electricity and telephones do not exist, and wild open spaces are paramount. Coming from Europe, where vast numbers of vehicles and people are cramped into increasingly small areas, and communication is taken completely for granted, this isolation has enormous appeal.
From the outset my attempts to organise pony trekking had been thwarted by bad weather and communication. At the time the only official pony trekking operation in Lesotho was the Basotho Pony Project. Establishes by the Lesotho government, this was initially funded and founded by the Irish Government to improve the breed of Basotho Pony. The aim of the scheme was to upgrade the pony trekking service and to make the industry as a whole more profitable.
I decided, therefore, to try Malealea Lodge in the Maluti mountains as an alternative. There, I had been told were plenty of hiking trails, and possibility of pony trekking. I met up with Mickey and Di Jones (the owners) and hitched a lift back from Maseru to the lodge with them.
The day I arrived had coincided with the end of the drought. The heavens opened and did not close for nearly a month. The skies darkened, great black clouds gathered, and the rain assaulted the parched land with unabated force. Mountain faces spawned networks of brown veins through which flowed a continual passage of water. Gurgling streams were transformed into rampaging, brown torrents, foaming and churning as they swept downstream, cutting deep swathes through the earth and bursting over their banks onto roads and tracks. Wonderful for farmer s, decidedly soggy and miserable for hikers, and impossible for pony trekkers - as I discovered - the pony owners would not set foot on the mountain with their animals, until the rains abated.
Malealea Lodge dates back to 1905 when it was establishes as a Trading Post by Mervyn Bosworth Smith. Educated at Oxford, this charismatic, colonial character fought in both the Anglo Boer and First World Wars. He fell in love with Basutoland and lived there for over 40 years. The small village at Malealea developed around the Trading Store, and since Mervyns’s death in 1950, the latter changed hands several times.
IN 1986 Mickey and Di Jones took over management of the trading complex, and in 1987 bought the property. Since them they have transformed Malealea into a fully operational and increasingly popular lodge.
Although not officially established, the requests for pony trekking from visitors to Malealea were increasing. There were plenty of pony owners in the village who were keen to take out more treks and a number of ponies to do so.
I explained that I wanted to go out for a few days, stay in local villages and explore some of the region in the traditional way, using ponies. Another girl also staying at the lodge was keen to do something along the same lines. Di suggested that the three of us go and do a test run, and see if something could be put together for future visitors. Mickey, on the other hand could not be persuaded nor bribed to accompany us, and so the Pioneering Malealea Pony Trek set out as an all female expedition.
We decided, on this occasion to take a tent, and camp whenever necessary. At that stage no agreement had been established with the villagers for the allocation of specially equipped huts for trekkers. In due course, this would be the case, along with a long drop toilet. This would be done in exchange for every village receiving a commission for each visitor using the facilities.
This excellent eco tourism exchange has now been incorporated by Malealea into all pony treks and hiking routes.
The locals of Malealea have also established the Matelile Pony Owners Association, which acts as a pony trekking service for operations such as Malealea Lodge. Ponies are rented to visitors and the payment for each animal goes to its respective owner. An establishment such as Malealea, however receives a booking and commission fee. In this way the profits and well channelled.
To illustrate how the involvement of Malealea is helping overall, Di tells the tale of how one morning she went out to see a group of German clients off on a trek. Looking around at the ponies, she suddenly gasped in horror. There, saddled up and ready to go was a living skeleton. She rushed over and with the owner, led the horse away and out of sight of the visitors. She explained to the owner that overseas visitors came to Lesotho to ride the horses and learn about the country. When they go home to their own countries they tell their friends and others about their holiday and Lesotho. It would be terrible if they had o say that the ponies were starved and not properly cared for. The owner nodded his understanding and returned to the village mulling this over. Several weeks later his horse was again saddled up and ready for the trekkers - but, what a difference. It had picked up considerable weight and condition, and without one bone showing through its shining coat, looked alert and raring to go!
We put ourselves in the hands of the knowledgeable and extremely capable head guide, Simon Mokala. His only weakness, as we were to discover, was for a local liquid brew. Every now and then he would disappear off on some pretext or other.
I woke to sighs of relief on the morning of our departure, - the day had dawned bright and clear. After a substantial breakfast, group photographs and a cheering farewell from Mickey, the Malealea Staff and half the village, we set off on our Great Trek through the Thaba Putsoa mountain range. Our trip was planned for abut 6 days, and would follow a route unused by Europeans for many years. Our ponies had been carefully chosen by Simon, as had the stocky grey packhorse - at that time almost completely concealed by two enormous saddlebags full of our equipment, and a lot of “not to be left behinds” that in hindsight, should have been.
For the first time in days we had untrammelled views of the surrounding mountains. An uneven chain of ridges like jagged shards of sky, melted into penumbral escarpments, which tumbled into valleys of brilliant green velvet pleats. The landscape, washed clean of dust and grime by the recent rain lay before us in sharp clarity.
Not having ridden for years, we balanced precariously on our lofty mobile perches, straining muscles we hadn’t known existed. We set off from Malealea in eager anticipation as our ponies picked their sure footed way down a rocky, steep switchback trail to the river. This suicide track is used by motorbike competitors in the annual Roof of Africa rally, and watching them manoeuver down the sheer rock face has to be as nerve wracking as participating.
We were seldom on our own during the trek, and were often followed by groups of barefoot, raggedly attired children, whose liquid brown eyes gazed up at us beseechingly as they demanded sweets or money in strident tones. Just when we though ourselves alone in the wilderness , we would see scampering bodies materialise our of the mountainside and rush towards us.
Despite the short morning in the saddle, lunch the first day was a welcome break from purgatory. At the end of a steep climb, there was no feeling left in our behinds, and without exception we fell from the horses in sheer relief. It was decided then that it would make sense to walk beside the horses from time to time during the next few days. It would enable us all to stretch our limbs.
That afternoon, we climbed an impossible steep narrow, pass leading to Sekoting sa li Farike. We caused great derision amongst the local populace, as much by our presence on horseback, as by our intentions, related by Simon. We were joined on this ascent by a couple of well dressed and mounted Basothos, who asked us whether we were scared, so slowly were we climbing the mountain. I was surprised at the uncommon sight of a woman riding. She was dressed in trousers and high heeled shoes, a beret and had a heavy Basotho blanket wrapped around her. She was the only other horsewoman we were to see during our trek.
The terrain was precarious, steep and rocky, with stones that kept slipping from under the horses hooves. The ponies just took it in their stride and without altering their pace, picked their way to the tope of the pass. The valley fell away below us, a distant colourful patchwork of fields. We arrived at what had appeared to be the summit, only to discover another peak in front of us. Once over this, the path descended in a gentle curve around the mountain and down to the village where we were to spend our first night.
As Europeans we were a rare spectacle, and scrutinised as such. Simon had to ask the Chief’s permission for us to stay the night. Once granted we set about erecting Di’s 3 minute ZAR100.00 OK Bazaar tent away from the main village, but still the centre of attention for the gathering audience. The Chief sent us a cup of tea using his best enamel floral Tea Set.
Cosy for two, it was definitely overcrowded for three. With little room to manoevre, when any one of us wanted to turn over or leave the tent, it necessitated subtle group action. We also learnt about the porous qualities of our shelter, and that the bright orange groundsheet was of greater benefit above than below.
Wherever we stayed, we were of major spectator interest. We were rarely left alone, and although for the most part had no problem with the company, it became a painful ordeal trying to find an isolated spot for the morning ritual. By the end of the trek we had the ‘bunny hop’ practised to perfection. It entailed a rapid glance over the shoulder, followed by a series of smooth, fast tow legged hops, in any clear direction, with trousers affixed around the ankles. The trick was to avoid uneven ground and potholes!
The mountain telegraph never ceased to amaze us. A shout from one side of the mountain, would be answered by somebody on the other. This message would then be picked up by someone else and passed on to another. In this way the raucous calls would continue in an echoing chain across the ranges.
We learnt early on how little wood there was on the mountain, and certainly not enough for us to make a cooking fire each evening. As we had brought insufficient gas cylinders with us, (we also managed to waste away a whole gas cylinder in one go as we did not know how to use it correctly ) we ate very few hot meals, and largely depended on the villagers generosity for boiling water for drinks. We could not however , bring ourselves to expose our deluxe dehydrated Italian pastas to public analysis. We lived for the most part, therefore on biscuits, dried fruit and sandwiches.
Feeling rather like the morning after the night before, somewhat battered and bruised, we struggled onto our ponies that second morning and eased ourselves gingerly into the saddle. The chief escorted us to the top of the mountain and after profuse thanks for his hospitality we set our for Ketane. The trails were in good condition which made the crossing of a number of high passes much easier. Throughout, we had spectacular views of the never ending sierras. Clumps of red hot pokers (flowering red aloes) dotted over the mountainside gave it a campfire effect. At one point we descended through a boggy mire into a valley of fiery licking flames. As far as the eye could see was a sea of waving red hot pokers.
The terrain was extraordinarily variable. We rode through gentle riverine vegetation, up steep rocky passes, across undulating plains, through meadows of alpine flowers, inhospitable marshy snow grass and moorland. Throughout, we came across small busy villages, full of chattering , curious people. “What is your name, where do you come from?”. How much they actually understood of our answers remained a mystery. Our second night was spent a the mission village of Ketane. Known for its magnificent 122m waterfall, the village sits at the edge of a deep gorge overlooking the distant layers of grey peaks and pinnacles. We were offered a rondavel by the Chief, but declined as we were becoming accustomed to life in a tent, and to the audience that seemed to go with it. We were quite tempted though at the thought of all the space provided by the rondavel. These round wattle residences are generally well built, with a thatch roof, and doors and windows. Being naturally well insulated they are cool in summer and warm in winter. Escorted by a group of eager children, and clutching our washing things and cameras we headed down to the waterfall. Our guides skipped down through the scrub, sheer rocky outcrops and faces with the agility of mountain goats. We, on the other hand slipped and stumbled, swung and panicked. The falls were magnificent, but not enough to keep us from the alluring clear blue waters of a nearby stream. | This was where modesty was cast aside asunder. From every vantage point on the surrounding mountainside, we were watched and ogled
at by blanketed Basothos.
We were lulled to sleep that night by the sounds of the night and village life, the whining dogs, baying donkeys, unsynchronised cock crows and imbibed villagers who stopped and prodded the tent in curiosity. The following morning we led the horses on foot our of Ketane and down to the river, which had to be crossed before climbing a steep pass.
Due to recent rains, the river had expanded in width, and the water was flowing fast and deep. We looked at one another anxiously. Simon found a suitable place to cross and led the way, but not that far. His horse was going nowhere, and leapt and reared and refused to listen to his commands. Simon dismounted and led the packhorse across in his gumboots. He left it on the other side and returned for his own horse, struggling on foot, against the strong current. He mounted his animal and plunged back across the river. We, in the meantime were having no joy with the horses who were rushing everywhere other than across the river. Sonia and Di went upstream and were last seen, holding their shoes delicately aloft with one hand, weaving across the rocks and through the flow, leading their horses to the other side with the other. They were, needless to say, soaked to the skin. I attempted to ride my horse into the river, but was nearly thrown in the ensuing disagreement. I them dismounted and started to lead it across. All would have been well had I not tripped over a rock and landed face down in the water. Still clutching the reins, I struggled to my feet and let the startled animal over to a rock where I remounted. We plunged into the deep water, and with the aid of a recently acquired switch, made it across the river - also soaked.
We climbed out of the river up a steep narrow path. The trail followed a narrow ledge around the cliffs with a sheer, long drop into the gorge on one side. It was extremely slippery and we kept a good distance between each pony. The way became so steep and precarious towards the top of the pass that we dismounted and led the horses. Immense relief was felt all round when we finally crossed over the top of the pass into undulating marshy grasslands.
The country opened up into great expanses of moorland where large herds of sheep grazed, and young herdboys in white gumboots and white miners helmets tended their animals.
We were often passed by proud horsemen wrapped in brightly coloured Basotho blankets and wearing sinister black Homburgs, during our trek. Astride their high stepping, arch necked mounts, these riders were reminiscent of their South American counterparts. They would always greet us and inspect our motley gathering, before galloping off into the distance.
We saw the cliffs of the Lebihan Falls ( Maletsunyane Fall) on the Maletsunyane River some distance before we reached them, concealed at the end of a sloping grassy field. The falls are dramatic, as the water drops in one straight, powerful line from the top of the cliffs to the pool at the bottom. The falls are in fact the second highest in Southern Africa, but have the highest straight drop (192 metres) in Africa.
The falls marked the farthest point of our journey. From there we headed back in the direction on Ribaneng and Malealea. It was quite late in the day, and on remounting the horses we noticed the ominous low lying clouds, dark, threatening and pregnant with rain.
Within half an hour, the heavens had opened given vent to a torrential downpour. Before we managed to leap from our horses to put on waterproofs, we were saturated. The wind and rain drove head on as we trudged up the rapidly waterlogged, muddy mountainside. We should have been heading towards our night stop, but for some reason it was taking a very long time. We ode through village after village, by this stage absolutely freezing and soaked to the skin. Finally, after three hours in the pouring rain, and a long climb to the top of the mountains, we came to a halt in a small village.
This was one night where we would have been extremely grateful for the use of a warm rondavel. In fact, that very thought had been the one thing to keep us going during the long trudge in the rain. But, as luck would have it, that evening there was a meeting of local herdsman, and all the rondavels were occupied. We were allowed to leave our things in one of the huts overnight, but had to sleep outside. Fortunately, our sleeping bags had remained dry in their plastic garbage bag coverings. Our hands, however were so cold we couldn’t move our fingers which made erecting the tent an interesting exercise. Despite the roaring communal fire outside, the dry clothing and continual cups of hot coffee, we could not get warm. We eventually went to bed with one last longing look at the clean, warm cosy rondavel behind us.
The wind and rain raged around us all night, so much so that at one point the tarpaulin was ripped off the tent, and we had to stagger out into the night to retrieve it, and then tie the flapping object back on.
We headed out the following morning under blue grey skies, and scudding clouds. Simon was concerned that the trails might be too slippery and dangerous, but decided to take the chance. A meagre breakfast was eaten with the entire village in situ. These wonderful characters, farmers, herdsmen and their wives, all watched us with beaming faces. We departed for Ribaneng cheered on our way with great shouts and waves.
We climbed to the top of the mountain range, and rode into a biting wind. Views of the spectacular surrounding peaks managed, however to more than compensate for the discomfort.
We rode down through the most beautiful alpine meadows carpeted by a kaleidoscope of wild flowers. Our senses were invaded by the rainbow colours and pungent smells of wild lavender and herbs. Everywhere birds were swooping and gliding, Whydahs, Bishops, Widow s and others. We spent the day climbing and descending different mountain passes. Sometimes we rode, and sometimes we were happy to wander along leading the ponies. The final pass before the descent to Ribaneng was long and arduous. We struggled up the last part to the top and were rewarded by a remarkable downhill run. Scattered amongst the bush and rocks and bright red aloes, were herds of peacefully grazing cattle, goats and sheep.
The pass was so steep that once again we felt more comfortable leading the horses. The switchback trail wound its way down between the rock faces of the mountain. It is one of the routes in the Roof of Africa Rally and was aptly nicknamed, “Slide your arse pass”. At one point the riders abandon their motorbikes and just hurl them down the mountain.
The village of Ha Rasebetsane, near Ribaneng Waterfall, is situated near the lower part of the pass, protected from the elements. It is one of the best maintained villages in the region and the local Basotho have great respect for the privacy of visitors. It was extremely relaxing to be able to wander around and not have to play the Pied Piper.
We had a rondavel set aside for us and were happy to take advantage of this luxury, particularly as a storm lashed the village with full vitriol during the night. We left early the following morning and wound our way down the stony path to the valley below. We passed through wonderful orchards of wild peach trees, and treated ourselves to a second breakfast, eating the sweet, succulent fruits until we had stomach aches.
Once through the thriving village of Ribaneng we climbed a final stony pass before riding across the undulating valley, well on our way back to Malealea. We crossed the Makhaleng River, and once again found ourselves drenched by one of those fast and furious mountain storms. The rain eventually stopped, and we were able to climb the steep stony trail to Ha Phatela without too much concern. Then one final gentle stretch and we were at the gates to Malealea Lodge.
Had we really been away for 5 days. It seemed a lifetime, but what an experience, and what precious memories. We thanked Simon, and our horses and headed inside for a welcome cup of tea, and “how about a big bowl of steaming hot pasta”. There should be plenty left!!
DEVELOPMENTGUIDES & HORSES ARE HIRED FROM THE LOCAL BASOTHO PEOPLE FOR THE PO NY TREKKING
A Pony Trekking Association has been formed, a committee is elected. Malealea Lodge buys equipment for the association, for example saddlery, bridles, saddle blankets, etc. In the meantime to get the trekking on its way, the horse owners use their own saddlery until stocks build up over the years. We hand the bookings to the association every week and they organize which horses and guides take the treks. Horse Owners have realized the importance of strong and healthy horses. One day a German Tour Operator wanted to have a look at the horses used for the trekking. We asked a Basotho Guide to bring his best horse. Well when we went to have a look at it, to us it was the scruffiest, untidiest looking horse. On questioning the guide, he informed us that "Sister" was their best and strongest horse for getting up the mountain passes. We have since had reports from clients that "Sister" is indeed the best horse they have ridden.
Guides are learning to communicate and speak broken English with their visitors. One particular bright young guide often asks the clients the meanings of words he does not understand and immediately tries to use the words in further conversations. One couple were so pleased with their trek, they took their guide to the Lesotho Sun for lunch. This was an experience of a lifetime for someone who previously had only been herding cattle & sheep. There are a quite a few young & older guides who have managed to build their own houses from income received for guiding and hiring out their horses. Horses arrive from all directions and eventually, almost on time, the treks set off: - Clients, Pack Horses and Guides into the distant mountains. "Amongst this confusion of horses there seems to be some sort of organized chaos," mused a client.
Within the first half hour of the pony trek, nerves are tested by going down the gorge to the Makhaleng river. One way of doing it, it is said is to "Close your eyes, hold tightly onto your horse and pretend not to hear the rocks rolling down the mountainside." But you needn’t be worried, the Guides are excellent in the way they coax the horses and nervous clients down the gorge and across river.
En route to the remote villages you come across magnificent scenery and are often lucky enough to come across various activities,
1. Like boys preparing for initiation school.
2. Bali Girls and
3. A Sangoma throwing her bones.
4. It is etiquette for the guides to introduce the visitors the chiefs of the various villages and to inform them of their destination. As the areas are really remote, the children are curious to see the visitors. It is as if the circus has come to town!!!
5. Local traditions are explained to visitors as they pass by villages. When passing a certain place, (generally between two hills) where there is a heap of small stones piled together, one should pick up another stone alongside the path, spit on it and throw it on the heap. This is an omen of good luck and good eating along the journey and at the destination. Common mountains of Sefikeng and Sefikaneng derived their names from such big heaps made there in olden times.
BASOTHO HUTS HIRED FROM THE VILLAGES
Basotho huts are rented from the villagers in really remote areas of Lesotho. Half the accommodation fee is paid to the owner of the hut and the balance is kept in a fund for buying equipment for old and new huts opening as the trekking gets busier. The huts at this stage are equipped with mattresses on the floor, gas cookers, very basic pots & pans and a bucket of water.
Arriving at the hut in the late afternoon, in time to see the herdboys returning with the cattle & sheep, which are kept in the kraal nearby the huts where you stay. Firewood is scarce on the high mountain ranges, so fire is made from scrub and dried out cow-dung. The meals are prepared in large three-legged black pots.
The children often sing for visitors in the evenings and are rewarded. This is still spontaneous and just seems to happen without any rehearsals. Come morning, the sounds of the cocks crowing, donkeys braying, cows mooing and pigs grunting gently wakes you up. No chance of a late morning sleep, but the spectacular sunrise is more than enough compensation for this sacrifice.
There are many stories of delightful experiences in the villages. There is the story of the hen sitting on her eggs in the window-sill of a hut. Another group later reported that the chicks and hen still occupied the window-sill. Another group told with great relish of the chief who offered them home-made beer from a large black drum. Suddenly the donkey came along and also had a drink of beer from the same drum!!!
BASOTHO CHILDREN ARE ENCOURAGED TO TAKE CLIENTS ON HIKES
There are many places of interest at the various villages and for a small fee, visitors will be guided by the local villagers to these sights. Back at base camp, Basotho children are encouraged to take clients on short hikes to Gorges, Bushman Paintings Etc, so gaining experience to be future overnight trekking guides. Staying at the different villages affords an extra income for the villagers and we have feedback that they enjoy hosting the visitors.
BASOTHO PEOPLE HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY OF GROWING AND COOKING THEIR OWN FOOD FOR RESALE TO VISITORS
So for example will different coloured plastic bags attached to a pole outside the huts indicate various products for sale. Catering for Tourism is developing as the Basotho people have the opportunity of growing and cooking their own food for resale to visitors.
AD HOC EXPERIENCES IN REMOTE AREAS
For guests not wanting to pony trek, there are various other forms of encouraging local tourism by making use of local transport:
1. There is hiking in the company of innovative inventors,
2. Coming in on wings and a prayer,
3. In Style,
4. An environmental friendly merc or
5. Rowing down the river.
A particularly pleasant experience is the friendliness and helpfulness of the Basotho people. There is the story of the family whose car broke down in a remote area. A Basotho man took them into their village and then gave them a lift to Maseru in his "Clapped out Bakkie". He was most informative about daily happenings and culture in the villages and turned out to be a talented tour guide. This was actually the highlight of the family’s stay in Lesotho. From Maseru they then hired a local taxi back to the lodge late that night and again found the taxi owner to be a natural tour operator.
The Keg Group tells of their delightful and unexpected pleasure when doing a pub crawl in the village shebeens. The Basotho Shebeens were so welcoming and honoured that our guests were visiting them, they wanted to kill a sheep there and then and great cultural interaction took place. The bar was then named "The Keg & Pere", which is the Sesotho name for Horse.
I was once photographing a herdboy with his sheep & goats. I jokingly said to him, "Please make your goats move to another area." With that he took out his "Basotho Leseba" (kind of a flute), whistled and played a tune. The goats were directed to where we wanted them to go.
While I was on the original 6 day recce trip with two friends and a Basotho Guide, Tseliso, we must have set off in one of the highest rainfall seasons in Lesotho. On the third day, while riding in three hours of solid rain to our next hut destination, we all decided we had had enough and asked Tseliso if we could get back a day earlier. He shook his head and said there was no way and the horses plodded along. I then said to Tseliso " How about if we pay you for a 6 day trek, but we get home in 5 days!!!" Well from that moment the horses just took off and we got home a day earlier. On the trek Chief Puli sent us a tray of tea in his best enamel tea pot and mugs, decorated with flowers. His village is called "Sekoting sa lifarike" (which means, "The trough which the pigs dug," as this valley is surrounded by a magnificent ring of mountains,)
LINKING CONFERENCES WITH CULTURAL TOURISM
WHY DO ORGANIZATIONS ARRANGE CONFERENCES IN FOREIGN ENVIRONMENTS ?
The Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho may be rough and tough, but it is at the same time as gentle as a spring flower, soft as the summer grass covering the undulating hills, refreshing as a sparkling mountain stream in autumn and awesome and austere as a winter landscape. Whatever your choice of climate may be, Lesotho can provide. Of particular value is the quiet nearness of nature offering the overworked and over stressed a tranquility nowhere else to be equaled. This makes Lesotho the ideal venue for conferences, because it forces people to leave behind their day to day routines so restricting for creative and innovative thinking. People caught in ruts are so busy fighting for their daily survival in competitive environments that they can’t afford to risk replacing old ideas with new ones for fear of failure. Trekking in Lesotho restores those long forgotten feelings of daring and adventure.
WHAT MAKES LESOTHO SO DIFFERENT?
Well take those same life weary people and throw them into the cultural environments and experiences of a Lesotho Trek and they cannot but open their eyes and minds to the people around them, who behave differently, have different needs, priorities and goals in completely different circumstances. Yet the observer is surprised to find that the challenges are the same: Survival: Profit: Competition: & Quality of Life.
The discovery of this awareness inadvertently opens the eyes and suddenly, standing the clear crisp dawn you find that you are beginning to think differently. While you marvel at the quaintness of the people around you, you find that you are actually learning from them. Of course, facing the adventures of a trek is excellent for team building. All in all, there will be times when a pony trek in Lesotho, may force you to close your eyes and there will be times when it will open your eyes. Either way you return to your own environment with a greater energy and a new outlook on life.
KHOTSO, PULA, NALA. -- PEACE, RAIN & PROSPERITY - KEA LEBOHA! - THANK-YOU!
"AN EXTRACT OF A TREK REPORT, OCTOBER 1991, INDICATING THE RESPONSIBILITY THE GUIDES HAVE ON THESE PARTICULAR TREKS"
Rough, tough and very, very different is this "Roof of Africa" trek into the Lesotho mountains. It must be hiking as it was many years ago - no detailed trail maps, no laid out trails with markers. no log cabins with toilet and braai facilities. Instead your guide (on pony) obtains the frequent help of the villagers as to the best way up the mountainsides, or across the many river crossings, and then negotiates, on your behalf, with the local chief for a suitable hut for that particular overnight stay !!! Plenty of drinking water is supplied, and even cleaning the mud off your hiking boots is included in the princely sum of R15.00 per person !!!! Rough, tough and very, very different is this "Roof of Africa" trek into the Lesotho mountains. It must be hiking as it was many years ago - no detailed trail maps, no laid out trails with markers. no log cabins with toilet and braai facilities. Instead your guide (on pony) obtains the frequent help of the villagers as to the best way up the mountainsides, or across the many river crossings, and then negotiates, on your behalf, with the local chief for a suitable hut for that particular overnight stay !!! Plenty of drinking water is supplied, and even cleaning the mud off your hiking boots is included in the princely sum of R15.00 per person !!!!
There is no need to cater down to the last dehydrated pea, as the other Basotho Bay which accompanies the group is our pack-horse. It carries huge leather panniers into which are packed your food supplies, clothing and all other "MEDICINAL" requirements for the trek. The Pack Horse amazes all by the remarkable feats it performs in defying the laws of gravity on the many treacherous ascents and descents.
The "Glamour" of the trek lies in the innumerable mountain peaks, valleys, waterfalls, streams and rivers which are relatively unspoilt by mankind and mot least of all the very friendly locals. Lesotho is truly a country of water which is evident everywhere. We were unfortunate to be there during the highest rainfall recorded in the past 100 years !!! The last two days were a race to beat the fast rising rivers. Our crossing of the Makhaleng River could only be achieved by boat. Not so lucky for the horses who had to swim across the raging river. After a hard swim they arrived on the other side apparently no worse for wear as they began grazing almost immediately!!! We safely made our way to the comfort of the Malealea Lodge, which was our base, and left our rural guide in wonderment as to why these crazy hikers pushed on through the pouring rain, rather than rest up in a mountain hut and take another week or two to complete the trek when the weather cleared!!! At the end of it all the question is - Is it worth it? The answer is a very definite YES!!! The long treks are not recommended for the faint-hearted - but then the trail can be tailored for your individual requirements.