I squeeze my legs around the barreled flanks of the pony, pushing him forward into a canter. The wind whips through my hair as the pony increases his speed, moving fluidly from a canter to a gallop as we cross the sun burned field. It is exhilarating. I’ve ridden horses since I was a little girl, but the thrill of galloping bareback with only a halter and ropes for a bridle across a field in Lesotho, is a new high.
We’ve covered a football field in just a few seconds, so I lean back, sit deep and pull gently on the makeshift reins, slowing the pony to a stop. The group I’m traveling with on this day trip into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho looks very far away. Tiny really. There seems to be some sort of argument going on, because I can see one figure up close to another – our guide? Hard to tell at this distance – with his hands up in what appears to be a menacing pose. I ponder it for only a second before turning the pony around and pushing him back into a canter, heading back the way we came.
As we close the distance between the far edge of the field and the group I start to hear the yelling. It isn’t in English, but from the growls and raised tones I can tell it they are fighting — our tour guide and a man I’ve never seen before. They are off just a bit to the right from the rest of our group – a motley crew of four backpackers, all looking increasingly uncomfortable and also apparently gesturing frantically for me to stop the pony and get off.
But the cantering is too much fun.
“This is awesome,” I shout to my friends, smiling broadly as I circle them in a slow canter. Even without a saddle, this pony feels like riding a moving couch. “You guys should really try —”
I don’t get another word out before the strange looking man is running towards me at full speed being tailed by our tour guide, who is breathing hard and trying to keep up.
“Get off, get off before I call the police,” he screams at me.
“Becca,” my friend Alana said, “It’s stolen. Our guide stole a pony when you asked why we weren’t riding.”
Well that’s a first, a stolen pony. Blushing, I pull the pony to a halt and dismount, handing the reins to the disgruntled owner who is now insisting I pay him.
“You can’t just take someone’s horse,” he tells me. “You give me dollars now and I let you go.”
I’m slightly flabbergasted. This is supposed to be an organized day trip to Lesotho, a tour I’ve paid good money for. Included in the tour brochure – and the main reason I’d booked – was the promise of a pony ride. One didn’t materialize after we’d done the requisite visit to the traditional village, tasted the traditional beer, and had a traditional lunch — which while all very nice and vaguely cultural, was not what I’d paid for. The afternoon was supposed to be spent on horseback. But there were no horses waiting after we’d said our goodbyes. Instead our guide was taking us to visit a traditional school. So I’d asked about the riding.
It turns out no one else really cared about riding, but I did, so when I told the guide I’d prefer to skip the school and go on the promised ride, he’d sighed and said no problem, he had a pony right here. He’d then entered a fenced-off area – I never dreamed he didn’t have permission – and clipped a halter and two ropes onto a pony that he then led out.
“Since no one else wants to ride, why don’t you just ride here in this field. We will wait for you then we can all go to the school,” the guide tells me as he gives me a leg up onto the pony, which, come to think of it, seemed slightly startled by the entire incident.
Again, not what I’d signed up for at the backpackers in the Drakensberg. But this was Africa, and if nothing else I’d learned that nothing here goes as planned and adaptability is key. So I’d hopped on the pony and decided a good gallop would help clear my head.
But now I was facing the choice of arrest or paying a bribe (is it really a bribe, though, when you’ve stolen the pony in the first place? Even if it was inadvertently?).
Africa, I remind myself.
“How much?” I ask the irate owner.
“U.S. $20,” he says.
“Done,” I hand over the cash.
At the end of the day it was a small price to pay for such a unique Lesotho experience. And in retrospect had we not had the stolen pony incident to break up the day, I’d say the tour would have been a total dud.