Saddle

 Semonkong and Malealea, Lesotho

Bouncing up and down on a friendly and cooperative but overly eager donkey after taking a single shot, joined by four other travellers who did the same with me, I thought: What in the world am I getting myself into? My donkey’s owner, Bafuke (who also named his donkey Bafuke), was all laughs as he ran after me, trying to get my donkey to go in the right direction without the aid of reins or even a stick.

Three bars, three hours, and three beers later (and most of you know that’s far more than I can normally take), I had a permanent grin plastered to my face, waving to every villager I passed (who all waved back), giggling as my donkey broke into a run and I was a little too tipsy to hold on tight.

Yes, I made it back in one piece. But this is Lesotho — real, tough, and yet a total riot. We were joined by other patrons at the bars who arrived on horseback! They spent the night playing pool, dancing along to whatever they could find on the jukebox, playing slots, and chatting with us.

How I started…

How I ended up

The center of the community of Semonkong (which isn’t a town, but I’ll call it one anyway) was formerly located at the end of a dead-end road, and even though it’s now well-connected to the rest of the country and no longer a dead-end, it still maintains its secluded feel. As such, development is scarce (with the exception of the two supermarkets, one of which is Chinese-owned), and most businesses are just shacks of corrugated steel down a dusty main street, shared by pedestrians, cars, and people on horseback alike. It’s quite surreal to see people buying groceries on horseback!

Despite its frontier feeling, it’s still the most populated area in the entire community, which includes countless villages in the hillsides. During my stay, there was a children’s sports day that brought children (and some of their parents) from all the surrounding villages into town, some of whom had to ride in for days. Nonetheless, residents from the center (more accustomed to seeing visitors) and the surrounds (less likely to speak English) alike were friendly and chatty. It seems to be Basotho custom to greet and be greeted by every single person you meet or pass, with either “lumela” (du-me-la, “hello”), “khotso” (“peace”), “ntate” (“sir”), “m’e” (mm-ay, “madam”), or even just a long “e” (“yes”). While that makes walking around an awfully slow affair, I was genuinely touched by the respectful atmosphere, one where people seem to take their time to welcome everyone in no hurry.

While the lodge (located right along a bridge and sandwiching a path that all villagers had to take to get from town to any of the surrounding villages, making it a busy thoroughfare) was very, very nice and I could’ve just stayed there the whole time, watching locals pass by with their donkeys and horses, I spent a lot of time mingling in the town instead, having food, going to the bar, getting a haircut, and so on. My presence was a bit of a surprise to people, and reactions were varied: most just called out “China”. Some (more than one!) started talking to me eloquently about Chinese politics and their business presence in the country. One girl was hitting on me. Another drove up beside me, opened a window, and started a conversation in fluent Mandarin. As end-of-the-road as this place is, many are remarkably learned and well-informed.

Semonkong (“place of smoke”) is so named due to its proximity to the famed Maletsunyane Falls, a little less than an hour’s hike away from the town down a muddy but gorgeous path through a few villages. It’s also the site of the world’s longest commercially-operated abseil, and while I didn’t make the time to do it, it was quite fun to watch people doing it from afar. The waterfall itself is a beautiful straight drop, one of the highest in the world, and simply gorgeous even if you don’t count its setting in a deep and expansive gorge.

Joining — or rather, swarming — me on my walk to and from the falls was a Class 6 field trip from a school in Maseru. Kamohelo, the first who wasn’t shy to talk to me and therefore broke the ice for everyone else, told me they had come to Semonkong for two days to learn about rural living, and viewing the falls was an extra treat. After I became their impromptu school photographer and piggyback-giver for awhile, two girls, Moretlo and Thato, gave me a small Sesotho lesson and even sang me their national anthem. (Basotho young and old seem immensely proud of their country, and were extremely flattered to see visitors who were enjoying themselves.) As happy as they were to be on their trip, they were also missing home and home-cooked meals, but Moretlo offhandedly mentioned that they don’t talk about their mothers in front of other students.

Why? Well, in her words, “For some, the word ‘mother’ brings pain, since they don’t have one.” Lesotho has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, fluctuating between the high 30s and 40s, and a big reason for that — aside from poverty and access to health care in remote places — is one of the world’s highest AIDS infection rates at one in four. Many people don’t even know their status. It was a sudden dose of reality after the highs of seeing all the beauty around, both natural and interpersonal. It made all of my subsequent bus rides suddenly sobering, wondering how many in my vehicle were suffering. Lesotho isn’t the paradise it looks like.

But gosh, it’s so easy to forget that. I organised a pony trek for the following two days, and just… wow. Joined by my guide Isaac, a recent high school grad from a village hours outside of town, I rode his pony Spark while he hired one for himself and one as a packhorse. Despite little horse riding experience and some very, very steep and slippery hills and many deep river crossings, all three Basotho ponies (a special breed) were well-behaved, sure-footed, and never once let us down, making for a relatively easy ride — that is, until we ran a bit behind, and Isaac coaxed all the horses into a trot, and then a full-on gallop for kilometres down in the meadows! My back still hurts a little — and Spark isn’t even a racehorse, preferring to go slower than the packhorses — in the myriad types of gaits that Basotho ponies have, he “triples”, which is more revered by Basotho for showmanship than speed. In the monthly races the community traditionally has, Isaac normally races his father’s pony.

The scenery is incredible, pristine and green. The further we went away from the roads, the less inorganic material there was. We went up and down mountains, terraced for agriculture (often in fertile grounds far away from the nearest villages or habitations), villages hugging mountain or cliffsides, and we oftentimes rode through the villages, greeting everyone we passed (bemused to see a non-local on a horse, wearing a dopey helmet). We’d see the telltale flags flying occasionally above a home, indicating surplus goods for sale: white or yellow for sorghum or maize beer, green for vegetables, red for meat. Sometimes, we’d see a single house or simple shelter for shepherds herding their animals to faraway grazing grounds, all alone in isolation. Then far away from those houses, we’d see the shepherds themselves bringing around their herds, far away from anything at all.

We passed Isaac’s village, Faralane, in about three hours by pony, having gone much slower than Isaac’s own pace when he goes back and forth between his village. He told me how he, like pretty much every other Basotho child, started riding when he was just a baby, riding independently by the age of six! While he didn’t get his own pony until his teenage years, he had to share his father’s pony, which meant that oftentimes he had to walk. Every weekday, an hour and a half to and from school, whether sun, rain, wind, or snow. If he ever had to make a phone call, he had to walk two and a half hours up to the only hill that had network reception. Once in awhile, to Semonkong town, a four hour walk… just to buy a couple things to carry back home the next day. (His grandparents live in Semonkong town.) He used to study in Maseru; going back home to visit must have been a huge ordeal. And as for things from mail to emergencies, I can’t imagine the time and distance involved!

Ketane, the village we were going to, is even further. Taking us five hours by pony (and four on the way back, when we didn’t stop at all), we stayed at the chief’s guesthouse — at a bad time, since the chief had just passed away in a hospital and news had just made it back. His young granddaughter, Mpo, maybe 15 years old or so, was sombre but still enthusiastically took me to the waterfall nearby. (Despite little English, she also felt the need to share that both of her parents had died recently — and she’s so young! She’s even taking care of a baby, presumably her kid brother.) Barefoot and yet much faster than me, the hike was more steep than I’d ever attempt for myself, with me constantly concerned of slipping right down the mountainside! After an interminably long descent, we turned a corner and suddenly saw the most breathtaking valley and waterfall. It might not be as tall as Matselunyane, but look at that!

I was invited by Philip, the late chief’s 10-year-old grandson, to have pap and sour milk as a pre-dinner snack — ehhh, not my favourite, but the gesture was appreciated, and I felt quite welcome to walk around the village, which also meant getting mobbed by friendly but eager villagers for pictures yet again. (“One more!” “Just the two of us!” “Us three!” “Only me!” “Us too!” “Take a picture of him!”)

Despite that, spending a night in such a remote village was a spectacular experience I’ll never forget: hearing the sheep and cow bells ringing as Philip and his father guided them home while I was making dinner (on a gas camping stove, rather than the in-hut fires that most locals made and whose fumes they’d have to breathe in), walking out into the freezing but clear night just to stare at the Milky Way for an hour, bundling up in layer after layer in a sleeping bag and falling asleep to candlelight, waking up for sunrise, and watching the village begin its morning routine as the women swept and cooked, the men walked out to take a quick smoke (it’s freezing out, even in summer) before bringing out the animals, and the children played after doing their chores. Philip took out some oil paints and drew.

And it was over all too soon, and yet not soon enough. (Ow, my back.) Philip was going to make the seven hour walk(!) all by his lonesome to Semonkong for some errands, but we offered him our packhorse instead — and so we went after he helped prepare the ponies, galloping off, as the 10-year-old took the lead, casually straddling a horse with no reins and no stirrups! I have no idea how he didn’t fall off, or at the very least, not complain of the pain of bouncing up and down on a pony! He dropped himself off at his relatives’ place.

The next day, I left Semonkong, almost not ready to leave but running low on time, by hitching a ride with fellow lodge guests Annemieke and Thijs, who were heading back to South Africa. We wound up and down the beautiful winding roads from Semonkong in the comfort of a sedan, admiring the mountains, the villages, and the funny hats for one last time.

…Until I realised three hours later just near the border near Mohale’s Hoek that I forgot my passport!

Dropped off at a gas station, I called the lodge in Semonkong, who had already sent it with another traveler to the lodge in Malealea, which they thought would be fairly close for me. It wasn’t. Two minibus taxis and four and a half hours later, I found myself stuck with an interminable wait for the third and last minibus to take me the remaining 7 km, just as the afternoon was fading. It finally arrived after over an hour. As our minibus creaked its way precariously up a steep dirt road, blaring out Sesotho gospel music and hobbling over the Gates of Paradise Pass, I thought to myself: this is exactly how it should end.

The next morning, with no map, I attempted to hike to the nearby waterfall and gorge not far from Malealea village. With nature tampering with the painted arrows I was supposed to follow, I never made it, wandering lost (clinging to the side of a gorge, clambering up into someone’s yard and wandering into fields) for three hours, but loving every minute of it.

I returned to grab my things (including my passport) and left the country with a smile.

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