- In April 2017, I joined mountain bikers Kevin Landry and Claudio Caluori to ride and photograph a six-day, 120-mile traverse through the landlocked country of Lesotho, in South Africa. Our trip was put together by the organizers of the Lesotho Sky mountain bike race, who are trying give the country a tourism bump by highlighting its riding.
They have an easy case to make. Beginning at the 630-foot high Maletsunyane Waterfall in the middle of the country, we found top-notch mountain biking between 10,000-foot peaks, along wild valleys, and through countless remote towns.
Photo: Lesotho is a poor nation and heavily reliant on its encircling neighbor, South Africa, for economic progress. Even the 100-rider Lesotho Sky race, which started in 2011 and is taking place again this fall, is hindered by the country’s lack of infrastructure. That said, the rugged beauty of Lesotho’s landscapes will turn heads—though the exposure on many of its trails meant that wasn’t a possibility while riding.The Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), which recognizes the potential economic boost that tourism can bring, supported our trip and flew us and our bikes to our starting point near Semonkong, in the central part of the country. Lesotho has more than 20 small airstrips that were initially created to help export wool and today are mostly used by flying doctor services like the MAF.Our six-day ride began at the Maletsunyane Gorge, the country’s best-known tourist attraction. We spent the next five days riding through landscapes that were breathtaking, but not once did we encounter another tourist.Eighty-three-year-old Makhaleng village chief Michael Ramashamole spent two hours reciting stories about Lesotho’s past to us in his house.During our traverse, a typical day on the bike was about 25 to 30 miles, and we’d cram in more than 3,000 feet of climbing. Some of it we could pedal, but some parts were so steep and littered with boulders that we had to carry the bikes.En route, our accommodations varied from plush commercial lodges in Semonkong and Roma to camping on the floors of former trading posts like this one in the village of Nykosoba. Once used to trade wool for commodities like soap and boots, these century-old trading outposts have the potential to be fixed up to offer tourist accommodations.Our entire ride was led by Isaac Molapo, a local horseman who dressed in traditional wool blankets and Chinese balaclavas. Molapo navigated the terrain expertly and brought us through dozens of local villages.Here, the 22-year-old Molapo cleans the hooves of his 15-year-old horse, Stan. Horses are an integral part of life in rural Lesotho, and while most are traditionally used as working animals, Isaac now earns his living largely as a horse guide for tourist excursions in his hometown of Semonkong.Lesotho’s peaks are high enough to get snow during the winter, from June to September. Even in April, darkening clouds and rumbling thunder, signaling a storm’s imminent arrival, sent us scurrying to find cover in the next town.With no guesthouse or trading post available for accommodation on our third night, we camped in a remote valley used by the king for grazing his livestock.The country, only about the size of Massachusetts, boasts wild terrain that feels remote and isolated. Every pass we crossed opened up a new set of vistas.About 40 percent of Lesotho’s population live below the World Bank’s poverty line. Away from the country’s diamond mines and its capital’s factories, the rural population survives by subsistence farming.Lesotho’s land is owned by its king, Letsie III, but its people are openly granted leases for subsistence farming. Our ride led us through a mix of wilderness, livestock-cropped pastures, and plots of maize and sorghum.Lesotho’s mountains top out at 11,424 feet, with the entire country sitting above 4,500 feet. The riding here is chock-full of lung-busting climbs and breathtaking escarpments, like this one high above our end point in Roma.Mountain biking is still a fledgling sport in Lesotho, but it’s embraced with passion. Boteng Molap, 24, works as a guide and fixer for the Lesotho Sky mountain bike event and joined us for the last three days of our traverse.
Interested in a little bit more motion? A film from this expedition can be seen here.
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