Across the Kingdom of the Sky – Day 1

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I think that’s okay!

– Vincent

Lesotho, a 30,000 sq. km landlocked kingdom in the middle of South Africa, often goes by the nickname “Kingdom of the Sky”. And when you’re here, the moniker doesn’t feel far off. The country rises up from the rest of South Africa in a dense circle of mountains, many of which climb above 3000m and none of which lie below 1000m. It’s beautiful, rugged and culturally distinct from the rest of South Africa.

Count us in and mount us up.

Riding on sure-footed Basotho Ponies is the preferred (and certainly the most fun) way of exploring this mountain kingdom. So amidst a great shuffle of hoofs, cinching of saddlebags and rubbing down of soon to be sore bottoms, Janine and I set off this morning on a 4 day ride into the scenic Thaba-Putsoa Range near the trading post town of Malealea.

Janine and I celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary yesterday. And perhaps it was the afterglow of this special day, or the fact that we hope to start a family after these travels, or some combination of the two that made me believe Janine was being genuine when, just before setting out on the trail, she leaned over,clasped my arm gently and whispered “I hope today won’t be too hard on your balls honey.”

Call me sentimental, but I was touched. Me too sweety. Me too.

***
Our guide is a smiling, friendly young Basotho named Vincent and he quickly had us feeling at ease in the saddle. Janine was mounted on the encouragingly-named brown mare Softy. My steed’s name is Robben Island, which I quickly change to the far cooler sounding Pony Soprano. Tickled by my own wit, I rechristen Hadio, Vincent’s black mare, Pony Stark in homage to the hit movie Iron Man, and call the pack horse Pony Danza.
We start our ride from the Malealea Lodge in the foothills of the Thaba-Petsoa. It’s a glorious morning. The sun has risen red over layers of misty bald peaks. Harvested maize fields terrace the low lying hills.
Children sing and shout to us as they walk to school through the dried and withered stalks. We canter down a narrow road and pass herders, bundled in traditional Basotho blankets and sporting broad-rimmed hats or toques, bringing sheep and cows out to pasture.
We’re barely out of town before the mutiny hits. Softy is already homesick and wants to cancel the trip. She dallies, grazes insolently, snorts and finally just plain stops despite a flurry of pleas, clicks and kicks from Janine.
Finally, Vincent calls us to a halt and I reign in Pony Soprano as our guide switches mounts with Janine, placing her on Hadio. This creates a problem for Pony Soprano and I as Hadio likes to lead. With a few well placed nips on my trusted steed’s posterior, Hadio makes her point, takes the point, and then begins an ongoing game of “Let’s see if I can gently edge Jason’s horse off the side of this cliff.”
Softy is no more cooperative with Vincent than she was with Janine. But after a half hour, the pecking order seems to be established and we fall into a steady gait behind Hadio and Janine and up into the foothills.
The trail passes neatly laid out villages composed of pleasant looking Basotho round huts, made from multi-coloured river stone. Each hut is obviously well cared for, topped with a neat thatched roof. and set amidst tidy gardens, cattle pens and chicken coops. It’s the picture of what you think a rural african village should be.
The Makhaleng River flows quickly below us through a deep narrow valley.
During the rainy season, it can be deep and vicious. But now, in the dry Lesotho winter, it’s barely more than 3 feet deep at its middle. Still, it lies between us and the mountains and must be forded.

We descend to the river via a series of steep switchbacks. Here, on narrow, boulder-strewn paths, we put as much faith as we can in the Basotho pony’s reputation for steadiness. But as bowling ball sized rocks are kicked and squirted beneath hoofs, I can’t help but look down and wonder just how greasy a stain I’d make after careening down to the valley floor beneath several hundred pounds of Pony Soprano.

Of course, it’s in the middle of these ruminations that Hadio decides to pioneer a new route down to the Makhaleng. Ignoring Janine’s reign tugs and Vincent’s shouts, the black mare rambles off the established track for several dozen meters before coming to a sudden halt at a smooth shelf of rock and looking around with a distinctly confused expression.

If horses had hands I’m sure she would have reached into the saddle bags for the topo map muttering “now I just KNOW that I was supposed to turn right at Break Your Neck Road. But that should have put me at Smashed Rider Avenue by now…”

Of course, Pony Soprano had followed Hadio right into this fix. He cleverly covered his concern with a nonchalant graze.

Suddenly, Hadio snorted and moved forward down the sheer sheet of limestone as if saying “Oh that’s right! I took the Crumpled Vertebrae Exit Ramp. I’ll just scooch down Throw Whitey Lane and be back on the highway in no time.”

From behind me, Vincent first gave a startled grunt at Hadio’s route, but then quickly shouted “I think that’s okay!” just as Pony Soprano took his first cautious step onto the shelf in Hadio’s wake.

I looked back at our guide quickly. “What does he f#&king mean ‘think’!?” I thought. Pony Soprano now had his two front hoofs out in front of him like a cat that’s been pushed off the top of a park slide.

And then, with one final Bambi-on-Ice moment, we were down. Back on the main path like nothing happened, Hadio and Pony Soprano bobbing their heads as they clip clopped the final few hundred meters down to the river and I silently thanking Janine for convincing me to pack all of our spare underwear in the saddle bags.

***

I can’t help it. I have to sing a country-western song.
It’s just too perfect. The scenery on this trek is straight out of a cowboy movie. After the horses stop mid-stream to drink in the pale blue waters of the Makhaleng River, we climb out of the valley to the last of the foothills for lunch. There, looking one way, spread the faded gold of the fields, the deep cleft of the river valley, the grazing cattle guarded by the solitary blanket shrouded men. Looking the other way, the true mountains begin; green fringed at their bottoms, but quickly reaching up to imposing 2000 meter + craggy grey summits.
They could be the Rockies, minus the glaciers. At the foot of one peak sits a primary school, its playground full of children playing on what must be the most beautiful soccer pitch in Africa. Janine and I smile at each other over the rims of our tea mugs as we survey the scene. We’re going to be spending the next three days among these mountains with their waterfalls, remote villages and intrepid ponies. As good as today’s been, it’s just the beginning.
When we remount, I break into “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”.
Though, quite frankly, I can’t see why they shouldn’t.

Day 2

 
 

 

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Basotho herd boys.
How the hell did Clint and the Duke do this?

– Jason

After 2 long days on the trail, I have gained several practical insights into the world of the cowboy.

For example, I have learned that key to being a good cowboy is not having a good gun, a trusty steed or a limber lassoo.

No, the key to being a good cowboy is having top notch ass calouses.

I mean it. My posterior is positively whining right now. It doesn’t help that 10 months of hiking and paddling have decimated my once pudgy butt cheeks. By late afternoon, as Pony Soparano bounced and jangled down the last steep incline to our village stopping point, I fantasized about being tubby, a little pear shaped, downright obese even. Anything to put another layer between me and that relentless saddle.

“How the hell did Clint and the Duke do this?” I thought to myself, wincing at each clip and clop.

***

Last night, we slept at the small village of Horong, a collection of about a dozen rondavels high above the Ribaneng River. Each hut was made from colourful riverstone and snugly roofed with thick thatch. As we arrived in the late afternoon, the animals were being herded back into town for the night.

 

 Sheep and cows were herded into stone pens whilst the herd boys moved from animal to animal relieving it of the heavy rattling bell worn while out to pasture. Two pigs snuffled noisily through a pile of chaff while a couple of large roosters and their respective harems and broods hopped and fluttered to the top of a raised platform coop made from willow sticks.

 

 

Several mutts, yellow and grey, showing characteristics of everything from wolfhound to bull terrier, watched over the scene and occasionally sent up a chorus of barks at imaginary jackles lurking in the growing shadows. Our horses were put in a pasture far away from the town’s last unharvested field, which they had eyed a little too obviously on their way in.

 

 

As darkness fell, all grew quiet quickly and for a little while the only sound was the river and the only sight the lantern lights from other huts on the opposite bank. Then a near-full moon broke free of the clouds overhead and the whole valley was coated in silver. It was a beautiful pastoral scene; the image of rural Africa as many of us cherish it in our minds. Only the growing cold and the brisk wind blowing down from the higher mountains drove us into our own snug little rondavel to sleep.

 

 

***

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Lesotho Alarm Clock

 

 

We awoke in darkness. Well, to put it more accurately a rooster woke us in the darkness. One started cackling at 4, was joined by the other half an hour later, and by 5:45 both were too much together to ignore. We didn’t mind though – we had a hike to do.

After breakfast we tramped an hour on foot up the Ribaneng river valley to view the impressive 122m Ribaneng Falls. Our guide was a petite Basotho named Bofana Bofana who, draped in a tattered blanket and smoking homemade cigarettes rolled in old newspapers, spoke English only to the extent of being able to say “Let’s Go” and to express undying love to Janine.
The narrow path to the falls was too insubstantial for the ponies, but it was nice to be stretching our limbs after the previous day’s long ride and before mounting up for an even longer trip today. Along the way, we passed a remote hut for shepherd boys. Three of them piled out of the little house to wave to us and pose for a picture. They only asked for Janine’s watch in return. Charmed, we gave their outstretched hands a high five and continued on.
The falls themselves were lovely, plunging over a series of smaller ledges before making a final unbroken tumble into a deep pool at their base. The water looked cold, healthy and inviting. But it was too early to swim and we’d seen too many sheep (and too much sheep poop) in high places to risk a drink.

“Let’s go,” said Bofano Bofano, heading back to the village.

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***

Today’s ride was a parade of dramatic reveals worthy of one of those reality t.v. “Redo My Bedroom” shows. We summited 6 passes of varying sizes, each one special and different from the last. It began with a high climb to a plateau overlooking the entirety of the Ribanang Falls.

A narrow finger of rock stretched out from the plateau and, resting the horses, we clambered out to stand and be awestruck by both the plunging waters and the craggy grey-topped peaks that surrounded them.

Ahead of us lay another pass, the highest of the day. When we arrived there, a little past noon, we were treated to another view of two worlds. Behind us, the green fringed mountains stretched back and melded into the maize riddled foothills we’d been travelling through for the past day and a half. Ahead, more mountains stretched on to the jagged black line of the far horizon, those nearest to us terraced here and there with wheat fields, dotted with the odd shepherd’s hut and grazed by herds of sheep, ponies and donkeys.

We lunched near the pass rim and savoured the sights. The ponies munched noisily on the spiky tufts of grass that speckled the rocky hillside. Janine and I sipped tea and wondered aloud whether 4 days would be enough to really enjoy such magnificent countryside.

We cantered on for another 3 hours after lunch, dipping and rising through a series of valleys and complementing passes. Through fields where boys cut wheat stalks with hand held sickles, past grazing animals watched over by solitary singing boys and sharp-eyed dogs and alongside burbling spring fed streams that seemed irresistable to the ever-parched Pony Soprano.

Sometimes a herdsman would wave to us or sometimes a dog would bark an insolent challenge as we went by. But otherwise, we felt like travellers through a monumental and imperishable land. We could have been here in 2008; we could have been here in 1508. Besides the rubber boots on some of the herders, it didn’t feel like much had changed here in a long time.
And that was fine with us.

Day 3

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

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Georgina
“Fermented grapes.”

– Jason

Georgina along with her husband Mathias, is the chief of Ha Hlalele, the small village we stayed in last night.

It has just been dark a little while when she knocks on the door of our rondavel and enters, dressed in rubber boots, a thick blanket and a wool tuque. She’s just come back from a funeral, she explains, still huffing from the 3 hour walk. She wants to know all about us – where we’re from, what we do, how old we are. But soon she reveals, shall we say, a deeper thirst for knowledge.

“What church do you go to? she asks. We tell her Roman Catholic and she’s delighted. “Me too!” she says with a clap and a smile. Then she asks seriously, “What are you drinking?”

I look at my little mug of wine and sigh. “Fermented grapes,” I say with little hope that semantics will avoid me having to give wine away. I’m right.

“Ah,” the old woman says sagely. “I would like some.”

Render unto Caesar. We pour Georgina a healthy mug of Shiraz and she chugs it in three large gulps. Placing the mug down on the table with a neat little clink she sighs and smiles. “Thank you!” she says brightly.

“You may take my picture now.”

My first instinct is to tell her a picture will cost her a beer. But she is the chief, and anyway the light is terrible. So we make a date for tomorrow and Georgina gives us a cheerful goodnight. Obviously, a little nip before bed brings out her grandmotherly side. She pats us fondly and before closing the door to our rondavel, looks dubiously at our sleeping bags and asks if we are sure we’ll be warm enough. We assure her we’ll be fine and she closes the door with a chuckle.

“Wow, she really pounded back that wine,” Janine said thoughtfully afterwards. “Guess she really is Catholic.”

In the morning, Georgina was true to her end of our bargain and showed up promptly before we left for her photo shoot. She conducted Janine to her small rectangular home and sat primly in a gorgeously patterned blanket for pictures that took in, not only her, but her tiled floors, collection of plates and array of stuffed animals, all of which she was quietly but noticeably proud.

And why shouldn’t she be? Prior to this, we’ve only seen packed earth floors in rounded huts and the nearest thing to a luxury item was a battered old radio at the centre of a group of intensely listening herdsmen. One of the many nice things about this corner of the world is that a stuffed monkey and some matching plates are worth a picture.

***

We started our day with a hike to the imposing Ketane waterfall, which plunged uninterrupted for more than a 100 meters from a precipitous ledge boxed in by sheer green and grey cliffs on all sides. As we stared at the roaring water from a precipitous viewing point of our own,Vincent tried to convince me that the rivers in this area are known to harbour crocodiles. But watching my breath puff out in little clouds on each exhale, I told him that only furred crocodiles could live in this climate and he spent the next half hour doggedly and laughingly trying to convince me that any number of shepherd boys had been eaten by crocs and that that this was part of the reason why he’d never learned to swim.

 

The morning was cool. The sky had turned the colour of dirty dishwater after a clear night when the nearly full moon had rendered flashlights superfluous. Now we mounted the ponies wearing hats, sweaters and even gloves in the face of a brisk southerly. We worried about rain, but the sky never truly followed through on its threat. By mid morning we were cresting our first mountain pass in sunshine, though the breeze continued strongly enough to keep us in our warm clothes.

 

Maybe it was the Advil speaking, but after yesterday’s bruising ride, we felt better and stronger today in the saddle. Janine rode confidently, straight backed, guiding Softy easily through the scrubby bush and over the rock-strewn paths like she’d been riding all her life. Pony Soprano and I were getting along famously, no doubt aided by my singing to him a variety of songs which substituted the word “pony” for a key word in the title (“Oh Pony Boy”, “Three Ponies in a Fountain”, etc). I interpreted his snorts, head flicks and ear shifts as signs of appreciation and serendaded him mercilessly. When the ponies wanted to drink, we let them drink and they carried on after a few sips without further coaxing.

When they got hungry, they’d nip at a facefull of grass or a withered maize stalk in mid step without breaking much stride. When we said “whoa” they whoa’d except for one time when I tried to pee with Pony Soprano’s bridle still hooked under my arm. That experiment came to an unsuccessful and rather damp end.
Today’s ride may have been the most enjoyable for both it’s ease and scenery. We maintained a high altitude, skirting ridges and passes that afforded magnificent panorams of Lesotho mountain ranges, speckled as usual with an assortment of grazing cattle, roaming dogs, idle herd boys and their run-down little riverstone shelters.
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By the end of the day we surfed one final rocky crest and descended to the little village of Sekoting. Behind its small collection of rondavels sprang two tall, cylindrical peaks nearly equal in height to each other.

In the opposite direction, repeating waves of serrated mountains made for the bottom edge of the sky.

We must have been getting better at riding, because after a cup of tea, we found ourselves spry enough to climb the tallest of the cylinders.

“Hope the ponies can’t see us,” I gasped to Janine as we scrambled to the top. “They’ll be mad as hell if they know we can do all this kind of shit by ourselves.”

At the top, we wheezily enjoyed one more superb 360 degree view of mountains, valleys, rivers and villages in the amber twilight. Far beneath us, the grazing sheep looked like grains of rice scattered on a rumpled green tablecloth. In the distant west, we could once again see the faded gold of the foothills. By this time tomorrow, we’ll be back in Malealea. I wondered again if we shouldn’t have booked a week long trip.

Maybe 10 days. Maybe we should live here for a year. I could learn Sesotho and Janine could make blankets from sheep wool.

“Do you ever look at all this,” Janine said quietly, “and wonder if you’re really here?” Somewhere below, a group of villagers was singing and laughing. Their voices drifted up to our perch in the cool Sunday evening air.

“Yes,” I said.

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Day 4

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We may have found the cutest shepherd boy in the world.

Hai Tony Soprano! Hai! Hai! …. Whoa Tony Soprano! Whoa! Jesus! WHOA!

– Jason

All good things must come to an end. I guess.

One last time, we saddled the ponies, clicked “hai” and trotted towards the last mountain pass separating us from the completion of our 4 day circuit into the Thaba-Putsoa range and back to the Malealea lodge.

It was a full day’s ride back to the lodge and I have to admit that it was a little anti-climactic, the main drama coming from Tony Soprano’s last minute decision to become a race horse. I’m not quite sure what happened, but one moment I was trying to urge him into a trot to keep up with Janine’s horse (who had literally seen the barn and was completely focussed on getting back to it) and the next moment the back of my head was bouncing off my vertebrae as he jolted into a fierce gallop. It only lasted for a few seconds. But it was enough for me to lose both my hat and my dignity.

Otherwise, it was a peaceful ride. We passed through villages that grew increasingly modern as they got closer to Malealea. The river stone rondavels with their neatly thatched roofs became diluted with square homes, made with cinderblocks and roofed with tin sheeting. Gone were the little toddlers wearing their traditional blankets, miniature rubber boots and little shepherding sticks. Now the children wore western clothes – second hand t-shirts and sweaters featuring Nickelodeon cartoon characters or sports team logos from far away countries they’d never see. There was more garbage, vehicles belching dust and fumes, noise and begging. Is this “development”? If so, give me the undeveloped traditional villages any day. Those places had a dignity and beauty lightyears beyond their more “modern” counterparts.

But the downsides of returning from a beautiful trip couldn’t keep us down. There were still those gorgeous mountains to gaze at from the gently swaying backs of our ponies. They won’t be mondernizing anytime soon. Then there was always the antics of the harried goats, the chipper herding dogs, the belligerent donkeys and the amorous cows to keep us entertained. And if animal hijinx wasn’t enough, there was the more high brow diversion of the ancient bushman paintings that we stopped near for lunch.

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A Bushman painting showing the arrival of the Afrikaners.

By late afternoon, our new sure footed friends had us back at the lodge.

Janine and Softy/Pony Stark shared a tearful farewell, while Pony Soprano and I discussed football and shared a manly hand/hoof shake. Our guide, Vincent, was thanked warmly for his great service before he left the lodge at a brisk trot of his own to get home to his wife and little boy.

The sun had started to set by the time we had our things out of our saddle bags and resettled into their normal homes in our backpacks. We were tired and, while better than previous days, a little sore after the 7 hour ride. Still, after a brief discussion, we both agreed to press on and drive back to South Africa that night. 4 days seemed a pitifully brief time in such a beautiful country. But it had also been idyllic.

And maybe we wanted to keep our memories of the Kingdom of the Sky as pure as possible. So we didn’t strive to peel back the layers and understand Lesotho’s difficulties with poverty, AIDS/HIV and corruption as we had in other African countries. Instead, we just talked about how wonderful it had been. And we drove.

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Move along little doggies.

 

 

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