Sehlabathebe villagers up in arms

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Pony trekking

Feeling cheaten..

Feeling cheaten…Horseowners Rabotate Moreti, Moeti Ntaote, Lehana Sekotlo and their unidentified colleague

. . . accuse lodge management of conniving with tourists to exploit them

Rethabile Pitso

QACHA’S NEK-Sehlabathebe villagers are up in arms with the “authorities” they are now accusing of failing to support their horse-leasing business to tourists.

The residents are particularly angry with Sehlabathebe National Park Lodge managers they allege are encouraging tourists not to deal with an association the villagers formed to regulate the horse leasing industry.

The lodge, which is located in Sehlabathebe National Park in Qacha’s Nek district, is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture (MTEC) but managed by a Khali Hotel and Zambezi Kanyemba Safaris joint-venture.

Situated 2 400 meters above sea level, the Park has been part of the Maloti-Drakensberg World Heritage Site since October 2008. The ideal destination for those seeking the solitude and adventure only nature can provide, Sehlabathebe  is home to a range of Afro-Alpine and Sub-Alpine plants, mammals, avifauna, reptiles, amphibians and fish and has spectacular scenery characterised by unique rock formations. Most of the Park is a designated wilderness and although small by international standards, retains a natural character with a magical allure, hence the steady stream of tourists to the site.

This Park hosts 23 percent of the plant species in the whole of the Maluti-Drakensberg area. Apart from the unique floral presence, there is a record 65 rock-art and other forms of previous habitation sites in the Park.

Although the Park can be accessed by foot, most tourists prefer to use horses to quench their adventure spirit, especially when trekking through the Bushman’s Nek Pass, situated on the South-Eastern part of the site, as this area is not accessible by vehicles.

The Bushman’s Nek pass takes one down caves overlooking the Maloti-Drakensberg mountains where there is a magnificent view of sandstone rock-formations and overhangs. Some tourists take horse-rides to Tsoelike Falls, which is about three kilometres from the lodge, but the owners of these animals are bitter at the Lodge management for failing to respect their association which was established to regulate the “industry”.

Members of the association who spoke to the Lesotho Times last week narrated how the Lodge management is leaving them with no choice but to lower their daily horse-rental fees from the standard M150 to M100 or even lower, and if they refuse, look for horse-owners who don’t belong to the association and can charge even lower rates.

One of the horse-owners is Rabotate Moreti, who feels “cheated” by the lodge-management.

“We are having a lot of problems with the lodge-management to the extent that our horses are not being hired by the tourists anymore.

“We agreed, as an association, to charge M150 per horse a day, but we are often forced to lower these prices to M100 or even M80, against our wishes. The owners of the lodge say we should be generous when we deal with tourists but how can we do this when this is our business; when this is our source of income?” he asked.

Other horse-owners who spoke with the Lesotho Times echoed similar sentiments, insisting the lodge-managers were not being sympathetic to their plight.

However, the Managing Director of the lodge, Marotholi Khali said management would respect any agreements made between the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture (MTEC), Lesotho Tourism Development Corporation (LTDC) and local communities.

“We support the idea that communities should benefit from tourism happening within their vicinity. That is why we have an arrangement in place to borrow their horses whenever tourists come. However, I cannot rule out that there is a possibility that some of them get cheated or feel cheated during the arrangement.

“What happens is at times, we have tourists who visit this place for long periods of time such as researchers from Wits University who are currently here to undertake a study.

“When we have such tourists, that is when we negotiate with the horse-owners to reduce their rates to enable the visitors to travel by horse daily. It is not correct to say we are trying to exploit the community.

“In fact, we are currently trying to negotiate with them to hire out the horses on a monthly basis especially in summer when the lodge is at its tourism peak. The month-long lease would be convenient to all the parties involved as we would have the horses readily available whenever they are needed.

“Their presence within the vicinity would also mean they would be hired more often than when a tourist cannot see them,” Mr Khali said.

Meanwhile, besides the wandering antelopes and other wild animals found within the Park, horses from local communities are allowed to graze in Sehlabathebe National Park. The grasslands surrounding the Park are also rich, making the entire area highly conducive for livestock farming.

Cattle, sheep, donkeys and horses are well-tended here, with the vast grasslands and wetlands ensuring the animals never run out of feed during both winter and summer seasons.

It is therefore, not a surprise that with such a livestock paradise in their midst, community members earn a living through wool and mohair, yet rampant stock-theft is another problem they have to grapple with.

“We have thieves coming from neighbouring South Africa who often use the Ramatseliso border post and Bushman’s Nek paths to transport the stolen livestock either from or to Lesotho.

“We are often attacked by these thieves who travel through these routes to steal our cattle and sheep. At times they even take our horses so they can easily shepherd the stolen animals.

“It is, therefore, hard to take care of the horses, and why our prices have to be standard as they also take care of issues such as security. When the animals are not properly taken care of, they are overlooked and when they are stolen, we are left with little to take care of our families with.

“It would be helpful if government could come up with a pricelist to regulate charges across the country so that every tourist pays the same amount of money for hiring our horses,” said another horse owner Moeti Ntaote.

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