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Posted on: Thursday, 28 January 2010

Border hopping on Horseback

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One of my ‘must-dos’ when I started travelling in South Africa was to experience the wild mountain terrain of the Drakensberg. The only thing putting me off was that hiking up peaks sounded like extremely hard work, so when the opportunity presented itself to explore on horseback it seemed like the perfect answer. I booked a 3 day ride outride with the highly recommended Khotso Horse Trails in Underberg in nervous anticipation. Will the horses be safe? Will the guides know what they are doing? All the usual fears that nag ahead of an adventurous expedition.

My mind was put at rest as soon as I met Steve Black who owns the horse trails as he explained that Khotso means ‘Peace’ in Sesotho. As he drove me through the beautiful KwaZulu Natal Midlands, trees gilded with autumn colours, I could already feel myself unwinding from the frenetic pace of Durban. We arrived in Underberg in the late afternoon to a refreshingly cooler climate than the coast. At 1,500m above sea-level Underberg is the height of many European ski resorts and on this April evening there was a definite nip in the air …

My arrival at Khotso Backpackers produced a warm welcome from staff and animals alike. One of the horses has even learned to stick his head through bedroom windows looking for treats. Steve and Lulu Black are the most generous, kind and fun hosts. Their good example means that their whole team are super-friendly and the lodge has a relaxed and informal feel, with comfy sofas and log fires to warm up by. There is a beautiful log cabin with dorms for the backpackers and romantic rondavels for couples and families. Khotso is the kind of ‘home from home’ where you could go for two nights and end up staying for two weeks. But I had to tear myself away from the cosy surroundings as I wasn’t here to stay at the main lodge for long. The next morning we were due to leave the civilisation and head off for a 3 day horse expedition into Lesotho.

We arrived at the Bushmansnek border post and were introduced to our horses who had been transported by truck from Underberg. We crossed the border on horseback (a first for me) and set off into a deep valley, with the ominous-sounding ‘Devil’s Knuckles’ rising above us. The group I was with included a couple of experienced riders, but for the majority it was their first time on horseback. Talk about in at the deep end – within 30 minutes we had trotted, cantered, forded rivers and even jumped across small ditches. Suprisingly the total beginners were totally relaxed and took everything in their stride – I guess if you don’t know any different then you assume that this is how riding normally is.

The terrain itself is hard-core and I had some of the most exhilarating riding of my life. The Basotho ponies are incredibly tough and you simply would not believe some of the mountain passes that we had to traverse. Think ‘rock climbing on horseback’. It was hard to shake off the nagging thought in my mind that what goes up must come down. These amazing creatures hopped from crag to crag like nimble ballerinas. We did get off and lead them over the steepest sections and they put us to shame by organising their four legs far better than we could coordinate our two. We had some breathtakingly fast canters and gallops with the horses always eager and careful to pick themselves the safest terrain.

We arrived at the Khotso satellite lodge, 2500m above sea level and surrounded by the mountains of the Sehlabathebe Wilderness Area of Lesotho. The horses were turned and settled down to gorge themselves on the lush grass, whilst we filled our own stomachs with delicious roast chicken. The fellow guests that I rode with were all fun and really good sports, especially considering the lack of riding experience that some of them had. The overall ambience reminded me of a skiing holiday with everyone exercising in the mountains during the day and then relaxing in a chalet with a beer and a few good stories by the fire in the evening.

The next morning we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and rode through the stunning Leqoa River gorge, crossing and re-crossing the river as we went. Every so often we would stop to rest the horses and admire the 5,000-year-old San rock paintings along the cave walls. As the horses crushed the grass beneath their feet the sweet scent of thyme and wild lavender filled the air. Our music was the sound of the bubbling brook, punctuated with the calls of the many raptors that live in these mountains (we were lucky enough to spot Jackal Buzzards and a wonderful Eagle Owl who hooted haughtily as we rode past in the late evening).

Smaller sunbirds fluttered around, and in the meadows we saw smaller antelope such as mountain reedbuck and duiker. There are also wild horses in the area who sometimes join in with the ride, although the mist that we encountered on the way back meant that we didn’t see them on this trip. We picnicked by streams and in caves, whilst the horses were turned loose to graze amongst us. Each day we enjoyed observing how the Basotho people live on a day to day basis and always saw something unusual. One day we were miles from anywhere and saw a man running with his two dogs, rolling a metal hoop with a stick as he went. Why? Well… why not?

Generally we had lovely weather – blue skies and sunshine, but because of the altitude it was never uncomfortably hot for us or the horses. On the last day the mist descended and although it was damp and chilly somehow the mountains became even more dramatic. We had to ride like the clappers to beat the thunderstorm to the border, but made it just in time. Steve, who owns Khotso, is a very keen marathon runner and managed to easily beat us back on his two legs. That said, he’s the kind of crazy man who will run 1,000km races for fun. Each to their own – I’ll stick with 4 legs doing the work for me I think. Safely back in South Africa we were transported back to Underberg feeling weary but exhilarated.

I have to say that the team at Khotso also did an amazing job of matching riders to exactly the right temperament of horse. Over the four days I rode out with two groups – 20 people in total – and every horse was hand-picked taking into account the rider’s experience. It was wonderful to see how people bonded with their respective mounts and there were some very sad farewells at the end of the trip.

Khotso is well-named. I truly felt at peace at the end of this trip and the Lesotho outride from Underberg is a unique experience that I would recommend to anyone.

Contact details for Khotso
Khotso Backpackers & Horse Trails
Steve & Lulu Black
Telephone: +27 (0)33 701-1502
Mobile: +27 (0)82 412-5540

Photographs – click to enlarge (Photos © Kate Nelson)

Useful Drakensberg Links:
Drakensberg Attractions
Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Things to Do in the Drakensberg
Drakensberg Hotels
Drakensberg Accommodation

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