(73) The kingdom of mountains ‘Lesotho’
Sunday 8th September
After a couple of beers and watching Shrek on the TV we hoped to sleep well but with some sort of engine house chugging away all nightaround 10 metres away making it hard to settle. We still couldn’t believe we were in Lesotho and were looking forward to the mountains. We woke tired feeling like we could stay there all day but with a hard day ahead we had to get up. Sharon was half asleep getting breakfast ready while Tim packed the tent and loaded the bikes. It seemed to take ages to get going but after some adjustments with the bags we were off climbing the short steep hill up to the road. We turned left and enjoyed a good descent but knowing we had a monster climb ahead we hoped it didn’t drop too much.
A local lady dressed up for the mountains
After rounding a few corners, dropping a couple of very steep descents, then climbing some very steep climbs we approached a huge wall of rock over a thousand metres above us with a steep scar cut out of its face to make way for a thin strip of Tarmac.
We were heading up there!
We rode through a police checkpoint waving hello to the police and started the climb. We couldn’t believe the gradient as we soon dropped into first gear and slowly turned the pedals. As we moved away from the checkpoint we could hear the rumble of cars coming down the mountain. It turned out to be the group of Porsches that had passed us just after the border. We waved enviously at them when one stopped to say hello. They were lovely and even let us sit in the car. We almost had a moment of weakness but with them not wanting to trade in their Porsche for a bicycle we had to continue.
Feeling at home in a Porsche…
The road continued up at between 10 and 20% with hardly any respite. It was one of the hardest hills we had ever climbed.
Plenty of warning about the road ahead
The one thing that kept us going was the scenery. It was breath-taking and no matter how steep – nothing would make us turn around. With each bend came a different view and it would expose the next steep section making us wonder how we would get up it. As we slowly climbed being passed by the odd slow moving vehicle the air started to thin, anything up to 2500 metres remained ok although hot but above that we could feel the air as it thined.
Tim on a steep section
These people had to walk up as their bus had broke down
As we reached 2,700 metres the wind started to blow hard sometimes in our favour and other times almost pushing us backwards on an already hard enough slope. With one more bend and the wind trying to bring us to a halt we turned the corner and were almost pushed up the last bit by the wind. With the summit at 3,100 metres we felt happy to reach the top after 4hours of climbing and only covering around 6-7 miles. We hoped now the going would become easier. The descent started straight after the summit and looking for a spot to have a late lunch we found a place on the side of the road. It was like bleak moorland with no trees and short wind-burned grass. We stopped for a cup of tea and a couple of sandwiches – not quite the energy food we needed for such a big climb but it was all we had and made the most of it.
Wrapped up for a lunch break
We dropped another 50 metres before the rode climbed again to 2,900 metres. With signs warning of a steep descent and using a low gear we approached the downhill section that looked more like it was dropping into an abyss. The slope down to the lake was as steep as the way up but this time we had to rely on our breaks. With them getting hot in seconds we had to keep swopping from front to back. If we lost our brakes it would be a nightmare with steep drops off to the side. Working our way round steep bends on to steep slopes we wondered how there weren’t more crashes. As we got 2 thirds down Tim got a puncture from the tyre delaminating on the inside. We stopped to fix it and judging by the marks on the tube we would have to use the spare tyre and try and pick up another one once we reach a town.
Once fixed we carefully descended the rest of the hill arriving in a small town. Thinking we still had some more big climbs before the Katse Dam which was where we were heading for, we looked for water which was harder than we thought and involved Sharon climbing up a steep bank to a house where some kids helped her full the water bag. We thought about stopping in the town but with 28 miles of very hard terrain still to go we needed to cover a few more miles. The road climbed out from the town before levelling off and followed the contours above the dam. We could see a bridge ahead of us and soon started the steep descent towards it. By now it was almost dark and we spotted some houses on the hillside as we climbed away from the bridge up to a small village. We were met by a guy who came down from the pub and said we could stay at the pub. With the music so load we were surprised he could even hear our reply and we asked if there was somewhere quieter. He introduced us to Mr Teba who was head of security at the dam.
Mr Taba and the guys at the pub
He said we could stay in his building and pointed us to where it was. At the cost if a beer we were happy to find a good place and soon met one of the guards who showed us a room and where we could cook. We were so tired but at least being inside saved us putting our tent up. It had been such a hard day but what an amazing place.
Monday 9th September
It often happens that we find ourselves in the company of nice strangers giving us somewhere safe and warm to sleep then having strange dreams far removed from where we are and what we are doing – then we wake up and for a moment try and remember where we are and who we are staying with. It sometimes feels like we’re in a movie where we can zoom in from space first the earth, then the continent, then country and finally a tiny spot perched in the mountains in a security facility in charge of looking after one of the large dams in Lesotho,then In the end of one of the buildings Tim sat with the kettle on for a cup of tea and smoking out the hallway whilst burning toast. It’s felt quite strange really.
Mr Teba arrived to see how we were as we loaded our bikes with tired legs and aching joints. We thanked him for his kindness and waved as we left the compound and up the steep track. We joined the road as herders of cows, goats and very woolly sheep made their way back out to the fields. The wind was blowing hard making it difficult to keep a straight line on the bikes.
Catching a lift on a passing bus
Farmers busy in the fields
We passed a gravel junction and after a few hundred metres realised we should have turned right saving us about 20 miles of very hilly terrain. The track was good at first following the contours and overlooking the dam. With each turn and the ever changing light it meant constant stunning views.
Daisy overlooking the dam lake
A gentle road to start with
The track however didn’t stay flat for long dropping steeply or rising steeply combined with an earth road which made the going very hard.
It was amazing passing tiny round huts with their cone straw roofs often having bright red or blue door frames giving an amazing contrast against the towering jagged peaks and dark blue water. Many kids would wave, others would stare, some would cry and most would ask for sweets. They were never aggressive however which made us feel much more relaxed in this wild landscape.
We stopped after covering 15 miles for a cupper – 15 miles may not sound much but in some of the toughest terrain, we needed it. We were passed by many herdsmen with an assortment of animals who all waved and greeted us. Many of which wore knitted balaclavas reminding us of the impersonator on TV ‘The phone jacker!’
Stopping for a cuppa
We rode on and with a couple short yet very steep climbs we reached the dam wall and the Tarmac. We were only 2 miles from the village of Katse if we could cross the dam directly but there was no public access it would mean a long steep and hard detour.
The dam wall we wanted to cross
We pleaded with the security guards but after a few calls we were told we had to go around which involved an extra 7 miles, descending 250 metres crossing a river and climbing up a 15% climb and around the other side of the dam. We were so frustrated as we were both tired. stopping in a small village for a coke Tim nearly got taken out by a huge gust of wind. We found the visitors centre and enquired about seeing the dam and found out where we could buy food. We were pointed to the Katse village. It was another 2 miles on so we rode on tired. We were keen to find somewhere to stay and the shop seemed quite elusive. After asking some locals for help and being given wrong directions we were finally told the shop was at the top of the village on the hillside. We were stuffed. Not wanting to ride up we hoped someone would come along to give one of us a lift up. After a few minutes a guy in a 4×4 pulled up beside us and asked if we were ok. We told him we needed food from the shop but were too tired to ride up to it – sometimes we just had to be honest! Nardus who was South African worked for a construction company overseeing the building of a number of medical clinics in the area. Sharon jumped into his truck while Tim lay by the bikes guarding them with his eyes closed.
It wasn’t long before Sharon arrived back and Nardus asked where we were staying. We told him that we would stay at the campsite in front of the dam to which he promptly offered a room at his. We said we would be having a rest day before tacking the gravel road to the Sani Pass. He told us it was more than ok –we were welcome to stay and he showed us to his house. With hot water, a bath, food and beer in the fridge and a bed we were very happy. Nardus had to go out to check on some jobs so he literally said we could help ourselves to his food cupboards (a very brave man) and we were left to relax, watch TV and just forget where we were all over again.
Tuesday 10th September
We spent the day relaxing and visiting the Katse dam – we had a guided tour and were shown inside this vast structure.
The Katse Dam, a concrete arch dam, on the Malibamat’so River in Lesotho, is Africa’s second largest dam and was built in 1996. The dam is part of the Lesotho highlands water project which will eventually include five large dams in remote rural areas.
Tim trying to reach the top – it’s 185 metres high!
The incredible Katse dam
Water from the dam first travels through a 45 km, 4 m diameter tunnel, exiting at a hydroelectric station near the town of Muela in the west of the country. The dam’s high elevation allows a gravity flow delivery system to South Africa, in addition to hydroelectric power for Lesotho, and was a prime reason behind the choice of site.
The view from the top
We spent the evening with Nardus and his work colleagues and enjoyed relaxing with them. They were a great bunch of guys all working on the same project.
Nardus (left of Tim was our wonderful host)
Wednesday 11th September
The thought of climbing out a comfy bed and climbing mountains with steep gradients wasn’t the most motivating thought but we needed to do it sometime. With the eggs on and the bread in the toaster we loaded the bikes and had breakfast. Our bikes felt heavy and it would be hard to climb up away from the dam. We checked we had everything plus a few items of food that we had been given by Nardus and headed out of the village. We arrived at the dam barrier to ask if we could cross as we had asked the guide the day before to put in a request. The guard rang HQ and we were told to ride to the office a few hundred metres away. We had everything crossed as it would involve a 300 metre descent and a 300 metre climb over 4 miles just to get to the same point the other side. A few minutes later we had the thumbs up and our legs gave a sigh of relief. We were soon crossing the massive dam.
We arrived at the exit gate where we asked the guard if he wanted a ride on Tim’s bike. With a few near crashes he handed the bike back looking slightly dishevelled and we started to slowly climb over the pass at 2,500 metres. It felt easier than before but only climbing half the height than the previous climb we did may have something to do with it. The scenery remained stunning even with an overcast sky.
Tim at the top of the climb
The descent was great dropping back down to the town of Seshote at 2,000 metres. It was a bigger village than we thought so we picked up a bottle of coke and a mendazzie which in Lesotho has a different name (that we can’t remember!) Sharon was drawn in by the ladies to look at the other food items on sale all in plastic boxes. One lady kept pointing to a particular box saying ‘cat food’. Sharon had no idea why she would want her to eat cat food and asked the lady to take the lid off to have a closer look. She was slightly taken aback as it was actually chickens feet inside – the lady had actually been saying ‘cock feet’!
We asked for directions to Molhotlong as the GPS didn’t show a road and neither did Tim’s map but the one we had photocopied did and we were soon riding down a steep worn out track into the land that time forgot. We crossed the river at the bottom, then had to push up to where the track levelled off. It was good to start with, with the odd steep rocky climb – then it got bad.
The road was good to start with…
With the odd rocky climb – a horse is a much better choice of transport for this climb!
We stopped for lunch at the bottom of a 30 % climb/ bolder field to have lunch. As we were eating toasted cheese sandwiches a young guy came to chat. He was a great kid and we found out that he didn’t go to school anymore as his parents had died (we think most likely from AIDS) and he now lives with and helps his uncle on his farm. His English was very good and he was a jolly lad. We made extra toast to give him before he wondered off. We finished lunch and started the long climb up the steep track. Pretty soon after, we saw a man coming down with the lad and they both helped us to push the bikes up. If they hadn’t helped we would have had to push one up and return for the other many times. Sharon blushed as the uncle commented that she was beautiful like his white chicken! You can decide if you think it’s a compliment!
The young lad (who was 16) and his uncle
We said thank you and went on climbing and descending short but very steep and very rocky hills. The track wound its way up through the steep valley in and out up and down. It was tough and tiring and we loved it.
We were making very slow progress and would often attract a crowd of kids wanting sweets or anything really, they were persistent but friendly. They would often help push us up the hills chanting ‘push, push, push’.
As it was getting late and we passed one small village we decided we would stop at the next one and ask if there was somewhere we could camp. We were near the top but not close enough to cross in the light when a teacher asked where we were staying – she said we could sleep at their school. This involved going back down a steep stony descent that we would have to climb the next day. We said we didn’t want to go back so she suggested the next village where we could camp.
The light was fading fast
She came with us and asked the chief and instead of camping we were invited to sleep in a round hut that was empty. It was perfect and just as the light started to fail. We had a few visitors while we cooked but were soon left to ourselves and to rest for the night, it was strange as it was almost silent even though there were huts scattered around us on the steep mountain side. It had been such a hard day over challenging terrain but with it we were more than rewarded for the hard work.
Tim tucked into bed in our round home for the night
Thursday 12th September
As the light started to shine through the tiny window in our round mud hut there were already people moving around outside. We got up and packed as much away as we could and loaded the bikes before people started to arrive. The owner and his family came in to watch us have breakfast so we shared as much bread as we could, well aware we had no idea where we could buy more. This track was anything but a metropolis. Tim went down to the river to fill his water bag and soon we were ready to get going. We said our thanks and were pointed up to the rough stone track that weaved wildly up the the mountain to a small saddle between two peaks. Before we left Sharon asked one of the guys if he wanted to ride her bike. He seemed keen and before we knew it vaulted on and with a look of pain he promptly fell off. He’d clearly hurt himself but pride amongst his friends kept him from yelping. We think he was more used to getting on a horse.
Some of the villagers who came to meet us
With a lot of pushing we reached the Stone track which continued to climb before turning east to the summit. The road was shocking and took all our effort to reach the top after passing a few false summits.
Here we go again…
At times we would have to push one bike then run down for the next as it would take both of us to heave the weight up the hills.
Tim going back down to collect his bike
The ground dropped away and so did the track all the way to a small river deep in a very steep sided valley. On the other side the track rose from the depths through a village and on to the next peak. According to our GPS it was about 3 miles as the crow flies. This would take us about 2-3 hours. We had to walk down the first part with large rocks and sandy gullies and with a short rest we managed to ride a little broken up by the odd rock field. As we reached the bottom the rain started to fall, only slightly but with a cold wind it felt uncomfortable. We sat in a large rock feeling tired and hungry eating biscuits to try and give us enough energy to attack the next climb. As we finished our packet a guy came over and started to chat. He was a nice guy and asked if he could help.
Taking a break
A horse is the best mode of transport for this terrain
As we started up the climb from the valley it was clear that we did need help. It wasn’t long before we were joined by loads of kids all wanting to push and we were at the top before we knew it.
The kids who helped us
The track split on the summit and with a short walk to see where each one went, we could see a good gravel track running along a steep sided ridge and then winding its way down the valley. It took us about 20 minutes to reach it and we were soon riding down a great track in stunning scenery and a very stong wind.
The wind was blowing hard making it difficult to not be blown off the side. We slowly wound our way down the valley with the wind getting less and stopped at a bridge to have lunch. With a short climb we continued on through undulating and breath taking landscape. It was tough going with steep climbs that weaved an impossible route through tough terrain. We still had 25 miles to the junction and with the light starting to fade we decided to ride until almost dark to make the following day easier. As we approached a steep climb we met a nice guy who offered us a place in Molhotlong which was another 40 miles away. In this terrain it was too far but it was a great offer.
We started the climb with tired legs and felt exhausted. There were a few more climbs and descents all with the sun casting amazing light over such amazing landscape. We were stopped by a guy called John who offered us a place at his camp. The only problem it involved descending back down the way we came and up the hill we had come down. The thought of doing it again was too much so we decided to go on. We continued to the top and passing a small village we called in to ask if we could stay. They were more than happy and showed us to a store room where we made ourselves at home and cooked tea. As night fell the villagers were getting their animals in. With the sound of thunder and black clouds moving in the scenery became even more spectacular. With wooly white sheep with little horns and cows all moving into the high stone pens set into the hill side and chickens taking cover under the small corrigated roofs we settled down as rain drops started to hit the tin making us feel happy to be inside.
Friday 13th September
We managed to sleep between the thunder storms and heavy rain and wandered whether our tent was still waterproof but with the option of a dry store it would have to wait. we woke to a cold damp day. With the sun trying its’ hardest to pick its way through the clouds and with more storms on their way we sat in the dry watching the light change as the clouds over the valleys. As it brightened we headed out thanking the kind family for having us and headed on down the road.
Morning rush hour
At first we thought we would be dropping down and crossing the river before climbing up to the junction. Luckily the road continued to follow the contours with only the odd climb.
The road followed the contours of the mountain
We saw many of these public phones in very remote places!
We finally turned a corner and there it was – tarmac!!!
We turned left into the village to pick up a few bits including some stripy socks for Shaz. As we were leaving the shop Henry arrived who we had dinner with at Nardus’s house at Katse Dam. It was great to see him again and chat about the interesting road we had been on. We sent our best to Nardus and headed on to Molhotlong, dropping down to the river on a fantastic Tarmac road.
A great sight – a tarmac road stretching ahead of us
With a few long climbs and descents we wondered when we would start the big climb up to the town. We stopped for lunch in what we thought would be a peaceful spot only to be joined by two people who just stared at us.
We dropped a long descent through a great winding smooth road. It was great fun but knowing we would at some point be climbing over 3,200 metres we couldn’t fully relax.
Passing building work as we climbed
We rode the long, slow climb meeting a group of investment bankers on the way who pulled over to chat to us. They gave us cold water and biltong which was gratefully welcomed. We reached the top and decided not to ride into the town of Molhotlong as it was another 4 miles of hills each way. We found out that the Chinese were in the process of rebuilding the road to the Sani pass (which was our next challenge) and knew we should get a bed for the night at the camp.
It’s easy to see when the Chinese are around!
We soon found it a little early in the day but feeling tired we called in to ask if we could stay. We met a South African engineer called Rolf who kindly said we could stay in the guest house which was perfect.
Once unpacked we had a shower then Tim went to back up his pictures to a USB stick only to find something had corrupted the photo SD card while copying. How could we lose pictures from one of the most beautiful country’s we have been to. We couldn’t believe it was happening. We were gutted. We were pleased with the progress we had made but losing our pictures was disastrous and we felt totally deflated not knowing if we would ever be able to recover them.
Saturday 14th September
It had been cold in the night and the wind was blowing hard. As we got up we hoped it would be in our favour. It was good to be inside but as always when we’re somewhere comfy it makes it hard to get going. After trying to make toast on a cooker that would struggle to warm a sparrow we ate our dry slightly warm bread and went to thank Rolf.
Leaving the Chinese camp
We had 24 miles to cover over what we heard was bad terrain. We set off following the river as it wound up through the deep valley. The going was good and we hoped it would remain that way.
Morning rush hour!
A pretty house
As the river turned away from the road it shot up to our right at an impossible angle. It was still a good surface though as the Chinese had been working on it and felt much easier compared to some of the roads we had been on.
We passed many trucks and workers drilling the rock ready for blasting – they planned to have the road finished within 12 months but we couldn’t see how.
Waiting for a digger to pass
We slowly reached the summit through the ever thinning air to a height neither of us had ridden and at 3,251 metres it was blowing hard pushing us wildly about so we didn’t hang around.
As it was almost lunch we descended halfway down the other side looking for a spot out the wind. We had to be careful as there were strong gusts of wind from behind almost pushing us off the edge. We found a spot to have soup and watch the odd taxi slowly make its way up/down the hill. It was 8 miles to the Sani pass and we descended the rest of the mountain ready for the next climb.
We had expected a shorter but steep climb but there was none. There was just a slight climb and with the wind in our favour it made it feel effortless. Needless to say we soon reached Sani top and took a couple pictures.
One of the reasons why we came this way was we had been told by a lovely English couple Glenda and Jamie in Ethiopia how stunning the scenery was at the Sani pass but it wouldn’t be possible by bike – of-course that set the challenge for us! and what a challenge. We rode on another half a mile reaching the border post and the Sani Top Lodge which claims to be the highest pub in Africa. Keen to have a beer we went in to a warm and busy bar. After our first beer we got chatting to a great guy called Richard who was a teacher and shared our love of cycling. We enjoyed a great evening with him and he ended up buying us dinner and drinks for the evening. We couldn’t believe it- he was so generous.
Shaz, Brian and Richard
We were going to camp but had been concerned about the ever increasing wind speed when Brian the owner told us we could sleep in one of their rooms at the same price of camping. We soon found ourselves tucked into bed and out of the wind in a beautiful room, what a star.
The end of a great night!
Sunday 15th September
We woke with our heads hurting after being treated to too much good South African wine and what made it even harder to get up was the wind. It was gale force outside battering the windows and filling the room with cold air. We finally got up and packed our bikes and made our way outside. We could hardly stand and holding the bikes was even harder. Tim made it across the yard to the pub while Sharon struggled to stay upright. A huge gust of wind took her off her feet putting her on the ground and sending her sun glasses off over the edge. She managed to get over to the pub while Tim went off in search of her sunnies. He came back ten minutes later with them and her map case which had travelled quite a long distance in the strong wind.
We sat and had breakfast with fuzzy heads hoping to put a little life back into us. We used the Internet and took it easy hoping the wind would drop. Shaz wrote our tour name on the ceiling and we had a photo taken behind the bar and in front of the pub with the bikes!
In the end we had to get going to make it to Underberg and said goodbye and say thanks to Brian the manager. He told us Richard had already left – he obviously had more stamina than us as he was up at 6am! We headed out into the wind and started to make our way to the border control to sign out of Lesotho. It was flat and about 100 metres away but it was all we could do to push the bikes into the wind. We had never stood in wind so strong and were worried as we were about to descend a hard very steep gravel road that even the 4×4 cars crawl up and down. On our exit we met some motorbikers that had amost been blown off on the way up and with the wind blowing out over the steep hill side we would have to keep our wits about us.
We met a nice guy called Muhammad and his family and he told us he worked with computers. He looked at ours and confirmed it had a virus giving us some advice on clearing it. We were soon stamped out of the country and very slowly crept down the track. It felt so dangerous as huge gusts would almost take the bike from under us.
Shaz fighting the wind at the top
The scenery was amazing and watching the cars slowly climb far below was great. It seemed to take forever with turn after turn but finally we were away from the dangerous part.
The scenery was stunning
As we rounded a corner we spotted 2 cycle tourists coming the other way. They were a French and Canadian couple riding up through Africa starting in Cape Town and finishing in Kenya. We chatted for ages but with time getting the better of us we had to keep moving.
Near the bottom
The road remained hard for a few more miles until we saw a nice new Tarmac road in front of us. It was bliss. With only 15 miles to go until Underberg we followed the winding road to ever widening farm land with the odd up and down but with much easier gradients.
We hadn’t stopped for lunch as we’d had a late breakfast and we both naturally started to struggle. It felt like forever to reach the town but soon we arrived picked up supplies in the local Spar and with the sun setting and nowhere to stay we rode on in search of a spot. Feeling shattered we road out of town and spotted a B&B. We rang the bell and two lovely ladies came out. They helped us sort our tea and gave us a great room for a good price. Once we’d had tea all we wanted to do was sleep. We were shattered but happy and ready for another day back in South Africa.
Total distance cycled: 216 miles / 347 km – running total: 14,720 /23,684km
Total altitude gain: 9,922 metres – running total: 169717 metres
Altitude gain per mile: 45.93 metres
Thanks for reading! We had some even more stunning pictures than the ones on this post but hopefully one day we can get them back.
Thanks again for all your words of encouragement it means so much when the roads are high and spirits low.