The Lesotho, small kingdom isolated in South Africa, place of shepherds, horsemen and farmers, where only 6% of the houses have electricity… The only State in the world where most of the territory is higher than 1 400 m, and even 1 800 m for 80% of it. What could be better than horse-riding to discover this unique country?
Off to Drakensberg
Wednesday, 22nd November 2017
After an early wake-up, I left to Durban and then to the Drakensberg. I wanted to go since a long time in this mountain region, which is located in the North-East of South Africa, in the Kwazulu-Natal. My bag was quite heavy as I had to bring all the necessary food to stay one week at the hostel, which is remote in the mountains, far from every shop, but I made it!
My flight to Durban was fine; then I had a transfer to Sani Lodge Backpackers, a hostel located in the Drakensberg South. A lot of treks are organized there, including the one that I was about to do on horse. It was unfortunately not possible to see the landscapes, as it was pouring rain during the 4h-drive of this transfer. I didn’t envy my driver to work in these conditions and was getting worried for the following of my trip… 3 days on horse under the rain isn’t the best conditions I could wish for!
I arrived at Sani Lodge under a mix of very thick mist / thin rain, but it didn’t prevent me from appreciating the place: the hostel is at the feet of the mountains (which I could still not see so far), the common room is cosy and welcoming with a necessary central fireplace and the rooms are all around a nice patio. Only the Wi-Fi is a problem here: you have to go to the café/restaurant where the breakfasts and dinners are served, and the connection’s quality is terrible… but whatever, I didn’t come here for the Wi-Fi!
Let’s go to Lesotho
Thursday, 23rd November 2017
After a good night sleep, I was ready for this new adventure. But the weather had still not changed, which was not reassuring…
I met Hugo and Floriane, a young French couple with who I would do the trek, and Christeen, who would be our guide for the trip. She recommended us to take warm and waterproof clothes. After talking with her, I decided not to bring my camera because of its weight and size in my bag, but also with the rainy weather that was apparently forecasted… but this will be my biggest regret of thse trip! I was indeed so focused on charging my SLR’s battery before leaving that I forgot to charge the compact’s one which was almost empty, and of course I realized it once we had left… #fail
We left in an old capricious Land Rover towards Sani Pass, the famous pass which marks the frontier between Lesotho and South Africa. This sinuous and chaotic road, created only in 1960, is under work to make it a tar road, but it should take much longer than expected given the conditions. And even once it is finished, its last part should be very dangerous in winter with the persistent snow-ice on its narrow zigzags.
Unfortunately, we could still not admire the landscape as we went up the pass through this thick mist and could only imagine what Christeen was explaining us. But the miracle happened once we passed the border: the sky was clear in Lesotho and the clouds were blocked in Drakensberg!
Some facts about Lesotho
Our drive across Lesotho was still long before arriving, but we could discover little by little the landscapes of this small country, where the land belongs to everybody. You can only own a house there, which the chief’s village tells you where to build, unless you live in a city (in that case you can buy a land to build a house).
At first glance, the mountains look empty, but they are actually full of small villages with traditional round houses. Their stonewalls and thatch roof fit harmoniously in the landscapes and go back to nature if their inhabitants leave them. Moreover, they stay hot in winter and cool in summer, contrary to the concrete houses with their metal roof that we start to see more and more.
The villages are located close to the rivers and on the lower lands, where the earth can be cultivated, while the Shepherds spend the summer with the herds on the higher parts, which are steep and dry. The country is very fertile and their inhabitants leave mostly from the culture of wheat, mill, sorghum (an ancestral cereal that we only find in Africa), peas and beans. They used to go to Kwazulu-Natal to trade these products as well as their herds’ wool and mohair, in exchange with wood and pots that were necessary for their daily life.
Once arrived at the village of the family whose horses we would ride, we shared a tea and discovered our mount. The Lesotho ponies are not a recognized breed but they are very strong and reliable horses, used to these stony mountains. They don’t even need to be tied nor kept into an enclosure and always stay to graze nearby. I met Moluti (from the name of the local beer), a small white horse a bit slow and greedy, but which I could absolutely trust.
Here it is very different from the classical way of riding horses: the reins are loose and the horses respond to voice and lash (not for me) to go on or stop.
This first afternoon on horse, even if it felt too short, was already to occasion to experience what Christeen had described to us: endless mountains everywhere, small traditional villages that we cross regularly and always everybody nicely waving at us.
As we arrived at the village where we were to stay for the night, we spent the end of the day at Mma Augustina, who was cooking a delicious typical dinner for us: papa (stiff maze mill porridge that gets almost solid), potatoes and beetroots with a lot of flavour. And chicken for the non-vegetarians!
We went to bed as early as the chickens – at 8.30 p.m. – but without any electricity, the evenings are more limited! At least we could hope to be in a good shape on the following day… and indeed, we spent an excellent night in the warm traditional house, under thick blankets.
Friday, 24th November 2017
Recharged after this long night sleep, we woke up with a bright sun and looked at the day starting in the village, while our breakfast was being prepared. What a feast! Boiled eggs, sorghum porridge and some delicious bread, cooked in a huge pot.
We then rode our horses and started walking in the mountains. The sun was with us, still with some fresh air that was perfect so not to be too warm… the conditions couldn’t be better and the landscapes that were unfolding under our eyes amazed us. We had a lunch break on a nice river’s shores, once again with traditional meals (eggs in the pan, bread, peas cooked with onions and beans cooked with some spices that we particularly enjoyed!).
Our ride stopped quite early in the afternoon in a high village, which let us time for a walk. It was the occasion to take pictures of the children in the village (how deeply I missed my camera…), to buy a South African beer for the evening and to taste the traditional beer (which is not put into bottles but is to buy in the houses that have a white flag and to drink immediately. It is a thick whitish drink made with mill, sorghum and water). We then went to end up our day on the top of two summits overlooking at the village. The wind was very strong but it pushed us in the right direction and the 360° view at the top was worth it, with the beautiful light of the end of day… it was pure happiness.
Back to the house, we shared this well-deserved beer while admiring the sunset and then had another traditional meal (except for the rice), composed of peas cooked with a lot of spices as well as tomatoes and onions cooked together. The overall is a bit fat if you look at the amount of oil and mayonnaise used for cooking but whatever, we really enjoyed it!
Sunrise at the village
Saturday 25th November 2017
The night was not as good as the previous one despite all the exercise done during the day. Awaken at 5 o’clock I went out to admire the sunrise and even went back to the summit on which we had been the day before. There was less wind and the sun was progressively going up a thick cloud barrier: I had the impression to rise at the same rhythm than the sun, which was a magic feeling.
Back home, we shared another fantastic breakfast and then headed back “home”. I had to exchange my horse with Hugo’s (whose saddle kept on turning) and discovered my new mount that was younger and more dynamic than Moluti. This last ride was a bit more complicated as Christeen’s horse, which already had a leg that seemed to be painful since the beginning, fell in a slope.
Back to Drakensberg
We still made it and on our arrival, we had one last lunch during which we enjoyed again these delicious traditional beans. It was then time to say goodbye and drive back to Drakensberg. The scenario was the same as three days ago: the bad weather was still stuck at the border and the Sani Pass was plunged into a thick and rainy mist, with a cold wind.
We had a stop at the pub located at the frontier, which claims to be the highest pub in Africa and then started to go down the pass. We were once again disappointed not to see the landscapes, but once in the middle, we eventually passed the clouds and had the rest of he drive with (at least!) wonderful views on the Drakensberg mountains.
I arrived tired but deeply moved by this unique stay and did not even look for the Wi-Fi, so to stay a bit more in this magic bubble. If I expected to be amazed by the landscapes, I did not think that we would be so deeply immersed with the locals nor that we would live such an authentic experience.
Lesotho is small and well-preserved country, whose inhabitants don’t need a lot to be happy. Their sense of community and solidarity is remarkable, and our occidental ways of life didn’t influence them too much yet (except for the mobile phones and alcohol that is a real sanitary danger). We found their horses a bit too thin and not spared enough but they are very patient, loyal and well-educated horses. Let’s hope this country will stay like this as long as possible!
This wonderful excursion in video:
TIPS & PRACTICAL INFOS
Flight from Cape Town to Durban: 48€ with Kulula.com
Transfer from Durban airport to Sani Lodge: R650 – 38,50€ with Nud Express
Sani Lodge Backpackers : R165 – 9,80€ for a 4-bed dorm, without breakfast. Very friendly hostel, perfectly located, with nice common spaces and small outside swimming-pool. They organize a lot of treks and excursions in Drakensberg and Lesotho.
3-day pony tour in Lesotho: From 2 people. R4150 – 246€ p.p, for 3 people. Includes transport from Sani Lodge to Lesotho (half a day) and the way back. Accommodation and food included.