Out of Africa
Trekking through the South African landscapes in whatever means of transport presents itself, Neil Ratley’s African adventure continues deep into the southern mountain villages
‘Bump bump. Ouch my ass, my balls, my ass, my balls. But ooh wow, what amazing scenery’. This is generally how my journey through South Africa, on pony-back, proceeds. Nonchalantly we wave to fellow musketeers and others whose path we cross, smiling like we are truly comfortable – maybe even born – in the saddle.
Starting off in sunny Soweto, a city which has played an integral part in shaping black South African's modern history, I imagine it to be a place of abject poverty and despondency, but in truth it is so much more. Soweto is now a township that encompasses millionaires, middle class, working class and the desperately poor. There is a deep community spirit in evidence and crime figures are very low due to self policing by the community itself. Our guide, Sipho, informs us that if we were seen carrying a television set down the street we would be asked to explain our actions. We’re slightly worried what they’ll make of us in possession of ponies, so we dismount for now.
The following day we hire cars and head further South. Our ultimate destination lies at the foot of the Moloti mountain range on the Lesotho border. The road, with potholes every five kilometres, snakes its way through mielie (corn) fields, more mielie fields and small farming towns. We cross into Lesotho: the mountain kingdom and the highest country in the world. Furthermore it is one of only three countries completely surrounded by another single country (1000 moloti's for anyone who can tell me the other two).
Under the heat of the midday African sun we negotiate our way across the international border and almost fall foul of protocol by nearly driving straight through the Maseru crossing. Luckily a friendly policeman points us back to the immigration post. It’s not our fault the post was smaller than a port-a-loo.
Maseru turns out to be a bustling city, buzzing with the sound of cars, taxis, bicycles and livestock bells. We hunt for souvenirs, drive about aimlessly, stumble across sheep markets and yearn for a glimpse of the sea (remember, Maseru is completely surrounded by one other country). We finally navigate ourselves away from the hustle and bustle and head for the mountains and Malealea, where we are soon to be reunited with some ponies.
The mountain range is scattered with corn fields and shepherds in blankets herding their livestock. We journey on foot to the 'Gates of Paradise', where down below lies a rickety lodge, our home for the night. The lodge, originally an old trading post, is nestled in a valley surrounded by the Moloti and Drakensberg mountains, scythed with deep gorges and dotted with small villages.
It is from these villages that the locals work in conjunction with the lodge owners by offering their services as hiking guides, pony guides and greengrocers (note: NEVER buy the mince unless you have a penchant for bone, lips, asshole, lung, stomach, liver, heart, fat, tongue, kidney, gall bladder … you get the idea). This two-way system generates employment and provides a sustainable financial benefit for the local communities.
We settle in for the night, and, as I fall asleep, I dream of cowboys and the open range. Upon rising the next morning, the saddle bags are already packed, alongside a dashing bright blue hat that I found under some eggs in the village store (fashion dignity comes second when one has forgotten a hat and a thing called sun is ever present). We’re all ready for the off, the testicles have been pre-warned and now it’s time to meet the ponies. Hello Power and Babylon. With grace and aplomb I mount Babylon and my guide, Ra (who is riding Power), leads the way. Ra earns the money to support his newborn baby and wife by showing would be John Waynes around his beautiful country.
We ride in to the afternoon, then camp in a remote village, a mud hut all to ourselves. When we dismount our collective relief is audible: our asses sigh with desperate thanks and our testicles cautiously poke themselves from their hiding spot. A few cold Muluti beers also aid in providing a numb for the pain.
Next day the road leads even further south, through the mist and cloud covered mountains, up, down and around (10,031 – or so it feels) bends of the old traditional homelands of the Xhosa people and down to the wild coastal village of Port St Johns, famous for having the film Blood Diamond filmed there and hosting the cast, including one Leonardo DiCaprio.
This cowboy-like part of my African odyssey comes to an end after we meet Ngumbela, a small African man possessed of a vocal volume that defies his height. He welcomes us into his home and fills us with traditional food. Then I treat myself to a night at the Haga Haga (so nice you have to say it twice) beach hotel; the perfect place to overcome any lingering anal and testicular abnormalities. I’ll sleep well tonight, that’s for sure.