LESOTHO -- We left the unremarkable highways of South Africa and entered the Southern Highlands of Lesotho, driving up a steady incline and over a pass named the Gates of Paradise. My 12-year-old daughter gasped. Before us, the gray-green Thabo Putsoa Mountains undulated and folded in every direction. The scene was like a slice from the Andes, remote and untamed, with tiny villages of round mud huts and small garden patches. Even in its drought-stricken state last December, Lesotho was stunning.
This little country smaller than Maryland is completely surrounded by South Africa and far different from its urbanized and accessorized neighbor. It is known as the Mountain Kingdom or rooftop of Africa: Its lowest point is 3,280 feet high. People, for the most part, live as they did centuries ago, without electricity, gathering water from its source, grazing animals on steep terrain, and growing just enough food for themselves. When not on foot, they get around on Basotho ponies, as they have since their first king, Moshoeshoe the Great, did in the early 19th century.
As have many before us, our family of five couldn't wait to abandon our car for a seat in the saddle, which is why we drove seven steamy hours from our home in Pretoria. My husband and I had doubts about our plan: pony trekking for a few days with three children 12 and under. We would sort it out at the Malealea Lodge (pronounced ma-leeya-leeya) just on the other side of that mountain.
We practically coasted to the lodge, where owner Di Jones showed us to our unadorned room painted a deep, dark green. We pulled our thick brown curtains shut to hide from the sun, sipped cool drinks, and made plans.
Malealea is a launching point for hiking, riding, and exploring this southwestern region of Lesotho, famed for its waterfalls, dinosaur tracks, and ancient paintings on rocks. It is a homey lodge with round huts, called rondavels, and family-style meals. Dogs mill from one guest to another, panting for a good pat. We were tempted by excursions in a 4 x 4 vehicle or a float down the Makhaleng River, if the drought had not reduced the size and might of the waterway. But the essence of the place's experience is pony trekking. It's what put Malealea on the map, after a glorious past as a trading post, run by an adventurous Englishman until the 1950s. The lodge hires local guides and ponies to take riders, both novice and experienced, into the mountains.
In our family, my daughter is the only one at home on a saddle. She comfortably gallops, jumps, and walks through the woods. She looks good on a horse with her straight back, reins nestled in her hands, feet resting in the stirrups.
The rest of us, my husband, my sons and I, are all liquid joints; we slip and slide in the saddle.
We were fortunate that a Basotho pony can't tell the difference, or at least that is their reputation. They are known to be docile, sure-footed, hardy, and strong. They are called ponies because they grow no larger than a standard European riding pony.
Our hesitation was duration. Do we ride for two days, seven hours each day, with a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old? Di thought not, because of the fierce heat. Her husband, Mick, on the other hand, said ''absolutely." In many ways, children take to riding more easily than do their parents, he explained. Another family with four children of similar ages was trotting out as well, he said, almost as a challenge.
We took it as such and signed up for the trip to the Ribaneng Waterfall.
By 9 the next morning, our things were stuffed in and strapped to the saddle of a packhorse and we were strolling down a dirt road, accompanied by two Sesotho-speaking guides. Fields of corn lay on either side of us and my 6-year-old struggled to keep his horse from lowering his head and nibbling. One of the guides, not quite a Patagonian cowboy but a sure rider in a blue mechanics suit and rubber boots, urged my son's horse on with what became to us his classic call: ''Hiya!"
Throughout the trip, up a rocky path or down, this guide's countenance never changed. That should have been a cue for us as we left the flat dirt road and headed straight down a mountain. Di had told us: Lean forward going uphill, lean back going down. I was nearly resting my back on the horse's behind, and grabbing the front of the saddle with a death-grip. My behavior didn't help, as my boys panicked behind me. The loose metal shoe on my younger son's horse clanged against rock, filling the air with an eery echo. I looked deep into my husband's face, wondering why we were doing this.
Once we reached the bottom of the pass, and were looking up, it was amazing how we perked up, feeling as though we had conquered not only our fears but also our lack of training. We were sitting pretty now. My 9-year-old's fluid style suited his storytelling. He became absorbed in his own fantasies as a soldier on horseback or a knight riding out to battle. My 6-year-old never quite gained full control of his pony, but it didn't seem to matter as he held on tight.
My daughter and I rode to the rear of my husband much of the time, nonchalantly urging his horse into a trot with a light touch of our thin willow branches. My husband didn't like the prodding, as his legs and backside ached after the first few hours. He groaned at each dismount and was happy to drink from a stream at our first stop and stretch out under a tree. We meandered the rest of the day, zig-zagging up and down mountains under a blazing sun.
Malealea Lodge has been leading pony treks since 1991 and villagers are quite accustomed to seeing Westerners trotting or hiking through their hamlets. Local children often act as guides for hikers from one village to the next, and many line the pathways calling out for sweets or money. Di and Mick counsel in all their lodge literature to resist the calls. Instead, they urge travelers to give money if a child helps as a guide or picks up trash along a path. They feel very strongly about not perpetuating the classic exchange between a traveler from a developed country and a resident of a developing country: the handout. The Joneses want to create jobs. In other words, independence.
Their mission is impressive. Inspired by the amount of business brought in by Malealea Lodge, townspeople have set up their own cooperative to care for horses. When guests of Malealea send money to help the children of the town, a committee from the community funnels the donations to needy projects. Malealea helped set up a cooperative for makers of local crafts and villagers perform at the lodge each night, singing and playing traditional instruments.
Lesotho's history is one of independence. King Moshoeshoe the Great first banded together the Basotho tribes in 1820, fighting off advances from Zulu tribes to the north using the natural barriers of the Maluti Mountains in the west and the Drakensberg Mountains in the east. He tried as well to keep out the Boers, those European pioneers mostly from the Netherlands, by seeking Britain's help. His plan backfired; by 1871, a year after Moshoeshoe died, Britain had annexed the country, known then as Basotholand. Eighty-nine years later, the land was independent again and renamed the Kingdom of Lesotho in 1965.
Foreigners still draw a crowd. We reached our village of Rasebetsane in the late afternoon, following on the heels of the family with four children, and trailed by villagers. An English couple and two from France were already setting up in mud huts. We changed from our dusty clothes, asked directions to the waterfall (a steep 90-minute climb), and instead chose a short walk to a dam for a swim. We were greeted by 30 children, who watched as our children stripped to their underclothing and dived in. Cooled off, we hiked back to our hut to make dinner over a gas burner.
When we first moved to Africa half a year ago, my young sons were disappointed we weren't going to be living in a mud hut. It was a romantic notion, I suppose, nurtured by storybooks. In reality, a hut on a hot summer night is far from the romance. This hut was stuffy and the door remained shut to keep out chickens and stray dogs. Inside was dark, lighted by one candle, and there was barely enough room for the five of us to lie down for the night on our mats.
Nonetheless, it was an authentic African experience, my children thought, and they were in high spirits as we trotted back to the lodge early the next morning. The day was just as broiling, but we were expert riders now. The return felt far shorter than the going-out.
At the end, my younger boy reluctantly parted from his horse. He raced to the office to sign up for a much longer journey. We deftly detoured his enthusiasm and told him, ''First things first!" A shower, a cold drink, an elevated bed. Afterward, we could talk about another pony trekking trip.
Laura Hambleton is a freelance writer in Pretoria.