Tag: Maluti

:: horse racing across the mountains ::

“Bo-Ntate, you need to move your cars, that is the finish line.”  Standing in a brown field surrounded by mountains, Basotho and horses, we didn’t realise that the two piles of white painted rocks were the finish line.

Horse racing in Lesotho is not like in the US or UK. There are no grandstands, betting windows or tracks for that matter. In fact, there aren’t even any agreed upon races beforehand. Owners show up and haggle over the cost of entering, race length and winner’s purse. Then there is an informal parading of the horses followed by a slow walk out across the fields to the start line. A flag is dropped and off they charge back towards the assembled spectators. No finish line technology, just a guy sitting on one of the ‘finish line’ piles of white rocks in order to provide an “eyeball finish” if needs be.

These informal, but very competitive gatherings happen around the country, but some of the biggest, and oldest, occur near Semonkong, a market town about two hours from the capital. This is the epitome of horse country, with very few roads and no major cities for more than 100 kilometres in any direction. Here in the Maloti Mountains horses are a source of transportation, agricultural labour and pride. People with few other material belongings revere their horses and back them to the hilt in these races.

The horse races generally occur once a month between March and October, though if there is someone staking an extra large amount of money then an extra race day can occur quite suddenly. The money isn’t huge, but there is a lot of it flying around the crowds! Betting is chaotic and anyone can bet anyone else. If you agree terms, you have a third party hold the money, then winner takes all. You add this chaotic betting system to the official negotiations for the terms of the races and rag-tag jockeys riding unfamiliar horses and it is best to watch from a bit of a distance!

We went for the Independence Day races, one of the bigger events of the year and we were not disappointed. What started slow and low-key became louder and more energetic with each passing race. Horses are paired based on age and size, with the races progressing to older, stronger horses. By the end, it became a straight match race – one on one. We have no idea what was really happening, but the excitement after the winning horse came across the line was intense and great fun to be around.

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There is something special to behold from the joy that the Basotho get from their horses.  Seeing it in the natural setting of the fields around Semonkong and Maletsunyane Falls was all the better. These horses don’t belong on the manicured race tracks of Saratoga or Aintree, but rather on rock-strewn dirt tracks streaking across the mountains of Lesotho.

Here are a few videos of the event to give you a real feel for it – first the parade, followed by a win. Please excuse the poor quality and line across the middle…

:: spectacular semonkong ::

“Ntate, can you drive us to pick up the keys for the digger?” These are not the words you want to hear as the weather closes in around you while stuck on a single track road running down the side of a mountain. A truck was stuck in the mud ahead of us and the only solution involved using the digger on the construction site. We never found out why the keys were at a construction office more than 10 kilometres back up the road, but we provided a ride to fetch them and eventually we got through past the stranded truck using an alternate path they created.

Semonkong is solidly in the middle of Lesotho. A small market town surrounded by mountains, it only very recently became more accessible via a 65 kilometre dirt road. The first half of this mountainous road has been tarred, but the second half is still a work in progress, hence the diggers, trucks and mud tracks. In a country of ever improving infrastructure, this was a nice reminder of our surroundings and the power that nature has to turn somewhat challenging roads into a proper test of automotive capacity.

With our temporary tenure as a taxi service and a slightly nervous mud slide behind us, we arrived at Semonkong Lodge well after dark and set about erecting our tents.  Nestled down in a river valley, complete with large overhanging willows and rushing water, it felt more like England than the small mountainous southern African country of Lesotho.

The big draw of Semonkong is Maletsunyane Falls, a 192 meter single drop waterfall. Looking down into the gorge and watching spray lap up the cliff walls, it’s easy to understand how this area is also known as the Place of Smoke. The gorge itself is fantastically beautiful as it suddenly appears from within the rolling hillsides that surround it. A great gash into to the earth, it’s well over 200meters deep in some places and stretches far into the more rugged mountains to the south.

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The best way to get to the falls is on foot or horseback. We hiked it, which took us right into ‘rush hour’ traffic as we navigated past cows, sheep, donkeys, horses, school children and adults – all either heading to town or back from it.  Though we passed through one small scattered village, the majority of people were actually coming from villages unseen behind mountains that even fit people would struggle to walk up.

The views along the way to the falls are immense – enormous green fields running into the base of mountains that reach into the sky.  Dotted along the horizon was the occasional donkey or groups of sheep and cows tended by herdboys cloaked in their traditional Basotho blankets.  The sheer scope of nature and the beauty that surrounded us took our breaths away.

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As we approached the gorge, we wandered along the opposite cliff edge, taking in the awesome scale of the gorge, falls and landscape behind.  From there we could see the small river, no more than twenty feet across, tumbling over the abyss and reforming two hundred meters below. It is truly a spectacle of nature at its finest and one not to be missed. 

IMG_0611001While admiring the views and watching birds of prey effortlessly glide on the up drafts, the clouds darkened and the distant rumbles of thunder echoed across the cavernous landscape. We made it halfway back to the lodge before the storm really closed in on us. Luckily we were able to find shelter under some trees to wait out the worst of it. 

Most of us are brought up learning that you should avoid trees in a storm, but this was by far the safest option we had at the time. Standing in an open field next to rocks whose mineral content attracts the very serious lightning of Lesotho was just not an option.  Watching the storm pass, cowering under its thunder and seeing huge lightning bolts arch across the sky and strike mountainsides was quite an experience. 

Eventually the storm let up and we made our way back through the muddy tracks back to camp and warmed ourselves inside the lodge drinking hot chocolate and playing games. The rain didn’t let up all night and it took the promise of a lovely cooked meal at the lodge to make us move from the cozy confines of our tent. It was well worth the short, wet walk as the food was rich, hearty and warming. We were even treated to some entertainment by some of the men of the village who displayed the gum boot dancing that many Basotho men have acquired from the mines in South Africa. 

The following day dawned bright and dry, so we hiked back to the falls for a second majestic view. Not surprisingly, the water was flowing even more strongly and the plume of smoke seemed to reach halfway across the gorge, lit by the gorgeous sunshine. Our return to Maseru later that day also proved far easier with no unexpected rides or mud slicked mountainsides. Instead we contented ourselves with the glorious landscapes of the Mountain Kingdom in the Sky wherever we looked.

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