Lundean’s Nek- Teleriver- Qoboshane- Tele Bridge (RSA/Lesotho border)- Alwynskop- Ha Falatse- Phamong- Bethel- Ketane- Ha Khomo a Bokone-Ha Mojalefa Tsenekeng- Semonkong
Four boys take chase from the last town, meeting us on the road as they shortcut a series of switchbacks that we work desperately to climb. At each turn, they stop and wait without saying a word. They continue the slow run as we pass, keeping aside or behind by only a few feet. Our route is a rough dirt road turned steep 4×4 track, and will soon become not much more than a loose assortment of footpaths and donkey tracks. At the end of the doubletrack-width road, we scout the route ahead. The eldest boy indicates one track versus another. We continue up. Over a thousand feet higher than where they began, the four boys turn back towards home. One is wearing knee high rubber boots. Another is barefoot. They are not winded. Barely in the first grade, these young men are stoic. Children in Lesotho are like men and women, only smaller.
Looking for the route up to the saddle on a goose chase set forth by the pink line on my GPS– one in a series of tracks I casually downloaded from the Dragon Trax website several weeks ago– we push through the boulder field at the end of the road and choose one of many trails into the scrub. Naturally, we follow either the best looking path or the one with the least elevation gain, ascending slowly enough to make me wonder how we will intersect the pass, likely to arrive well below it. Slipping sideways on granular decomposing bedrock, we look upwards. There are a dozen sheep above us along an approximate line on the hillside. Lael thinks there is a better trail. We point the bikes straight up the hill and begin pushing, using the brakes in the manner of an ice axe to hoist ourselves over tufts of brown grass. We drop our bikes along the trail and break for water. Two woman appear from the direction of the last town, carrying small backpacks and large handbags of goods. They walk past without saying anything, barefoot. I am amazed to see them here. If they are surprised by our presence they don’t show it.
The trail continues upwards as a pronounced bench cut by hoof and human, punctuated by steep scrambles through boulders worn into trail. Looking back, I imagine that with some skill, this is mostly rideable. We make only a few pedal strokes up to the saddle.
At the top, a group of five men and women are seated, sharing two large mugs and one big chicken bone. One mug contains a maize drink, lightly sweetened. The other, which they decline to share with us, is an alcoholic maize home-brew. They indicate through charades that it will make our heads crazy. The chicken bone is offered, which I decline. The sweetened maize drink is nice. Reminds me of a drink the Raramuri prepare in the Copper Canyon, Mexico. Two woman in the group ask for “sweets”. We offer a small bag of raisins in trade for the taste of their drink. Lael unveils the raisins as if a consolation for not having chocolates or candy– which we assume they are referring to– but they are delighted nonetheless.
Despite constant exclamations for “sweets!” by the people along the roadside, I haven’t given anything to anyone, at least not since I bought some apples and nik-naks for the young girls that entertained us with a vast repertoire of songs from school. They were adorable, educated, polite– less than five years old, I think– and did not ask for anything. But it was lunch time, and I felt inclined to share something as Lael and I sipped a 1L glass bottle of Stoney. Lael cut up the apples and tore open the bags of puffed maize, instructing them to share with the youngest int he group. They did.
Once the formalities are finalized with the woman holding the chicken bone– pointing to the next village and pointing to the last– we say “Dumalang. Thank you.” and roll over the hill. No one in the group is incredulous that we are on top of the mountain with our bicycles. I am.
On an adjacent hillside is a small round house with a thatch roof, around which dozens of people have gathered near a smoking fire. Something special must be cooking on that fire– an animal, I assume– and the maize beer must be flowing. The group is loud, making an impression of being no less than a proper party, perhaps more. This is Friday night in Lesotho.
Our route continues away from the party, now on a better trail along the hillside which is rideable about half the time, maybe more. We gain some distance on the two barefoot women we met earlier, to lose it at the next short rocky ascent. Coming to another saddle, a group of single-room round houses appear. We arrive just behind the two women, who now laugh loudly. They are tired and happy to be home. I am happy for them, and at least I realize it is amusing that I am here. Several children nearby agree.
We continue away from the village on a wider bench lined with cobbles on either side. The track appears to have been a road, or perhaps was planned as a road. It remains for many kilometers as an easily identifiable corridor of footpaths and donkey tracks, all the way to Semonkong, always with rocks piled alongside. Far from the open roads of the karoo, this is still the Dragon’s Spine route. Lesotho, as it should, lends its own character to the route.
From Barkly East and Wartrail we cross Lundean’s Nek into a fragment of the former Trankei region, between mountains and the border of Lesotho. Transkei was one of several apartheid-era black homelands, or Bantustans as they were later called. We are still in South Africa, but life is different here. There are no white people, and the home life is based upon subsistence farming, not daily toil for basic wages. The result, as I see it in my brief visit, is not a wealthier life, but quite possibly a richer life. Many criticize the black homelands projects for creating regional ghettos based upon race. I agree upon principle. However, the communities seem strong and people seem more open and energetic with us. The Bantustans were designed to become independent states, forcibly separate from the nation of South Africa. If it sounds like a strange and strong-armed social engineering project, it was. While separate from South Africa, none of the Bantustans were ever recognized by any other nation, a purposefully defeating geopolitical purgatory.
Along the Tele River, between the former Transkei and Lesotho.
Villages feature public taps.
There are people everywhere, absolutely everywhere.
While there are several river fords to cross into Lesotho, we continue in South Africa to the official crossing at Tele Bridge.
Ooph. Beware with bottles on the fork that they do not dislodge during rough descents. We’ve made velcro straps to secure the bottles, but this still happened. I went straight over the bars.
Afternoon thunderstorms are becoming more frequent, although not entirely regular. Often, clouds build for hours and hours. We hide inside a store.
Funny guys, tough guys, and nice guys– South Africa is full or characters.
Late in the evening, we make friends at the bottle shop. We are led around by the local English teacher to see the farming project in place on his property. I can tell he’d had a few drinks already. We oblige nonetheless.
We spend time in the bottle shop with a group of young men. This woman owns the shop. Good conversations cannot be taken lightly, and we talk for hours.
We take a tour around town. Many young people out walking in the evening. For the night, we stay inside a fenced property adjacent to the bottle shop.
By morning, we ride into Lesotho.
Free condoms in the toilet. Lesotho has the third highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the world.
Lesotho. South Africa is across the river.
We connect to the tar road at Alwynskop for several miles to meet a dirt road toward Phamong.
We’ve been told about the condition of the roads in Lesotho. So far, so good. There are many signs indicating projects funded by the USA, EU, and other wealthier nations.
We stop to avoid the sun for some time. Immediately, people move in our direction, toward our bikes, toward us.
This young girl recites a school lesson, “I am a girl. I am five years old. I live in a city. My name is…”.
The group joins for a shoot.
Followed by an impromptu performance of song and dance. The first song is in English, “Early to rise, early to bed…”, while the remaining are in Sesotho. A half hour later I share apples and maize puffs, partly to save these girls from themselves. They are slowly losing steam near the end of the performance.
Day one in Lesotho features incredible roads. But we’re still waiting for the kinds of roads that make this country (in)famous.
Everyone has a voice, and everyone uses it. I’ve never waved so many times in one day.
Another stop. Michael Jackson comes bumping out of this shop. Curious, I enter and buy some maize puffs and a beer. The stereo is operated by the small solar panel outdoors. The rest of the playlist is comprised of African tunes. We’re starved of music, and spend some time in the shade listening.
As Lael boils eggs over a beer can stove on the ground outside, an audience surrounds. Even I recognize how unusual we are, especially Lael. Just as our audience peaks, she often feels the need to fit in her six minute jump roping routine.
The stone-faced group is quickly cajoled into shouts and smiles.
We’re headed to the village of Bethel, where we’ve ben told we can find a Canadian man. No more was told about him, but I am curious. In Phamong, I ask directions to the Canadian. “His name is Mr. Ivan,” I am told.
We find Mr. Ivan and his home, his school, his gardens, and his solar projects. He is a former Peace Corps volunteer who settled in Bethel many years ago, and has been growing his positive influence through education and employment. He’s an eccentric obsessed with solar energy, permaculture, and education. He is exactly what people in this country need. He’s also Ukrainian, via Saskatchewan. It is not until he says “as common as borsch” in conversation that we make the connection. The phrase has now entered my vocabulary.
Our route after Bethel promises to be more adventurous.
We will follow the serpentine line into the mountains, and will stay high on dotted lines until descending into Semonkong.
Climbing from Bethel toward Ketane.
Shops are stocked with maize, maize puffs, vegetable oil, soaps, matches, candles. Cookies, cold drink, and beers are sometimes available. Methylated spirits and paraffin are also common. The official currency of Lesotho are maluti, which are price fixed against the South African rand, which are also accepted everywhere.
Leaving Ketane, toward the end of the road.
These are the boys who steadily chase us uphill.
The end of the road, and the beginning of our adventure into the mountains. The boys return home.
Just a couple of “peak baggers” in Lesotho, coming home from market.
Party house. Friday night in Lesotho!
Every inch of rideable trail is worth the effort. To share the same footpath as thousands of people over many decades is powerful.
The outline of a road guides us beyond the first village.
By morning– in fact, before sunrise– a man calls out loudly in front of our tent. “Morning!”. I hear his voice, unzip the fly, and peer outside with sleepy eyes. He is beaming, wearing a smile. We exchange greetings in English and Sesotho, and I lay back to sleep. He just couldn’t help himself. We made our presence known in the evening to ask for a place to camp. There is plentiful open space here, but people are so curious it is best to introduce yourself. I most villages, it is recommended to ask the chief for permission to camp. Our tent rests between towns for the night.
The idea of a road continues, village to village. There are no vehicles, no corrugated metal, and no outhouses this far out. Eventually, these features return one by one as we near the other end, near Semonkong.
Outhouses and corrugated roofing reappear, indicating our proximity to town.
Finally, we encounter a group of students who have been hired to register voters for the upcoming elections. We make friends with many high school aged youth. They speak English and are more connected to urban styles and global perspectives. Cell phones are ubiquitous.
New styles for the 2015 spring bikepacking season. A photo shoot ensues with both of our bikes and helmets.
At last, the road becomes passable by 4×4., but this last climb has us pushing. From the end of the road near Ketane to the beginning of the road near Semonkong, I estimate that about 50-60% of the route is ridable. Through this section we are on and off the bike frequently, although the connection this route makes is worthwhile.
We join the flow of people to and from town. It is Saturday, and many people are returning from market with 50kg bags of maize meal, large bags of maize puffs, and other necessities and delicacies. It is amazing the things woman can carry on their heads.
Voter registration PSA.
Maletsunyane Falls, the tallest falls in all of Lesotho.
Finally, while a high quality gravel road continues toward town, the local people straight-line over hills to shorten the distance. Our GPS track follows.
Who cares about singletrack when you have six to choose from?
And out of town as fast as we can. The town is deflated after a busy market day. This is our first city in Lesotho, barely more than a few thousand people, and we don’t find much reason to linger. We’re meant to be in the mountains, I realize. The next segment promises similar adventure, as the GPS does not indicate a road for some of the distance. Donkey track, forgotten 4×4 road? Certainly, we’ll find footprints. There are people everywhere.