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Ride of 200 Miles over Mountains of Basutoland: South African’s Adventurous Holiday by A. Milne

Filed under: — adrian @ 7:08 am

This article was written by my grandfather, Alec Milne, chronicling a horse trip across Lesotho in 1936. It’s a long but fascinating article. The photocopy of the article I have has lost all definition in the graphic and three photos that accompany it, so I have supplemented it with ones that did not run with the original story. I’ve tried to preserve the original spelling and style wherever possible. The links, obviously, are not original and have been added to add clarity to those not familiar with some particulars.

The Star, Johannesburg, Transvaal, May 16, 1936

"Trek" in Basutoland

To reach the South Coast of Natal from Wepener, in the south-east of the Free State, the author of this article decided to avoid the long circuitous train journey and ride over the mountains of Basutoland to Matatiele. He gives an entertaining account of his adventurous journey.

When my fortnight’s leave was drawing near and I had decided that it should be spent on the Natal South Coast, I rebelled at the thought of the slow, circuitous train journey. Some memory, more exsiting and interesting must be brought back to cheer my daily toil in the little town of Wepener. A nebulous idea began to take definite shape. Between Wepener and Natal lies the mountainous Protectorate of Basutoland, the very roof of South Africa. I would ride over the mountains to Matatiele. Once the idea had been defined, nothing could change my purpose; over the mountains I would go.

“Madness,” laughed my friends when I outlined my scheme. “Hair-brained,” they muttered when I showed no signs of relenting. As I am well versed in Sesuto and have a good knowledge of the journey I proposed to undertake, I was not disposed to listen to these croakings.

View Ride of 200 Miles over Mountains of Basutoland: South African’s Adventurous Holiday in a larger map

A glance at a map will show you the extent of the task I set myself. Find Wepener in the south-easern part of the Free State, and Matatiele in the extreme north-eastern section of the Cape. Then draw a line between the two straight across Basutoland and you will have a rough idea of the route. You will see that two mountain ranges, the Malutis and the Drakensberg, lay between me and my objective. That is easily read from the map, but unless you are acquainted with the country or are gifted with vivid imagination you will have no conception of the endless succession of precipitous descents and ascents by dizzy paths offering foothold to only a sturdy Basuto pony.

After the route was marked out my task was to find a suitable mount—not an easy task as he must be able to stand four consecutive days of hard riding over the steepest mountain tracks in South Africa. Only a pony born and bred in the mountains could do it. Fortune smiled: I was able to purchase a little pony 12 1/2 hands high, a real Basuto. A trial ride convinced me I could find no better. My Casandra-like friends again gave me tongue: “He’ll never be able to carry you and your kit for four days”; “the poor thing will collapse in a day.” I knew the breed too well to pay much attention. A real Basuto pony is the most hardy thing God ever made.

For such an undertaking, not only the mount, but the rider must be fit. I am sure the Broadcast Company’s physical jerks instructor would have been highly gratified had he seen how promptly I sprang from bed each morning and how assiduously I “jerked.”

Although on such a long trip it is usual to travel with pack-horses carrying camping equipment, I decided for the benefit of the pony on the most economical method of traveling, taking only the bare necessities in saddlebags—every pound counts on a long trip. I had, of course, to be prepared for any eventuality: a flooded river might hold me up for a day or a week—for there are no bridges on that route.

My kit consisted of three blankets, a waterproof and a change of clothing. For food, I had three packets of biscuits, coffee and sugar, with the very important addition of two slabs of hard chocolate. A billycan mug and a flask of brandy for emergencies completed equipment. In all it weight about 40lb.

At last the day of the departure arrived. I saddled “Trek” (for so I had named him), tying the blankets to the front of the saddle and stowing the rest of the equipment in the saddlebags. Looking at the little fellow under his burden, I had momentary misgivings. Was I expecting too much? Was it fair to expect him to carry me 200 miles over the mountains in four days? That remained to be seen.

At 4:30am I cantered up the main road of the sleeping town, only the clatter of hooves breaking the silence. Soon I was climbing the hill to the east of Wepener, whose winking lights were soon lost to view. From here it is just a few miles to the Basutoland border. Dawn was breaking as I arrived at the gate. After a few minutes of shouting “Bula heke” (Open the gate), a sleepy figure cloaked in a blanket appeared to unlock it.

As I was demanding entrance at such an hour, he first regarded me as a suspicious character, but when he recognized me I was allowed to pass. Leaving the wagon road I took a footpath which would lead me across the country to the pass leading over the first range of the Malutis.

I rode slowly, conserving strength for the harder going of the following days. Jogging along past unfenced lands of green wheat and clusters of huts which are native villages, I was hailed now and again “Emorena” (greetings to the chief) which is invariably followed by “U ea gae?” (where are you going?) I would assure my questioner that I was on my way to           , naming the nearest trading store. To tell him that my destination was on the other side of his country would involve too many explanations.

One old native thought I was a speculator and asked me if I was buying cattle. When I assured him that I was not, a look of enlightenment came over his face which suggested that he had discovered my real mission. I n a confidential tone he asked, “Perhaps, then, the chief is buying cattle have no legs?” (This is the native expression for diamonds, which some suppose are to be found in this part of Basutoland.) I assured him I had no interest in cattle without legs. He looked at me blankly, shook his head and mumbled something about white men being beyond comprehension. Would I give him a box of matches? Not a box, but a few loose matches seemed to delight his heart. With a beaming smile he bade me a hearty farewell.

At noon I arrived at the foot of the first range of the Malutis and off-saddled at a mission station. There I had lunch with the Reverend Father, and what gratitude I owe those kindly sisters! Having ridden towards the sun from the outset my face was sunburned and sore. They brought a basin of hot water to which vinegar had been added and I was advised to bathe my face in it. I recommend this to injudicious sunbathers. The burn in my face was immediately relieved, and for the rest of the trip the sun did not worry me at all. After a rest “Trek” was saddled and I said farewell to my friends of the Emmaus Mission. Climbing the first spur of the Malutis I was grateful for the wagon road which serves two trading stores about 12 miles farther inland, one of which was my objective for that day.

Now the country had quite a different aspect from the fields on the flats. It appeared to be more fertile and much greener. I was struck by the extraordinary number of streams of crystal water every few hundred yards. This part, though not thickly populated, is extensively cultivated. The natives also go in for pastoral farming. Before I reached the top of the range, after much laboriously slow going (for cantering is almost out of the question), the road dipped into a canyon and crossed a delightful little river.

How cleverly the natives capture in their place names the sounds of nature, be it rippling water rushing torrent or voices of birds. This charming stream they have aptly called “Mai-mai-banna” (the River of the Blue Pigeons), and so imprisoned for ever the lazy cooking of these birds and the cool gurgling of the water over brown stones.

From there the round wound steeply up to a nek at the top and I enjoyed a panorama view north and south of the Maluti range. It is an imposing chain of gaunt rocky peaks, stark and treeless. Here I was granted that glorious sight, sunset on the mountains. I reined in my pony. The grey giants were clothed in majestic crimson, which, with the sinking of the sun, swiftly changed to an inky blue, and they seemed to be enveloped in a tangible silence as the mists of the night rolled up the valleys.

I soon reached my objective, the trading station Kena. Here the wagon road ends and beyond there are no more stones until arrive at the other side of Basutoland, two days’ ride farther on. At Kena I spent a pleasant evening with my friends the traders, while “Trek” had a feast of crushed mealies to fortify him for the stiff work the following day.

At dawn I again set off, knowing that for two days I should see no other white men. From Kena the path is narrow and very precipitous, winding down the mountain face to the Makhaleng (the River of Aloes). On this ledge, in less than a mile and a half, the traveller [sic] descends two thousand feet or more. Then starts the ascent of the Malutis proper. Towering above is the mighty Thaba Phutsos (the blue mountain), 13,000 feet high. Here the path winds along the bank of the Qubake, a tributary of the Makhaleng, then gradually twists upwards. Hamlets consisting of four or five of the characteristic huts nestle here and there.

As I passed by, the children came out to gaze at me, for, in these parts, the sight of a white man is unusual. The majority seemed shy, but the bolder ones clamoured for “pong-pong” (sweets).

The final stage of this climb to the top of the range is terrifying in its steepness. The natives call it “Nsethutse,” which means “push me up”—another very apt name. Riding is out of the question. Often crawling on hands and knees and clutching at tufts of grass to avoid slipping back, I led the pony up. That pack animals laden with unwieldy bags of wheat and wool for sale at the stores below are driven by the natives down these paths is surely a marvel.

It was midday when I reached the summit, where I off-saddled, and with an excellent appetite had my first meal of chocolate and biscuits. After resting an hour, I set off again. On the other side of the range, the majestic mountain scenery through which the path had so far lain, was replaced by rocky hills all very much alike. There were no signs of mankind. In fact this stretch of country is distressingly desolate. Life is represented only by teaming thousands of rats and mice which scuttled into their holes as I went by. Their heads would reappear and their defiant looks seemed to challenge the right of my presence. They must live on the succulent bulbs of wild irises (not tulips) which are very prolific. Here and there I noticed thistles exactly the same as those that abound in Scotland. Strange that these plants should thrive so far from their homeland.

The bridle path, which up to this point had been very clear, trailed away to nothing. No more “follow the road.” Unless you have knowledge of the country, it would be impossible to avoid being lost in that labyrinth of craggy hills. Knowing the direction well, I rode as my inclination directed, sometimes going over a hill, sometimes riding around its foot. Some of the little valleys between the hills were vistas of liveliness. On grass as fine and smooth as English lawn lay, like pools, the split gold of the vivid yellow irises.

Late that afternoon, I came to the Malutsunyane valley. Descending into this valley you would never guess that here is the highest waterfall in Africa. The river drops suddenly into a gigantic crack in the earth, plunging 630 feet in one sheer drop (one and a half times the depth of Victoria Falls), into a pool of ill repute among the natives.

Not many South Africans have seen these falls away in the mountain fastnesses. Of course, there is not the majesty of volume of the Victoria Falls, but I am glad that Malutsunyane has remained remote from the madding crowd and that the delicate tracery of falling waters descends in a silence not yet disturbed by the noise of modern progress.

This valley is fertile and comparatively well populated. The natives are all wheat and wool farmers. The frosts, which are common for eight months of the year, prevent the growing of maize and kafircorn. To barter their produce for gaily colored blankets or other merchandise, natives living in these highlands must transport their wheat or wool on oxen, horses or donkeys to the stores at the foot of the Malutis. This may take them four to six days of precarious travelling. They deserve every penny they receive!

I did not intend to go much farther that day, so I made for the Chief’s village, which is high on the mountain on the Natal side of the valley. Feeling weary and cramped from the long ride, I led “Trek” up the steep slope. Knowing the ways of the natives, I was careful to remount before coming in sight of the village. To arrive at the Chief’s on foot and leading a horse would be, to say the least of it, infra dig.

The Chief gave me a hearty welcome, and when he heard that I wished to stay the night he was delighted. He regretted that his guest hut was occupied but soon remedied this by bundling a number of his wives out of their hut!

After attending to “Trek,” I sat outside of the hastily swept hut and looked out upon the vast panorama of mountains and more mountains, with the valley below a patchwork of wheat lands. The stillness was unbroken even by a breeze. It was the time when the evening meal is cooked, and each hut was marked by a stream of smoke which rolled slowly downward into the valley below, gradually obliterating the wheat lands and forming a smoke lake with a surface like grey glass.

I was roused from the reverie into which I had fallen by the old Chief, who came and sat beside me. A number of his councillors squatted before us in a semi-circle ready to absorb our conversation.

Would he like a drink fo the white man’s spirit? Certainly! A councillor dashed off for a drinking vessel. I suggested that another should get some water.

The old man looked at me in amazement.

“Surely the white Chief doesn’t put water in his spirits?” I assured him that I couldn’t drink it otherwise.

“Hah, then you are still a boy!”

When I drew a comparison between my large mug and the breakfast cup brought to him he said that he thought that would hold sufficient for him. Asking him to help himself, I handed him the bottle. He did. The cup was filled to the brim! We toasted each other: “Khotse, pula, likhomo le manamane a tsona,” (Peace, rain, the cows and their calves) and he swallowed his in one breath. He rather unsuccessfully tried to conceal his contempt at my leisurely sipping. We discussed the coming wheat crop.

“What is the good?” he asked, “a small crop, a good price; a large crop and the white men eat us up. Ha!”

I asked him about the large serpent said to live in the pool at the foot of the falls. Had he seen it? No, but he knew of those who had, and he related tales of mysterious disappearances, of goats which had wandered too near the brink. And so the time passed until the enveloping smoke was in turn enveloped in darkness.

With a blanket spread on the mud floor and my saddle as my pillow, I slept soundly, rising at daybreak. Knowing little of the country ahead I no longer traveled alone, but hired a native to guide me as far as the Orange River. Now the path led along a steep mountainside, which towered hundreds of feet above us and dropped dizzily away below to a depth of over 1,000 feet, where at the foot the Malutsunyane River plunges through its rocky gorge. I cannot describe the majestic scenery.

In parts the path was good and we were able to canter for short stretches here and there. This would have been dangerous on anything but a Basuto pony. At about 11 o’clock we began the descent into the Orange River valley. Here is, in truth, a very “devil’s staircase.” For three weary hours we scrambled precariously downward, leading our horses by the reins. But for the support of those reins I should have fallen a dozen times. As it was I fell more than once on pebbles rolling under my feet. In places the path was so bad that the ponies would refuse to go and we had to crawl past them and drive them down with shouting and waving of arms.

Before reaching the Orange, the Little Orange, or Senqunuane, has to be crossed. The invitation of that cool crystal stream to a hot dusty traveller such as I! In I went—no Mother Grundy was there. There is no bathing to equal a bathe in the gurgling coolness of the upper reaches where the river is yet young. It has had no time to grow slugging and muddy, but dance happily along, and the water is so clear that even in the deepest pools the rocks on the bottom are distinct.

An hour later I reached the Orange River. Fortunately it was not running high, and we were able to cross without dismounting. We leant well back and held our feet in the air, the water just lapping our saddlebags.

I had expected to find this valley flowing with the proverbial “milk and honey,” but it was very different. When I passed it was evident that for some months no rain had fallen. Except for a few willows on the river bank nothing green met my gaze. Great clouds of dust swirled up at the passing of wind over the barren, ploughed lands. The desolation was increased by the presence of rocky ridges and great stony patches.

The path into the valley was steep but the climb out of it was heart-breaking. Nevertheless, it is a properly-constructed path and is maintained in good condition by a trader to attract custom to his store. Up, up, up I trudged, leading Trek, who was much fresher than I was. At many of my frequent pauses he nudged me with his nose as if to say “Get on, lazy bones, I’ll help you if you like”! When I reached the top, it was an effort to mount and continue the short journey to the store, Sekakes.

Great was my joy at arriving there, to rest and to meet again my old friends, the trader and his wife. “Would I care for a beer?” Would I?

My intention had been to complete the journey the following day, but I was not reluctant to accept an invitation to tarry for a day. There I played golf with the lady of the house over what is perhaps the trickiest course in the country (private), over gullies, up cliffs and beset by many natural hazards. It was great fun, but alas, she beat me hollow.

From Sekakes there is a good motor road to Matatiele, so that on this, the last stage, I had no need of a guide. Trek evidently appreciated the rest, for as I mounted he playfully bucked before cantering off in great style. The road winds along the Orange for about ten miles, sometimes at water level and sometimes hundreds of feet above. Here, too, the water is so clear that from a height fish are clearly visible.

Leaving the river the road turns and twists ever upward over the Drakensberg. In climbing the Berg, the desert-like condition of the valley was left behind and the landscape became greener and greener for it is watered by mountain mists.

The road itself is a remarkable one for its construction and its excellent surface. I could not help thinking that he was a brave man of vision who conceived it, and he who built it a hero.

During the last day the weather had been growing steadily colder. The tops of the Berg were hidden in swirling clouds. I urged the pony on, knowing the dangers of sudden snowstorms that sweep the heights.

There is no need to go to Switzerland to view the charm of a hamlet clinging to the mountainsides, thought I, when the administrative “camp” of Qachas Nek came into sight. Under the beetling crags, partially hidden in rolling clouds, I saw a cluster of cheery red-roofed white houses, each set apart in its neat little flower garden.

I made no delay as I was now anxious to complete the journey. As I passed through the gate on the border of Basutoland a native officer saluted smartly under a gaily-flying Union Jack. But a few more turns in the road and I was cheered by the sight of Matatiele, away on the plain below, still three hours’ ride father on. Trek knew, too, it seemed that the journey was nearly over and that a warm stable and manger of forage awaited him.

6 Responses to “Ride of 200 Miles over Mountains of Basutoland: South African’s Adventurous Holiday by A. Milne”

  1. Mummy Says:

    Adrian: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to read this story again. Your Grandpa would be proud and happy to to know that you had included this on your blog. Probably huge stretches in the Drakensburg that he described are not too different today from what they were like then – they are so remote, and there are still no roads.

  2. Duncan Says:

    This is a fascinating tale well told.Those little Basuto ponies are remarkably agile and strong and one still sees them carrying proud Basuto men wrapped in their coloured blankets riding along-side the roads in the Eastern Free State.The old Basuto man who asked about the cattle with no legs knew a thing or two because diamonds were found in the 1970’s when ahuge Dam was about to built high in the mountains so perhaps there was a knowledge of their presence amongst the tribesmen even earlier.

  3. Shad Says:

    Wow, what a truly great story! I’m excited that I get the chance to join you in an homage tour of Lesotho this January!

  4. neil Says:

    great story – read it long ago but had forgotten.

    Guess much has changed / nothing has changed!

  5. Pam Sanderson Says:

    Pam says: A.I. Milne, my Dad, was a great man. Not only was he an excellent horseman, but could write a wonderful account of this perilous journey. Well done, Dad, we salute you!

  6. Keith Burridge Says:

    I loved reading this piece about your grandfather’s journey on “Trek” across Lesotho. It evoked vivid memories of the 2 months I spent in the mountains of Lesotho in 1971. I stayed in Matatiele and crossed into Lesotho at Qachas Nek. I was there in the middle of their winter and recall wading across the very cold Orange River. We drove in as far as we could and then hiked in the rest of the way to the cave our archeology expedition was excavating. While we were there, this “road” was completed, allowing 4 wheel drive vehicles to cross that region of the country. I need to go back!

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