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