Lesotho - 30th December
On the 30th of December, we rose early, packed our saddle bags, loaded the horses on the float and were driven to Bushmans Nek, the border control post out of South Africa.
We mounted our horses and whilst Andre took our passports in to the controllers, I crossed my first border on horse back. We had exited South Africa and were in "no mans land", a stretch of national park preceeding the official Lesotho border.
After a couple of hours of riding through the spectacular Ukuhlanbou mountains (which means barrier of spears), with long galloping stretches through wildflower grasslands and slow clip clopping up steep rocky mountain ledges we reached a cut open barb wire fence. Three sturdy sure-footed pony steps later and I was in Country number 50, the Mountain Kingdom, Lesotho (pronounced: Les oo too) What a magnificent place to mark my world countries half century.
We stopped for lunch on a high plateau with outstanding 360 degree views. Reaching the plateau required a precarious cliff climb, sections of which we needed to dismount and lead our horses up. My Lesotho pony, Slip, was far more competent at this activity than I was, and unable to stay far enough ahead of him my foot was accidentally stomped. There goes another big toe nail I thought - remembering the last toe injury in the Andes.
The heat of the day was upon us and I felt my temperature rising from the germs I had caught from the backpacker below my bunk in Coffee bay. I washed down Disprin with warm water and sandwiches and wondered if this adventure was going to be more challenging than I had wistfully imagined.
The afternoon hours slipped by as we rode through long valleys, filled our water bottles in babbling brooks and climbed high mountains in search of a the ultimate view.
Throughout our journey we were astounded by the fact that despite the land being very lush and green, it was disturbingly void of any signs of life, human or otherwise. Only twice during our two days in the mountains did we see the same wild animal - a lonely deer that speedily and effortlessly escalated the mountains. Apparently there was a baboon family perched high on top a mountain crest, but to me they just looked like black blobs. The reason there are no animals in this fertile national park is that every time they are artificially re-introduced into the area, the locals in the small, scattered villages kill them off before they have a chance for their numbers to increase sustainably.
As we neared the small village of Sehlabatebe, we stopped and looked at outdoor galleries of centuries old rock art along the river gorge and gazed into large crystal pools of water where local village children played.
Having traveled for a full day on horse back, I was relieved to sight our mountain lodge. The dewy mountain air was now filled with village woodsmoke and the scent of horse sweat (and I'm sure I didn't smell too great either). Thankfully Michael and our guide had room in their small saddle bags for food. Of course my bags were filled with cameras and 'essential' items like a raincoat and jacket (neither of which were used) and whilst I soaked again in the bath, magic happened in the kitchen. Before long, there was a magnificent roast chicken, baked potatoes, mashed butternut pumpkin and green beans in front of me, and a sherry to wash it down. After seconds and thirds, I'm sure I ate ½ a dozen baked potatoes, I took myself off to bed at 7.30pm to try and get on top of my head cold that had now cranked up a gear so that not only did I have a heavy cough, runny nose but massive temperature as well.
I slept very heavily but woke every 2 hours, almost to the minute, needing to take another round of disprin (which they luckily had at the lodge) and nasal spray.
The next day I awoke to the most magnificent view out of my window and was amazed that I wasn't aching all over from the previous days riding. I quite comfortably got back on the horse and we set off via some beautiful rock formations. On a small part of our ride that was on a proper dirt rode used by motor vehicles, I luckily or unluckily, the jury's still out, took my feet out of the stirrups and kicked my legs up on my saddle bag to change position and stretch my legs out a bit. A 4x4 approached and passed by the 2 horses ahead of me. Before I could reach a decision as to whether I should put my legs down, the 4x4 had reached me and Slip, and Slip was not happy. His ears went back and with a screech Slip took off down the steep mountain edge. As he fell I rolled off his back and tumbled, eating Lesotho dirt as I descended from view of the others on the road. My landing was relatively soft, except for when my head collected a slate rock - my final resting point. I paused for a moment to establish whether I was OK. Tears flowed but more from shock rather than injury. I eventually returned the calls of the onlookers peering down at me. "Yes I'm OK". With those three words, my guide took off after Slip who was now several hundred metres away. Perhaps I would have controlled Slip and stopped him taking off had my feet been in the stirrups, but if they had been in position and he'd taken off anyway, chances I'd be telling this story are slim.
Once Slip was back with us, I walked with him for a little then decided I best "get back on the horse" or I'd never reach the border and the ranch for New Years Eve celebrations.
I managed to summons the gumption to gallop a couple more times that day but my nerves were shot on the precarious section that we had had to walk the horses up the day before. Going down, seeing nothing but empty space in front of me and imagining Slip taking off as he had earlier in the day, as we cascaded down the mountain, I found myself holding on for grim life, eyes squeezed tightly shut, chanting what my guide, trying to coach me through the journey, kept saying back to me as he laughed at the expression of horror on my face: "Trust your horse, Trust your horse". I trusted Slip to the best of my ability as I really had no choice in the matter but put my trust in a higher power.
I made it down without further incident and when we finally arrived back at the border the day had turned hideously hot. My lips were dry and wind burnt and I'd added red, stinging, itchy hands - a reaction I think associated with accumulated usage of Maleria, to my growing list of aliments.
We'd radioed ahead an order for serious cough medicine and cold and flu tablets, that I washed down at the ranch with a New Years beer (or two or three perhaps). We had small firecrackers, a bomfire and games with the kids before the combination of illnesses, medications and 2 days on horse back saw me bring in 2008 asleep just after midnight on the farmhouse sofa.
Happy belated New Year everyone.
Summary tip: A good place to avoid is Sani Lodge, who promise the world but will readily disappoint if they get a better offer and fail to even return phone calls.A great place to stay and relax and arrange a Lesotho trip is Khotso Farm. Andre will sort out all your problems and will even make special trips to the Pharmacy in town if you need anything.