29 September 2016 by Justine
Cycling in Lesotho – March 2015
Lesotho. One of those countries in the world that no one knows about… Why? They might be tiny, they might be too far, by themselves in the middle of an ocean, or surrounded by other bigger countries. They might be too busy doing their own little business, or torn with dictatorship. Examples? Moldavia. Akrotiri. Liechtenstein. Montenegro. Malta. Andorra. Ile of Man. If you can place all of those independent territories on a map of Europe, get yourself a shiny sticker for this week’s report (we could also add Vanuatu, Tadjikistan, Palau, Djibouti, South Ossetia, Futuna, Nauru, Tuvalu, Suriname or Kiribati when we look at the whole planet… Recognize any of those?).
Three fun facts about Lesotho : it’s a kingdom, it’s within the country of South Africa, and J.R.R.Tolkien, himself South African from Bloemfontein, 150km from Lesotho borders, got most likely part of his inspiration needed to create the Shire by traveling in there (forget about New Zeland, Hobbitland is in Africa!) – oh! and here’s a bonus point : it’s pronounced Lay-su-tu.
Day 1. After few days in South Africa, we are officially back in the African chaos when entering in Lesotho through Butha Buthe. Within 50km, we go from the very high society of South African Clarens to a busy, noisy, dirty, chaotic town with kids, banana sellers, loaded motorbikes and sheep are coming from every directions on the street. A man follows us to the guesthouse we choose to go camp at. He is a missionary and wants to chat. He lived in multiple countries including China where he counseled young students, crushed under the national, familial and social pressure. He shares his concerns and experiences with great coherence. To show us how superstitious Lesotho people are, he says with a big smile that his father, a well educated missionary, followed the village witch’s advice who claimed that his corn field would be protected from hail storms if he put the heart of a cobra snake on his land. Following a witch’s advice would still be common in 2015 in Lesotho, and there would be a big black market of all sort of ingredients. Elephants, tigers… And I’m not here talking about animals, but family groups that Lesotho people inherit at birth. He then tells us that he decided this year to live off his land, farming: “every night that I come home walking after sunset, there is a part close to a river. I’m always scared to cross it. It would be the perfect spot for someone to hide in order to attack or kidnap me. I’m from a rare group, you see. And there is some people who are willing to pay lots to get what their witch ask them to provide in exchange of good luck, including good luck in politics.” We feel sorry for him, and we are astonished by such believes. He continues : “I was actually ready to move to Canada” confides our new friend “… Until they legalized gay marriage”. He then goes on with events and statements from the Bible who apparently clearly supports his statement, but which, with my shy personal understanding of it, do not prove anything at all. Oops. It would have been interesting to challenge this man a little bit further, but the shower is calling us. Our only relief : this man and his homophobic believes will stay out of our country.
The next day is a great day. In fact, all days in Lesotho will be great days. We won’t take an easy route (but still far from the toughest one could follow in Lesotho) and the weather won’t make it easy neither (though we won’t have snow – only hail), but it will make our experience even more memorable.
Day 2. We cycle to Pitseng and reach a beautiful guesthouse, Aloes Guesthouse, just before being hit by a storm. Camping under a roof is a luxury, and so is packing a dry tent in the morning. The shower, though, isn’t hot enough for princess JP : “I will wait for the next one”, he says.
Day 3. From Pitseng, it is a 30km climb to Mafika Lisiu pass. We cycle under the rain, in a thick mist.We get to the 3090m sign without the impressive view. Good news : on the other side, the sun is shining. We enjoy the way down and take a memorable break in a culvert, eating soup and pasta – again. We reach Lejone and deal a campsite in Umbrella Guesthouse’s backyard. In Lesotho, the average accommodation is around 50U$, even in very modest huts. We manage to deal 120 Rand (12$CAN at the time) for a campsite and a shower. The shower is boiling hot, to my relief and JP’s delight. It has been a 1455 meter-climb day on 42km . Welcome to Lesotho.
Day 4. We cycle in direction of Katse dam. The view is outstanding. We can see the cellphone tower and few houses of a village just across a cliff, 100 meter away (it seems) but since the road contours the mountains instead of going down to the river, it takes us two hours to get there. We put the tent behind a house that offers meals and beds for the travelers (50U$ for a moldy bed… Tempting) and we have a crowd watching us cook a 10-egg omelet on our alcohol stove. Impressed by our little stove and amazed that we could eat that many eggs, we show a smart teenager girl how to make an alcohol stove out of a pop can and she promises us to pass the knowledge on – and to be extremely careful with it (my mind – and shoes, are this scared with an incident in Tanzania). It is apricot season and we load our panniers.
Day 5. All I remember is our dinner at a Fish’N’Chip dinner owned by Indians in Thaba-Tseka that really made our day. We load up at the grocery store next door (owned by the same family), and start looking for a place to camp – not easy, today. Fancy hotels don’t want to hear anything that rimes with camping and only want to offer us a 100U$ room with AC and TV. We try the Sisters of Charity, no chance – their room is 50$U and don’t accept tents on their beautiful lawn. We keep on cruising… JP gets serious and pulls over a random house where kids play. We ask a little boy for his mama, who comes to us as we give her our little introduction speech. Her eyes get bigger as she hears where we are from : “You are from Canada?! We have Canadians living here! They work for Help Lesotho, but they are away for the moment. Yes, of course, come and camp. Put the tent wherever, but be careful with that white dog… He doesn’t like strangers”. Wow, that was easy. The next morning, as we eat our oatmeal, the men of the house try to catch a big pig. One comes to us : “do you have a sharp knife?” We show them JP’s little Leatherman blade… “Ok, never mind” says the men, as he walks away with what looks like a butter knife before starting to slowly cut the poor pig’s throat. The following fifteen minutes are horrible, unbearable, as the pig screams in distress. JP wonders why I’m not looking closer, since I have a bachelor in food processing. Thinking he’s serious, and actually a bit curious myself of the traditional ways of slaughtering a pig, I go have a look – and regret it right away. While I’m there, I chat with the ladies who don’t seem to be bothered by the drama of the situation : “today, we kill a pig, and in two days, we will kill a sheep and a lamb. All of this is for my youngest son. He is now in the mountains to become a man, and will come back for the celebration in few days. I am quite sad because I have received a call. He is injured, but he said I shouldn’t be worried”. Her son had been in the mountains for three months now, with thirty other boys, in some traditional outdoor school that would lead to a circumcision ceremony, and that would end with the celebration where the animals they were now slaughtering would be served. JP and I had first hear of such ceremony while reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I guess those traditions are still common in some part of Africa. Back to the pig, it is now dead and the man are moving to the next step – moment we choose to get back on the saddle. We thank the mama for her hospitality, and wish all the best for her grandson.
Day 6. We get back on the dirt road – the fun can start.
The light is magic, the only color that pops in this grey-toned-only landscape is my red head scarf. Our road follows the mountain like a ribbon. On one side of the road is a cliff that goes all the way down to a river. Any picture taken looks amazing, even without a good camera or any sort of talent. A rainbow appears… A pig would be flying in the sky I wouldn’t be surprised – this moment is loaded with energy. As a storm is building with scary clouds in the sky, we reach a village that we had seen for a couple of kilometers now. We are somewhere before Linakeng. The chief of the village wants us to stay at his house, but lives on the other side, way down. There is still time to cycle at bit more, so we thank him and explain that we choose to move on. On the road, a man stops us. Just as it starts raining, he asks us to follow him in a big farming building and shows us a little compartment, made for isolating a part of the cattle. We thank the man, who clearly understands how valuable it is for us to be cut from rain and wind, and leaves us. We clear a space from rocks and dry dong big enough for our tent, and start our night routine – which start with, I’m sure you have guessed : building our beloved chairs. The man’s son, curious, comes to practice his English as we cook an omelet. This is great… We chat, we eat, we drink tea. The guy even gets our weird French Canadian sens of humor! Priceless.
Day 7. We share oatmeal, bananas, apricots and coffee with our new friend who came back to check on us, and hit the road. That day, it rains, and rains… The kids of the small villages that we cross don’t seem to mid the cold rain under their multiple layers of blankets. We have been cycling in the rain for a big part of the day now. While cycling, we don’t feel the cold, but as soon as we stop (most likely to let me climb a steep hill without dying of a heart attack while JP is already on top as I slowly get off my bike), the cold rain gets us to the bones. We start looking for a spot around 4PM. In front of us, there is a pass that goes over a river… Damn. Same old dilemma : if we cycle this now, we won’t have to do it tomorrow, and will actually warm up. Ok, let’s go. This five hairpin pass takes us twenty minutes to cycle, and hormones produced by the effort fill our system with chemical satisfaction. A hut appears on the side of a creek, besides the road… It’s empty, with no door and with small holes in the hay-built roof – but it’s dry. It’s our lucky day. We are ready to be kicked out by some cattle boy who would count on this shelter for the night, but no one shows up.
Day 8. That morning, it’s still chilly and wet but we start our day with multiple short but sttep climbs so we peel our layers off pretty fast. I’m very happy to use the fleece gloves I’ve been carrying since day 1 and JP looks at them with a bit of jealousy. Buff on the head, merino on the body, gloves on the hands, long pants and 8 degrees Celsius. I love it.
The kids on this dirt road section are C-R-A-Z-Y. They scream at us for sweets, for money – for anything they know the word in English for. As we are approaching a village, we need to make a long turn along a mountain, which we can see in front of us. About 75 meters higher than the road, up in on the steep hill, there are three young cattle herders, dressed with blankets, rubber boots and ski-masks. As soon as they see us, they start sprinting downhill and scream “SSSSSWWWEEEEEEETTTTTTSSS!!!!!!”. We have 200m to cycle to pass those kids before turning behind that mountain and going downhill a bit to the village. Will those kids catch us up?! Seeing birds fly toward us in a Hitchcock movie wouldn’t provoke a different reaction. I’m impressed with those kids’ agility. The grass is slippery, the hill is almost straight vertical, and they are still standing, running down with a huge smile in their faces, laughing – but not as much as us. It really seems like the last Muzungu (White person) who has gone through here gave away handful of candies. If I see one (tourist, giving away sweets), I might be a bit of a party pooper. This time, the kids don’t catch us, and we can still hear their laughs as we cycle down the other side.
We then get to a pretty steep and rocky section. Two cattle herders catch up with us because our average speed probably lays between 3 and 6km/h. The eldest is on a horse, and the other, on a donkey. JP is in front and chats with the guy on the horse, while the guy on the donkey wants to practice his English with the hyperventilating version of me – I get slightly irritated when I need to waste energy and oxygen in some small talk along with many steep rocky climbs in high altitude or under big heat but hey… If I’m only willing to exchange with the locals when perfect conditions are gathered, then I shouldn’t be here. Indeed, as we chat, I rapidly loose my impatience. The guy is really excited to attend a management class in few months, he clearly has been working hard on his English and there’s a little something something about him that cheers me up. He then asks me a very serious question… : “So… If I want to marry a White women, how do you suggest me to proceed?”. I’m not quite sure what to answer, not knowing what he means… “To marry a White women, you need to… Meet one, and make her fall in love with you” “I don’t understand” “Well… Let’s say I meet a nice Black boy, and I really like him, I might marry him, just like anyone else that I would meet on this planet, and fall in love with!” “It’s legal?” “… Yeah… As long as both of you consent to get married…” “…. Wooowww….” He then stays quiet for few minutes, processing the information and probably imagining his future wife – while I try to work on my breath. We then reach the top of the pass, and before going different ways, the boy asks me if I’m on Facebook : “Yes, I am” I answer “Ok then! See you there!” he says, like if finding each other in the one-billion users in Face’s book was as easy as a fart, and there they go, galloping in a green valley on a tiny cattle track instead of following a multiple-hairpin way down that WE follow, with two hands on the brakes…
That night, we reach Rafolatsane and it’s pave road. Proud of our efforts, we happily cycle, in search of a site for the night. JP rapidly detects what looks like a local bar and a nice camping spot besides, under an apricot tree. The owner friendly accepts our company by handing us a full basket of apricot, and we go build our tent as it starts raining a bit. We then grab a seat among the ten man quietly sitting on a wooden bench in front of the little house, all with a plastic cup in their hands. We show our stainless 300ml mugs, but the owner’s wife – the brewing master, hands us what looks like a two-liter plaster bucket. The brew is warm from fermentation, and sweet. Between that and a cup of the Kirghiz kusmy (fermented horse milk), I would drink a hundred times two-liter bucket of corn beer…Wait… 200L of corn beer? You know what I mean.
Day 9. On the morning of our ninth day in Lesotho, we have no idea if we’ll manage to get to the Sani Pass, even less if we’re going to reach the Sani Pass Backpackers, of which we heard so much good things from other travelers since the last months. We have some kilometers of asphalt to start our day faster, but we will soon face major construction sites : the Chinese are building the Lesotho side of the “Sani” – while the South African, who agreed on taking the magic away from that crazy steep dirt pass, really don’t seem to be in a hurry to start any serious work their part. While waiting for a permission from the construction supervisor to continue our way, one of the engineers, from South Africa himself, come to have a chat with us. He confirms us that there is absolutely NO chance we’ll reach the Sani today. Somehow, thanks to the White guy with the white hard hat, we are now convinced of the opposite – and six hours after that nice chat, we will get to the Sani Pass Backpackers, in the dark, completely soaked, covered with mud, fully pooped, with out head lamps on, but still there.
The highest point on that section is close to 3100m above sea level, and isn’t the Sani. It is way less impressive too. Few kilometers further, we do get to the Lesotho borders, and the view is stunning. At the border post, the Basotho custom officer asks us if we sleep at the lodge across the street, next to the “Highest pub in Africa”, or if we go down. It’s 3PM and we have about 14km of muddy steep downhill and 11km of flat. It’s tempting to stay, more tempting to get the fun started… “We go down now!” As we leave the customs, a SUV stops us. Two lovely tourists in clean summer clothes are extremely happy to see us. They live in Durban, SA, and are on a week-end holiday here in Lesotho. On their last getaway two weeks ago, they were in Swaziland… And they saw us, sweating our asses off while climbing up the Maguga dam! They had then talked about us, the two crazy tourists on a bicycle, cycling crazy steep roads in Swaziland… “I can’t wait to tell our friends that we saw you again!!! We hadn’t stopped, last time, because you seemed a bit… Tired. But this time, let’s take a selfie !” as he says it, he pulls a selfie stick out of his car, and both of them are already perfect for the shot, while I check JP’s nose for apparent boogers. With them gone, it’s time for some major downhill.
There is no doubt, JP is more agile on his bike than me. My hands get cramps and the view gives me vertigo. I keep sliding on the mud while he’s already 100m further. What the hell… The first section ends with the South African customs. We reach the building as it starts hailing. The man inside checks our passports, stamps them, and returns to his welcoming fire place while we stand under the little roof and snack on few peanuts. We wish for an invitation to come in that doesn’t come. Oh well. We decide to keep on going even though it rains. […] The big downhill is done now, and we cross little creeks and the curves get longer. JP still waits for me here and there, which is nice, until the predictable happens : I fall over my bike after a big slide on the sticky mud. Panniers, coat, pants, shoes, gloves… Everything is covered with mud ! Great… More angry than stunned, I catch up with JP who’s waiting for me, again : “did you fall off your bike ?” he asks me, very calmly “… yeah” I answer, not sure what are my feelings on the subject “yeah, that’s what I thought” he says, with no sign of worry, what so ever, before starting back riding. Great… No need to curse JP’s lack empathy, mother Nature is there to support me. As he’s already way ahead, I see a jackal crossing the road in front of me and that view makes me forget all about my muddy self. The last kilometers of the dirt road as relatively flat and we “soon” (2 hours later) reach the asphalt, which lead us to the Backpackers. There, we pay ourselves the treat. A clean and dry bed in the dorm for 14$ a night – go for it.
We are now back in South Africa, and those customs were our last ones until Cape Town’s airport in a bit less than two months – and 1500km. Now, an amazingly wild and underrated section awaits us : the Wild Coast.
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Recommendations for tourers :
Here is a list of Lesotho’s top passes, according to DangerousRoads.org (also known as the most scenic roads in the world) which would be an excellent tool in planning an epic route in that little dirt track paradise. Keep in mind that Lesotho is working hard on asphalting its main roads – with the help of the Chinese, so some in there might have been gravel at the time of the publishing, but could now be tared – which makes them sometimes less impressive… Or not :
Epic Lesotho – South Africa borders :
- Sani Pass. 2876m. To reach Underberg in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, from Rafolatsane through the Drakensberg mountains on a 4×4 dirt track;
- Ongeluks Nek Pass. 2541m. Translated by “Accident Neck”, it is a small muddy slippery 4×4 dirt track that starts on the Mount Moroosi/Patlong road and enters South Africa in the Eastern Cape, somewhere between Kraal and Mariazell Mission by crossing Malekgonyane National Park (Ongeluksnek);
- Qacha’s Nek. 1981m. Continue futher East after Patlong and end up exiting Lesotho in Qacha’s Nek to enter the Eastern Cape of South Africa, between Ongeluks Nek Pass and Sani Pass borders.
Between Butha-Buthe and Mokhlotlong, in Northern Lesotho :
- Moteng Pass. 2820m. Maluti mountains. On the Butha-Buthe/Letseng-la-Terae road;
- Mahlasela Pass. 3222m. Maluti mountains. On the Butha-Buthe/Letseng-la-Terae road;
- Tlaeeng Pass. 3255m. On the Oxbow/Mapholaneng road, the highest motorable poorly maintained road;
Between Maseru and Theba-Tseka, in Central Lesotho :
- Blue Mountain Pass. 2641m. On the Lekhalong/Thaba Putsoa road, between the missions of Nazareth and Likalaneng;
- Mokhoabong Pass. 2880m. On the Mantsonyane/Thaba-Tseka road;
- Bushman’s Pass. 2266m. On the Nazareth mission/Likalaneng road;
- God Help Me Pass. 2318m. On the Likalaneng/Nazareth mission road, just East of Fosi;
- Che Che Pass. 2545m. On the Mantsonyane/Marakabeis road;
- Mohale Pass. On Likalaneng mission/Mohale road, climbing Mohale Dam;
- Likalaneng Pass. 2620m. On Marakabeis and Likalaneng mission road;
Between Maseru and Patlong, in Central Lesotho :
- Baboon Pass. 2689m. The most rough, remote and impassable 26km of 4×4 only rocky track to get to Theetsoa – possibly ending in Ramabanta;
Between Leribe and Theba-Tseka, in Central Lesotho :
- Mafika Lisiu. 3090m. On the Pitseng/Lejone road that crosses Maluti mountain range and leads to Katse dam;
Between Mafeteng and Patlong, in Southern Lesotho :
- Lebelonyena Pass. 2430m. On Mphaki/Mount Moorosi road;
Thanks to http://www.dangerousroads.org/africa/lesotho/ for the info !