Europe has the Alps. Southern Africa has Lesotho. Now it may not be as vast as the Alps, but Lesotho is certainly a high altitude adventure wonderland with some incredibly tough climbs. In 2019 I joined Benky Rides’ Trans-Lesotho expedition – an 8 day point-to-point tour across Northern Lesotho.
We started our expedition in the beautiful KwaZulu Natal Midlands, a place where everything happens a little slower, a great change from the hustle and bustle of the city. The Midlands is mostly known for its cool and rainy weather, but we seemed to miss that memo and were greeted with a swelteringly hot day. The highlight of Day 1 definitely has to be the section through the Karkloof conservancy, a legendary mountain biking mecca. We finished the day in one of my favourite towns, Nottingham Road. It was a relatively easy warm up day of 70km and 1420m climbing.
We woke up to another fiercely hot day and as we made our way towards Himeville the pace became more and more conservative to conserve our energy for the big mountains of Lesotho.
The highlight of the day was meeting Ntozoko at his store, thanks to the heat a Black Label beer never tasted so good. We refilled our snacks and water and made our way to Himeville and our sleep over spot, KarMichael Farm Guest House. We ended day 2 on 115km with 2763m of elevation gain, a rather tough but beautiful day, but it would pale in comparison to what lay ahead.
All my life, I had heard about the incredible climb up Sani Pass, but I’d never had a chance to go there, so to say that I was excited to ride it, is an understatement of note.
We finally woke up to a typical cool and misty midlands morning, a welcome relief after the previous two scorching days we had endured since leaving Hilton. After some coffee and breakfast we loaded the bags back on our bikes and with an eager anticipation, made our way to the Border Post at the foot of Sani Pass. Passports stamped it was now time to climb the infamous Sani Pass.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, the pass was covered in cool clouds with some light drizzle so views were limited but at least we were enjoying some cooler weather. The pass is an incredible climb, with the gradient topping out at close to 40% on the steep rear sections making for a very challenging day despite us only riding for 38km. What we didn’t know was that there was a ferocious gale force wind waiting for us – in fact when we got to the Sani Pass Hotel they had told us that they had recorded wind speeds of close to 100km/h! Not something you want for the last section of the 1800m elevation gain climb before the Lesotho Border Post. The wind was so strong into our faces that we had to walk the last section because we were literally being blown backwards. After checking in at the Sani Pass Hotel we settled into our chalets and started unpacking and getting ready for dinner.
“Hey! The roof is on fire!” a shout came from one of the chalets that some of our group was using.
No this was not an attempt to get the group to break out in song, the roof literally was on fire. The gale force wind had been blowing through the roof and must have caught a spark from the chimney which had the entire chalet in flames in a matter of minutes. Thankfully everyone got out safely with their bicycles and gear. Everyone at the hotel scurried to clear the rooms or throw water on the flames which meant we were able to contain the blaze to just the one chalet. Danger averted and after a delicious supper we settled in for the night, hoping the wind would subside.
The next day we headed deeper into rural Lesotho. Black Mountain was incredible, incredibly beautiful and incredibly tough. A harder climb than Sani Pass for me, purely because of how steep it is. Unlike Sani Pass it is a tar road but that didn’t make it any easier. We passed through some beautiful albeit very dry valleys before coming to our sleep over spot high in the hills of Ha Lejone.
Yves Chouinard once said, “it’s only an adventure when things go wrong.”
As if the crazy head wind and raging fire wasn’t enough we woke up on Day 5 with most of the squad suffering from a tummy bug. Let’s just say the day was absolute carnage. People running for the bushes every 10km or so, it was our biggest day as well in terms of distance. The planned 160km day got cut short when all but two of us piled into some minibus taxis and drove the last 60km to Katse Dam where we would be sleeping that night at Katse Lodge.
After a good night’s sleep the majority of the team were back on their bikes, this was a pretty special day as we rode next to the Katse Dam for roughly 60km. It was incredible, imagine riding 60km without getting to the other side of the dam. If you ever find yourself in Lesotho make sure to visit the Katse Dam.
If any of the days could be termed as the ‘Queen Stage’ day 7 would be it. 100km with 3000m of climbing was on the cards and also the highest point of the trip.
The route would take us up and over past Afriski, which sits at an altitude of 3300m above sea level. As if an altitude of 3300m wasn’t tough enough we got hit by a hail storm shortly after Tlaeng Pass. After summiting the climb above AfriSki we descended down to our final sleeping spot and a warm shower at Oxbow Lodge.
The final day took us back into South Africa and down to our finish line, Clarens. A beautifully quaint little town that has its own brewery, safe to say many celebratory beers were shared there with new friends.
Counting the days till we can go back!
HIGHLIGHTS & NOTES
- The best time to go is in the spring before the summer heat and thunderstorms. Winters can be cold and snow is common in the highlands.
- Carrying warm clothing and waterproof gear, since the weather can change from sunny to freezing and/or rainy in minutes.
- Carry enough water and/or water filtering devices.
- Take your passports and check visa requirements as you will cross the international border between South Africa and Lesotho.
- Be prepared for high altitude climbing. The route touches 3,300m of altitude and is not often below 2,000m.
- Accommodation is available at various lodges along the route (see the map above). A Google search will reveal alternative options.
- Plan ahead to resupply food enroute. While small cafes and little stalls or spaza shops can be found in some of the little town, the best points of resupply are where lodging is marked on the map.
- Navigation. Take a good printed map showing the area in detail. There is not always mobile reception so you can’t rely on GPS navigation.
- Road Conditions. You will be riding on roads with no bike lanes and car and truck traffic. Please ride responsibly and stay alert. Most of the route is gravel or unpaved, road conditions can vary throughout the year and sections are rough and rugged. Sani Pass is also used by heavily loaded 4×4 vehicles so keep alert and ride safely. Also be aware of other road users, pedestrians, livestock and horse riders.
An 8 day journey across the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, from Hilton in Kwa-Zulu Natal to Clarens in the Free State with a whole lot of adventure thrown in from food poisoning to 100km/h winds and narrow escapes from burning buildings !
8 DAYS | ⇔ 628 km | + 16, 308m | ≡ Tar/ Gravel
Adventure cyclist and ultra racer, Rae Trew-Browne shares his top tips on packing your bike for adventure cycling – whether you are roughing it on an endurance bikepacking race or flashpacking from guesthouse to guesthouse.
We take a look at South Africa’s newest long distance ultra bike race – the Ceres500 – a 500km, single stage race through the Tankwa Karoo, fully self-supported in the true spirit of adventure! This route can also be cycled anytime as an adventure cycling circuit.
1-2 DAYS | ⇔ 500 km (loop) | + 4 683m | ≡ Tar / Gravel
A beautiful short film about Rae and Brad’s fast-paced, gravel flashpacking adventure across the Cederberg. Covering 240km, climbing 3600m in just two days… a testament to true grit and the freedom of adventure untamed.
Go far beyond the tar and deep into the countryside with this epic gravel bikepacking adventure. The route to Riebeek Kasteel, located +80km from Cape Town, is both challenging and rewarding – heat, dust and corrugations present some tough riding (especially in summer), but the scenic farmlands, welcoming little towns and ice cold beers at the end, make for a truly memorable ride.
OVERNIGHT | ⇔ 183 km (loop) | + 749m | ≡ Tar / Gravel