The southern Lesotho village of Malealea is alive with activity. A party of tourists is about to ride out on an afternoon excursion, and their doughty Basotho ponies are being saddled and prepped. Others are going on a village walk, and their guides are being introduced. Two tour buses disgorge happy packs of Dutch visitors. Agnes in the kitchen is feeding everyone curried mince, pasta and beetroot, with Tex chocolate bars for dessert. Ice-cold beers are served on the porch, and British honeymooners are writing postcards to their families. Another day at the office for Malealea Lodge Adventure & Pony Trek Centre.
Di and Mick Jones moved here in 1986 to open a trading store. But, as backpackers and friends kept popping by this scenic region near the Gate of Paradise, they decided to build some huts … and then a few more. Now they can accommodate 100 visitors, with options to suit all pockets.
The lodge sells meals and beds. But it also serves as a platform for the villagers to promote their talents and sell their wares to tourists.
Within days we start putting names to faces — people who have been given a start in life by funding from tourists who came to Malealea Lodge.
Tsepang Lichaba is a 28-year-old horticulturist who runs a nursery near the village. He is growing peach saplings, and a batch of poplars and willows to sell to the government for a project to reclaim erosion dongas.
Showjumper David Nkhabane Mokala, a former pony trek guide who now spends half the year training in Germany, will represent Lesotho at the Beijing Olympics.
Sotho Sounds, a young band of former herdboys playing oil-can instruments, entertain the tourists at the braai area. They went to England last year and to Australia this year to attend the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival and workshops.
We walk with Teboho Mei to the Pitseng Gorge and stop off at what could be the world’s smallest pub, a little hut where three drinkers sit mesmerised by dancers performing a mountain minuet in a trance-like state. Come party with us, they say. But we retreat through the smoke, music and laughter to the wide-open landscape. After an hour’s walk we arrive at a magnificent viewpoint, where Mei teaches us the finer points of Marabaraba, a game drawn on sandstone.
The next morning our horseback pilgrimage begins, with a white-knuckle introduction to Journo’s Ridge, the gorge leading down to the Makhaleng river.
All the articles we have read about Malealea go on about the moments of terror on the back of a Basotho pony, eyes closed, bum clenched and heading vertically down the rocky slopes to this river. For the first-timer, it’s an awesome thrill. You cannot come to Lesotho without experiencing a pony trek. That would be like going to Cairo and ignoring the pyramids of Giza.
Seven hours later we are at a mountain village, inspecting a homeward-bound herd of cattle and some fluffy-footed roosters while a goat tries to eat our saddles. Late that night, we see the cowherds sitting on the stone wall of the kraal, silently watching the cattle as their horns glint in the moonlight.
Gillian Attwood, who is doing her doctorate at Wits University on development issues, has helped direct activities at Malealea in ways that uplift surrounding villages. She has set up 11 “learning circles” in villages in a 15km radius. Here the communities identify issues that affect them most and find solutions.
Projects have included setting up a handicraft centre and library, building a pre-school, establishing vegetable gardens and a social care project for orphans and HIV-positive people, constructing sports facilities and rehabilitating a nearby wetland. Because of this social involvement and environmental awareness, Malealea was the winner at the 2003 Imvelo Responsible Tourism Awards.