Explore township life on horseback
An enterprising young man is investing in his roots and offering novel trails in the Midlands. reports
SABELO Xaba, 28, has lived in Mpophomeni outside Howick in the Kwazulu-natal Midlands his whole life and feels a deep passion for the area. Unlike townships attached to big cities, Mpophomeni is where many rural traditions are still practiced.
Battling to find funds to finish his Master’s degree in chiropractics at the Durban University of Technology, Xaba believed that tourism was a way for him to make some money, share his knowledge of his home “kasi”, and add an extra ingredient to the existing township tour offered by Frank Mchunu, who runs the Zulu Mpophomeni Tourism Experience.
Xaba’s neighbours owned two horses, and as his tourism idea percolated he began to think of them for his venture. Horseback trails are a popular aspect of tourism elsewhere.
Step one of his venture was to get permission to use the animals.
Step two was to learn to ride.
Xaba had never ridden before. His instructors were the two teens, Sfundo and Kwanele Zondi. Each week,
Xaba became more confident and comfortable.
This reporter and her friend booked a township horse ride, and although the friend was an experienced rider, I had been riding only once or twice.
I emphasised that I needed a slow horse with zero personality.
We met Xaba at the Mphopomeni Tourism Centre, where residents have launched a weekly farmers’ market.
The horses, unlike typical urban steeds, were not stabled. These animals are tough and hardy, and often find shelter in the crags of a mountain and under trees. Xaba has obtained riding helmets and saddles.
I was a little nervous. The two teens observed me hoisting myself up on the horse with undisguised mirth. I had been allocated Mlanduli, apparently a very sedate horse, whose name means “the complainer”.
My friend Jennifer was neatly and confidently astride SMS (no translation necessary). So far, so good.
Xaba broke springy sticks from a bush for us to use as crops. I hoped I would not need mine. Learning to steer in the right direction,i did a few involuntary 360 degree circles on Mlanduli before heading off.
We weaved our way past the sewage treatment plant towards the nearby mountains.
Mpophomeni is in a valley between hills and streams flowing into a wetland at the base of the mountain. Various conservation bodies have been trying to establish this as an official wetland and in the rainy season many birds come here. I commented to Xaba that it was a pity the scenery was marred by litter along the paths used by residents.
He said that although the nearby umngeni municipality did a weekly litter collection, residents found it expensive to buy black plastic bags to collect the rubbish.
It is easier to take their refuse to vacant stands where the rubbish is regularly burnt. On these unofficial tips, goats and cattle are to be found rummaging for edibles.
Mpophomeni is more than 10km outside Howick and there is no allocated dump.
We wound our way further up the mountain and I noticed a variety of indigenous plants recovering from a fire.
“When I was a boy, we would come to this area with our dogs to hunt rabbits and small duikers,” Xaba recalled. “The wildlife was plentiful and we would see a lot of birds, but these days the area has not been protected and the human population has more than doubled.”
Residents from more outlying rural areas like Impendle have moved to Mpophomeni to try to access jobs and better schools. Xaba attended the two local schools and matriculated well. He said while schools were not well resourced, teachers were committed.
A troop of boys on horseback swept past us whooping and cheering. I was aghast to see they were riding bareback and going at full throttle.
Xaba explained that they were practising for a horse race. This is another project the locals hope will encourage outsiders to visit the area.
“We have approached the council for a piece of land to hold regular races so that people can come and watch and support their favourite teams,” he said.
The local riders were curious about two urban women sedately riding up the mountain. They greeted us and then continued in their quest to race to the finish.
We journeyed to the top of the mountain and stopped at the reservoir to give the horses a rest. Below us we could see the sprawling township on one side and on the other side the sparkling water of Midmar Dam.
Our horses were ecstatic when they realised Xaba had brought some carrots from the farmers’ market as a treat. They nibbled and munched loudly.
Xaba said: “This is the short tour, we go up and down the mountain.
But we are also offering a longer tour where we go into the township and meet a few of the local personalities and have a traditional meal.”
Of course, any township tour includes aspects of traditional Zulu culture, and a visit to a sangoma is par for the course. Foreign tourists embrace the unique aspects of a foreign culture. For locals like us, this township tour on horseback was also a novelty and an eye-opener.
Xaba spent the first money he made on printing T-shirts with his company logo. Every horse tour means income for him and opportunities for his neighbours, from whom he hires the horses. If people book a tour, they can also support the locals who are selling their goods at the weekly farmers’ market.
This tourism enterprise was initiated by Xaba, but it is also a venture which benefits the larger community in typical ubuntu style.
He plans to market his business more aggressively and also hopes to invest in more riding gear so he can accommodate more visitors.
He is appealing to horse-riding institutions for any old equipment and riding gear they no longer need.
From the top of the mountain, we enjoyed the scenery and juxtaposed view and slowly began to make our way back down. The horses picked their way carefully, avoiding rocks and hard surfaces.
They don’t have “shoes” and prefer to walk on the soft grass. They stopped to drink at a stream and I noticed my very relaxed horse was now picking up the pace, and he was soon charging home.
I empathised as I’m was not the lightest passenger…. I also couldn’t seem to find the brakes.
As we trotted towards the township, I could hear the voices of church-goers unified in hymn in a huge white tent.
Further down I heard cries and cheers from a soccer club team as they tackled and kicked the ball. This township is alive with activity.
Mlanduli was undoubtedly relieved as I dismounted inelegantly, using my car as a step. But his daily task was not yet over. A small queue had formed with youngsters willing to pay for a ride on a horse.
Xaba’s neighbours and assistants are ready to step in and give short rides to the children. To experience this unusual and fascinating experience, contact Sabelo Xaba and book one of his township outrides. Call him on 078 492 7515, or visit his Facebook page Mpophomeni Horseback Tours.