Lesotho is a bit of a geographic anomaly: a country smaller than the state of Maryland, high in the mountains and surrounded on all sides by South Africa. It was founded in the 19th century by the charismatic leader, King Moshoeshoe, who led his people into the mountains and negotiated a peace settlement with the war-prone Zulu leader Shaka Zulu. Since then, it has maintained its independence, as well as its economic and cultural autonomy, as the countries around it have changed significantly. Known as the Kingdom in the Sky, it is home to a proud, peaceful, and hardworking people called the Basotho (note: the names of the country, Lesotho; the people, Basotho; and their language, Sesotho rhyme with the word "tutu").
We learned about the history and culture of the Basotho people by staying in a luxurious lodge, visiting a mountain village, and admiring lots of breathtaking scenery, on a three-day pony trek with our guide, Steve, a longtime lover of Lesotho, and owner of Khotso backpackers and horse trails, as well as our new friend, Julia, who joined us for the trip up from the Wild Coast.
The trek started by loading the horses into a trailer and driving about an hour to the Lesotho border. Our first horseback border crossing started without incident, as we received our South African exit stamps at the quiet border post and started ascending through the no-mans-land territory preserved as a park between the two countries. After a quick lunch near the top of Bushman's Nek pass, we climbed a bit further until we passed a dilapadated barbed-wire fence, with nothing more left in most places than the vertical posts. Steve turned around and let us know that this "fence" marked the watershed division, and therefore the border to Lesotho! It was certainly our most unique border crossing so far; the only problem being that we don't have a Lesotho stamp in our passports.
For the rest of the day, we walked, trotted, and cantered (Claudia was a bit timid, but you'll be happy to know stayed on her horse for the entire trip) to our destination in the Sehlabathebe National Park. Over the course of the entire day, almost six hours of riding on small paths we only saw four people: two giggling women walking between two villages, and a man walking, closely followed by another man in a red blanket on horseback. Steve greeted both groups with a warm and booming Sesotho hello, and they smiled at all of us and replied in kind. Later, Steve told us that after we had passed the man, he realized--by the quality of the man's horse, the quality of the blanket he wore over his shoulders, and his overall demeanor--that he was likely a village chief and thus he (Steve) should have used a different, more respectful greeting.
Before we go too much further, I should let you know a little about Basotho horses and blankets, probably the two most poignant symbols of Lesotho. Both trace their origins to a single event in the 19th century. At that time, King Moshoeshoe received a gift of a fine woolen blanket and a thoroughbred English stallion from either a nobleman or trader from Europe. Surprisingly, horses were unknown to the Basotho people, but interest increased after the generous gift from the European. Unfortunately the thoroughbred proved too tall and not suited to the steep, rocky terrain of Lesotho, so it was bred with Arabian horses and North African Barbs to create the breed we rode: the small and sure-footed Basotho pony.
The Basotho blanket is an even more interesting cultural artifact. They are square, woolen blankets, like the ones found anywhere else, but also comprise the traditional dress of the Basotho people, draped over both shoulders and pinned at the chest. The blankets all have a black side and a colored side with two stripes on each; men must wear the black side out with the stripes oriented vertically, and the pin (which must not be showing) on their right shoulder (so that their right arm is exposed to hold horse reins or a spear), while women wear the blankets colored-side out with the stripes horizontal, and with the pin (which can be exposed) in the middle, so that they can use both arms to hold children or breastfeed.
All true Basotho blankets are made out of wool from Lesotho (though it is usually spun and woven in either South Africa or England), and bear an official crown insignia. They come in a variety of colors, a wide range of qualities, and numerous different patterns, and by careful observation of these things, you can learn a lot about the person wearing it. We saw blankets pattened in hearts (signifying love, and thus a traditional gift from a man to a woman, or vice-versa); one with whimsical patterns to be worn by kids; and one called "The Badges of the Brave", that Steve favored. Steve's blanket is of the highest quality, known as Siena Morena, or "Honor to the King". After the trip, we so admired the blankets and were so interested by their stories, that we purchased one to take home with us. The brand of ours means "airplane", a name that is of the utmost importance to some remote villages, where airplanes are the primary mode of contact with and transportation to the outside world. It is yellow and black, and it contains imagery of corn, and thus signifies the harvest and is one of the most important Basotho patterns.
At the end of the first day, we arrived at the lodge we would spend the next two nights in; expecting spartan accommodations like the shabby bunks we slept in in the Galapagos, or the tents we called home on the Huaraz trek, we were pleasantly surprised to find the lodge decadently furnished (at least for Lesotho) with plush couches and chairs, a woodfire stove, a full kitchen, gas lights, an extremely comfortable bed with warm blankets, and, perhaps best of all (though we didn't take advantage of them until the second night), luxurious, large gas-heated baths. It was built as a mountain retreat for a former king, but the lodge and the land around it were later converted into a national park. We spent the afternoon talking with Steve about Lesotho and hearing his crazy stories about his other favorite pastime: running very long distances. Steve has run a 100-mile race in Alaska in February, run from Underberg to Cape Town (1400 km, which took him 22 days!), and kayaked from Chicago to New York through the Great Lakes, among many, many other adventures. We never grew tired of hearing these stories.
After a delicious dinner of roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, and peas, a comfortable (if cold) night's sleep, and an early, traditional breakfast of porridge, we set off on our second day. We walked further Northwest, higher into the mountains, and over a ridge which afforded us an incredible view of the valley we would spend most of the day in. We saw a number of small villages and Steve told us stories about the people that lived there, new schools and meeting centers that were being built, and other plans for the future. We slowly descended the ridge down a shallow mountainside path and found ourselves in a remote village, where we saw--on the smallest and remotest scale yet--all the hallmarks of African villages we've come to recognize: round stone or mud houses with thatched roofs, proud and stately women with impossible weights delicately balanced on their heads, and curious children who love to have their pictures taken.
After Steve procured some supplies from probably the least-convenient convenience store in the world, we continued along the trail further into the valley. We stopped for lunch near some millenia-old San rock paintings depicting men hunting for Eland, a large antelope-like animal which had previously been plentiful in these highlands, then continued down the valley, passing cows, goats, and wild mountain rhebok, as well as more small villages, finally climbing up through verdant pastures to return to our lodge.
The last day started early and saw us wandering through more valleys, across many winding rivers, and to a beautiful waterfall falling into a protected pool. We took a different path back to the Bushman's Nek pass, through more beautiful and uninhabited valleys, across another completely dilapidated border fence, and back to the same lunch spot. While the first day had been cold, cloudy, and foggy, preventing us from seeing how amazing the view around us was, the third day was hot and nearly cloudless, and over a huge lunch of fresh-baked bread and leftover steak with South Africa's signature condiment, sweet chili sauce, we gazed many miles into South Africa.
The beginning of the descent was a bit slow as the horses needed to be walked, but once we got to the valley floor, the horses were as excited as we were to get home, and before long we crossed the border post back into South Africa, loaded up the horses, headed back to the ranch to pick up our bags and quickly shower, and were back in the car and on the way to our next destination in the Northern Drakensberg for the famous Amphitheater hike.