Malutis on a Horse

The ‘Luti’ is a person from up. The Basotho are the people from down. Hence the Maluti Mountains are full of ‘Baluti’, Mountain People – I would rightly or wrongly presume. These are the kind of discussions that you have time for when riding up (Holimo) from down (Tlase). And when there is such a substantial difference between down there and up here I can understand why the concept is so important.  

Crossing the Makhaleng River, en route for Ha Joba.

Climbing away from the great Makhaleng River, forded at Ha Joelle near the confluence of the Ribaneng River, the great towering pyramid of Lekhatje, appears as though directly imported from Egypt. We have already crossed twenty brown lines on my 1:50.000 ordinance survey map. That is five hundred meters by the time we reach Ha Monaheng, the little village perched on the edge of this strangely shaped mountain. This is the gateway to the Thaba Putsoa range, a vast chunk of the highland mass of this very mountainous Kingdom of Lesotho. We are ‘holimo’ and there is more to come. Lesotho has the highest ‘low point’ in the world and the highest peak in Southern Africa; Thabana Ntlenyana at 3481m.

This journey was conceived more that two years ago, while riding with friends from Malealea Lodge to Semonkong and back over a more northerly part of the same range. After five days it was decided. I would do a longer journey but on my own. You can’t submit good friends to the whims of a photographer. So plans where drawn up over the previous year and here it was, day one and we are already high up through the first part of the range. At this point the narrow bridal path is near the 2000m contour and is just a scratch on the side of the precipice. Half a kilometre below our hooves is the fabulous  ́Masemouse River and our first waterfall is in the shadows of a  looming nimbus. Lunch intervenes co-operatively and the horses begin what is to be an orgy of grazing. The grasses are diverse and the quality is apparently to their great satisfaction.

It is for this reason that the villagers from far below send their herd boys up into the mountains at this time of the year, when grazing has become depleted in the lowlands. Everywhere we are to pass small thatched round huts built as temporary shelters for the shepherds. These ‘motebò’ are always perched on the highest point and command extraordinary views of the mountains and the valleys. It is from there that the boys watch over their herds and there they sleep with a threadbare blanket on grass beds. The boys and young men from the higher parts are tough and close to nature. They live on very little food and are barely clothed. A blanket and wellington boots is all between them and the snow sometimes.  Later we will meet herd boys in the lowlands in Reeboks and designer shirts and wearing headphones attached to their mobile ‘phone. It’s that difference again.   

For now the clouds have moved along their path and we can find ours. The first waterfall pictures in the can, we head for Lekhalo-la-Tlama (The Pass of Obligation) and the hard climb to Ha Jobo Nthoana, where the charming young chieftainess  ́Me Masekhobe Nthoana greets us and shows us a flat spot with good grass and water. What else would three weary horses and two tired trekkers need. Well, tea would be good. My guide and friend, Phakané tends to the mounts and tack and I put on the kettle.

́Me Masekhobe Nthoana

From here on we leave the beaten bridal path for the not so well trodden goat trails and they get thinner. Somehow these routes cling to the edge of the mountain and it seems that they could fall off at anytime and so could we. Our direction always south-easterly, follows the lay of the valleys. At the top of the next one a strange man appears to stand out from the cliff face; it is a large standing stone – ‘Fika-la-Motho’. Over the pass and down again into the valley is a vast marsh, flat and luminescent with lush grasses and streams on every azimuth. Like good children they all find their way past the village of Qhoasing and into the mother river of the same name. The Morena’s (Chief’s) wife  ́Me Maté gratefully accepts our 20 Maluti note and sends boys to show us the camping ground outside the village. The boys tend to the horses for a few left-overs of papa and beans. 

Qhoasing Falls

The hospitality of the Basotho  is well known and has been a cornerstone of Lesotho nationhood since the Great King Moshoeshoe. If the traveller is well looked after by the villagers, it will be safe for the villagers to travel themselves. A good premise for civilised mobility which is so vital for life in Lesotho. So it is to expected that the Morena will want to have you close by. You are his responsibility. This camp site has everything you want on such a journey. The village is just out of sight over the hill, so the children visit but do not outstay their welcome. There, twenty meters away is a fresh stream of crystal clear mountain water that does not come from anywhere near the village. It is a five minutes walk to a river deep enough for a swim. In front of our small amphitheatre pasture are the objects of our desires; The Qhoasing falls and a majestic view of the valley and mountains of central Lesotho and a clutch of cathedral-like cliffs just made to catch the setting sun. The rain comes to order once the camp is set-up and the evening repast is over. Phakané and I don’t find our tents; instead stand with our tea cups staring in silence at the spires through the rain mist. The regular pitter-patter of the rain drops falling from the easterly nimbus is a surreal poetry of sound. New clouds slide in from the north, larger and darker, to change the light and our senses. The regular rhythm of the rain drops on the tent is now syncopating with a new drummer, the northern drops hit “pluck” – “pluck” as the second rains begin. It is raining twice.

The third dawn rises on a tough ride ‘holimo’ and even further away from the main trails. Phakané shows his small horse Alex much mercy by zigzagging up the more difficult slopes. My horse, known as “Braai Pack” at the lodge but quickly renamed Matla (Power), is shown the idea but he declines and races up the straight line to the top. He is not even out of breath and I can sit at the top of the next lekhalo (pass), take pictures and wait for the small caravan to catch up. There are a lot of ups and downs in this business and the ride between camps is a hard 6 or 7 hours. Today takes us down to the village of Ha Matekane, a mill, a clinic and an airstrip serve the whole valley. The noise and wind change our tack however and we look for a camp further on. Good decision; 1 km out of ‘town’ is the Majapereng river and an idyllic camp site. 

A pair of black ducks seem to own the place. A male masked weaver is building yet another nest over the river, waiting for the approbation of his spouse. Malachites play in the late sun and tickle at a few samples of the mass of flowers that adorn the opposite river bank. Our side is flat and grassy, as ordered.  The name of the river and the village far upstream, means “The place where a horse was eaten”, obviously referring to times of famine. This evening the horses are tethered on shorter ropes.

The morning brings another day of sunshine and the horses have eaten well but have not been consumed. Grateful for this small mercy we clamber on upwards, ever upwards. And then down of course and that is actually the harder bit. Horses do not like going downhill. Nor do my knees but if this rider was to consider that the horse is in fact walking on his middle finger and finger nail, he might have more compassion for his mount. And that brings us to the next down bit. Very down. 

The 700m descent into the Ketane Valley

The trail we have chosen to follow to the Ketane Valley is not well known outside the local villages and even they don’t like it. Past the Quorong River and its magnificent cascades and over the hill to Ha Oesi where we receive our first warning; – “You can’t take a Lekhooa (European) down there” they say to the guide. Well Phakané did and we lived to tell the tale of a 700 meter slide down a goat trail of zigs and zags, each less than a horse length and each dropping a mans height. Matla was breathing down my neck as I led him down this terrible path, both of us slipping on our bums at every turn. Of course you learn to lean back when going downhill on a horse. Well, you must remember not to do that when walking downhill. Phakané led the way with Alex and controlled Thaba Ntso, the poor pack horse, somehow managing far better than Matla and I. The decent took two hours but the much awaited shade and water of the village at the bottom was a great disappointment. Ketane village is the last development at the top of the Ketane valley. It is also known as Ketane Ha Letele after the Morena of that name. A friendly inhabitant attempted kindly to find a suitable camp site and water supply but there was none to be had. The ground was ploughed and the stream came right through the village. No shade either and no grass for the ever hungry horses. The worst news possible was that there is a Maphato (initiation school) on the river and we cannot go past it, so no access to the great Ketane Falls from here.

Ketane Falls

I was to regret the next decision. As the conditions were not favourable at the village and because the next waterfall could only be viewed by climbing another mountain on foot, I ordered the retreat. Another trail of what was to turn out to be equal in pain to the previous descent was indicated. “Very short” said the kind villager, not wanting to discourage us from departing. So for another two hours we slogged back up the mountain. Tired to the extreme we summited at Selomong (The place of the Precipice) into a beautiful, high valley and one of the best camps I have ever seen; near the village of Morena Mathias and his sweet lady Georgina. This is Ha Hlalele and no problem sleeping that night and no hungry villagers scouring the valley for plump horses. We are a few hundred meters from the head of one of Lesotho’s most spectacular waterfalls – Ketane Falls. The hundred meter single drop falls is hidden from view by a narrow and contorted gorge. To view the falls at all it is necessary to descend a long, precipitous and slippery path. The place breathes vertigo. All other attempts to improve the angle of view proved to be fruitless. In hindsight it would appear that the best view would be from that damned mountain that I declined to approach from “down” at Ketane yesterday! Too late now that we are “up” again.

Below the Ketane Falls

And more ‘holimo’ to come, this time turning west again in the direction of home. The six and a half hour ride from Ha Hlalele to Ribaneng is mostly climbing over the very heart of the Thaba Putsoa range. With hardly any trace of a trail, this is definitely ‘off the beaten track’. Following the contours and the sun we picked our way through the valleys of marshy ground covered with a hundred shades of green and over the stony passes, clumping hooves and scraping shoe iron over the basalt rocks. The air is still all day, disturbed only by the whistle of the robins, and the rock-jumpers, the shriek of the Jackal buzzard and our own caravan noises. The gods of the pony trek have watched over this little train and kept the rain away every day until we were tucked up in our tents. Every morning the sun dried the rain or dew from the canvas and brightly lit the scene for my records.

Ketane Valley from Ha Hlalele

The last two hours of the passage of this mountain range is downhill and end with the infamous ‘Slide-your-ass-pass’ – known to the Basotho as Lekhalo-la-Seli (The pass of Wisdom) and it is wise to heed this name. The decent is long and tiring and mistakes come easily, especially at the end of the day. The last part of the pass is steep and winding, every corner presents a new challenge for the horse and rider. But Oh the reward is great for those who make this effort; The Ribaneng River and its’ winding and well treed valley greet the weary traveller with promises of lush camp sites and sweet water. The horses smell the grass and water and hurry on to a large copse of giant white poplars, tightly planted to shield from the sun but carefully arranging themselves around a small clearing, prompted by the trek gods to make space for a dozen campers. Tea is required.

The days work is not done ‘though. It needs a 45 minute hike with all the camera gear on my back, (the horses are out to graze), to see the Ribaneng River flying over the escarpment in it four high steps down to the valley floor. The herders have blocked the path nearer to the falls, on this side of the river, but the views here from 300 meters are good. Too close to the cliffs and you cannot see the full extent of the fall. Even from here only one drop is visible. To get closer would require returning to camp and starting another hour long walk on the other side of the river or bashing madly about in the cheche bush and the sun is about to set.

Ribaneng Valley

We are camped ‘tlase’ again, the lowest since we last crossed water at Ha Joelle and the mosquitoes make an appearance.

The next morning is as dry as a bone and the valley is the same. The closer we get to crossing our path at the Makhaleng River, the more dust and dry grass we see.

Returning over the Makhaleng River

There has been a break in the rainy season and the herds will have to up to the mountain grazing soon. Our animals on the contrary are keen to go the other way. Smelling the oats at 20 kilometres, they pick up the pace. I want Phakané to shoot a few frames from the far side of the river but Matla does not want to wait. The stables are close and Matla shows off with a fast triple through the villages and up to the lodge. Just for fun we race back out of the main gate and down the road again, full of beans, then triple quickly back through the gates.

René Paul Gosselin – Fouriesburg January 2010