The mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is not your usual mountain biking destination, but after having just completed Africa’s most badass 3 day enduro race (which also happened to be the first African EWS qualifier) I can wholeheartedly guarantee you, this destination is one for your mountain biking bucket list. What the passionate guys have created over there for the inaugural event is just the beginning of something very special indeed.
The Basotho, as a mountain nation, are renowned horsemen. Historically it has been proven that old pack tracks, bridal paths and pre motor vehicle trade routes more often than not make for ideal mountain bike tracks, with user friendly gradients and just the right radius turns. Bringing mountain biking to this region is just the next evolutionary step. But it was not easy. Nothing in Africa is. It took the vision & dedication of one passionate trail builder - Renee Damseaux to link all these bridle paths & rugged trails that are scattered throughout this mountainous terrain into endless flowy mountain bike trails, rough as guts but natural & spectacularly beautiful. The best part is that they haven’t even scratched the surface yet of what is out there. There is so much potential in this friendly country where people follow the rhythms of nature & it’s beauty is like a spell that warms both soul & body. It was a very special event to be part of, the inaugural events usually are, the imperfections, kinks, curveballs and surprises only add to mystery where each day truly feels like discovering the unknown around every corner. Being the inaugural event but also Africa’s first EWS qualifier event, it was small & intimate but still drew all the top names of the South African enduro scene on the hunt for points to race an EWS in the future.
Arriving at Moshoeshoe airport in Maseru, was a shock to the system compared to any other regular mountain bike destination. It takes a day or so to get adjusted to the culture, mindset, and pace of life in rural Lesotho, but once you accept all these foreign concepts & elements and let your guard down to embrace all these things it becomes a unique experience. This place and its people have a way of creeping quickly and deeply into your heart. We have lots to learn from the Basotho people. They are welcoming, friendly and open and despite despite all our bright, fancy and foreign flash kit they open the doors to their hearts and homes for us. They’re a proud and mostly happy nation of approximately 2 million people. Their country is completely land locked by South Africa. It is that it is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 metres (3,281 ft) in elevation. Its lowest point is at 1,400 metres (4,593 ft), the highest lowest point of any country. After chatting to a local, he said that in his country (Lesotho) they are all Basotho, with one language & one culture, so everyone gets along, which contrasts with neighbouring South Africa and it’s 11 official languages, multiple ethnicities and many apposing tribes.
Our base was the “Ha Baseane” Trading Post, better known as Roma Lodge, established in 1903 by John Thorn and situated in the Roma Valley surrounded by the rocky foothills of the Maloti Mountains. This was where all the horsemen came to do their trading, and to this day, it feels as though not too much has changed since those early trading days; including my accommodation for the week which was a “rondawel” (round house made from stone & mud with straw roofs).
What brought me to this race you might wonder? Many years ago organiser, race director and trail builder Renee & I went to primary school in South Africa together. Twenty five years later, we reconnected via bikes at the first edition of the Andes Pacifico and since then we have had a few riding adventures together, mostly in Molini Italy where he is a guide and trail builder. He’s always been talking & dreaming about a race in Lesotho, since he first visited there, to escape the cold wet Northern Hemisphere winters, so when it all came together, I wasn’t going to miss this for anything. Renee along with Darol Howes & Chris Schmidt - who also organise & run the Lesotho Sky marathon race are the three master minds behind this event.
I was a bit nervous upon arrival, not knowing what to expect over the next 3 days of racing. I literally just hopped on a plane after wrapping up the NZ Enduro race and had hardly any bike time to get ready for this adventure. I forgot to mention that Lesotho is a high altitude country, situated at an elevation of 2161m above sea level and is referred to as “Kingdom in the Sky”. If you didn’t know that before your arrival, you sure felt it when the racing kicked off & you were seeing little white spots & gasping for air while you tried to pedal your bike up all the “punches” Renee threw in there for shits & giggles.
Although Lesotho sees 300 days of sunshine every year, we were there in the rainy season & as a result experienced some powerful thunder & lightning storms along with some torrential downpours. Day one kicked off in these conditions, making the already technical terrain even harder, but it made for an amazing day out in the saddle with some dramatic, moody scenes to spur on the tired bodies. The days were big and included plenty of bike on your back, hike-a-bike liaisons. The race stages were long & technical with some really heavy pedal sections in-between. Each day was roughly 40km long with between 1150m - 1800m of climbing, with a few shuttle uplifts thrown in-between for good measure. Even the shuttle uplifts were proper African style taxi’s, overloaded & very loud with the sub woofers & base thumping & vibrating as the Kwaito & rough house music blasted in our ears & deep into your core while shuttling up one of the most scenic mountain passes. To me, this was the true experience, this is what I flew to the other side of the world to experience. Yes, I was racing, but this was me living, breathing & experiencing Africa with my bike & a taxi full of other stoked likeminded people. Another truly unique African experience was our lunch stop at the local Pink Elephant Shabeen. (informal bar/restaurant). What a vibe. The music, the barman, his dance moves, the Maluti beers instead of sugary energy drinks, it was like I stepped out of a bike race and into a funky night club in the middle of the day, it was pouring with rain but this was the perfect shelter. I forgot to eat, I was too busy getting into the groove!
Day two welcomed us with glorious sunshine and everyones morales were high & enthusiastic which was good because it was another monster of a day spent ripping down the most amazing, varied and beautiful terrain. Renee’s vision & passion for this place was becoming clear to me & I could see why he wanted to share this little corner of the world with all of us. His hard work was visible on all the trails we raced on (that didn’t mean finding the trail was that visible!) Navigation was tough going in these remote mountains & the motto of the weekend was to slow down to find your way. That was the beauty of this event, the raw, wild stages where your senses were on high alert to help you make it to the bottom without getting lost. We were most definitely not racing between the tape. Stage names like Witchcraft, Pressure Cooker, Quickie & Lesothosaurus all had a story behind them & were described during the briefings like only Renee can tell a story with more body language involved than words, you can only imagine how Quickie got its’ name. Lesothosaurus (Lizard from Lesotho) was an actual Dinosaur which evolved some 200 million years ago in this region and there were actual footprints on the race track! A few of the stages like Pressure Cooker & Freefall are part of the famous Roof of Africa enduro motorcycle route, while other names like God Help Me, Bushmans, XXX, Love It, Barking dog, Marabaraba & Stoner conjured up equal parts excitement & fear amongst all the competitors around the dinner table. Second helpings of Pap (Cornmeal porridge, staple food) & Maluti beer were had to stock up on energy reserves for the next days racing.
That evening, the rains returned, with rumbling, restless skies all night long, greeting us in the early hours of the morning with one of the loudest & most intense thunder storms I’ve ever experience. Day three was set to be our biggest & most technical day, but due to the weather conditions it was decided to cancel the day as a race day. It was just too exposed & dangerous to be out in the high mountains while lightning was striking all around. After two already massive days, some of us felt slightly relieved, as we lazed about camp reliving all our adventures. Later, when the storm passed some riders headed out to ride some of the stages, only to return thanking god we didn’t have to race them under these conditions! It’s never easy as a race organiser to make these types of calls, especially when you’ve poured your heart and soul into a project, but it was the right call to make for the safety of the riders.
We all experienced a glimpse of what Lesotho, its’ trails, people & it’s culture was all about & this was enough for most of us to already start forging plans for next years event. I know I’ll be back for more. Lesotho may be classified as one of the least developed countries in the world, but trust me, the rest of the “developed” world can learn a lot from this little “Kingdom in the Sky” about living.
Thanks to everyone involved in creating and organising this race & adventure. For giving us the opportunity to experience this country & it’s culture by bike. Your passion for this event & for this country was present every step of the way, and that is what makes an event successful.