Walking across Lesotho
Being an account of the complete 300 km crossing of the country, on foot, from west to east of four hardy hikers and their guides.
The First Leg.
And so the voyage commenced. The Border Post of Sephapo's Gate at 10.00. Four hikers, four guides and eight ponies all reached the border from Malealea Lodge at the same time and by different routes, the hikers by car and the guides on horseback. We would all return to the Lodge. It seemed like a futile aller-retour but the whole trip has to be done the right way; on foot from one side of Lesotho to the other. No cheating. Malealea is our first stage rest camp. Photographs for the sponsors and for fun; the local Deputy Chief of the border police decides to join in the foray, I think he really just wanted a promotional tee-shirt from our sponsors Kameraz and Fujifilm. Good publicity because all the tourists will see him at the border. The Navworld pony steps up to the camera to let us know that he is looking after the spare Garmin GPS 62. The other two are in our pockets ready to start tracking.
A one hour tedious trek along the hot dirt road from the border and we finally get across the N2 tarred Main Road South, into the Lesotho countryside and find the bridal paths that we will be following for 300 km. The pecking order is established for the first day; our two ladies Ansa and Dawn get to know each other and fly off in the lead, chatting away merrily. Mick and I hold back and try to calm the rhythm which at over 5km/h is too fast. The guides soon become accustomed to our speed and synchronise their halts for rest and watering with ours. Ntate Ramphe, the chief guide knows the country well. He has done parts of this trip many times with hikers, usually from Malealea to Sani pass but never the whole route. Ntate Kanono, Michael Motlomelo and Jeff Mojalefa are all experienced guides and horsemen. They are all riding horses and guiding the four packhorses which carry the bulk of our baggage. We are “slackpacking”.
First Camp; Ha Moletsane is a village with primary and high schools and we camp in between the two. The camp site is on the foundations of the old trading post of Danny Bothma, a very well know personality in Lesotho. The local people talk about the Bothma family with endearment but all that remains of the commercial complex are the concrete bases, a grain silo and a few water dams. The long drop toilets which have been taken over by the adjacent local primary school are a good introduction to the local facilities; a new experience.
Day two takes us across the land of dongas. Some of these are 20 metres deep and getting around them extends our route. Ramphe has to take paths that the horses can handle. The second camp site appears after six hours of marching, around the bend in a river, like an oasis in the desert. The river is still flowing despite a few weeks of drought, past a sweeping bend and sandy beach, perfect for the tents, under the swirling arms of a weeping willow (Salix Babalonica). We are on a small tributary to the Mantekoane River at Ha Moeaneng (The place of Wind). There is not a breeze in the air. Swimming and cooking and a little red wine is lost in eight thirsty companions.
The climb, on the third day, up to Ha Tsoete (The White Place) is a small training for the weeks to come. A hard climb for us but not for Mick who arrives at the summit without a bead on his forehead. Konono leads the group now, something we will see often; his cavalier silhouette on the skyline of our next ascent. From there on it is mostly downhill although it never really is in Lesotho. Today was another short day; only 16 km to Malealea lodge. Some treatment for our first blisters.
The peaceful, organised and well established accommodation at Malealea Lodge, Pony trekking and Mountain Bike Centre, this time felt especially precious. Everyone has sore feet, mainly due to the searing heat of the first three days. Cold water dips, long sleeps, afternoon beers, bandages and bravado about the first days, mixed with some apprehension about the next two weeks in the real mountains. The batteries are charged on the Fujifilm cameras, the Garmins and the hikers.
The Second Leg.
Then day four; Our first great river crossing over the Makhaleng River (The place of the aloes), fortunately with a high level bridge supplied, a good pull up the other side to Ha Griffith (the 19c Acheif Magistrate) and over the first hills and dales towards the looming Maluti Mountains. The Ribaneng River Camp, reached with a healthy 6 hour hike was a pleasant shady glen well watered and good grazing for the horses. It was here that Mick was washed away downstream in a raging torrent on his last Trans-Lesotho Trek. Tonight we bathe in the river's gurgling tranquility and tomorrow we attack the formidable “Slide Your Arse Pass”, difficult for both horses and humans.
The going is tough the very beginning at 07.00 in the first cool hours of the day we begin the ascent from 1807m already breathing heavily after the first 100m to Ha Khotso, the little village at the foot of the pass. The path is a 'bridal path' and maintenance has been typically abandoned for too long. Climbing the 500m over rocks, loose gravel and giants steps is exhausting, then on reaching the top, there is another 5 kms to go with another 300m to climb! Near the crest of the first ascent a pack horse stumbles and looses it's load. There is great concern amongst us until Konono helps the animal up and inspect him carefully; he is fit and well, just scared. Our compensation for this climb; a magnificent view down across the Ribaneng Falls and back across the valleys with a line-of-sight to Malealea Lodge the we see of 'home' for the next two weeks. The horses find their heaven in grazing the special long sweet grasses of the highlands. The word 'horse' is an anagram for 'heros' and they show this throughout the trek.
That night, yet another beautiful camp site on the Ketanyane River at 2352m and it is getting colder. Mojalefa has the tea ready and is already celebrating his son's birthday. We join him for tea and warm up. Early nights from now on to escape the cold and the fatigue.
The fifth day dawns early, from this height we see the sun at 5 o'clock. At seven the walkers are on the path. The guides and horses have their daily routine of finishing the packing and catching up with us in an hour or so. We leave the very pretty village of Ha Pontšo to the south and climb again away from the sentinel geese and the waving hands of the villagers. Only another 6 hours or so to the next little rest-over at Semonkong Lodge; The Place of Smoke.
The lodge (2195m) which snuggles at the foot of a ravine cut in the eons of time by the Maletsunyane River (The place of little deer), was established by men of the Fraser Trading period as a convenient fly-fishing cabin. It has become an internationally known place for adventure travel and especially for the highest commercial abseil in the world at 205m. The Maletsunyane Falls must surely be the most photographed feature in Lesotho and is a must-visit if you travel through this magnificient mountain kingdom. Access is so easy today by tarred road but we have walked our first 100km to get here!
The Third Long Leg.
Back on the trail after some pleasant respite, the team heads off on day 7 towards the next great barrier; the Senqunyane River Valley. We look up at the looming mountains but our first stop is just outside the town and sets the pattern for the next week; buying up the local spinach “morogo”. Then the usual series of ups and downs: Likorolo Ha Elia, a great steep climb to 2500m then down 100m and up 100m to Ha Tanielle and then the long slog down treacherous gravel and wet slippery rocky paths, 890m to the great river at 1648m. The rain, welcomed in the hot afternoon cooling our blistering feet but also our nerves and thirsts. This was our longest day so far; 25km covered in 8,5 hours.
Day 8 starts with a 'pleasant' 600m climb; we are now beginning to get a little fit, up the well marked vehicle track that our friends have tested last year; the locals remember the 4x4 vividly. We walk the 'road' easily in the pleasant company of another traveller, a shepherd who tells of all the latest news in the area. The guides and horses catch up with us soon and we check the route. All is well after our first 6,5km but we soon have to quit the easy going, off the path again and down what my previous guides have described “only for Basotho and not for beginners”. From this first summit of 2200m we will slip and slide 547m down the hottest and most uncomfortable descent of the trek, to the Mansonyane River Valley and finally all jump into the chilled waters in this acadian landscape. It impossible to leave and we snatch a power sleep in the rare shade of the Cheche bushes (Leucosidia Sericea), and then swim again. Even the guides jump in the river this time. It's very hot and we know what awaits; ~ the hardest climb of the adventure, the longest and the hottest. We leave under the afternoon sun from 1721m and begin the 7km pull up 600m to the 2250m Camp above the Methalaneng River. The slope is 67% in places. Another 25km covered.From our windy camp site the views are powerful to the west and south even before the setting sun throws a mantle of red and orange glows over the Maluti mountains. But the evening solar wind picks-up and hurries two of us into a large tent, made ready for the cooks. An intricate but not delicate dish emerges half and hour later and everyone leans against the blasts and gusts, no chance of a table.
It is the 9th day. Another range to cross (2568m) and another very steep run down into the next river. Each new valley opens up a new adventure and a new sense of excitement. We really are beginning to conquer these slopes and have time and energy to eat up the landscapes with our eyes. Here the Khutlo se Metsi River is crossed on booted foot, the rains have stayed away for more than the farmers would wish. This river is a tributary to the legendary Lesobeng River (The place of the eye) which we now begin to discover from well above the first of it's magnificent gorges. We search in vain but see no eye; a natural sandstone bridge, well documented by the historian David Ambrose. Slowly around a never ending series of contoured curving paths, and in the soft sleepy heat of the afternoon, the town of Qobacha approaches. A sudden crash of noise from diesel engines, cars, machines and people dashes our walking state of mind into alertness. The change is hard to bear. We loose the guides and horses to shopping and find a quiet path away from the bustle; only a few more kilometres to the school and another camp site with a river but this one comes with a crowd. The school is just finishing and the children are over the moon to see these foreigners walking for fun! They sometimes walk miles just to get to school. The children stay as late as they can until mothers shout for homework to be done and water to be carried, from rondavels above our beckoning river. Any chance of a wash now? Well we can at least wash our socks and hope that the rain stays away and that the farmers don't hear us hoping aloud. It rains only lightly on the washing so everyone is happy or rinsed and cooking can begin.
We are over half way at 172km from the start and now we will stretch our legs over some long days, but first a pleasant walk along the Lesobeng, still searching for the bridge and none of the locals can help. The path follows the river at a tolerable height for my vertigo. For some reason the old British bridle path stays on the other side going up and down careless of the hiker. We stay more on the level now than ever before and enjoy this most beautiful of river valleys. Until the guides and horses catch up that is. Then it's over the river and up and up again to finish at an early camp site after only 16,9km ~ an easy day. Although we calculate that the other path could have been an hour quicker! But the guides are on horses so they must know and we gracefully accept and enjoy this extra-ordinary site called Khomo ea Raha (The cow that kicks) as the river makes a hard right turn at this spot, like a dog's leg. The slow winding river takes the name of an 'old man walking' , Khokhoba in sesotho. The old man is cold here at 2484m, rain comes with fireworks after bed-time and we all marvel through our nylon walls at the repertoire of the sky. Big water barrels are being thrown about up there in the clouds and some of it is running under the tents.
And after such a theatrical night another beautiful day awaits on day 11, high altitude fresh air and water and a good breakfast. Our first climb to 3000m awaits. Over easy contoured hillocks and well marked paths we hesitate a little before leaving the “Old Man” and heading away south east up another picturesque little valley. This one has it's own herd of Grey Rhebock which streak off up into the kranses as soon as they get our wind. The valley becomes a mountain again and the slope stiffens to 40% and then summits at a breath taking 3km above the sea. We almost feel we should have sight of the escarpment of Natal but that will escape us for days yet. For the moment we need to concentrate on our longest knee breaking descent; 17 kilometres and 1200 meters down to the Koma Koma bridge.
At last the great Senqu River, a milestone and landmark on this special hike. The Senqu (a khoi word of unknown origin) is known to most as the Orange River which takes it source high in the Drakensberg/Maluti Mountain near Mont au Sources. On leaving the borders of Lesotho it becomes known also as the !Xariep. We are camping next to this major river, still at 1788m and it has a long way to go to the Atlantic Ocean. A new bridge, built beautifully, in the last year now spans the river and replaces the old low level bridge. It is a token of new levels that will fill the river as far back as the Katse Dam on the Malibamatso River, far upstream, when a new dam is built across the Senqu. This will be the first on this river in Lesotho, but not the last. Respectfully and full of awe we cross the new bridge and begin, on day 12, the slow road climb up to the shops at Makunyapane, then leave the main road and find the track for Pitseng. Our third 25km day takes 7,5 hours and we are exhausted and cold at the 2515m high secondary school. Not too much time cooking and in bed by six thirty. The wind chill must take the temperature down below freezing, a far cry from the 37 degrees of day 2. Tomorrow will be the longest day. We have covered 242km.
Forboding; it is day 13. It is still cold at 07.00 departure and there is a five kilometres contour to follow around the valley before we even loose sight of the school. We climb 300m but it is still cool and the day looks good. Then a contoured path stretches out like a snake along a never ending range of mountains, we can count perhaps 10 or 12 peaks ahead of us. Over which one will be the valley of our camp site. This question burns in our mind all day. Walking above the 2700 contour, the path is moving from the north of the east-west range and then turning back onto the south side. The views of the Mashai River are difficult to behold without dizzy spells, I keep my eyes on the mountain-side and avoid looking down. Taking photographs is a head spinning challenge. We are two, sometimes three hundred meters above the river and if the slopes are vertical in places then the path chooses that spot to become slippery.
At Ha Solomon, one of the only two villages we pass today, the path drops down 300 again. We have a low level lunch in a goats pasture. And as though we had taken some quality from the beasts we climb the rocks again, perhaps a little more agile than yesterday. Soon the only souvenir of the valley is the drinking water, smokey from the generous gentle lady's hut with a little after taste of plastic. But this is all the water we will find at nearly 3000m altitude . The day seems to go on longer than we could imagine and at every turn of a contour our hopes are raised by the perception of a 'nek' where there maybe a way down. Or perhaps it will be the next one. The air is cool but the sun is burning at this altitude. Everyone has 'hotfoot', a condition that encourages blisters and misery. Water is going to be a problem soon. At 24km we peak again at 2900m. At 27km we are again at 2956m and then the last nek appears and we at last seem to cross to the north of the range and the image of camp flashes in and out of our hopes. At 30km we go down and peak again at 2928m and then loose sight of the guides and horses in the mist. Not happy, Mick and I have lagged behind and the ladies seem to be well ahead not out of sight of the guides but we cannot see either. Horse spoor is all we have to go on and our gait is tired and unsure as we descend into muddy slopes and slippery paths. We have to go down 380 meters to find at last the ever smiling Ramphe, waiting for us. The ladies were well ahead and almost in the camp. Ten and a half hours and 34 kilometres, this is a killer day even for the under sixties in our group! We could not cook for lack of energy. The guides had the kettle going and tea was all we could handle. (The wine had run out some days ago.) Then an instant soup and the sleeping bags called. We all slept 10 hours, almost as many hours as the walk, and woke incredibly refreshed. The human body has always it's surprises, we were ready for the next 16km hike and the 14th day.
What we could now call a 'good' climb started the day. Within the first 7km we had risen from 2546m to 2940m and that was nearly the last big one, but there is always another and four more peaks were lined up for us on the 16 kms passage. To help us on our way, a group of herdsmen caught up with our troup and kept us company. They had walked all of our 34 kms yesterday but they had started 12 kilometres before our camp site, at the Makunyapane shops! The old man was on a well kitted donkey, his son on foot and they were driving a few dozen sheep and goats. That is why the Basotho think we are mad to walk for pleasure. They at lest were going to Sani Top in search of a wife!
This part of the track was the closest we were to come to the cliffs of Natal until we reached Sani Top. From the Majoe Matso to the Pitsaneng we were never more than two kilometers from the border. This is the most photogenic, breath taking part of the 300 kilometre walk and soon the escarpment itself would be unveiled for us. Dropping into the Pitsaneng River, we were greeted by more and more herdboys and some of the largest kraals we have ever seen, with rooms for hundreds of animals. The boys all kept their distances despite the appeal of our other worldly looking goods and food. They seemed to keep watch on our little camp all night aided by their faithful and motley band of hounds. One of these seemed to attract the attention of our Ramphe who was in the market for a canine companion. He casually walked over to the group of lads who were watching our show and the negotiations began, with great circumspection. Eventually a price was announced but it was too much for our friend; 600 Malutis, five times the price in the village. One more attempt was made later in the evening using some enviable garment as bait but it seems that the beautiful little black mongrel puppy was of too much value to his current owner. These dogs are indeed tough and marvellous creatures.
This last camp had us all full of thoughts and emotions. We had been together now for more than 18 days and walking together for 14, our last day ahead of us. We hang onto our sleeping bags, lagged behind with the ablutions and the folding of gear. Endless cups of tea were brewed as though all the thirst of the hundreds of kilometres came upon us in these last hours! It was our last camp! There was no rush to leave it either as the final stage is only 9,5 kilometres. But leave it we did and waved to all the cavorting young herdboys who still could neither understand our cause nor sell us a dog. And up again past the back of Hodgson's Peaks and up to the top nek of the Sekhokong Mountain Range at 3100m. From there the view was the most exciting one can imagine, for we were above the Natal Escarpment and looking down onto the back of the Garden Castle and to the north we could clearly see the road works on the Kotisephola Pass (Black Mountain) and the fine new wide gravel road down to Sani Top. The end in sight! Well nearly, as there is always another mountain to cross. At a lower level a few more hills and a little mist took us within a few kilometres of Sani. At the 300 km mark some celebration was allowed, briefly though, for the morning was getting on and we knew that the pub was open and four Maluti Beers were waiting. The beers were at 2874m above mean sea level and that is where we were heading; after 302 kilometres, 94 hours of walking, 12000 meters of uphill and 11000 meters of downhill over 15 walking days.