words and photography by Kati Csak and Kim Fink
Lesotho – also known as the Kingdom in the Sky, is tucked away high in the mountains of Southern Africa. The scenery is nothing short of breath-taking – and that’s not just because of the altitude. Lesotho has the highest lowest point of any country in the world (1400m) and is the only country to be entirely above 1000m.
Formerly known as Basutoland it was renamed to the Kingdom of Lesotho upon independence from the British crown in 1966. Today it is a sovereign and independent nation with a population of just over 2 million people.
Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa. On the eastern side, the Drakensberg escarpment forms a natural barrier, while access from the western side via the capital Maseru is easy. 30km inland from Maseru lies the university town of Roma. Its beautiful setting in an amphitheater style valley, surrounded by rugged mountains and spectacular sandstone cliffs, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, make it the ideal base for a 3-day trip, but don’t expect much from the town itself.
Leaving Roma on the A3, the country’s main east-west artery, we were surprised by how little traffic there was, and how much space the few cars that passed were giving us. The road is in great conditions and we had to dodge more cattle poo than potholes. The first hurdle of the day presented itself as Bushman’s Pass, topping out at 2266m – good morning lungs! A rude awakening when you normally live at sea level.
Don’t be fooled by the seemingly little off-road on day one, while only 30% of the distance was on dirt, it took the majority of our time, as we passed through picturesque valleys, dotted with traditional villages and the typical round huts. We thoroughly enjoyed the idyllic setting, but of course, this is the highly romanticized view through the eyes of a tourist. About 50% of the population live below the national poverty line and much of the land is used for subsistence farming.
Drinking water is collected at central points in the village. For us, this was a bonus as it was easily accessible. The fountains are fresh groundwater and are perfectly safe for consumption, without the need to purify the water. Don’t drink out of the rivers and streams that you cross though!
Along the way, we got many smiles, and the usual questions of ‘where are you from’ and ‘where are you going’. People are incredibly friendly and two women riding alone felt very comfortable.
We hadn’t really planned our food supplies for during the ride, as we figured we’d eventually come past some small local shops. Stuck for choices, we pulled in at this little shed, which had delicious home-made doughnuts, admittedly, we were rather hungry and under-sugared at the time so our judgment might have been skewed.
Back on the tar road, we found a larger Chinese owned supermarket, but it’s best to manage your expectations and if a ‘coke & chips diet’ is not your thing, you should bring sufficient supplies for on the trail.
We had decided to skip some of the detours through the farmlands and rather continue on the tar to make up some time, knowing there was still a fair amount of climbing ahead. It was a good decision, as soon thereafter there was the unmistakable shot-gun like the sound of a burst tube. We thought it would be a quick fix, despite the added pressure of having a curious audience watching over every move until we discovered that the tire had torn at the seam – so putting in a new tube wouldn’t have helped, and neither would have duct tape or sidewall patches.
With the sun soon setting, we weighed up our options, luckily we had invested into a local SIM card, which is highly recommended! 100 Maloti (approx. 6 Euro) will give you 1GB for the week plus some talk time. We called Ramabanta Lodge, who promptly arranged for transport so that we got to enjoy the sunset from the open back of the pick-up truck. The lodge at Ramabanta is a real treat! Perched high above the gorge, it offers spectacular views, luxury cottages with fireplaces for those cold winter nights, and hearty home-cooked meals!
While we were savouring on lamb steaks, vegetables and red wine, our friend Christian from the Lesotho Sky mountain bike race back in Roma organized spares to be sent through that night. We could hardly believe our luck, as we couldn’t have broken down in a more convenient location, and the Lesotho Sky guys saved us the trip! On a very grassroots level, they have developed Roma into a hub for cycling in Lesotho, with a successful community development project, boasting a state of the art pump track that hosts the Redbull World Championship qualifier as well as a locally run bike shop.
Note to self: On the next trip use compatible equipment on both bikes and take a spare tire.
We had fully trusted the 3-day weather forecast. The stable weather pattern of cool mornings, pleasant days, cool nights, allowed us to travel ultra-light, with only 1-set of summer kit, a windbreaker and a change of clothing for off the bike. Despite the late arrival the previous evening, our laundry had all dried overnight thanks to the extremely dry air, and of course the lovely fireplace in our accommodation.
The day kicked off with a 3km tar climb, at an average 10% gradient – hence there is no need to worry about the chilly morning temperatures. We would have done well to get that early start, if only it wasn’t so hard to break our late start tradition. I mean, how long could it possibly take to ride 64 km?! Once over the first pass, we were back on dirt for the rest of the day. Day 2 featured some of the roughest terrain of the trip, including a few hike-a-bike sections, some admittedly because we ran out of talent, others, because baby head sized rocks were strewn all over and there were plenty of washed out and eroded sections. Luckily, the soles of my brand new Fizik gravel shoes are equally grippy in Italian coffee shops as on African mountain paths, with the cleats sitting deep.
If your mantra on the downhill is ‘no risk, no fun’, then remember that you need to add ‘no medic’! This is not Switzerland, there will be no helicopter if you crash, and your transport might instead involve being on the back of a pony or a very bumpy 4×4 drive, taking hours to get you to a hospital!
I have seldom been so happy to see a minibus taxi in Africa, as when we reached the turnoff towards Malealea at the 31km mark! “Look Kim – what does this taxi mean?” I just got a confused stare back from her. It meant that the road was suitable for driving…, so it would be much smoother and faster going from here – at least so we thought…
Sesotho is the most widely spoken language in Lesotho, but most people even in the rural areas speak English, the country’s second official language. At this crucial moment though, the taxi guy didn’t seem to understand us. We had just contemplated changing our route to somehow avoid this last section, which I remembered from a mountain bike trip 5 years ago as rough 4×4 terrain, but the freshly grated road, the sign for Malealea Lodge, the nods of the taxi driver to our mimics whether he could drive his car to Malealea Lodge gave us the illusion we’d be in for a breeze – lovely! And a breeze it was, at least for the next 20km, and thereafter I can assure you there is absolutely no way this minibus would have made it down the mountain (except for over the cliff)!
Luckily, in the morning, we had asked the lodge to pack us some sandwiches for lunch. Having hidden the chocolate at the bottom, and put the cheese and tomato sandwiches on top of our bags, meant they were perfectly toasted by the sun… or were we just under-sugared and delirious again? Either way, they supplied us with enough energy to drop into yet another deep canyon, to emerge out on the other side and roll into Malealea with the golden late afternoon sun.
The lodge is a popular base for pony trekking, hiking, motorbiking and mountain biking. Other than here, we didn’t really come across any other travelers. The traditional home-cooked dinner was fantastic. Be aware though that the electricity goes off overnight. Lesotho, thanks to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and 300 days of sunshine, is self-sufficient with 100% renewable energy. The power lines, however, have not yet reached all the villages, so charge your electronics as soon as you arrive.
Day 3 – the longest of them all, we managed to clock up some good mileage early on, with a steady dirt climb up to Gates of Paradise Pass followed by a fast tar section of some 22km, before doubling up in reverse on a short section from the previous day, and then we were back to relentless climbing and descending. By now the hands and bum were sore. A sense of humor and the right travel partner were key, as we let our thoughts drift off into the vastness of the landscape and laughed about the choices we make in life.
By now we had also given up to ask at any of the remote shops that we passed if they had ‘cold’ drinks, we were happy if they had just any sugary drink! The one shop told us the only drink they had was beer… while we had done that on our last trip in Bavaria, it just didn’t feel right here, so we stuck to the freshwater from the village fountains.
We passed plenty of children along the way. Sadly the demands for “give me sweets” and “give me money” have found their way into their otherwise limited English vocabulary. It should go without saying – do not give in – you are not doing anybody any favours by handing out sweets or money! As we engaged with them, they soon dropped stopped their repetitive slogans and it was all giggles and excitement to simply interact with visitors in their village.
My mind had been tricking my body, that the last day would only be around 70km, as thereafter, it would be downhill, dropping towards Roma. It’s always great to finish on a highlight, and the 12km descend losing some 400m of altitude was the grand finale, putting big smiles on our faces! Majestic vistas, combined with the most fun flowing track, that produced enough adrenalin so see us through the final ‘flat’ stretch of farmland, over grassy cattle trails.
Another girls adventure done and dusted, which called for dinner at our favorite (and only) restaurant in Roma – Keycees – a dingy student bar and more of a take-away place, that serves THE best spicy grilled chicken and of course the local Maluti beer.
Thanks again to all our partners for making this adventure possible! 3T, WTB, BUFF, FIZIK, and KOMOOT!
Location: Lesotho, Southern Africa
Stages: 3 (+ 1 optional loop for warm-up in Roma)
Distance: 79km + 64km + 96km = 239km
Ascent: 2100m + 1700m + 1900m = 5700m
Best time: Spring and fall, with September being the best month – when the weather is still dry, and temperatures range from about 7 degrees at night to 25 degrees during the day.
Winter from June to August is dry, but cold, with snow in the higher Maloti mountains. Summer from November to February sees the most precipitation and comes with the risk of afternoon thunderstorms, often with hail.
The only international airport is in Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. It is serviced with several flights daily from Johannesburg, the hub for most regions as well as long haul flights. Airport transfers between Maseru and Roma are cheap and only take about 30min.
If traveling by car from South Africa, allow an hour for border formalities at Maseru Bridge, especially when entering Lesotho.
Currency: The Lesotho Loti is pegged 1:1 to the South African Rand. Both currencies are accepted in Lesotho, note however that you will not be able to pay with Loti in South Africa.
Make sure to carry cash in small denominations for the few food stalls and shops you’ll encounter on route.
Language: Sesotho is the most widely spoken language, but most people even in the rural areas speak English, the country’s second official language.
Cell Phones / Internet: Vodaphone SIM cards with a pre-paid package can be bought at the border from street vendors or on arrival at the airport. M50 (Euro 3) got us 1GB of data valid for a week. Put on another M50 in case you need to do a phone call to the lodge or top up your data.
WTB Rangers, 27.5/2.0. A wide, tubeless 650b is highly recommended, the time and comfort gained on the loose rocky sections by far outweigh any loss on tar!
38T in front, 11-42 cassette in back. Next time I’d go 36T if not even 34T.
Loving the new Pôwerstrap X4 Fizik specific gravel shoes, so comfy with those supple velcros, and more comfortable to walk around (while stiff enough for pedaling) than carbon soled racing shoes!
All places offer DBB rates (dinner, bed and breakfast) and you should advise them when making the booking, whether you wish to include meals!
Roma Trading Post
Tel: +266 5024 5001
No credit cards, cash, and bank-transfer payments only.
Ramabanta Trading Post
+266 5844 2309
(At the time of writing this, their website was very poor and no true reflection of their beautiful property. Ask for the luxury units.)
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