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Lesotho on two wheels

A plan was set: three mates, three bikes, a Subaru Outback, a trailer, and a mountain kingdom to explore. Excited was an understatment.

Lesotho on two wheels

Every now and then I feel a need to escape. And as fate would have it, two of my oldest friends, Ian and Rob, found themselves fun-employed around the same time as my annual urge to get away from it all. So we started planning the ultimate adventure, with our sights set on Lesotho.

This mountain kingdom caught my eye earlier in the year, while road tripping with my wife Sanela and our fur-child Felix, in our trusty 2006 Subaru Outback. Driving through the northern part of the Eastern Cape, I made a mental note to return on a motorcycle and venture beyond the mountains I saw in the distance.

This mental post-it resurfaced while chatting with my mates, and before we knew it we had penned out a week long journey into this unknown land. How far could we go? How remote could we get? Would we even come back?

Lesotho is a fair distance from Cape Town, especially on a 250cc dirt bike with a cruising speed of around 85km/h. The starting point of our bike journey, Rhodes, is exactly 1149km from my front door—and we wanted to spend the week riding in Lesotho, not riding to Lesotho.

So I reached out to the friendly folk at Subaru South Africa, asking if they had any vehicles that would be up for support duty. They graciously offered up a 2019 Outback—which I had already spent some time in and fell in love with. The plan was set: three mates, three bikes, a Subaru Outback, a trailer, and a mountain kingdom to explore. Excited was an understatment.

Day 1: Cape Town to Rhodes
After many pizza- and beer-fueled late nights spent prepping the bikes, and a last minute addition in the form of our buddy Sean, we were finally ready to hit the road. An ambitious plan to get to Rhodes before dark had us up at 2:45am and on the road at 3:28am sharp.

Towing a trailer laden with four bikes takes some getting used to, but Subaru’s Eyesight adaptive cruise control was there to help. I’d played with the system before, but this time I had the chance to really get to know it. Using two cameras mounted on either side of the rear view mirror, the vehicle monitors the road ahead, identifying other cars, locking on, and then adjusting the vehicle’s speed to maintain a safe following distance.

It really is incredible, and also has lane departure warning, blind spot detection and scans for potential obstacles such as pedestrians, animals and foreign objects obstructing your path. I was grateful for these safety features as we drove north on the famously dangerous stretch of N1 highway between De Doorns and Beaufort West in the dark, early hours of the morning.

The Subaru didn’t complain about being over-stuffed either. Along with a fully laden trailer, the boot was packed to the brim with our luggage, helmets, jackets, camping gear, tools and a whole lot of other stuff we’d probably never use. The two rear passengers noted their comfortable reclining rear seats, and the fact that they didn’t need to squabble over a USB power point (there are two in the rear).

But one of the features I enjoy most in the Outback, is the Harman Kardon sound system. It has to be heard to be truly appreciated, so we cranked up the volume on our road trip playlist and jammed away. The system features Apple CarPlay—something I originally dismissed as a gimmick, but found really useful, once I rode shotgun and had time to explore it a bit more.

It lets you access key features like Google Maps, Spotify, Phone, Whatsapp and more. And between Siri and the steering wheel controls, your attention is never diverted away from the road, making for a safer, smoother and less distracted drive.

As we approached Lady Grey in the late afternoon light, the landscape started changing. Excitement mounted as the barren flatlands gave way to the foothills of the Great Drakensberg mountain range. Headed towards Barkly East, the mountains grew more dramatic and the roads became twistier as the sun sank below the horizon behind us, basking the hills in a soft violet hue. We finally rolled into the quaint village of Rhodes in total darkness.

Day 2: Rhodes to Naude’s Nek
Our alarms rang at 5:30, but it took multiple ‘snoozes’ and coffee to get us going. We unloaded the bikes and brushed the ice off the seats—our excitement tangible as we geared up. But after just a short ride from our accommodation back into Rhodes, and a quick stop to regroup, we encountered our first breakdown.

Ian’s bike had stalled while idling, and wouldn’t start again. After a lot of unsuccessful tinkering, a friendly local woman passing by in her bakkie asked if we were OK. Her husband (Martin) has a bike shop in Rhodes, but was working at the Tiffendel ski resort—which is where we were headed anyway.

We admitted defeat, fetched our saviour – the Subaru, and loaded up the stricken bike. Then we headed up the rough 4×4 track to Tiffendel; one Outback, with three motorcycles trailing. Martin was expecting us, and he kindly let us use the workshop and tools. After much effort (including Ian making a makeshift tap from a spare spark plug to clean out the thread), the bike finally sprung back to life.

That breakdown set us back a good six hours, and we now had the loose, rocky jeep track to the summit of Ben Mcdhui to tackle. It took equal amounts of skill, courage, and ‘grip it and rip it’ tactics to make it over.

Once we got to the top, we carefully made our way along the Tiffendal Tenahead Traverse—a contoured road that runs alongside the Lesotho border. We raced down Naude’s Nek in fading light, squealing in glee inside our helmets, as we flipped through perfectly banked corners.

Day 3: Naude’s Nek to Mr Brown’s
It was finally time to enter Lesotho. We took the road through Mount Fletcher, stocked up on supplies in Matatiele and reached the border at Qacha’s Nek by 13:30.

Crossing the border was quick and easy, and we even got a beaming smile from the official on the Lesotho side. In fact, we noticed that everyone in Lesotho was friendly—smiling and waving as we rode past. We also noticed a severe lack of straight roads. In fact the longest continuous straight we would see in the next six days was five hundred metres long… perfect motorcycling terrain then.

The stresses and worries of everyday life faded further away as we headed deeper into Lesotho. No emails, no Whatsapp, no phone calls, no social media, no hustle and bustle, no traffic—just four friends on motorcycles heading into the mountains.

Our destination for the day was Mr Brown’s—a blip on google maps with no further information. What we found was a dilapidated cluster of rondavels in dire need of love. Temperatures were dropping rapidly, so we located Mr Brown (he was at the local shebeen) and negotiated a place to sleep.

Day 4: Mr Brown’s to Wild Camp
The wind woke me up the next day, whistling through a gap in the door. I looked out of the window hoping to see snow, but it was just grey, cold and wet. We refuelled the bikes up at the local Chinese-owned one-stop-shop, and then headed in the direction of what we thought was a shortcut through the mountains.

20 kilometres in, we realised that the donkey track we were on was only getting rougher. The miserable weather matched our mood while we backtracked to the main road—which was actually an intense 4×4 route with steep, rocky sections and slippery hairpins.

Lesotho is a land of extremes. At the summit (2945m), we found a radio tower that had frozen over—but as we made our way down into the valley, we emerged from the freezing mist into sunny blue skies. We spent the rest of the day climbing incredible mountain passes only to plunge deep into valleys again, regularly stopping in villages to ask for directions. At sunset, when we found the perfect camping spot alongside a river and called it a day.

 

Day 5: Wild Camp – Katse Dam
We had to make it to Katse Dam the next day to stay on schedule, so we rose with the sun. 250km in Lesotho feels like 500km anywhere else; the roads are rugged and mountainous, and you need to concentrate hard to avoid other vehicles.

Our 250cc scramblers took strain on the long uphill climbs, spluttering and wheezing due to lack of oxygen. After a long day of riding, we pulled in to the Katse Lodge, looking for a cold beer, a hot shower and a soft bed. But then the receptionist embarrassingly mentioned that there was no running water.

We looked at her, then at the dam, and looked back at her in disbelief. Apparently due to the drought they had been experiencing, the water level was below the pump that supplies the town. This was our third night without a shower, so we drowned our sorrows in the bar before treating ourselves to locally farmed Katse rainbow trout.

 

Day 6: Katse Dam to Senqunayane River valley
We had to get to Somonkong the next day, with two ways to get there. The first was a longer asphalt route via Roma, the second was a shortcut 4×4 route which cut through the Senqunayane River valley. Our adventurous spirits told us to choose the path less travelled.

It started out as a decent enough gravel road, before deteriorating into a rough jeep track and finally becoming a donkey path. Whenever we asked the locals if this was the way to Semonkong we were met with enthusiastic smiles and nods, so we kept going. Eventually there was no turning back, and we found ourselves crossing a footbridge at the bottom of a valley.

The ascent out the other side looked too gnarly, so we parked the bikes and scouted it on foot. With the light fading fast, we approached the chieftess to ask her permission to camp in the village, and with an infectious laugh she said yes. With our morale a bit worse for wear we turned in early, falling asleep quickly in the tranquil valley.

 

Day 7: Senqunayane River valley to Semonkong
The loud braying of a donkey woke us the next morning and we quickly remembered the mammoth task at hand. The village children even followed us up the hill, knowing we’d need their help. We rode as far as we could, dismounted and started walking the path, sighting the best lines to take and placing cairns accordingly.

Ian started to feel faint as a result of dehydration, and I really started to worry about the situation we had gotten ourselves into. We had no other option but to give it a go though, so for the next six hours we battled up 800 metres of steep, sandy, rocky and eroded trail. Ian’s condition worsened, but then improved once we got some Drink-o-Pop and bread into him.

Finally, with that ordeal behind us, we set off on the last 30 kilometres to Semonkong.

Day 8: Semonkong to Somerset East
Shattered from the days before, we all felt it was time to go home. We could think of nothing better than returning to the Subaru and being cosseted in luxury all the way back to Cape Town.

Sean left us and headed north to Johannesburg, while we started South and wound our way through alpine terrain to the Telle Bridge border post, and crossed back into South Africa. We decided to take one last gravel road for good measure, and followed the R393 along the border to Lundin’s Neck—an absolutely spectacular pass we’d never heard of. Even though we were tired and worn out, the vistas from the top of the pass revitalised our spirits as we headed downwards on our final stretch back to Rhodes.

Seeing the Outback and trailer waiting for us was one of the greatest sights I have ever laid eyes on. We still needed to drive to Somerset East that night though, so despite our sorry state we trailered the bikes and got going on our 6 hour drive, finally arriving well after midnight. Our hosts, the amazing Faber family, had beds ready and waiting for us.

Day 9: Somerset East to Cape Town
My idea was to end the trip at the farm to decompress and spend some time with good friends, before going back home. But our underestimation of Lesotho’s terrain set us back a day, so we had to head to Cape Town right away.

The initial plan for this trip was a relaxing moto holiday, and although it was an incredible journey, it was far from relaxing. When I got back into the Outback to drive back to Cape Town, that’s when the relaxing part of the holiday started.

After the abuse our bodies suffered in Lesotho, the near silent journey in the Outback was like being wafted along on a luxurious cloud. I was completely smitten.