I’ve never been very good at noting down my son’s “firsts”. I always think I’ll remember them and so don’t know the exact day he started walking or the first time he said ‘mama’. But I do remember that he learnt to wave while on holiday in Mauritius. Travel has a way of etching things forever on my memory. I can tell you what I ate for lunch in any given random town in Thailand back in 2010. I know what my husband was wearing when we visited the border between North and South Korea. And I can tell you that in Lesotho, Kai learnt his first non-English word – and we all learnt how something so simple can turn an OK day into a magnificent one.
Lesotho is probably not a destination that springs to mind when you think of travelling with a toddler. But toddlers don’t really need soft play parks or touch farms or all the other things that we think they need to make for a successful holiday. Lesotho has horses and donkeys, a great big waterfall and a little over two million people, most of whom seem to be smitten with little kids.
We toured the country for a few days, but it was in the mountaintop village of Semonkong that we found a real family travel gem. The Semonkong Lodge is delightful. Spacious chalets with bunk beds and roaring fires, marvellous views across central Lesotho and a menu of activities that see visitors mingling with the villagers in a way that never seems tacky or forced. It’s community tourism at its very finest and it’s just perfect for families.
Activities on offer included abseiling, fly-fishing, rock-climbing, hiking and riding – whether that was mountain bikes, ponies or sturdy little donkeys. Kai was about to turn three at the time, so the world’s longest single-drop abseil wasn’t going to work, and I doubt there’s a two-year-old anywhere that has the attention span for fishing. So on day one we tried our hand at hiking. The easy three-hour hike to a viewpoint over Maletsunyane Falls wasn’t quite so easy with an 18kg child in arms and I quickly began to realise the value of those hiking child-carriers as my arms began to ache long before my legs did. I’d like to say it was worth it for the gorgeous family photo we shot in front of the falls – part of my plan to finally fill that empty frame hanging on our living room wall. But alas, what I have instead are fourteen photos where at least one member of our three-strong family either has their eyes closed or looks like an extra from the Walking Dead (see here for the best of the bunch).
It was still worth it though, particularly when we’d pass some local shepherds or traders and Kai would look up from the shoulder of whichever parent was carrying him at the time and shyly murmur “dumela”, inciting smiles all-round. Plus there’s a great sense of achievement in completing a hike with a very large child over your shoulder.
Saying hello in Sesotho wasn’t the only thing Kai learnt in Lesotho. He also played his first game of pool, thanks to the enduring patience of pretty much every man in Semonkong, and of course, he rode his first horse. I was a little hesitant about the whole ‘horsey ride’ thing, not least because I’ve fallen off pretty much every horse I’ve ever got on, including a so-called sure-footed Basotho pony that clearly sensed my extreme hesitance and slipped on a rock. But we’d needed a “be a good boy and…” type reward, and a horsey ride was it. Kai loved the ride and he loved his guide, Ezekiel just as much. So much in fact, that the whole family ended up taking a tour of the village on donkeyback, just to prolong the glorious grins and giggles (from both Kai and Ezekiel).
Confident in the saddle, Kai led the way, followed by his exceptionally tall father, feet dragging on the floor, and zoophobic mother attempting to preserve the whole hilarious scene on camera. We stopped for Kai to play with some local kids and indeed for Kai to play with some local grown-ups. They quickly adapted to toddler rules on the pool table and all put their games aside to let Kai wave a cue around for a couple of minutes. It was one of those impromptu travel experiences that you remember forever and it came with another memorable first. This was the first trip where we realised we didn’t need to plan every activity around Kai’s presumed likes and dislikes. Children are highly adaptable and can find fun anywhere, whether it’s a jungle gym, a deserted beach or a near-empty tavern in a rural African village.