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Lesotho: Following the Horsemen

  • Written by  Dan Milner
  • Published in Explorers
Botenng Molapo is one of Lesotho's few mountain bikers, but he sees the sport as playing a part in the country's tourism future Botenng Molapo is one of Lesotho's few mountain bikers, but he sees the sport as playing a part in the country's tourism future Dan Milner
12 Feb
2018
Mountain biking through mountainous Lesotho, Dan Milner found stunning landscapes, physical challenges and a proud people with their finger on the pulse of adventure tourism

The beaten-up, old pick-up truck has one working headlamp, but on its windscreen is a sticker declaring it ‘Official’– a throwback to its role in the annual Roof of Africa motorbike rally. Its owner, Thabu Ntlhoki casually leans on the car’s rusting bodywork while his business partner, Tumelo Makhetha, talks relentlessly, seemingly without pause for breath, on a mobile phone. 

I have no idea what he is talking about – I don’t speak Sesotho – but I know how important this dented car is to both their adventure tourism business and to my comfort. Two hours later, as I’m pedalling my bike up an arduously long gravel road climb, Thabu and Tumelo will leapfrog past me, the back of their wheezing vehicle piled high with eight bright pink, polythene wrapped foam mattresses.

The mattresses are the pair’s latest investment and, to me at least, it’s money well spent. The purchase enables a couple of 100-year-old, disused trading posts to be brought out of retirement, their dusty floors swept clean to become ad-hoc hotels in Ha Simione and Nykosoba – two villages lacking tourism infrastructure. Here in Lesotho, where tourist beds are few and far between, the importance of a pink mattress in turning any creaking floor into a good nights sleep should never be underestimated.

explore 3Balaclava and blanket-wearing horseman Leputhing Molapo, leads Claudio Caluori up a climb during the six-day traverse (Image: Dan Milner)

The mattresses make a welcome appearance on the third day of a challenging six-day mountain bike ride through Lesotho’s southern mountains from Semonkong to Roma – a pioneering ride that is by definition, full of unknowns. Neither me nor my two fellow mountain bikers, Claudio Caluori and Kevin Landry, knew what to expect from Lesotho – trekking and mountain biking are not very well documented here – but one thing we weren’t expecting in April was rain. Storms don’t usually roll in until late May we’re told, but the thunder that now bounces between the peaks that sit squarely in our path is quite insistent.

We up our pace to try to reach a village we’ve spotted on an opposite hillside before the inevitable deluge begins, but fail miserably. The sudden downpour leaves us clawing our way up the steep trail, slipping and sliding on clay that has been rendered slick as grease. An hour later we’re huddled in the small stone, thatched rondavel home of an old woman who was quick to offer us shelter from the rain. Around the glimmering warmth of a tin pot-brazier, I watch the water bead from my high-tech Goretex jacket while our guide, Isaac, smiles out from beneath his heavy, wet woollen blanket and relays our endless questions to our host.

The 120km-long route we’re following is mostly on horse trails and Isaac – or Leputhing Isaac Molapo to use his Sesotho name – is guiding us on horseback. The blanket sported by Isaac is traditionally patterned, and along with a Chinese-made balaclava serves to ward off the chill of the mountains. Combined with ubiquitous shin-length gumboots to deal with mud and dust alike, it’s a uniform worn by every horseman we see during our ride, and we see many.

ON MARMITE AND CRICKET CLUBS

I wasn’t expecting to see beans on toast and Marmite on the menu during my first breakfast in Lesotho, or signs for its cricket club in its capital, Maseru – but considering the country’s history, it’s not that surprising. From 1868 to 1966 the Kingdom of Lesotho was a British protectorate and the flavours of the UK’s 98-year-long presence are still evident.

After 50 years of tribal wars, the Basotho finally united in 1818 behind Chief Moshoeshoe I, a forward thinking 34-year-old who also acquired Lesotho’s first horses. Despite Lesotho’s rugged and seemingly impenetrable mountains, its fertile grazing land was eyed by both the Boers and the British through colonialist eyes. The first British attempts to establish sovereignty in the early 1850s were seen off by the Basotho, but when the Boers were pitched against Basotho in the Seqiti War of 1865, the Basotho appealed for help from Queen Victoria. The country became a British protectorate in 1868 and was later fully annexed in 1871.

Lesotho finally gained its independence in 1966, six years after its first political elections. Despite being encircled by South Africa, Lesotho remained free of apartheid and after a series of coups and elections, a constitutional monarchy was established, with current King Letsie III as figurehead.

In this small, mountainous, landlocked country sitting wholly above 1,400 metres altitude, bikes are a rare sight. Here, with few roads penetrating far into Lesotho’s rugged interior, it’s the horse not the bike or the car that reigns supreme. For over a hundred years the rural Basotho have used horses to ply between villages, leaving a legacy of both the iconic image of the blanketed, Lesotho horsemen and a vast network of horse trails in their wake.

Few people, if any, have mountain biked along these horse trails, but it’s hoped many more will follow us. Mainstream tourism has largely bypassed Lesotho, in part due to its lack of the ‘big five’ game animals – the lions, rhinos, elephants, buffalos and leopards – that are the focus for lucrative safari operations in nearby Swaziland, South Africa and Botswana, and partly due to Lesotho’s almost impenetrable, mountainous interior.

But, Lesotho’s apparent topographical barriers to mainstream tourism are its strengths when it comes to adventure tourism. At least that’s the view held by Thabu and Tumelo, and it’s a view shared by two Lesotho-based, ex-pat South African mountain bikers, Christian Schmidt and Darol Howes, who have formulated the route we’re now on.

explore 2Two local teachers in Nykosoba village formed part of the welcoming party (Image: Dan Milner)

The potential cash injected locally by adventure tourism could play a significant role in lifting Lesotho’s rural villages out of poverty – something that is particularly poignant when you consider that according to the World Bank, about 50 per cent of Lesotho’s population lives below the poverty threshold of $1.90 per day.

The aim of our six-day ride is to showcase the natural beauty of this rugged, mountainous country and highlight its potential to adventure–hungry Westerners. As we pedal between these remote villages, we raise eyebrows from adults and cheers of laughter from excited kids, while awe-inspiring landscapes unravel around every turn in our trail; visiting Lesotho is an easy case to make, but the rewards don’t come easy.

TEN OF THE BEST

Clothing
Diablo Hooded Jacket • £90 
While not as distinguished as a Lesotho horseman’s balaclava, the hood and high neck on my Diablo fleece make it an insulation workhorse, during and after exercise. Deep zipped hand pockets double as air flow vents and heat dumps while on the bike.

Synthetic Sleeping bag
Aurora I • £160
Whether camping wild or sleeping on a pink mattress in a draughty trading post, a sleeping bag with a comfort rating to -5C delivers a good night’s sleep. The Aurora I’s synthetic filling and DWR coating means insulating isn’t compromised, even if it gets wet.

Mug
Alpkit Mitymug 650 • £29
Even though throughout our trip we were catered for by cooks and villagers, I always pack my own mug for any eventuality. At 650ml, Alpkit’s tough and resilient Titanium Mitymug can double for both tea and basic stove-top meal duties if needed.

Water filter
Careplus Water Filter • £30
Lesotho is not short of water (it dams and exports water to neighbouring South Africa) and while villages have clean water wells, carrying the Careplus water filter meant we could drink safely from trailside rivers too. The 10cm long filter can be placed in-line on your reservoir’s drinking hose.

Travel towel
Lifeventure SoftFibre • £21
Travel is all about taking opportunities, and riding a bike for days means seizing bath opportunities whenever they come. Lifeventure’s SoftFibre towel is small and light enough to carry in your pack for trailside baths, and unlike the first flood of travel towels that appeared 20 years ago, this one actually works well in drying the skin.

Camera backpack
Fstop Kashmir • €189
Getting the shot is all about being ready and the zippered back panel of my Fstop Kashmir backpack lets me access my camera quickly. It has enough surplus capacity to swallow extra clothing and food needed for a big day out.

Spare derailleur
Shimano XT • £89
Getting the balance of reliability and weight is paramount when choosing the bike components for remote adventures. Shimano XT components see me through, but I pack a spare rear derailleur too, just in case. It was needed when a rock smashed my bike’s gears on day three.

Bike shoes
Deemax Elite • £125
Dedicated bike shoes efficiently transfer energy to the pedals. Mavic’s Deemax Elite deliver power and a softer flex and rugged outsole let me carry my bike when the trail requires.

Drysack
Osprey Ultralight • £8/20g
Carrying your passport, phone and camera everyday means exposing them to the elements. I pack my valuables in a small 3L Osprey Ultralight drysack inside my pack, and have a second 30L drysack to hand in case I need to secure my camera gear before wading into any river.

Waterproof shorts
Endura Superlite • £65
Fully waterproof overtrousers are not ideal for riding, but waterproof shorts are the perfect compromise. Endura’s breathable, stretchy Superlites are light enough to throw in the pack when the weather looks fickle. They spell the difference between hours of a soggy, cold backside or riding comfortably until the end.

We’re flown to the provincial town of Semonkong in a small Cessna aircraft, our flight courtesy of the Mission Aviation Fellowship, a flying-doctor charity that sees the worth in our own endeavour and wants to help. Our pilot swoops low over rocky peaks and we press our faces to the plane’s tiny windows to stare down at the very trail we’ll follow for six days – an undulating ribbon of well-trodden dirt threading its way between dramatically lumpy peaks and through steep, V-shaped valleys.

Even from the air it looks challenging, but we don’t have time to reconsider. Two hours later we’re puffing our way up a series of rocky climbs, trying to keep Isaac in sight as he leads us out to the 192 metre high Maletsunyane waterfall, perhaps Lesotho’s only tourism hotspot. Isaac brings tourists here regularly, working as a guide for the nearby Semonkong lodge, a place that has given him employment for most of his life.

‘As a kid, Isaac used to bring his family’s horses here,’ says Jonathan Halse, the lodge’s owner who now rents about 50 horses from local families for excursions to the waterfall. ‘You look at what’s around you, see its strengths and create attractions based on those. The potential for tourism in Lesotho is huge, and if its done in a way that benefits the community, then that is the future for the rural areas of Lesotho,’ he says.

explore 4Wild mountains and unexpectedly wild weather punctuated the April ride through Lesotho (Image: Dan Milner)

About 600 people stay at Jonathan’s lodge each month, mostly to visit the falls, or abseil off the vertiginous rock faces that surround it. Mountain bikers are a new addition but by the quality of today’s ride, they could become a regular fixture. The ride to the waterfall and back is as pleasing as you can find – rich visual cues interwoven with physical challenges and endorphin-laden rewards.

And it sets a pattern for the next five days of riding. Between Semonkong and Roma we thread our way along verdant valley floors and climb over several 2,500m-high passes, hefting our bikes onto our backs at times when the trail becomes too rocky or steep to ride. For hours we ride trails suspended high above meandering rivers and descend formidably steep, rock-strewn old mule paths that prove as much a test of mettle as bike-handling skills.

At the end of each day we sleep wherever Tumelo and Thabu have organised accommodation for us, from duvet-equipped comfortable lodges, to the pink mattresses of old trading post floors. On our second night, in the remote valley at Tha Tse, we camp by a river on grass cropped as short as a bowling green by herders’ sheep, our camping gear hauled in on horses.

While a cook prepares a dinner of pap (mashed maize) and stew, and the essential bottle of South African red wine is uncorked, we chat about the trail we’re following. It has soon become clear that we’re a long way from the manicured, predictable offerings of the UK’s mountain bike trail centres, a distinction highlighted by being led by a horseman. We’re unanimous that we wouldn’t have it any other way. Isaac and his horse – a 15-year-old black stallion called Stan – are always close by, leading us up the climbs or tailing us on descents. Slow and steady is their way, and after six days they proudly lead three weary mountain bikers into Roma.

Isaac is softly spoken, preferring smiles to words. He is 22-years-old and like so many of the Basotho I meet, he is brimming with pride. He has aspirations of running his own guiding company out of Semonkong and his eyes shine with excitement at the prospect.

Like Thabu and Tumelo, Isaac has his finger on the pulse of Lesotho’s future and sees the positive role tourism can play in it. Showing three western mountain bikers a snapshot of his country is just one step towards that future, and it highlights the role Lesotho’s horsemen can play in it.

As progress and Chinese-funded road programs begin to change the economic landscape of Lesotho, the iconic, blanketed horsemen will remain. They will still ride trails across wild mountains, but perhaps they will be leading mountain bikers and trekking groups, lured by the sense of genuine adventure that Lesotho has to offer, rather than merely by the caress of a pink foam mattress.

Dan Milner (www.danmilner.com) is a British photographer who built a career from his wanderlust. He gained a reputation for photographing pioneering expeditions and the last 20 years have taken him to photograph stories in the polar bear-inhabited Svalbard, crossing Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, along the Lebanon Mountain Trail and through Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains

This was published in the February 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.

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