Lesotho: Semonkong to Malealea trek

22nd June - 29th June 2002


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Rebecca and I left Roma at around 11.00 hitching a ride with Ashley through the spectacular mountains to Semonkong; Mo and Chris came along as well on a day trip and planned to return with Ashley back to Roma later that afternoon. The dirt road twisted and weaved its way up into the mountains passing through the villages of Nyakosoba, Moitsupeli and Ramabanta. Ramabanta is in the Makhaleng River valley and from here we left behind all traces of civilisation as the road climbed out of the valley and around mountains whose southern slopes were covered in ice and snow. We crossed desolate, windswept alpine plateaus covered in low heath-type vegetation, mostly heathers dominated by species of Erica and Helichrysum. In the middle of winter this landscape looked very bleak and inhospitable. We stopped briefly at the highest pass. The wind was howling across the top of the pass and behind us the mountains were all covered in snow; it was difficult to stand on my feet in this powerful gale. Ahead of us the road lead down towards Semonkong on a plateau. After driving through this breathtaking mountain scenery I knew that I could not leave this country without spending some time trekking through these majestic mountains.

During the drive through the mountains Ashley told us about the current situation in the country with the looming famine that has been sweeping across the south of this continent. The situation in Lesotho was becoming critical and last years harvest will only last through to August, which is the start of the next growing season. The problem in Lesotho was slightly different though compared to countries like Zambia and Malawi where the crop failure had been caused by drought. Here there was too much rain during the planting season and many of the fields could not be ploughed and sowed, or the fields were sowed and then the seed washed away. Maize is being imported from South Africa but the nature of market economics has meant that the price of maize has almost doubled since last year. Ashley has already found that staff are pilfering stock from his trading posts, but in the current situation he says it is only to be expected.

Semonkong in the local language means 'Place of Smoke' and is named because of the nearby Maletsunyane Falls, also known as Lebihan Falls after the French missionary who first reported the falls in 1881. Semonkong is a small sprawling town on the plateau and really felt like a frontier town. Everywhere there were men on horseback, clad in their traditional kobo riding through the town. Outside the shops would be a row of horses tied up. Shepherds herded goats, sheep and cattle along the streets and donkeys would wander past on their own carrying sacks of maize. The buildings were low and spread apart, the roads dirt, dust blowing in the wind. It was also cold at this altitude surrounded by mountains and the first thing I bought when I arrived in town was a woolly hat. Looking at the scenes around the town I doubt that they had changed much over the past one hundred years. We had arrived in an isolated mountain town, hardly touched by the modern world.

Ashley stopped at his trading post in the town, which only stocked maize, before dropping us at the Semonkong Lodge, which sits in a small gorge beside the Maletsunyane River. We dropped our luggage off quickly and Ashley gave us a lift to the Maletsunyane Falls, which are about 5km south of Semonkong. He dropped us off there and drove off to his other trading post in the area and arranged to pick us up again in about an hour and a half. The falls were spectacular and drop 192m in a single vertical drop; this allegedly makes them the highest waterfall in Southern Africa. The gorge that the Maletsunyane River cascades down into is huge and cuts a giant swathe across the landscape. The noise of the water thundered as it hit the large plunge pool deep in the gorge below. Spray from the falls had frozen to the rocks on either side and occasionally a large chunk of ice would break away and tumble onto the rocks below. It was very cold, an icy wind was blowing and the weak sunshine did very little to warm us as we sat at the edge of the gorge marvelling at this natural wonder. We presently walked back up the hill to wait for Ashley to come past and pick us up, hoping that the walk would warm us up. We didn't have to wait long beside this deserted road before Ashley drove past earlier than expected and dropped us back in Semonkong.

By now Rebecca and myself had decided that, depending on the weather, we would trek to Malealea, about 50km to the west of Semonkong through the Thaba Putsoa Range of mountains. We had planned to visit this village and now the opportunity to trek through these mountains seemed like an option we could not miss. Mo and Chris were also travelling to Malealea and we hoped to meet them again there in a few days time at the end of our trek. We said goodbye that afternoon as they returned to Roma with Ashley and we walked through the town back to the lodge in its peaceful location beside the river.

The Semonkong Lodge was a very comfortable and homely place to stay. It was a fairly large place with rondavels along the banks of the river and up the steep sides of the valley. I think we were the only guests staying there that night and we made ourselves at home in the cosy, thatched pub and restaurant, keeping warm by the fire. The electricity was not all that reliable, despite a new hydro generator installed in the Maletsunyane River to supply the whole town. We spent a lot of the evening with just candles for light. The owner of the lodge arrived during the evening and we discussed our plan to trek to Malealea. Through him we organised a guide and a packhorse; as we would not be returning to Semonkong we needed to carry our entire luggage as well as food for the three days across the mountains. The owner also lent us a spirit stove and a couple of sleeping mats for the journey. We paid about ZAR500 each for the trip, which included the horse, money to pay for accommodation in the villages along the way and for the guide, including his return walk to Semonkong.

It was a cold nights sleep in our rondavel and the fire we had lit that evening didn't do much to keep the night chill away. We had a busy couple of hours first thing in the morning buying supplies for our trip. The morning air was cold and crisp, puddles alongside the road were frozen and the grass was covered in frost. An early morning mist soon burnt off as the sun rose above the mountains. The dog at the lodge followed us all around town that morning as we visited a handful of stores, everyone stopped and looked at us as we walked along the aisles of the basic supermarkets, the dog following closely at our heels. We just shrugged and said it's not our dog, but still he followed us. The selection in the shops was very basic and fairly much what we expected, but we found enough suitable food to take on our trek. When we returned to the lodge, still with the dog at our heels, there was a white horse tied up outside. We met our guide called Sofargo (spelt phonetically) but in the local language meaning Hail and our horse called Star, which I can't remember in Basotho, I just called him Dobbin. Once we had loaded our packs and supplies of food onto the horse we began our long trek through the mountains.

The weather had again turned out perfect and the sky was clear and deep blue, the sun shining brightly as we walked out of Semonkong, across the dirt road to Maletsunyane Falls and along a valley heading west. As we followed the path up through the valley we passed many people on horseback heading down to Semonkong. As we reached a plateau above the valley it felt cold and I put on my fleece as the cold wind blew off the surrounding mountains. Behind us we could see Semonkong sprawling in the valley, I wish I could of stayed longer in this remote, frontier town. Behind the town on the horizon the Maluti Mountains stood majestically capped in snow; I could see why they call this country the Kingdom in the Sky, the mountain views were breathtaking. The path wound it's way into the mountains passing small villages, all the round huts were built traditionally out of stone and thatch. The walking was not too difficult although Dobbin, the packhorse, didn't seem the most energetic of horses I had ever seen and was in fact fairly stupid and lazy and farted continuously at every hill we had to climb. I quickly learnt not to walk behind the horse going uphill.

We walked up through a high pass, snow lying in sheltered places along the path and covering the southern slopes of the mountains. From here we dropped down into a valley where there were a couple of small villages. There was also a river to cross in this valley and no bridge; it wasn't too deep and we took off our boots, rolled up our trousers and waded through. The water came about halfway up to my knees, it was freezing cold and the rocks slippery; by the time we reached the other side my feet felt like ice-cubes. Sofargo, our guide, stopped briefly at one of these villages to have a smoke. We sat on a grassy slope admiring the views and watching village life. The children were curious and would stand and stare at us in silence. None of them would ask for sweets or money, a problem we had found in most of the rest of the country. We were a long way from normal civilisation and the usual places tourists visit.

Soon we were on our way again following a path back out of this valley and through another pass. Along the way we met other people travelling on horseback or shepherds herding goats, the clang of bells strung around the necks of goats and cattle never far away. Everyone was very polite and would wave to us and say hello, or stop briefly to chat with Sofargo. At every high point we reached we had panoramic views of the mountains and the valleys stretching out before us; this had to be one of the most beautiful and remote treks I had ever undertaken. Below us in the distance was a small village on the opposite side of the Kitane River, this would be where we would spend the night, but first we had another freezing cold river to wade across. Again the river was not too deep but by the time we reached the far bank our feet had turned again to blocks of ice. The village was no more than a collection of round thatched huts and a few more modern cinderblock and corrugated iron constructions. The huts only numbered about a couple of dozen and they were strung along the bank of the river, sheltered in the valley. The village was more a series of homesteads with each family having a number of huts set around a courtyard with cattle kraals, sheep and goat pens surrounding them; chickens roamed freely, scratching around in the dirt for scraps of food.

Sofargo stopped to see the village chief to ask for permission to stay the night. We were soon shown to a family's homestead and lead into a hut. The wind was howling down the valley and once the sun had sunk behind the mountains the temperature quickly dropped. Our hut for the night was one of the more modern, square, cinderblock constructions. The traditional round huts built of mud with a stone cladding and a thatched roof are far more comfortable to live in. They provide excellent insulation against the cold of winter as well as the heat of summer. Our corrugated iron roof did none of this and the wind howled through the broken windows as we sat huddled around a table cooking our dinner by candlelight. I was surprised at how well equipped and furnished the hut was, especially considering that there were no roads anywhere near this village and the only way to get here was either on foot or horseback. There were two beds, a wardrobe, table and chairs and a sideboard with all the crockery, pots and pans you could ever need. After we had eaten our dinner, it was so cold and dark that we went to bed and wrapped ourselves in our sleeping bags and blankets to keep out the cold.

The next morning we woke at sunrise with the rest of the family and the village. As we warmed ourselves with a cup of tea and a bowl of maize porridge, outside the young boys began herding the livestock out of the kraals and off for another day grazing on the surrounding mountain sides. Everyone's horse stood patiently waiting along the bank of the river for another days journey, including our packhorse, Dobbin. The chickens were soon back at work scratching for a living while the dogs just lazed about lying outside the huts in the first welcoming, warm rays of morning sun. The wind had eased since the previous night and once again the skies were clear, not a single sign of a cloud; it looked like another days perfect hiking weather. To the north, at the end of the valley, were a large range of snow covered mountains, this village was in a beautifully remote setting and I felt that we had left modern, urban life far behind us. The family were very friendly and really made us feel welcome during our short, overnight stay. Everyone seemed happy and the kids always had a big smile on their faces. The corruption of other tourists had not reached this tiny, remote village and nobody asked us for money or sweets. Children smiled and said hello rather than just shouting, 'Give me sweets' or, 'Give me money'; a chorus that followed us through so many towns and villages across this small relatively unspoilt country.

We were soon packed and ready to leave for the next stage of our trek to Malealea. Our whole host family gathered to say goodbye and we thanked the Mama for her kind hospitality before heading north, following the Kitane River up the valley. As we neared the head of the valley we took a path to the west that lead up through another pass. Dobbin's digestion had not improved and he still farted all the way up the hill. At this high altitude there was once again snow lying in sheltered places along the banks of small streams, that were still frozen or in the shadows of the heather, shrubs and grasses that grew in this mountain environment. From this pass we looked down into the Ribaneng valley and across the plains at the foot of the Thaba Putsoa range of mountains. We had crossed the final pass. We now just had to climb down the steep valley of the Ribaneng River and cross the plains to Malealea at the eastern foot of the Matelile Range.

The trail leading down from this pass was steep and rocky, the southern slopes of the mountains to our north all covered in snow and ice. The walking became tough as we had to carefully weave our way along this rough trail. By early afternoon we reached a village near the bottom of the valley where we stopped for the night. This village was far larger than the one we stayed at the previous night and was a popular overnight stopping off point for both hikers and pony trekkers from the Malealea Lodge. The owners of the Malealea Lodge specifically built the huts we stayed in here for tourists. We stayed in a small traditional round hut that was far more comfortable than the hut in the last village. The village was set on the steep side of the valley, dogs lay around in the afternoon sun and the occasional donkey or tribesman on horseback would wander through the village. Dozens of chickens were again scratching around the huts and some noisy pigs were eating from bowls of food scraps. A Mama was busy next door to us all afternoon cooking, the smoke from the fire, fuelled by maize cobs, blew past our hut in the strong, gusty breeze. I'm not sure exactly what she was cooking but it involved four cow legs that she heated up in the fire before scraping off the burnt hair and prising off the hoofs. Once this exercise was completed the bony legs were chopped in half with a blunt axe, after that I did not see them again as they were taken inside the hut. The village seemed quiet during the afternoon until the shepherds returned and the pens and kraals filled with livestock, the sound of the goats and the cattle with their clanging bells waking up the village from it's afternoon slumber.

Rebecca and I spent the afternoon sitting on the stonewall of a cattle kraal in front of our hut soaking up some warm sunshine and watching village life in between reading. It was not as cold here now that we were almost out of the mountains and the wind had eased considerably; the night was still chilly though under clear skies. Later in the afternoon some more tourists arrived in the village from Malealea. There was a large group of pony trekkers who were just on an overnight trip and a group of hikers who were heading the way we had just come from Semonkong.

At 08.00 the next morning we left the village on the last leg of our trek to Malealea. Again the weather was perfect and the walking looked fairly easy as we just had to walk out of this valley and across the plains. Within half an hour of leaving the village we were at the bottom of the valley and the first obstacle of the day, the Ribaneng River. It was still cold down here as the morning sun had not yet reached the bottom of this valley, the small streams across the path were frozen aswell as the mud. The river was just as cold but deeper than the others we had crossed on our way from Semonkong. The riverbed was covered with large submerged boulders, which we had to wade around, as they were too slippery to walk on in the fast flowing water. From there on we followed a well-worn trail out onto the plain passing through many villages along the way. Now the children stood shouting, 'Give me sweets' alongside the path; we were back near civilisation. Cattle grazed on the grasslands, dry stalks of maize stood in the fields, rustling in the wind.

We were nearing the end of our trek, only a couple of hours of walking remained to reach our destination. It all looked easy now crossing this flat plain until we reached the edge of a gorge with the large, fast flowing Makhaleng River at the bottom. There was no bridge and as we descended the steep, rocky path that clung to the edge of the gorge, the challenge of crossing this large river looked more and more difficult. We reached the bottom of the gorge and stood on the sandy banks of the river calculating how we would reach the other side of this torrent. The water looked as though it would be at least waist deep and very cold. While we stood there another man arrived on horseback and he rode his horse through the river to the far bank. I watched him cross now able to accurately gauge how deep and fast this river was flowing. We took off our boots and trousers and waded out into the river, the water coming up to the top of my legs . The riverbed was sand rather than rock, which made the crossing easier, although the current was powerful and the water icy cold. We all managed to keep our footing in the strong current and safely reached the opposite bank where we sat down on the grassy bank to dry off and eat lunch. Shortly after we had crossed four local men arrived by the river and attempted to cross. An old man was the first to attempt the crossing and he gingerly staggered out into the river keeping his balance with a long walking stick. In the middle of the river he lost his footing and was swept under by the current; he eventually reached the bank where we were sitting, completely soaked and freezing cold. His three friends on the opposite bank were even more nervous at crossing after seeing their companion being washed off his feet. They held onto each other as they waded across and finally made it to the other side.

It was a steep climb back out of this gorge but once we reached the top it was an easy walk for an hour and a half or so to finally reach the Malealea Lodge. Sofargo was keen to get going and we thanked him for an excellent job over the last three days and he left with Dobbin. He wanted to get back to the village on the other side of the Makhaleng Gorge that evening where some of his friends lived. I'm sure he had a good night with the tip we gave him. The Malealea Lodge is the largest tourist centre in this small country and it felt odd after our past few days in virtual isolation in the mountains to be here, surrounded by so many other tourists. At the back of the car park we saw Mo and Chris' Tazz 'all-terrain vehicle' and soon ran into them at the bar and told them about our adventures trekking through the Thaba Putsoa Mountains.

We only spent a night at the Malealea lodge before we hit the road again, this time bound for Bloemfontein in South Africa. Mo and Chris gave us a lift to the tarred road. We passed through the Gates of Paradise, a fantastic viewpoint with views across the plains and to the Thaba Putsoa Mountains. From the road we said goodbye to Mo and Chris and took a minibus taxi to Motsekuoa, where we changed at the junction for another minibus to Mafeteng, close to the border. One more minibus ride took us to the Van Rooyens border gate where we joined a queue of about fifty people waiting to enter South Africa. After queuing for about twenty minutes we reached the front of the queue and were once again in South Africa.

This journey continued across the border in South Africa.

Continue reading this journey: Bloemfontein to Cape Town