Pre race prep
So we made it! The Lesotho Sky awaits. Drove into Lesotho from Smithfield, through Van Rooyens Gate border post – what a difference from the Free State as the dodgiest potholed roads on the planet made way for smooth, road-bike-dream tar. And a committed lack of road rules and/or sense. The speed limit in the country is 80km/h, 50 through the villages, and it is justified. At approximately 2.77 donkeys per kilometer, you can make an ass of yourself in a big hurry at speed. Thankfully, the scenery is so spectacular, you are happy to drive slowly.
We got to Roma Trading Station, in the town of Roma, at about two pm, and immediately unpacked the Pyga and the Open and went for a ride. Billed as a university town, we half (quarter?) expected to find a Vida on every corner, but this ain’t Stellenbosch. So we headed out of town and started to climb. And climb. And climb. 370m altitude gain in 4km, broken only by a deviation onto the slick rock that runs through this area to regain our Moab memories, was enough of a warm up, so we turned round and rode back to the Trading Station. The highlight of the ride was our first interaction with the local kids: the happiest faces you will see, but with just one word in English: Sweets. Jakes put his hand in his pocket at one stage, and was almost bowled off the bike. I suspect this might be a pattern for the days to come.
SUNDAY, 23 September 2012 – Stage one
The 6am breakfast tent registered a temperature of two degrees. And we could only find decaf Nescafe, or Ricoffy. About that Vida… Anyway, I digress: today was a ‘gentle warm up ride’ of 48km, with 1200m of climbing (roughly the same gain as in the Cape Argus Pick n Pay Cycle Tour), yet again we made the mistake of believing the smiling event organisers, Darol and Christian when they briefed us the night before. “It is all downhill from halfway”. Been hearing that for thirty years, and never the truth, and today was no different. We ‘let’ the local Lesotho riders go at the start, with the two keen teams up from the Cape, and settled into a chilled rhythm. Except, a chilled rhythm at 2000m altitude, where oxygen is as scarce as truthful event organisers, is not that easy. Again, we were rescued by the scenery and the local hospitality. A breathless dumelang evokes smiles and shouts, and turns every climb through a village into a mini Suikerbossie. The kids are indeed a nuisance, happy and respectful, but insistent that you give them sweets. We are trying to find out the Sotho for ‘no’, because Anglo Saxon doesn’t seem to work. The top beg was for bread. Unfortunately, I had left the CamelBak Loaf(TM) in the car, and could not oblige.
Past halfway, the road did indeed turn down (as it should, we were at 2160m…) and we began a really fun series of silly rocky descents (being overtaken by donkeys downhill is a first) and fast, amazing single and jeeptrack, that brought us back to Roma. Three-and-three-quarter hours, 48km, and in the top half of the small field. In some of the most beautiful countryside I have ridden in. Result. Tomorrow is only 82km. Ho-hum.
MONDAY, 24 SEPTEMBER– ROMA to MOLENGOANE LODGE
Yay, a warm start. Four degrees. Not that it made any difference to the legs, the stupid climb that took us out of Roma yesterday was just as, and oxygen-depleted. With the cobwebs blown out, we got stuck into the day’s ride, and were rewarded with even more spectacular scenery. Pick of the bunch was riding around the foot of Qiloane, the koppie that inspired the Basutho hat that symbolizes this nation.
Shortly after that we began to climb again, with a nasty tar ascent that took us up to the plateau that would keep us honest for the rest of the day. With a fair portion of the day’s climbing done early, we got a chance to stretch the long legs and big gears for a solid two-hour stretch. This middle section of the route was a mixture of really fun, fast gradual descents, all smoothed out by the sheep, donkeys and horses we spend a fair portion of out time second-guessing, and sharp ascents to keep the legs in check. There is a huge dam being built in this valley, so when we hit district roads they were in great condition, contributing to the speed of the day. With the kids at school, we were spared the sweet begging for the day, thankfully. It is such a pity that this admittedly harmless begging blights an otherwise wonderful interaction with the local people – the adults are always ready to greet and smile as we ride past, with just a handful asking for anything.
Typically, the final block of altitude gain was reserved for the final 20km of the stage, big wide-open roads and paths in a headwind that had the upcountry riders crying and the Capeys asking what the problem was. Darol-the-organiser pulled a Dr Evil-esque move that took us towards our final finish point of Molengoane Lodge, to within probably half a kilometer, before turning sharp right for what was, we grudgingly agreed, a worthwhile loop down one final rocky uber-descent, some radically fast field traverses and a final drag up to the lodge. It looks like we moved up a spot or three (not that we were counting), finishing the 65km (1500m ascent) in a shade over four hours.
To our left towards the end of the day loomed some really, really big mountains, and it would appear we head into them tomorrow. Names like Bushmans Pass and Three Witches are on the menu, and apparently we are going to die. But that is for tomorrow, for now it is food, sleep, repeat.
DAY THREE – MOLENGOANE LODGE to RAMABANTA LODGE
What a day of contrasts. The most spectacular riding day so far, contrasted with the deepest tragedy as one of the Lesotho Sky crew vehicles left the road transferring between the start and finish lodges, resulting in three of the volunteers being taken to hospital and the death of a young Lesotho journalist. Banged-up car wrecks are a part of the countryside here, and it is easy to be flippant about the general lack of safe driving. But when it is suddenly faces you have come to know intimately that are not in the dinner hall, and one with no way back, it is sobering. Liepollo Rantekoa, we knew you for the briefest of time, but your humour, enthusiasm and joy in documenting the Lesotho Sky will not be forgotten by any of us. So, so sad.
The ride started out pretty well, in a sadomasochistic kind of way. If you have ever seen footage of the Roof of Africa motorbike endurance event, you will have witnessed the carnage that is Bushmen’s Pass. It is the Silver finish point, and sees huge crowds urging bikes and riders up its vertical scree slope. We had no crowds, and bikes a hundred kilos lighter than theirs, but we still got sent up it. By the time we had reached the first water point (after 11,5 km!) we had already climbed 670 metres, the majority in the final kilometre-and-a-bit of portage. Was it fun? Not even remotely. Did we run out of foreign language swear words? Yup. Was it worth every sweaty footstep? Absolutely. Once we had finished the route march, the fun riding started, a fast tar descent turned right into a technical forested decent that caught a rider or two out, before rolling through a spectacular valley, towards the foot of the Three (B) Witches climb – four and a half kilometres of merciless ascent that added another 380 metres to the accumulated distance. It was after this, at water point two, that we were told about the morning’s tragedy, and asked to follow the route to the finish, without racing, as the stage had been neutralised. The final 30 kilometres was stunning, apart from another 400m gravel-road climb, but it was supremely difficult to motivate the legs with a heavy heart, so we all just rolled home at a moderate pace, to finish in five and a half-odd hours, 1760 metres and 66 kilometres.
The evening proceedings were, as you can imagine, somber. One of the driving forces behind this event is the former Lesotho Ambassador to Germany, Dr Makase Nyaphisi, and he addressed us on behalf of Liepollo’s family, with whom he had spent the day, and asked us, with the King’s blessing, to continue with the event in her honour. This event is held in high regard here.
STAGE FOUR – RAMABANTA LODGE TO RAMABANTA LODGE
After a two-minute silence for Leipollo at the start, the owner of this and the Roma Trading Post, Ashley Thorn, raised his shotgun at 8 am sharp. It had nothing to do with his daughter, he was simply the starter for the day, and off we shot down a fast kilometre of descent before tackling the main goal of the day: getting to the halfway point without crying. Just in case that sounds extreme, think about this a little: at the 25 kilometre water point that was designated ‘the top’ by Darol the Wicked, we had climbed 1270 metres, slightly more than the Argus. And there were some downhill bits in that… the steepest extended gradient we measured was 24 per cent. K*k is a polite word for it. Jakes was super-patient with me, from the get-go it was obvious my calves had been rustled. His plan was to keep our chief rivals (in their minds) Charles and Stian under check by talking nonsense for as long as possible. It worked. They claim they waited for us for a change, but we are not so sure…
Thankfully, we then turned right and headed to another Roof of Africa legend, Baboon’s Pass. This time we went down where the bikers come up, not that that mattered much as it was pretty much unrideable for the first 500 metres. After that, it opened up a little into the most amazing ride down the valley, mixtures of rocky and smooth, single and jeep, slick rock and river crossings. Proper, proper mountain biking. Cramp-in-your-hands mountain biking. There was even snow on the south-facing slopes just above us.
The final numbers were 52 kilometres, with 1 700 metres of climbing, in just on four and a half hours. To be fair to Darol, his downhill-from-here included nearly 700 metres of climbing, so he is off the hook and back in the hot seat to bend the truth about tomorrow’s stage at tonight’s presentation. Rumours are that we are facing the toughest day yet. Can’t wait.
STAGE FIVE – RAMABATA LODGE TO MALEALEA LODGE
Sitting in our rondavel watching a thunderstorm roll through, it is pretty easy to forget how hard to day was. On the face of it, 66 kilometres with just 1800m of climbing should have been a doddle. But the first 20 kilometres, as we followed the course of the Makhaleng river was a never-ending series of singletracks that just begged to be hammered. So, an hour and a half in we had only climbed 460m, a relative flat ride compared to the rest of Lesotho Sky, but we had done so as impetuous children. And would pay, as the bulk of the climbing lay after the second water point.
There were some frayed nerves on today’s stage. There always are a few teams with issues at this point in any stage event, but the highlight (and sure to make it to the fines committee) was asking one of the speedierteam’s star member if his partner, struggling behind us for a change, was okay. “His problem is he is too bloody fat,” was the spat-out response, as he hopped aboard his bike and pedalled furiously off. They had made up by the time we all finished and had purloined two cleaning lady aprons to wear after their showers as we waited for the broken-down baggage truck to arrive. I will spare you the images, suffice to say imagine an evil proctologist and his hulking nurse, mixed with Basic Instinct every time they sat down or moved… there are some things that cannot be unseen.
Back to the ride – we were mainly on district roads after the first water point, but even these, in Lesotho, are special – rutted and gnarly, definitely not car-ready, unless you drive a Toyota. No matter how remote, or how hectic the road, you are guaranteed to sight either a Hi-Ace, or an old boxy Cressida, banging and bouncing along. We are staying at what appears to be a popular tourist destination in the area, along with a group of very, very young American exchange students who are experiencing their final day of civilization before being immersed into various local villages to experience ‘normal’ life in Africa. Oddly enough, this might seem, now, like something to look forward to, after being exposed to a horde of smelly, starving mountain bikers. And two dodgy cleaning ladies.
STAGE SIX – MALEALEA LODGE TO ROMA
All roads lead to Roma, they say. Looking at the map, the established one added up to 96 kilometres to get back to our start point, along the district roads. DArol had a cunning plan to make it a little shorter, thankfully, but the price to be paid was 2600m of elevation gain for the day! Not something anything of us was looking forward to over the third glass of wine after the superb dinner at Malealea.
The final day dawned a tad gloomy, with ominous thunderclouds on the horizon, a chilly wind dropping the start-line temperature to just 12 degrees. As we rolled out, Sello from the Vodacom Lesotho team beamed that were going to get lashed today. Game on, we said. “No, no, by the rain, not by us”. We laughed. A little.
After a long road climb to warm up, we turned left past a grim-faced Darol, muttering something about bad mud. And then we saw the bad mud, and began the best trails yet in our Lesotho experience: dipping and whooping through villages, being cheered on by locals, getting filthy dirty. Heaven. We followed these amazing paths, along the river taking us back home for a good few kilometres, before tackling a short tar climb, and then heading back down for more riverside fun. And then the climbing started again. The gradients in the foothills – we left the real mountains yesterday – are not too severe, and we were both finding some decent climbing legs even with a super-long day ahead, riding comfortably ahead of our regular posse, when the clouds started rolling in apace, and the temperature began to plummet. We ended up riding the third and fourth hours of the day in driving rain, as a thunderstorm did its best to relieve us of the contents of our bowels as we were tracked along an exposed ridge. The thermometer was reading four degrees when our amateur lightning strike meter went from a sevon-second gap between flash and bang, to one-croco-BANG. Jakes voiced some concerns about becoming a sosatie, but I over-rode any fear-based decisions by confirming I would rather fry than shiver to death. So on we rode. We heard later that other teams had found shelter in some local huts, but we were there to race, not socialize… or something.
Eventually, though, it was all for naught, as we approached the 60 kilometre mark the second thunderstorm hit – we had warmed up to a heavenly 11 degrees by then and regained possession of our fingers and a few toes – and we were hailed by some very non-local sounding voices. At this point I can confirm that the entire Lesotho Sky field does indeed fit in a shed. We were escorted in by Christian, who had called the race off due to the lightning risk (probably a wise move, although we were quite ready to carry on…) and wrapped up in blankets the villagers had brought, un-asked, to warm us up. They even found a stove. Cosy it was, and possibly a fitting way to end an amazing event, where camaraderie between the riders was matched only by the amazing support from the locals.
We were shuttled to the finish, where we set about demuddifying bikes, bodies and belongings, before getting tucked into the final braai and prize giving. For the record, Carel Bezuidenhoud and Tim Ellerbeck from Team Merrell were the winners (and quiet, shy Carel set a world record acceptance speech that had seasoned politicians asking him to move it along), Miriam ‘Svetlana’ Stronkhorst and Therese ‘Chop’ Horn were the first-ever ladies champions, riding for First Ascent. But, as hackneyed as it sounds, the results mean little at the Lesotho Sky, it is best measured as a showcase for some proper mountain biking, in real African conditions. Do this event before it grows too big, you will not regret one second of it. Keep an eye out for a full feature on the Lesotho Sky in an upcoming issue of Ride.