Riding the rustlers’ route

2009-03-06 00:00

The moon is full over the farmlands that lie at the base of the mountains. The landscape is lit with blue light and one can see for miles.

The farmers will sleep fitfully tonight. A full moon bodes well for all marauders. The sheep are not safe from the jackal. The baboon will take the fruits of the harvest. And the rustlers’ routes, known only to mountain dwellers, will be run with the farmers’ stock. Sacks of marijuana will be delivered. And livestock will be herded back. Cattle worth hundreds of thousands will be over the border or deep in the rural location by morning.

But worth more than money, horses will have been driven, under the cruellest of circumstances, over the harshest of terrain, to the mountain country, often beyond our borders.

So often these horses are not tough mountain ponies but pampered pets. Fed, stabled and trusting.

Overnight they will be herded, wire tied in their mouths, forced to keep moving over stony, rocky, mountainous terrain at a fast pace that must see them over the mountains and back in Lesotho before daylight. They will be stabbed in the rump to keep them moving.

Those that falter will be left behind, pushed over a cliff or stoned to death so that the others will not try to return to them.

Many a night I have sat in the pub around a roaring fire listening to the tales of these border farmers. Stories of ambushes set, of bandits caught, of trails into the mountains, tracking for days and nights, rewards offered, palms crossed with silver, getting lost in the mist, getting caught in ambushes of armed outlaws, seeing friends shot, and recovering the lost and nursing them back to health — sometimes.

The first person I spoke to was Phillip Majosi, stable manager at Garden Castle, Ezemvelo KZN. I asked him about the problems they have encountered with horse theft, as they stable their horses at the base of the Lesotho Mountains. Majosi’s English was broken but his feelings were clear.

“They come at night,” he said, “They take, like the marauding baboons. They should be shot, like the baboon that learns to steal.” Majosi told how the thieves came on the night of the full moon. He told how they chipped away the concrete blocks to open the stable from the back and took the horses out. He told how they were never seen again.

On the morning of December 5, 2007, Vanessa and Eric Viljoen got a phone call from the herdsman telling them their worst fears had been realised.

Two of their horses were gone. With hiking gear, they scoured the mountain as the mist came in, making the visibility nigh impossible. For four days they hiked the mountains. They were drawing to a dead end. Then someone mentioned that they should contact Steve and Shannon Gilson, farmers in the Swartberg area and members of the Swartberg Stocktheft Prevention Association or SSPA.

When signposts are nil and even landmarks are rare, where the terrain runs from one bleak rocky outcrop into the next and the blue mountains loom ominously close, one can lose one’s bearings and wander in circles before you realise that you are completely lost. Lesotho is not a country for the faint-hearted or even the mild luxury lover. This is rough, harsh country where to eke out a living or even a meal is hard work.

Trackers went ahead and eventually led the trail-weary Viljoens to their horses.

Money Time, a thoroughbred mare, made a gigantic effort and got onto the trailer with her companion to head home, at last.

Money Time stood where she was offloaded. She was given antibiotics. She was fed in small amounts and her hooves were bathed and treated as an infection had caused her hooves to suppurate and separate.

On Christmas Eve, Money Time lay down and never got back up. Her ordeal was over.

I contacted Steve and Shannon Gilson.

Shannon told of horses found on the trail, dead, with their heads smashed with rocks to prevent the others returning. She told of infected laminitis, of open wounds in their mouths, from wire. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered.

Steve and Shannon represent The Swartberg Stocktheft Prevention Association.

These people comprise the farmers of the Swartberg area that are making a proactive effort to prevent and retrieve all stolen stock on their borders. The plan was to include the Lesotho people. They too have suffered from the theft committed by bandits in their land.

The SSPA started installing radio-base stations in Lesotho. They called meetings and gave the people something that they had never had — communication. In return, they wanted eyes and ears in the mountains. The Lesotho people now come in their droves, on horseback, on donkeys and by foot, to attend these meetings, sending their chiefs and well-respected council members. I was privileged enough to be invited by the SSPA to join them on a two-day trip to attend some of their meetings. So, armed with my camera, I joined their trip up and over the mountain, to the Kingdom of Lesotho.

Living on a farm in the Underberg district for the past 18 years, I had a preconceived idea that all the Lesotho people were stock thieves. I was to learn otherwise.

We drove up “Thuli Rustlers’ Route” in low-range 4x4 vehicles. The road was all but vertical. The protea were in flower and the hillsides were rushing with a thousand miniature waterfalls. It took us a full hour to reach the top. The sight was breathtaking. We were in the clouds, looking down onto the tops of mountains. At the top the grass sung with the ever-present wind. This is a harsh country. No electricity, no telephones or cell coms, few tarred roads, even fewer vehicles. Life slows, as there is no urgency. To survive is the criterion.

Homes are made of hand-hewn rock, each stone bevelled and cut to perfection. Doorways and window frames are painted bright colours. In this bleak countryside the splash of colour is vivid. There are piles of dung sods dried and stored for winter burning. Great, steaming pots cook on open fires. Herd boys tend the flocks with their dogs. Women with sickles harvest the wheat into sheaves to dry. The air is cold and clean. So much space. It was as if I had stepped back a few centuries, to another time.

The first man I was introduced to was a wealthy farmer. He owned 1 700 sheep, 400 head of cattle and 150 horses. He had great tracts of hand-planted wheat. He and three other equally respected farmers were the core of the Lesotho contingent of the SSPA. They too had suffered because of the stock thieves.

We arrived at the meeting.

Horses and the odd donkey started arriving from as far away as 40 kilometres. The men, clad in colourful blankets, dismounted and left the horses to graze. Some were hobbled, some were tethered, most wandered at liberty to graze and wait for their owners’ whistles to indicate their return. Most were fat and cared for. These animals are a symbol of wealth to these men. They mean more than a Mercedes-Benz in Sandton. Here I witnessed true horsemanship. Each man had a special bond with his animal. Saddles were carved and oiled. Bridles were decorated and dressed.

I heard one man whistle to his horse as it wandered a bit far and it lifted its head to return.

The chief of that particular village opened the meeting with prayer. Heads were bare and bowed in respect. Men in the front row, women feeding babies behind.

Then pipes were filled and the meeting began.

Animated stories were told of bandits sighted and caught.

Translations were made in whispered tones so that I could understand. I was told of rumours, of how the farmers had found out that the police were involved in the thefts, how they were beheaded in the night, an example of their treachery.

Then I was taken to the police pound. Animals, once recovered, are taken to the pound where they can be identified and claimed by their rightful owners. If unclaimed after three months, they are put up for public auction. What a sad sight. All the stories I had been told came to life. Stone walls, stone floor. Minimal grazing. Horses with heads hanging. Former brands burnt into unrecognisable smears. Broken knees, scarred mouths, open saddle sores, stab scars in their rumps, ears sometimes cut right off instead of notched. Emaciated and broken.

Many were basotho ponies but a few, I could see, had breeding and class and had obviously known a softer life.

When I explained that I was trying to get funds for these horses, the policeman in charge requested food for his charges, as the winter could already be felt in the icy wind.

My promise was to tell their story.

Em Bonsma

I have lived on a farm in the Underberg district for the past 19 years together with my husband and two children.

I currently practise as a veterinary nurse with the Underberg Veterinary Clinic.

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