Kingdom in the Sky: Lesotho by Horseback

 

From the back of a feisty bay Basotho pony named Goofy, I handed over my passport to officials at the international border crossing between the Kingdom of Lesotho and South Africa. With a new stamp in my passport, I relished the novelty of crossing a land border on horseback. It was the beginning of a multi-day horse trek into the rugged mountains of Lesotho with a trail riding company called Khotso (meaning ‘peace’) based near the town of Underberg in South Africa.

As we entered Lesotho and began our gentle ascent into the sloping mountains, I was struck by how familiar the terrain looked, initially reminding me of the green hills and valleys of the Welsh countryside I grew up in. After a few hours of riding along untouched terrain, I marveled at the absence of roads or any sign of man-made infrastructure. As the grass covered mountain sides became steeper, a blanket of dense fog skimmed the crests, conjuring a scene that could be mistaken for the Scottish Highlands.

As we rode from one tiny mountain village to the next, Basotho shepherds wrapped in wool blankets and wearing tall rubber boots dotted the landscape, traversing the mountains on foot and on horseback. A source of great pride in Lesotho, horses are an integral part of the cultural identity for the Basotho people who continue to rely on them for transportation, agriculture, and herding livestock.

With a population of approximately 2 million, over 99% of whom are part of the Sotho – also known as Basotho – ethnic group, Lesotho is a landlocked country within South Africa, situated in the dramatic Drakensburg Range that covers the territory of Lesotho as well as the eastern part of South Africa. From pristine waterfalls and rivers to lush green valleys and sweeping mountain vistas, Lesotho is the only country in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 meters in elevation, leading to its fondly known nickname of Africa’s ‘Kingdom in the Sky’.

While most of the country’s population lives in rural areas, the agriculture that fuels their livelihood is increasingly under threat due to climate-related concerns including floods, drought, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather.

In December 2012, at the end of a volunteer project in Ghana, I traveled to Cape Town in South Africa. It was my second visit to the diverse and fascinating country that I was eager to explore more of. Searching for a place to ride horses, I came across Khotso, a highly recommended trail riding company in my Lonely Planet guidebook based near the small town of Underberg. After a quick phone conversation with Khotso founder and adventurer Steve Black, I signed up for their Lesotho Expedition, packed my backpack and jumped on a bus heading north east.

Basotho shepherds wearing rubber boots and wool blankets walk together in the mountains of Lesotho.

I was immediately impressed and inspired by the astonishingly vast and serene landscapes Lesotho has to offer. More rugged and dramatic than neighboring South Africa, and a far cry from the heat and chaos of Ghana, Lesotho is an idyllic escape from the modern world for visitors like myself. For those who call it home, however, its remoteness and lack of basic infrastructure presents myriad challenges for this developing nation.

A Basotho man carries a sword while walking in the countryside of Lesotho.

After a full day riding, our horses’ saddle pads were laid out on a fence to dry before the next day’s ride.

Steve rides his horse across a lake as storm clouds gather over the mountains.

A Basotho shepherd stands on the edge of a small cliff, a vantage point for watching grazing livestock.

Fog descends over a tiny mountain village called Thamathu.

Basotho shepherds take a break while traversing the mountains by foot.

As we headed back to the border crossing with South Africa, I felt sad at the thought of continuing my journey from this extraordinary part of the world. Noticing my mood, Steve made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

With a large herd of horses, amongst them youngsters in need of training, Steve offered me the opportunity to stay on at Khotso and work with some of his young horses. Thrilled by his offer, I happily extended my stay at Khotso by several weeks.

Khotso owner Steve gives retired and much-loved horse Simon a piece of toast with peanut butter.