A Rookie on Trek in Basutoland 1954

I joined the Agricultural Department in Basutoland in May 1954 and, after a brief spell in Maseru, was posted to Mafeteng in July. I was still trying to get used to a new job, when in September the Agricultural & Livestock Officer in Mohales Hoek   [L Bischoff who helped me a great deal to find my feet] suggested I trek to Qhobeng to join him and Desmond Taylor, the District Commissioner, in Mohales Hoek .

The object was to go into the matter of disputed grazing areas along a common boundary between the people of Mohales Hoek and Mafeteng. I think some people from Maseru District were also involved. This dispute had been going on for a long time. Several years previously at Qhobeng there had been a large pitso and gathering of all concerned including representatives from the Paramount Chief to resolve the difficulty. All had been agreed satisfactorily and it was clearly established which grazing area was under the control of which chief and from which District. The area in dispute was between two streams. I think they were called the Msibisibi and Mejametelane .It was established that one of these streams {let us say it was the Mejametelane} was clearly the dividing line demarcating the boundary line. The people who had encroached into this area were ordered to remove their cattle posts. In celebration, a race meeting was quickly arranged and a good time was had by all!

Well, after a few years, the dispute boiled up again and so it was that we had to return to Qhobeng with all concerned, including the Paramount Chief’s Representative, to consider the dispute again. It was accepted that on the previous occasion it had been clearly agreed that {shall we say} the Mejamatelane  stream was the dividing line for grazing and that certain people within that area had to remove their cattle posts beyond the stipulated stream.. Why had they now returned to graze their stock illegally? It turned out that the dispute now was which stream was which. The alleged offenders said that ‘this’ was the Msibisibi and ‘that’ was the Mejametelane.and that consequently they had every right to be were they were. However, the alleged complainants said ‘this’ was the Mejamatelane’ and ‘that’ the Msibisibi.  I do not recall how the problem was resolved, or whether or not it was in fact resolved.

As a ‘new boy’, I really did not understand the situation: except that this was to be my first trek into the mountain, cattle post country in Basutoland. At that time, there were no roads into the mountain areas, only bridle paths, which zigzagged up the steep slopes. This was also my horse’s first trek. She could not understand why, while she was going in one direction on the zig other animals above her were moving the opposite direction on the zag, and she kept wanting to turn back!

In those days, we had to provide our own two horses, for which we received a monthly allowance of three pounds. We were issued with camping equipment that included four army blankets. Mules, trek equipment and two pack grooms were available to us. We had to provide our own provisions for which we received a daily allowance of 7/6d whilst on trek. I had been told to ensure that goods in the panniers should be tightly packed. I carefully checked the paraffin container to ensure that the contents did not leak from the stopper. I remember filling empty spaces in the pannier with potatoes, onions and apples, and I think even a small bag of sugar!

The idea was to send horses and mules to Malealea Store at the end of the road the day before trekking. Next morning I drove to Malealea and set off ‘on trek’.The pack grooms knew all about saddling mules and acted as guides to the destination. Off we went, on what was to me a great adventure as I was always very happy riding horses. It was great!

After a while I noticed one corner of the pannier was rather dark but assumed the leather was merely stained.

After a thoroughly enjoyable ride of about 4-5 hours, we arrived at our destination at the Qhobeng woolshed. Pack grooms put up the tent alongside a charming stream and laid out my camping equipment: folding stretcher, coir mattress, folding canvas table and chair, canvas washstand and clean water from the stream in a canvas bucket. I arrived before the others and after a while wondered whether I was at the correct spot or not. However, the others soon did arrive, but they set themselves up in the woolshed instead of pitching tents. Later I joined them for a drink and sat chatting until it began to get dark and it was time to prepare supper on primus stoves. We were issued with carbide lamps for light. A pack groom brought my pannier with my provisions into the woolshed to join the others. After a drink or two, it was time to begin cooking. Disaster, complete disaster!

I had checked the stopper of the fuel container but I soon discovered the cause of that ‘dark patch’ I had earlier noticed on the pannier: paraffin! Unbeknown to me there was a minute’ hardly discernable’ hole in the bottom of the container through which much of the paraffin had leaked out. More disaster! My bright idea, when packing, of filling in the spaces with potatoes, onions, apples and sugar was not a good one! All these provisions were ground into a mushy mess puddled with paraffin. Not good to eat at all! However, still a source of much amusement to my companions! Fortunately I had some tinned bully beef so did not go hungry. My friends also helped me out. Lesson No 1: check your equipment properly and pack everything in firm containers

We sat chatting.  I did not want to admit I was feeling a bit chilly. However, as the evening went on, first I put on another jersey, then a great coat and finally off to bed. I sort of tucked in my blankets, changed into pajamas, made a cup of cocoa and climbed into bed.. During the night, my blankets became loose and un- tucked.  Without wanting to labour the point, I was cold, in plain language, bloody cold, and could not sleep much. Early next morning I reached for my mug only to find that cocoa I had not finished the previous night was frozen solid. {I subsequently heard about someone in similar circumstances to mine, who had put his teeth in a mug of water overnight, only to find in the morning they had frozen solid in the mug and did not thaw out until about 10 o’clock}.

The following morning, still shivering somewhat, I forced myself to rise and get dressed at dawn. I wanted to show willing, prove to my experienced companions that I was up to the rigours of life in the mountains and that I would be up bright and early so as not to keep anyone waiting for me. I made coffee in the tent and ventured out. The tent flap crackled ominously as frost turned to ice, disturbed by the movement.  I noticed the water in the canvas bucket was frozen solid; a thick layer of frost covered the ground, and to my consternation, I saw that the pretty stream next to which I had setup my tent was frozen solid! Stamping my feet in the forlorn hope of warming them, I looked around but saw no signs of activity. Ah well, I expect things will start moving ‘just now’. Not a bit of it! Nothing doing! After more than an hour of stomping around in the frost, I eventually ventured over to the woolshed to find out what was happening. Not very much, I discovered. Only a couple of sleepy groans from two bodies warmly ensconced in well prepared beds   with woolen caps covering their heads and blankets drawn right up to their chins, snugly asleep until woken by me..”What in heavens name do you think you’re doing?” they muttered to me. “Well” I replied, “I thought things began early whilst ‘on trek’. “Bugger off, and come back in a couple of hours time when it’s warmer” So I did.

Lesson No 2:  be wary of camping alongside that lovely little babbling brook when in the mountains. Select a site higher up the slope: It has something to do with ‘temperature inversion

Lesson No 3 find out what the proper form is before trying to be a macho hero.

Later, at about 10.30, numerous Basotho horsemen arrived from different directions for the ‘pitso, held by the District Commissioner and Paramount Chief’s Representative to solve the problems of grazing rights in the area. It was then that the dispute and different opinions regarding the names of the two streams cropped up. We later rode around the area to inspect boundaries trying to resolve the matter.

An ‘old timer’ once told me that the changing of names of rivers was a ploy used by Moeshoeshoe when negotiating boundaries between Basutoland and Natal. It was agreed that the Orange River would be the boundary. It was not long before Natal Authorities complained that Basotho stockowners had crossed the Orange and were encroaching into Natal. Moshoeshoe agreed that the Orange ,or Senqu, was the boundary but claimed that what was thought to be the Senqu was in fact the Malibamatso and vice versa,  thus enlarging his domain considerably! Fact or fiction? I do not know! However where these two rivers meet, the Malibamatso is today a much bigger river than the Senqu.

Lesson no 4: The second night ‘on trek’, was far more comfortable than the first as I had moved in to the woolshed with the others and was shown how to prepare the blankets for optimum warmth.

Firstly, you spread a blanket over the mattress so that an even amount of blanket lies on each side of the stretcher .On top of this a double blanket is placed upon which you sleep. Then add another blanket under which you sleep. Then you bring the two sides of the first blanket over the two double ones. Finally, a fourth blanket is spread over the top and firmly tucked in below and on either side. In this way, the blankets stay in place and prevent cold drafts getting in to freeze you! This system could, of course, be altered to suit prevailing weather conditions. In those days we did not have down sleeping bags. It is wise to get into bed before you really get cold.

The following day I asked the pack grooms to return to Malealea by a different route, so that I could see more of my District. We cut across from Qhobeng behind the first range of mountains to link up with the main bridle path between Malealea and Semonkong. I recall riding through badly overgrazed country with sehalahala*growing thickly and about ‘saddle bag’ height. We rode through a narrow pass to begin the descent to Malealea and what a sight that was to see! The whole valley was a mass of bright pink from the myriad of peach trees blossoming in the villages and on the contoured grass strips through cultivated fields. A sight never forgotten, especially seen for the first time by a “Rookie’: the date: 3rd September 1954.

We arrived at Malealea about 5 o’clock and were welcomed by Mr. & Mrs. Norman Crookes*, hospitable hosts and owners of Malealea Trading Station. A couple of brandies, a hot bath, a sumptuous dinner and off to a warm bed. What a glorious life!

The Trading community in Basutoland ar incredibly hospitable people especially in those days when there were no roads for motor vehicles and the only means of transport was by horse. Can you imagine what it means to reach warm hospitality after having ridden for 6 to 8 hours in pouring rain, or perhaps through sleet and even snow on occasion? The old Trading Station was a fascinating place with colourful people riding in with pack animals to have grain milled; or to sell their wool, wheat and peas; to purchase the daily needs of life that would otherwise be unavailable. Trader’s wives often had to provide medical help especially in remote areas, thus the old time Traders rendered a valuable service to the people. I recall a man arriving at a Station with a length of rope made from grass. This was to show the size of a wooden coffin needed to bury a relative. The coffin was duly loaded onto a donkey or mule and taken back to the village: perhaps a couple of days ride away.

Note: I do not clearly recall the names of the streams in the disputed area

           Sehalahala: Chrysocoma tenuifolia [ciliata];Bitterboss. An invasive weed that

encroaches due to overgrazing. Useful firewood but smoky.

The Jones Family now own Malealea.

Story by Peter Millin

Leave a Reply