"Tales from the Saddle"

Newsletter #22, "Lovin' It in Lesotho"

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Lovin it in Lesotho
by: Jamie Bianchini

Online Photos at: http://share.shutterfly.com/action/welcome?sid=9AauGbRi3aM-O

Number of Text Pages: 8 pages single spaced
Quick Link to Cultural Education Page: Click here

If you are like most people, you are new to the country of Lesotho. I didn’t even know the country existed until I started planning the African expedition. It’s a tiny, mostly undiscovered country in relation to its landlocked neighbor of South Africa and you could drive from one side to the other in a day if you really wanted to. But trust me, you would not want to. Lesotho is the “Mountain Kingdom”, with some of the highest and most dramatic mountains on the entire African continent. And, unlike South Africa, the region did not suffer the brutal history of
Apartheid. For more detailed information about the history and culture of Lesotho, check out our new cultural education page.

My first guest rider on the tandem was none other than Vanessa Lurie, the native of South African who adventured with me previously in South Africa. Vanessa was born in Johannesburg and raised in South Africa until the age 14 when her family emigrated to Canada just before the crazy Apartheid years. Vanessa and I had been traveling together for over a month already and the next few days in Lesotho were going to be our last together for a few weeks.

The first night of our adventure to Lesotho was nothing short of amazing. We took a bus to the city of Bethlehem, South Africa just north of the border of Lesotho and had no clue where we were going to sleep that night. While I was assembling the bike at a gas station several very hungry looking street kids came by to lend a hand. They were quite likely orphans living on the streets with no parents since so many have died of AIDS. After we got the bike was up and running, Vanessa bought some food for the kids in the store, which they were extremely thankful for. We pedaled away feeling grateful for our safe arrival and h

We rolled up to what appeared to be a guest house and knocked on the door. A woman came to the door and informed us that it was no longer a business since she had bought the house and was living in it with her son and daughter. But when she saw our bike and heard a bit about our plans to cycle up to the border of Lesotho she invited us to stay the night with her charming family and eat dinner with them. Talk about good Karma, eh? Best of all, it turns our that her teenage son is a huge cyclist and he was honored to give up his room to call our own, including life size posters of Lance Armstrong and mountain bikers hucking huge air on his wall.

The family was very humble and the house was a little run down, but loaded with character. Their adorable dog could not get enough of the rubs and tickles and their pet bird walked around like he owned the place. They prepared a huge dinner for us with bread, pasta and salad so we were all fueled up for the next days climb to the border. We felt as “at home” as a stranger could feel and it was an excellent last night in South Africa indeed.

The ride to the Lesotho border the next morning consisted of a gentle but consistent climb of about 60KM. Vanessa and I were feeling strong and within a few hours we were approaching the border of Lesotho. The foothills on the way into the Lesotho highlands were nothing short of breathtaking with endless deep canyons with rich brown soil contrasted by bright green hues that made me feel like a kid seeing green for the first time.

When rode up to the border we were greeted by big smiling faces and a warm welcome from officials and straggling locals alike. Immediately the slight racial tension felt in South Africa faded as we made our first pedal strokes in country #20 of the Peace Pedalers adventure—Lesotho! We were soon escorted by a young boy on his own bike who rode with us up the first hill of dozens I would encounter. No conversation was really needed or attempted; we just smiled and let the mixed sound of our spinning chains be our soundtrack as we all admired the astonishing views of red canyon rock, a clear rushing river and cute families waving from their humble rondovals.

Our first town we would stay in Lesotho is called Butha-Buthe, about 10KM past the border. We arrived with no guidebook or real idea of where we were going to eat or stay and trusted that local knowledge would be our best bet. The bustling town of Butha-Buthe is enough to immediately overwhelm your senses as markets compete for new customers by blasting sales pitches or hip-hop music from massive speakers at almost lethal volumes. Add the noise to the hot and dusty streets, hundreds of vendors, random roaming animals and our exhausted bodies after a day of climbing into the mountain kingdom and you can bet our patience was tested. Luckily we met a few friendly locals who were able to point us to some affordable lodging for the night.

Our spirits were high the next morning as we left the busy border town and began our ride into the empty, awe-inspiring countryside. Vanessa and I pedaled out through the rolling hills waving at friendly locals and stopped often to tickle cute babies, laugh with the kids at school and admire the unique homes made with mud, cow dung and painted in warm natural colors. Vanessa was especially delighted with the fact that the serious climbs she was dreading did not show up that day of riding and we were able to effortlessly find a gem of a guesthouse called “Mamahase” in the middle of a rural Besotho village.

This was going to be the end of the line for Vanessa as she had no desire to climb the 19% grades that were just up the road. Her plan was to carry on solo via bus and horseback back to South Africa’s Transkei region. My plan was to find a local guy or gal from the village to charge the wild hills with me and learn all I could about the people and culture of Lesotho.

It turns out that Mamahase was the perfect place to start a “Guest Rider Search” as it was loaded with friendly people. On our first day I met the owners and the youngest of 7 boys Maruti. I met Maruti up at the local well where I was pumping water to cool off and do some washing. After a few minutes of sharing the Peace Pedalers mission and project Maruti was on board and as excited as ever to join me into the highlands. Maruti needed a few days to get his chores done around the house before escaping for 3 days so Vanessa and I took an awesome all day horseback ride through the villages.

The guided horseback ride took us though half dozen small villages where huge smiles from the locals were in every direction. This region of Lesotho is very fertile and every home had bright green gardens. My favorite were the village stores that consist of different houses that raise various colors of flags above their huts. Each color flag represents a different product that they may have for sale from their homes. For example a red flag means they sell meat, yellow is milk, blue is homemade beer, etc. There was no electricity, no phones, and no roads in these villages. But the simple life of the Besotho people clearly brought a sense of peace, contentment and pride as people lived one moment at a time, one day at a time. Family and farm was clearly the focus and the energy was peaceful and welcoming. I highly recommend a pony trek in Lesotho.

The day finally arrived when Vanessa would catch a bus towards South Africa and Maruti and I would begin pedaling our way into the wild highlands. I knew I was going to see Vanessa again back in Durban and travel more with her, but we were both sad to say goodbye. Maruti was beyond excited the morning of departure and showed up for the ride with long pants, a fluffy jacket and a small bag of personal belongings. He took my advice and put on the Assos riding shorts and a cycling jersey but insisted he keep his legs covered with long pants. We put his bag in the Ortlieb panniers to keep them dry as it was starting to rain. We hit the road about 9AM after a super breakfast of fresh steamed bread, porridge and tea.

Only one kilometer from the guesthouse the steep climbing began and I could tell Maruti was not quite ready for the sudden and drastic increase in heart rate. It was hard enough pedaling a bike solo up these hills. Now I had a tall, heavy, tandem-virgin on the bike which made the going extremely challenging. But after some rest stops and lessons on pedaling in circular motions Maruti finally got in the groove. He also finally took off his jacket to cool down, but he still insisted keeping his long pants on even with sweat dripping off his shiny black face and body. Gotta love the subtle cultural differences!

We were really starting to enjoy the climb and making great time up the famous Moteng Pass when I noticed that the rear hub was acting up. When we finally hit a rare flat section of the road and tried to coast the chain got sucked up into the wheel and clearly the freewheel was not functioning. After a closer look I had to break the bad news to Maruti—we were done, at least until we could get the Phil Wood hub opened up. The bad news is that I took a very limited amount of tools on this trip to the mountain region and I was missing a crucial tool to remove the cassette. We were officially stranded.

Dozens of locals came to try to help and it felt nice to see so much support from total strangers. But I knew there was nothing that they would have in these small villages to remove the SRAM cassette and get inside the hub. We were both determined to find a solution and carry on with our adventure and I assured the significantly bummed out Maruti that I would do everything in my power to get this wheel fixed, and fast, as he only had a few days off work.

With our shared positive intention we began to hitch a ride back down to the guesthouse. And the 3rd car that came turned out to be one of the owners of the ski resort that we were riding to called Afri-Ski! He gave us a lift in his truck and told me that the best bet was to cross the border back to South Africa to a town called Ficksburg where there might be a bike shop with the tool we needed. So we made it back to the Mamahase guesthouse where everyone was surprised to see our return.

As our luck would have it there was a delightful group of Israeli travelers who had their own car staying at the guesthouse. After hearing our dilemma they agreed to take me and the wheel to the border THAT SECOND! Shaul is a huge world traveler and did not hesitate to help out and we were soon heading to the border in the pouring rain, hoping we would make it there before closing time. It was almost a two hour drive and after a few suspenseful wrong turns we finally made it to the South African border town of Ficksburg.

The guards whisked us through and we made our first stop an automobile garage to explain our predicament. What made the situation even more challenging was the fact that it was 4PM by the time we arrived and in small South African towns things close at five, period. But our magical angels continued to follow us as one of the mechanics at the garage left his job and led us with his motorcycle to the nearest store that sold bikes, but gave us a reality check saying that it was not a bike shop and that they don’t have a full time mechanic.

Upon our arrival we met the store owner Marie who dealt us the first blow of news and confirmed that not only did she not have a full time mechanic on staff but that there was no bike shop in the entire town. However, she was willing to help and did make a call to a guy she knew who was good at fixing bikes. Within minutes a man named Nathan arrived, a super fit black guy who was ready and willing to help us get rolling again and was equipped with the exact tool we needed! We split up our tasks with total focus and within a few minutes the hub was in pieces on the sidewalk in front of Marie’s store as she was closing.

My mission was to find grease and paraffin and it was after 5PM so I was told my mission was going to be tricky. Cranking Israeli music in Shaul’s truck I scanned the mysterious streets and miraculously stumbled upon an auto parts store that appeared to have some bodies moving. I shared our predicament and they were so moved they gave me a free bottle of paraffin and a ½ tub of grease to get us rolling! It was a crazy mission but we managed to get the hub fixed by 8PM in the dark, pouring rain, working via a headlamp on the sidewalk under the awning of the “store that sells bikes without a mechanic”. Mission accomplished! The power of intention demonstrated.

The next morning Maruti was jumping for joy when he discovered that we were able to fix the wheel in less than 24 hours and he was ready to make our assault back up into the highlands. We got a late start, which gave me a slight uneasy feeling intuitively, but we finally hit the road at about 11AM and began re-riding the same road we were on just 24 hours ago. Maruti was pedaling hard and steady and we were both feeling strong. We passed our breakdown point and waved hello to all the nice people who were there to try to help the day before and soon began the serious climbing we had heard all about.

Our goal for the day was the Afri-Ski lodge where we were promised a free place to stay by our friend Jonathan. According to the map it was only 50KM, only 30 miles or so which, under normal circumstances, is an easy distance to cover in a day. But there is nothing normal about the highlands of Lesotho, as we were soon to discover. The first pass we had to climb had the steepest climbs in all of Africa with 16-19% grades for most of the ride. If you know grades, you know that is brutal. The main part of Moteng pass climbs 4,000 feet in about 12KM or 8 miles. Our pace was slow, very slow.

By the time we reached the summit we were soaking wet from the relentless rain and totally exhausted. On the long decent down to the town of Oxbow we found it difficult to stay warm so we took an hour break to dry off our clothes by the fire in Oxbow before continuing our journey up to the Afri-Ski lodge. We left Oxbow at about 5PM and were assured by the locals that we would be able to reach the lodge before nightfall. “It’s just up the hill. You’ll be there in an hour or so”, we were assured by several locals.

I have yet to learn my lesson for some reason when it comes to trusting the locals when seeking advice about riding in mountainous areas. We have had near disasters in China, Australia and now Lesotho when locals forget that we are fully loaded human powered machine and not motor vehicle, and underestimate the grades and distance of the hills. It’s my own fault, but this experience turned out to be one of the scariest missions of all, especially due our remote location.

We left Oxbow hungry, tired, and about ½ dry from the previous summit. “Just up the hill” was the Afri-Ski lodge. Our map had no topographic features so we just started pedaling away. The hills stated relatively gentle compared to the 18% grades of Moteng Pass and our spirits were high. But then we made a turn around a “false summit”, an optical illusion of sorts, and realized we had at least another 2,000 feet to climb and it was getting dark, fast. Then it started to rain. Then the winds picked up—headwinds no less!

By the time nightfall hit, we had been riding over 7 hours and climbed about 6,000 steep vertical feet. We pedaled as hard as we could and could barely manage a 5KM/hour pace, which is just about 3 miles per hour in granny gear. The grades started to mirror those on Moteng Pass grades at times and we were both out of water and had no food.

Then it happened—the “Super Bonk”. A “Bonk” is when you reach the point that there is just no more energy in your body and things start to get really weird and uncomfortable as you do your best to stay upright and keep on pumping the pedals. Both of us were in horrible shape.

My butt was so sore it felt like someone was sticking knives in there. I asked Maruti to walk as I kept pedaling since I could barely keep the bike upright. To make matters worse, the heavy rain kept visibility down to about 5 feet and cars could not see us until we were almost ready to make impact. This was not fun.

We put all our layers on and we were both shivering hard. My hands were frozen and I could barely hold the brakes or shift gears. It was pitch black and I only had my small light, which proved to be almost useless in finding the small, unlit sign to the lodge in the thick clouds and fog. We finally stopped a car and asked where the lodge was and were told we passed it about 2 miles back!

We finally rolled into the lodge at 8PM and we were a mess indeed—shivering, stumbling, pale (well, I was pale. Maruti was still black as night) and hungry enough to eat the bartender. We were so happy to have finally arrived safe and sound and we got out of our wet clothes in the restaurant bathroom making a pretty serious mess on the floor of mud and water.

Other guests at the lodge were soon buying us beverages to calm our nerves and warm us up as we shared the wild journey over two huge passes in one day. The host of Afri-Ski treated us to a huge steak dinner which practically evaporated from our plates and broke the chill immediately. After we had some food by the fire we both could appreciate and even celebrate the adventure we just shared together. I loved seeing Maruti’s proud smile as he explained to me that this was by far the most challenging thing he had ever done in his life. His mojo must have really picked up as a really pretty Besotho woman gave him her phone number after dinner. We hit the pillow hard that night and slept in the next day until about 9AM and woke up to partly sunny skies and no rain.

After a huge breakfast we bid farewell to our friends at Afri-Ski and continued our highland adventure. It was wonderful to finally be able to see some of the magical surroundings as the clouds had lifted a bit. We rode through another two passes between 10,000 and 12,000 feet and it was beyond breathtaking. The bright green mountains, lakes, rivers and rock blended together and offered a perfect backdrop to our cross cultural adventure.

Like Tibet, the life at this altitude is more or less limited to livestock and cattle herders. And the cattle herders were a sight to be seen indeed! The outfits consisted of tall gum boots to protect them from the snakes, the skins of animals to keep them warm, and all sorts of sticks and bones to decorate themselves. They loved the tandem and ran at full speed from their cattle posts to come check us out as we rode by.

We made our way through numerous spectacular mountain villages where we stopped to meet the locals and discover their fascinating ways of living. Most of them lived in stone, mud, cow dung and thatch houses with no electricity, no furniture, and no running water. We were invited to eat our lunch and have tea with a family about 30KM from Tlokoeng who ran a small store out of their home selling warm bottles of beer, candles and bags of bright orange, home-made corn chips that resembled “Cheetos”.

We were their only customer that day, and the Lesotho version of Cheetos were, well, interesting. More fascinating was sitting with the family on a lumpy, smelly blanket that covered a bunch of rocks and cow dung and learning that it serves as their bed, couch and storage of old beer crates. It was better than sitting on the bike saddle, which was continuing to bother the sores on my bum that evolved after the 8 hour session of pedaling in the rain the day before.

After several steep climbs, short fast descents and stops to check out the scenery we finally saw what we knew was coming—the decent down to Tlokoeng. It also meant that our time together was coming to an end. We had enjoyed 3 awesome days together, and Maruti had to make his way back to his village, but not before having the wildest decent of his life! What goes up must go down, and it was time to reap the rewards of our hard work by ripping down thousands of vertical feet down to the valley while following the picturesque Seate River to the midlands. The road was smooth, fast, curvy and tons of fun. We had to stop several times to let the Avid disc brakes cool down as the weight of two people and the loaded bike was heating up the rotors to the point you could literally fry eggs on them.

As we left the high mountains the sun came out, the temperature grew warmer and warmer, the colors grew more vivid and the vegetation more fertile. The villages become more and more frequent, with lush crops of corn, kids out playing and waving to us alongside the river and festive weekend energy filled the air as we moved towards the city. Dozens of people ran behind Maruti and me as we weaved through the crowds of people near the bus station, laughing and chatting with Maruti in Sesotho, the local language. I had no clue what they were saying, but I felt totally safe and comfortable surrounded by dozens of strange black men with huge smiles and relatively harmless beer buzzes. It was a perfect day of touring, minus my sore butt that continued to plague me as the day grew longer.

The time finally came to bid farewell to my good friend Maruti and we were both feeling a bit sad and uneasy. I was feeling a mix of excitement and fear as I was now solo for the first time in Lesotho. I knew Maruti wanted to keep riding and take me all the way to Mokhotlong, but it was time to let some other folks ride the tandem and let him get back to work. We embraced in a long and stinky hug (Maruti reeked worse than anyone I have every hugged), I gave him a few dollars to cover his bus trip back to his village, and off he went. There were new guest riders eagerly waiting to hop on the bike but I was in the mood for some solitude after 3 days of riding with Maruti. I threw on the Ipod and pedaled down the road feeling a bit gloomy, but also excited about the thought of warm weather, no rain, new people and fresh scenery.

It was not long before I rode down a hill into a small 7-house village that I felt compelled to call home for the night. There were cute kids playing with a donkey, a beautiful river, 360 degree mountain views, cute stone homes and a peaceful energy that made me feel welcome. So I pedaled my bike down a steep hill into the village and, of course, every head turned, dogs barked like mad, kids ran after me screaming and laughing while the parents gave looks of curiosity without a hint of hostility.

I found the only somewhat flat area in the village and let my bike just flop on the ground. I was home. I walked over to the closest adult, a lovely woman named Makena, who was holding her infant child in a thick blanket. She spoke no English and I spoke no Sesotho. But the global language of warm hearts and a genuine curiosity overcame that language barrier quickly as I used my best sign language to motion my request to pitch my tent in front of her house. A huge smile and a firm “Ehh” (yes in Sesotho) gave me the green light to settle in and relax.

I began pitching my Baku tent and each time I gazed over at Makena a new villager had joined her until the entire village was there. Before I knew it there a few dozen people watching me pitch my tent and a few of them came up close to help drive some curiously blue colored Sierra Designs stakes into the ground with some rocks. Simple acts like this immediately bond men for some reason and I felt accepted and respected with my new “home” built with the hands of me and the Bosotho villagers. I was clearly the first person who ever came onto their land and pitched a tent, and possibly the first white person many of these people had ever personally met.

I kept the company of most of the villagers through my dinner, tea and sunset gazing session and, although we could not communicate much with words, there was a mutual respect, understanding and appreciation for our uniting. I slept like a baby in my tent until about 1AM when, for no apparent reason, two of the local dogs decided they did not like me camping there. They barked, and barked, and barked until 5AM just a few feet from the door of my tent. Needless to say, I woke up a bit groggy and grouchy, but ready to ride. “That’s life cycling in Africa”, I told myself. “Better than a day in the office”.

Makena brought me some fresh steamed bread in the morning and I ate that with my porridge and biscuits before heading out on the road towards Mokhotlong. The steamed bread in Lesotho is awesome. It’s steamed with water and is at dense as a rock and great with some honey and butter.

I knew I could make it to Mokhotlong with ease that day, but when I sat on my saddle the sharp pain in my bum that usually subsides after a good night sleep was barely tolerable. I was beginning to worry I might have an infection down there and Lesotho was no place to be trying to deal with that, at least in the highlands.

There is no such thing as a flat road in Lesotho and my ride to Mokhotlong was loaded with more grueling steep climbs and fast curvy descents. Luckily it was the weekend and all the kids were out in the street so I was able to either find guest riders or kids to literally push me and my bike up the hills and allow me to float a bit off the saddle to save my bum.

My last 10K to Mokhotlong was with a cool guest rider Dimpokente who had strong legs and loved to pedal hard and fast, especially downhill. He had almost no fear as we took the turns at a fun and exhilarating pace. He just stayed centered and giggled. He had never met an American in his 18 years on Earth and he was just as happy as I was to meet a new friend. He spoke a few words of English and we had some very basic conversations about his family, school, work and weather as we huffed and puffed our way up the hill.

By the time we finished the climb up to Mokhotlong I was done being on the bike. In fact, I vowed to find a way to stay off the bike for the next several days to let my bum heal up. I found the first restaurant and changed out of my cycling clothes and grabbed a cold beer at the bar. And just as I took my first victory sip of an ice cold Maluti I looked up and was stunned to see Shaul, my Israeli buddy with his Toyota Land Cruiser that saved the day back in Butha-Buthe by driving me and my blown wheel to South Africa! It was great to see them and it was no coincidence that we met up again in such improbable circumstances.

Although I had planned to ride to the border of South Africa from Mokhotlong, I was truly in pain and worried about the sores on the old bum. Rather than push an already painful situation I was offered a plush ride to the border and down to civilization with my delightful group of fellow travelers and we had a blast. It was tough to watch all the beautiful scenery pass by in a car when the ride would have been so much more enjoyable. But it was meant to be as it turns out a massive 2-day storm came in and snowed on the pass during the time I would have been riding! It would have been a dangerous proposition doing the wild Sani Pass in the snow and mud. As I said, there was no accident that I ran into Shaul and my Israeli Angles!

So off we drove down to the holiday town of Underberg, South Africa where I would get some much needed days out of the saddle, have a hot shower, shave and haircut, and a nice massage. I spent 3 days fishing, golfing, reading, sleeping and planning the second half of my South African adventure from Pietermaritzburg to the border of Swaziland.

My sweet days in Lesotho still bring a warm smile to my face. I’ll never forget the open people, diverse landscapes, simple lifestyles and rich culture. Next time I’ll bring a better map though to avoid 8-10 hour days of riding steep hills in the pouring rain—the ingredients for a sore bum. I give Lesotho two huge thumbs up all around, but if you go remember to be prepared for challenging terrain and truly wonderful people!

Over and out from San Diego, California where I’m doing some final preparations before returning to Africa and continue the expedition in Mozambique.

Live Big. Give Big.


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