While in Africa I wrote several stories with the intention of creating a book of short stories about my trip.
Rather than leave it as an unfinished book, here is part four in a blogging mini series…. “Shane’s shorts.”
Lesotho also known as the “Kingdom in the sky” is just that, a kingdom in the skies with most of the country between 2000-3000m, which for a cyclist mean a long hard climb to get there. I chose one of the more difficult passes known as Sani Pass, taking nine hours to cycle the 23km was a clear sign I’d bitten off more than I could chew with my rather heavy 55kg bike. The view of the “12 apostles” and other mountains on the way up made it all worthwhile though.
My First day in Lesotho felt as if I was in the Scottish highlands. Rain, mist, the hint of mountains in the background, sheep, camping on a puddle filled field and when the locals spoke I couldn’t understand a word. I spent two evenings camping behind the Sani top hotel. The friendly inbred barman and steamed up windows in a dark restaurant only adding to the Scottish feel.
Distance in Lesotho when cycling is not measured in Kilometres or hours but instead in road quality, road gradient and how often the road climbs 400m then drops 300m only to climb another 400m. By lunch time the first day I’d only covered 12km and was at 3200m, only to spend the next 2 hours in a painfully slow descent regularly stopping to let my brakes and rims cool off and enjoy the stunning views. As its Lesotho, once at the bottom of the valley it was another pass before another descent into the city of Mokhotlong where I camped behind a small hotel who offered free camping though I had to pay for the pleasure of using the bathroom and shower, a strange set up to say the least.
The people of Lesotho are very friendly but like most poor countries see a white face as an ATM and ask for the predictable sweet, pen, money, cigarette or occasionally a young lady would ask me to marry her . For now though the kids are not as hard core as in Central Africa and soon give up after a polite no and a cold shoulder. Shepherds also often offered their services to push my bike uphill hoping to earn a little money or a cigarette.
Wild camping in Lesotho is tricky “the hills have eyes.” All land belongs to the “chiefs” so you’re always on someone’s land and in theory need permission from the local chief to camp anywhere. Finding the chief was just a case of looking for the oldest guy in the village with the great dental work. Often I would briefly sit for a break or to cook up dinner thinking I was alone only to have a Shepherd and his goats turn up within minutes to keep an eye on me, this was almost creepy.
One night I camped in a small mountain village which meant being the focus of attentions all evening and a sleepless night because of the livestock, kids, dogs, cockerels etc all making noise at all hours. The kids love to have their photo taken so that they can see the result on the camera screen, many adults love this game too. The other favourite evening activity is of course the compulsory dancing session and laughing at the tourist making a fool of himself. It’s always fun to sleep in these villages but often very tiring. In general I prefer to bush camp rather than sleep in a village, just for the peace and quiet in the evening and not to have to entertain anyone, be polite or fight off the marriage proposals.
The next day after a long morning climb of about 600m followed by several “ups and downs” of 100-200m I finally hit what was to be the highest point during the trip, the “Tlaeeng Pass.” At 3255m it is claimed to be the highest motor-able pass in Africa. I suspect this is nonsense, it seems everything is the “highest in Africa” in Lesotho. Highest pub 2880m, highest restaurant 3020m, highest motor-able pass 3255m, highest mountain in Africa south of Kilimanjaro 3460m this all seems like a poor attempt at some marketing to get more tourists in this part of Africa and the sad thing is a lot of tourists actually fall for it. Who cares if you climbed the tallest mountain in Africa south of Kilimanjaro.
Later that day I arrived at the Afriski ski resort just as a cold storm front was starting to kick off. The last thing I expect to find in Africa was a ski resort, especially one open in December at the start of the African summer. There was of course no snow but they were working on marketing the resort for summer use too for outdoor sports, motorbike tours or as a quiet retreat.
I was hungry, tired, cold and wet when I arrived and not looking forward to camping and eating pasta. I was very relieved to find that they had an affordable backpackers bunker made from old sea containers. I was also very relieved to find out the restaurant was open and tucked into a huge burger and chips.
After getting a shower, changed and warmed up again, I headed back to the bar for another burger. All that climbing at 3000m in recent days had taken it out of me. During my diner the manageress pointed out I was the only guest that evening and asked if I wanted to join the staff later that evening as they were having a party. I asked what the occasion was, apparently it was New Year’s eve.
It was a weird evening, the staff were all South Africans and therefore enjoyed their booze. The evening’s entertainment was WII games. Bowling, archery and athletics, in each category the looser would have to drink a shot. It wasn’t the most inspiring or fun New Year’s eve ever but I was pleased to have some company for a change, good food, a few too many shots and a flirt with the manageress.
The next day seemed a convenient day to have a rest day, obviously not because of a hangover you understand, I was just due one, honest. On my departure the staff where kind enough to give me a huge discount on my food and drink bill for the previous days, their reasoning was that I was on an “Epic mission.” This put me in a great mood as I cycled the last few passes and took the long descent down Moteng pass into Butha Buthe, crossing the border back into South Africa the day after.
Spending almost 2 weeks at around 3000m proved to be very hard work but boy was I feeling fit once I got back into South Africa with its lower altitude of only 1500m. I also felt the heat once back in South Africa, summer had finally arrived in its full 35 degree glory, it was time to head West towards the Kalahari.
Lesotho is a special place where the people are as beautiful and rugged as the mountains. I hope one day to return for some mountain biking or hiking.