Exploring Lesotho on Horseback - prepare for magnificence!
There is no better way to see the Kingdom of Lesotho than on horseback. The mountainous topography of the country dictates the horse as its national form of transport. This early dependence on horses led to the breeding of the traditional Basotho Pony which is descended from the Javanese horses that were imported to the newly established Cape settlement in the 17th Century. They are called ponies because, as a result of the harsh environment, they tend to grow no larger than a European riding pony.
Lesotho has become internationally known as a Pony Trekking haven. The development of tourism and the growing number of guest lodges has resulted in an increase of established trekking trails where guests can overnight in traditional villages and experience the hospitality of this kingdom in the sky. Thanks to the efforts of the government and private sector, investments of times, skills and financial aid have opened up the country to horse tourism which has benefited many rural villages in the way of financial support and employment opportunities and training.
But how did this landlocked country come into existence? It is handy to know some of Lesotho’s fascinating history to appreciate your time in this unique country. The geology is based mainly sedimentary or volcanic rocks formed upon an ancient crystalline basement foundation that dates back 3.6 billion years. The area is notable for large fossil deposits with that of the Lesothosaurus, a small dinosaur that proliferated in the area 200 million years ago, being of particular interest. Lesotho has extensive diamond deposits amongst its natural resources. The Lestseng diamond mine recently uncovered the 5th biggest gem quality diamond in the world. This 910 carat beauty is just one of many large stones found in the area.
Although the history of Lesotho goes back millions of years, 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 a way of life that existed hundreds of years ago.
In the early 1800’s, peaceable communities of cattle owning people, who spoke dialects of Sesotho were scattered across the highlands of what is now central Southern Africa. However, during the 1800’s these Chiefdoms were disrupted by the widespread Difaqane disturbances.
Between 1815 and 1829 Chief 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 within the natural refuge created by the Maluti Mountain range in the west and the Drakensberg in the east. It was only in 1966, after a century of hostility with its neighbours, that Basutoland gained independence from the British authority and became the Kingdom of Lesotho, ruled by King Moshoeshoe II, the 3rd great-grandson of Moshoeshoe the Great.
So what can you expect when booking one of the many guided horseback tours on offer? Unparalleled views of mountains are guaranteed. The extraordinarily variable terrain includes uneven chains of breathtaking ridges towering like giant rocky shards into the sky. There are steep rocky passes, undulating plains, meadows of flowers, and inhospitable marshy snow grass and moorland. Expect cascading waterfalls, the highest of which is the mighty Maletsunyane Falls. This is one of the highest single dropping waterfalls in Africa, creating a haze of smoke as the water plummets 186 metres into a spectacular gorge. Sweeping escarpments tumble into valleys of brilliant green velvet pleats by way of switchback trails which the surefooted Basotho ponies are well adapted to.
Don’t be surprised by groups of barefoot, raggedly dressed, children who appear as if from nowhere calling greetings in high, strident voices. You will also encounter proud horsemen wrapped in their brightly coloured Basotho blankets and distinctive woven hats astride their high stepping, arch necked mounts, reminiscent of their South American counterparts, who greet you with smiles before galloping off into the distance.
Groups of shepherds, usually young boys, often dressed in the unexpected garb of white gumboots and miner’s helmets, are found all over the country. These young boys often spend days by themselves in the mountains tending their flocks. They live in simple huts, called motebo, which are often perched precariously on lookout points. Animals are very important in Basotho society and most families have some cattle. Oxen are used to plough the sloping mountain fields and wool is a major source of income both from Memo sheep and mohair from Angora goats.
The mountain telegraph is the traditional method of long distance communication. A shout from one side of a mountain valley is answered by someone on the other side. The message is then picked up by another and so passed along from village to village in a series of raucous calls and long distance conversations. Simple, but very effective.
Passing a village you will frequently see a flag flying from a tall pole. This indicates a place where something is being sold. A white flag means “joala”, a locally brewed sorghum beer. Yellow means maize beer, red means meat and green means vegetables.
A typical village is a small settlement of traditionally built round huts, or rondavels. The Basutho people are of small build and innately friendly and inquisitive. It is etiquette for the guides to introduce you to the village chief and inform him of your destination. Often you will be invited to stop awhile to partake of traditional hospitality with a sip of joala, but be warned, this brew can be quite heady and not to everyone’s taste.
Lesotho is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 metres. Its lowest point is at 1,400 metres (4,593 ft), the highest lowest point of any country. The highest point is the peak of the Thabana Ntlenyana mountain, which reaches an elevation of 3,482 metres.
Overgrazing and poor farming practice have unfortunately left their toll, especially in the low lying areas, with large areas of soil erosion have left gullies, called dongas, that scar the landscape. Numerous international aid programs are trying to correct this with agricultural education schemes, but the poverty of the country and the increasing population makes it an ongoing battle. In 2011 Lesotho was rated as the 28th poorest country in the world. But don’t let this sway your decision to visit. This beautiful mountain kingdom is one of the friendliest and fascinating countries you can explore.
Written and researched by Andrew Knapp for inclusion in the proposed 2019 publication Ficksburg & Beyond - the Ultimate Guide.