A diamond in the rough

Enticed by tales of cowboys, Genevieve Swart visits the kingdom of Lesotho and finds a frontier beauty waiting to be discovered.

In the distance, someone lowers a whip and the stallions are off, racing past stubbly fields against a backdrop of blue mountains. It's a surreal scene: beautiful peaks, rough dirt track, prime horseflesh, jockeys in balaclavas.

My attention is focused on the hats. This is no Melbourne Cup, so there are no ladies in feathers and fascinators but a ragged crowd of men wearing everything from gumboots and jeans to kobo, the traditional blanket.

It is the big race day at Lesotho's annual Morija Arts and Cultural Festival, so one might expect the headgear of choice to be the Basotho hat, the woven cone traditionally favoured by herders (and adapted as lampshades in tourist lodges). But I can see only one man in a 150-strong crowd wearing a Basotho hat and I think he's doing it ironically. It certainly doesn't match his T-shirt and jeans.

Most are wearing beanies, caps and cowboy hats. There are also a toy policeman's helmet, a hard hat worn by a spectator (no riders bother with such frippery), a white face mask and a Davy Crockett-style hat with what I'm afraid is a genuine African wild cat tail.

"He's a horse whisperer," a crowd member says reverently. We've driven more than 1000kilometres from Cape Town to be at the festival and while the main stalls have been disappointing - there's no great rush on candy-striped tents staffed by the likes of aid agencies, tourism boards and the Lesotho tax office - the horse racing has been as wild and wonderful as I'd hoped.

Two months ago, a photographer friend from Durban, Troy Inman, showed me pictures taken on an epic 17-day winter trek through Lesotho's mountains - en route, he'd stumbled on a village race day in which ragged youngsters, barefoot or in gumboots, raced horses along a course through long grass, past ploughed fields and deep gorges. And when night fell, the Basotho crowd mounted their horses and disappeared into the snowy hills. His haunting images of boys in balaclavas whipping horses through grasslands reminded me of Mongol herdsmen sweeping across the steppes on their sturdy ponies.

"I must go there," I decided. "I must see that." Morija Festival, held every October, seemed a good excuse - at least its race day was predictable, unlike the remote high jinks Troy had seen.

Even in Morija, a village established in 1833 by French protestant missionaries, it's clear there is something of the Wild West about Lesotho and it's not just cowboy hats. It's untamed Africa, frontier territory, set entirely within South Africa, one of the few countries besides the Vatican to be surrounded by another country.

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For South Africans, it's like the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Admittedly, more through ignorance than intention. There it is, a great big independent nation within the republic staring out nightly from weather maps, yet never does its capital, Maseru, warrant a mention in forecasts and seldom do media stories come out of Lesotho. It achieved only a brief mention in September when the world's 20th-largest rough diamond was found in a Lesotho mine. More intriguingly, cattle herders are still said to stumble across gems in the mountains.

So planning a trip to Lesotho, I felt the glee of discovering a metaphorical "diamond in the rough". Other than historians or hikers, few South Africans or overseas visitors holiday across the border despite it being a mountaineer's paradise - hikers can indulge in wanderlust untrammelled by fences, walk paths frequented mostly by high-altitude herdsmen and tackle an extreme abseil down a waterfall. The 204-metre drop down Maletsunyane Falls at Semonkong is the longest commercial abseil in the world, certified by Guinness World Records. Lesotho is also home of the gruelling offroad Roof of Africa Rally.

The country was never conquered during the colonial era, thanks to the diplomatic genius of King Moshoeshoe the Great, the Mandela of the 19th century, who united a nation, resisted Boer attacks and formed an alliance with the British. But the Basotho were eventually forced to retreat from fertile farmlands into the mountains - a reason the country now lays claim to the name "the Kingdom in the Sky" (it's made up of several ranges, including the Drakensberg, with no part below 1000 metres). In the 20th century, Lesotho escaped the psychological trauma of apartheid, remaining independent. It was even a sanctuary for liberal South Africans - in Morija on holiday I meet well-known Johannesburg ceramic artist and painter Patrick Rorke and his wife, whose mixed-race marriage was not tolerated under apartheid and who moved to Lesotho in the 1980s to avoid harassment by the regime.

Today Lesotho is a poor country - crossing the South African border, the drop in prosperity is as sudden as a summer storm. Poverty is obvious in everything from subsistence farming and tin shanties to the roads - even tar stretches are poorly maintained and drivers are forced to play Hangman with faded road signs. Third World status is also evidenced by the kind of visitors at Morija Festival; the few white faces in the crowd belong mostly to foreigners based in Maseru, aid workers or US embassy staff of the eccentric do-gooder ex-Peace Corps variety.

Morija proves a fascinating village to explore - it's home to Lesotho's oldest printing press, newspaper and church (with a roof made of ship masts brought in by ox wagon). Morija Museum is the chief repository of the nation's past, holding everything from dinosaur bones to Moshoeshoe's china tea set.

I learn Lesotho is famous for its fossil finds. There's a dinosaur named after it: Lesothosaurus. On a rock on the hillside behind our guesthouse are footprints of an ancient theropod - a three-toed carnivorous dinosaur about a third the size of T-Rex. This means the prints, 180 to 200 million years old, are about the size of a human hand rather than a Jurassic Park monster. It's easy to understand how 19th-century folk thought they were made by a giant bird.

Two days after arriving, I've ticked off the village sights and am ready for Saturday's main event: the races. It's another unique attraction, as horses will be trippling, a style of fast-paced prancing or parading - a gait peculiar to Lesotho. Books describe it as a "two-time lateral gait" in which fore and hind legs on the same side work together but local trainers will only vouchsafe it's "very complicated" and much must be considered.

"Trippling is a sport of traditional horsemanship," says an ebulliently cheerful local character, Kefuoe Namane, who organises pony treks from Morija. "It's faster than a trot but stops short of breaking into a gallop.

"It feels like a car with good shock absorbers - it's very comfortable for the rider. If you travel long distances, it's the best gait."

Judge Maphale Seboka, a tall old man who cuts an impressive figure in a blue kobo in the dusty field, tells me it's important that a trippling horse's steps are "well organised". His trainer son has a horse running later - a sleek black stallion named Hearse, "like the car for dead people", the judge says, laughing. Hearse is possibly the strangest name here but not by too many furlongs. Other entries include Lunch, Television, Koliamalla (which means tragedy) and Mafenetha (poison). I like Diatura (expensive).

Around us, horses are snorting and men are shouting songs, waving sticks and blowing whistles. The prizemoney is small - the winner receives about $220 - and there's no gambling, although spectators may bet among themselves. Some riders are herdsmen, who would ordinarily ride stallions to cattle posts in the mountains, and competitors have come from all over, the wealthier hiring horse boxes, others loading stallions into utes, like one man who brought two down from Maseru in the back of his Isuzu.

"For the love of the game, people do it," Namane says. When the final five ride off to the start line, there's a roar from the men and ululating from the women. Heads turn as a chestnut tosses its mane like something out of a shampoo commercial, while a grey cultivates a circus look with a harness seemingly strung from yellow ribbons. Dust billows as hooves thunder past and the value of the gas mask one rider wears becomes apparent.

It's a close finish but last year's champion, Mantahane Mpelo, wins again. He's riding the chestnut, an eight-year-old named Suoaofale (Sesotho for "scratching on cowskin", he says). Mpelo says he is "very happy" with his win and plans to spend the cash on food and medicine for his horse.

To top off his triumph, Mpelo has an excellent hat, a cowboy number in faux tiger fur, while at his breast is a silver sheriff's badge.

"Where did you get it?" I ask.

"Just a shop." He smiles.

The Melbourne Cup suddenly seems tame.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Australians do not require a visa. Fly from Sydney to Johannesburg (from $2500 return with Qantas), then to Maseru. It's a 44-kilometre drive south to Morija on a tar road (Lesotho's lack of fences are a hiker's heaven but hell on the roads; look out for livestock). Four-wheel-drives are recommended for any serious exploration of the country.

Staying there

Morija Guest Houses has simple rooms, most with shared bathrooms, see morijaguesthouses.com.

Lesotho highlights

Pony trekking, overnighting in remote villages. Good starting points are Malealea Lodge (malealea.co.ls) and Semonkong Lodge (placeofsmoke.co.ls), where you'll find the waterfall abseil. Hiking in Sehlabathebe National Park in the southern Drakensberg is spectacular.

Further information

See seelesotho.com; morijafest.com; and for travel advisories, smarttraveller.gov.au.

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