CycleSotho December 2019

In December 2019 myself and Dan Marland van Hemert set off on a 1250 km, 12 day journey to circimnavigate the Kingdom of Lesotho by bike.

It’s an eerie scene; mist engulfing the huts, trying its best to drown what’s left of the dawn light as we pedal our way through Thaba Chicha. The only audible sound that of our tyres rolling over the dirt and the slight whispering of the wind around our ears. The occasional cow bell or dog’s bark piercing the cold early morning air. Out here the lone security guard dressed in uniform makes for a peculiar sight on his way to work. Even seated on his horse he seems out of place. The smell of wood fires seems to taunt us, a tempting invitation to seek refuge from the cold and wet. It’s the scene set three days into a cycling circumnavigation of Lesotho.

The idea to ride around the Kingdom of the Sky developed while Dan Marland van Hemert was circumnavigating Lesotho on foot, running a section every other weekend. The thought of both running and riding around this country in one calendar year enticed him. I jumped on board a bit last minute, but on Friday 6 December 2019 we were on our way to Sani Top, the start of our twelve day adventure.

From day one we were introduced to the spectacular rural hospitality in these areas when we arrived at Banchory cottages, our overnight destination. We were being hosted in the owner’s home, a rustic farm house complete with creaky floorboards and a big garden. It felt unreal being invited into a house while the owner wasn’t even home, our only communication with her via text.

The actual riding of the first two days were straight forward with no issues. This allowed us to get used to the heavy load on the bikes and to soak up some of the scenery around us. Day three would prove to be the start of an adventure we won’t soon forget.

After leaving Thaba Chicha behind, we made our way towards Mount Fletcher, eventually reaching the tar 50km down the road. By now it had been raining steadily for the last half hour and we took refuge under the first bus stop in sight. Friendly locals on their way to work struck up short conversations as we stood underneath the concrete umbrella. Our responce to questions about our intended destination, brought forth exclamations of “yoh”, “eish” and “Rhodes??”. Clearly we were thought to be a bit crazy.

Continuing towards Mount Fletcher the rain died down, but we would soon find ourselves performing the first mechanical repairs of the trip. A puncture to Dan’s back wheel that would eventually lead to numerous headaches. The nail penetrated the rim tape and we wasted a precious co2 canister and tubeless plug. One barely fitting tube, a broken hand pump and two co2 canisters later we passed through Mount Fletcher, a town which doesn’t seem to belong anywhere in South Africa or even in Lesotho.

Relieved to finally leave Mount Fletcher and the tar behind, we turned onto towards Rhodes and followed the gravel into the mountains. The next 70km would prove to be the best gravel riding of the entire trip, the roads were smooth and well maintained, a godsend considering that we would be climbing the entire time. Suddenly the weather took a turn for the worse and we were soon forced to hunker down in a roadside shed. Hiding from the weather in the company of farm workers desperately trying to convince us to call it a day due to hazardous conditions on Pitseng pass.

 Stubbornly against advice from the farmer and his workers we pressed on. We still had two mountain passes to summit on our way to our Alpine Swift and we weren’t to be deterred from our goal. Winding up Pitseng pass a massive cattle truck managed to get himself stuck in the increasingly horrendous weather. Passing the farmer near the summit we were informed that his wife will be expecting us for a cup of coffee at their house. Considering the weather we decided that a small detour might be worth it. Gulping down coffee and devouring the brownies placed before us, we had to make a decision whether we should to push on or stay put for the night. Both Dan and I are willing to take calculated risks, but after considering the way we were feeling, the ever increasing weather and with absolutely no idea about the condition of the upcoming pass, it was time to call it a day. As luck would have it, the farmer’s wife, Jean-Marie runs a trout fishing guesthouse on the farm. And so it was time to settle down at Vrederust. We would push on in the morning.

Leaving Vrederust behind, we pedalled in the direction of Naude’s Nek. The mud, an aftermath of the recent rain, leaving our wheels to fight for any sort of traction. Getting to the top of Naude’s Nek pass took us all of three and a half hours, a time that could easily be increased by an hour had we done it the previous day on tired legs.

Originally day four were to be a short day, which gave us the option to either go the intended route via Rhodes or take the infamous Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse, the highest contour road in South Africa. Opting for the more adventurous option we set off towards Tiffindell Ski Resort. In hindsight this might not have been the bright idea we thought it would be. The rocky and technical nature of the route being slightly too much for the gravel bikes. Nevertheless, we arrived at Tiffindell with only a single puncture to show for our efforts, leaving us with only two tubes and a limited amount of other spares between us. And we were only on day four. We were in trouble.

We arrived at Bidstone cottages slightly bent out of shape after descending Volunteer’s Hoek pass. Not so much of a pass, but rather a bulldozed patch of earth up the mountainside. There were no time for rest though, as we had some bicycle repairs that needed our attention. We spent the rest of the day trying to do another tubeless conversion of Dan’s wheel with a compressor that doesn’t quite work, patching tubes with patches that doesn’t quite work and adjusting gears that doesn’t quite want to work. With load shedding scheduled for 9pm we were forced to bed, wary of what will happen with Dan’s bike in the morning.  

The three days that followed went by mostly uneventful, a lot of tar from Bidstone to Maseru via Mohale’s Hoek and finally to Fouriesburg. Riding through these parts we were exposed to normal life in Lesotho. We gave the tourist side a pass – Afriski, Katse Dam, the donkey tours, they did not interest us, we wanted to experience the real Lesotho, the Lesotho you don’t see on travel websites. It’s not far-fetched to describe the bigger towns as a blend of Africa and India, the way these countries are portrayed through the media. The streets are lined with a contrasting mix of local vendors trying to make an honest living and multi-national corporations driving the economy. A kaleidoscope of traditional and modern. A visible concern is the obvious lack of, or poor management of, a waste disposal system. The streets are lined with all sorts of human waste, heaps of plastic and disposable nappies scarring the landscape near the outskirts of town.

On our fourth and final day inside the border of Lesotho we turned away from the main road towards the more rural areas, small villages scattered amongst the hills. Out here the issues surrounding the main centres seems to disappear to a certain degree. People are living off the land and with that most of the city waste is eliminated. No more plastic dotting the land, no more nappies being disposed in water sources. Though along with this comes other issues, poverty and the lack of financial aid visible throughout. I can’t remember passing a single child not asking for money or sweets. The beauty of the landscape being overpowered by the annoyance associated with the endless begging. Nearing the border post at Monantsa Pass, the villages became less and now it was Mother Nature’s time to entertain us with gale force winds, trying her best to shake us from our bikes as we climbed our way up towards Witsieshoek.

By now we were immersed in the routine of getting up, getting on our bikes and pedalling. Starting our tenth day by hiking our bikes down from Witsieshoek to the Royal Natal camp ground via Gudu Pass was a welcome, or perhaps unwelcome relief. It was freezing cold, visibility was almost non-existent and soon we were drenched from the rain, the mist and the river crossings. Relieved we arrived at the Royal Natal camp ground and proceeded to inhabit the ablution facilities in an attempt to warm up. Unfortunately the warmth would not last long and soon we were back in the cold and rain, Inkosana Lodge still 100km away. It wasn’t long before we started showing early signs of hypothermia, we were absolutely cold to the bone, a loss of feeling in our hands and feet, yawning and a general feeling of sleepiness came over us. Luckily the sun tried it’s best to peak through the clouds and although the rest of the day was overcast, it was enough for us to warm-up and feel like ourselves again. Approaching the Southern Drakensberg it was obvious that we were now entering the “tourist-berg”, the roads a hub of activity as we arrived at Inkosana for the night.

The second to last day were short and we were fast, arriving at Kamberg Mountain Shadows mid-morning after riding through some of the best scenery of the trip. To our dismay however, we were informed that the restaurant was closed. The manager did at least agree to whip up some pizzas for supper, which we gratefully accepted before turning in for the final night of our adventure.

The best way to describe the final day is as a summary of the first eleven days. Oh what a finale it was. Tar roads winding through the most beautiful scenery. Fast, smooth gravel. Steep climbs and fast descents. Breakfast at a spaza shop. Punctures. Day twelve had it all. We had set out to circumnavigate Lesotho by bike and we did. Twelve days of riding took us back to Underberg, the circle was now complete, we had ridden our bikes around Lesotho.