Did you notice I said, “dusty, stony road”?

It was indeed a stony, rocky and (wherever Pete’s irrigation arms couldn’t reach) a dry, parched and hard land. You’ll understand my surprise then in meeting horses that didn’t have any metal shoes on their feet. They were all ‘barefoot’ (which to those non-equestrian types who may have stumbled across this post) that means they had their own hooves and nothing else. Not so surprising you may be thinking… but actually in the UK nearly all the horses you see will be shod with metal shoes. Without the shoes the horses can bruise the soles of their feet on rocks and uneven ground and wear their natural hooves down on the hard roads and surfaces we ride on. So – in the UK a bunch of other countries – you’d expect a horse working on hard stony ground to be shod. Ours weren’t though.

The local breed – the South African Boerperd – which we were to ride were acclimatised to the ground and perfectly suited to the week’s stiff riding ahead – or so we were told, although it didn’t look that likely at the outset. However experience has taught me that it’s best to reserve judgement on these things, because – as proven in Ecuador – a simple local horse can be a darn sight better than some over-bred, highly priced animal. So, I mounted my 5-year old gelding – Roess, pronounced “Ruuss”, so named for his rusty bright chestnut colouring – and sat reasonably comfortably in his new synthetic trail saddle.

A few adjustments later… saddles bags tied on, my home-brought sheepskin in place (to reduce synthetic saddle rub!), sun cream applied and water to hand, we did our first “Saddle Up!” of the trip and set off on a “let’s see how our horses go for us” mini ride to tomorrow’s start point.

A couple of hours later and having sized up some of the other riders and their horses, I was pretty comfortable with my set-up. Richard – he of the broken foot – was bravely popping pain killers and had been allocated a Dales pony as far as I could tell. But Prince Charlie as he became known (the horse, not Richard), was to carry Richard on a route we would not have believed possible over the coming days, so I’ll not say anything disrespectful of the chap (or the man).  Some of the flashier folk had chosen/brought appropriately flashy horses and were speeding around having fun in the sun.

But finally as the sun set, with our tack locked away (from armed locals!) and our new four legged friends turned out for the night, our very random group of riders (who it should be said truly were each a mix of sensible and crazy in the one person; I include myself in that) clambered into the back of the trucks and rumbled our potholed way back to Penwarm Lodge. It was to be our last night of comfortable accommodation, from here-on in, everything was a bit up in the air. Just like the mountains  -the Drakensburg Mountains –  with their sharp teeth-like peaks, adorned with swirls of cloud. We’d enjoyed looking at their towering rocky greatness from the comfort of the dairy valleys below, but tomorrow we were going to climb up to and then onward into Lesotho.

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It was late when we arrived in the dark, and I thought we’d just head to our rooms and meet the rest of the riders the next day. I didn’t realise we were special guests, our arrival eagerly awaited by everyone attending the big first night welcome dinner. So with the taste of vomit stuck still to my teeth I was more than mildly taken aback to be greeted with clapping and cheering of “Welcome our International visitors!” when we walked in the dining room of Penwarm Country Lodge www.penwarn.com.

Sophia McKee, ride organiser, and Ally and Kevin, in-country hosts responsible for bringing the treatment of animals in the government-run pounds to all our attention, had clearly done a huge amount of work organising and garnering support for the ride. I don’t think I realised this (as I was little wobbly at the time) and I hope I managed to thank them enough later for the part they played in putting together a truly unique trip which I could join. As it was I sat quietly and nibbled on a dry bread-crust as we listened to speeches from the organisers, a heart-rending description of the animal welfare situation in Lesotho from the Highveld Horse Care Unit (being picked up by the pound staff is tantamount to signing up to a slow starvation death for the animals), stood for our official photographs, accepted our branded merchandise and paid full attention to the safety briefing – noting key points such as “armed locals” “dangerous ledges” “cliff faces” etc. Later I slept, although I’m not sure how well.

The following day – in the daylight – we could see where we’d come to. Penwarm Country Lodge is set alongside a small lake in a gorgeous area of lush countryside (sprinklers helping maintain the green in what was a very dry season). I can’t tell you how many thousands of acres the estate stretches across.  Pete Dommet, the owner and vet to his own dairy herd (although I should say herds, I think he has 11 different herds; one of which is  Jersey; the cattle operate as a unit up to 120 ish animals and bigger than that their yield drops, so Pete’s team run them as separate herds), 600 plus horses (these constitute Pete’s hobby!), goats, pigs and a couple of zebras (there’re probably more animals than this but that’s what I remember).

After more photos in the morning sunshine (in our individually named team shirts and an assortment of sponsor’s caps, with different horse feed bags at our feet) we climbed into the back of some trucks and headed off down the dusty stony road to meet our steeds.

 

 

 

Doh. I realise now that I haven’t told you anything about the trip to South Africa and the Lesotho Rescue Ride! How remiss.

So, yes I did go.  Firstly, my other half and I had a hol in South Africa – saw a little of J’burg, did a whole bunch of outdoors sight-seeing in Cape Town (stayed here; highly recommend it www.atlanticpoint.co.za) hiked up table mountain – amazing views, cycled along the east coast (where the rich folk live), past luxury glass-fronted houses hanging onto the rocks each with their own beautiful deserted little beaches, ate amazing sushi, hired a car and went to see the Southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Point, saw the penguins, spent 3 luscious nights drowning in wine-tasting and cheese-eating in the quaintly beautiful towns of Franschoek and Stellenbosch, had a white- knuckle-micro-light ride  over the coast to see the whales and their calves in the bay, and then sadly my other half and adventurer to date headed off back to Blighty and I hopped a flight and rocked up in Durban airport to see who I’d be riding with up in Lesotho.

Turns out there’d been a bit of a snag with a couple of the other riders’ flights and so I ended up being met by someone’s daughter and hanging out at her house until the guy with the broken foot and some mad Swedish dude – who’d missed his flight entirely – showed up. Now I’m not sure if I ate something bad  on my Cape Town to Durban flight (it was a tuna sandwich, not a very nice one) or if I was really nervous about riding into the unknown with a bunch of strangers… but I started to explode both ends (very bad when you’re the house guest of someone you don’t know, who drives a swanky Mercedes and has more diamonds than Barbara Cartland) I managed to confine my bodily explosions to the exterior of the car (just) and the ensuite in the room she settled me into. 4 hours of lying on the floor feeling awful later, I bravely got back in the car, and we scooped up the crutch bearing Richard and Crazy Scandanvian Mattias from the airport and began our easterly drive out of Durban to our altitude start at Underburg.

By the time we’d arrived I’d only had to stop the car, leap out and vomit at the side of the road, twice. Although I was definitely starting to feel better… perhaps getting to know some of my fellow riders was easing my anxiety, or perhaps it was just that I didn’t have anything left inside me.