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MTB | Trans Lesotho Challenge

[image] 28 January 2015

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30th October – 2 November 2014.
REPORTBACK by Rebecca van der Linde.

Cycling on a high across Lesotho…
It’s not every day one gets an opportunity to ride a bicycle across the north-eastern corner of the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. And it’s not a ride for everyone. Certainly, it has been done before by other intrepid adventure cyclists. This group comprised nine riders; tour originator Johann Wykerd and his wife Allegra of VELOlife, tour co-ordinator Rebecca van der Linde and husband Jean-Paul (JP) along with hardy participants Alan Martin, Dave Bure, Grant Markham, Dominic Moreno and Rob Craig. And one super-qualified (cyclist) driver; Willie Pelser, who provided vital vehicle back-up support.

The route: three days between Sani Lodge to finish in Clarens. Overnights in Mokhotlong and Oxbow Lodge.

DAY 1: Sani Lodge – Mokhotlong, 80km. Riding time: 5h45 / Total ascent: 2260m
As the weatherman had predicted, we woke to a fine drizzle and the ominous sound of ‘drip drip’ from the gutters of our rustic yet cosy accommodation at Sani Lodge. But this did not dampen the spirits and the group was anxious to get going. With the back-up vehicle loaded to bursting point, we were on the road by 7h15 and keen to tackle Sani Pass. The first 10km were relatively gentle as we gradually gained altitude leading up to the border post. The climbing starts intensely from there and does not let up much until the summit about 9km later, at some stages as steep as 20% gradient. It is a challenge not to put one’s foot down. Our relief at reaching the top was doubled when the fine mist cleared and we were rewarded with clear blue skies. Cuppachino’s at Sani Top were in order before we embarked on the next challenge: Black Mountain. As the altitude increased, the pace slowed further as we laboured up this formidable ascent which started at about 2760m and topped out just under 3200m. The wind was blowing as we sheltered on the roadside rocks to re-group. From this point, it’s a rewarding 20km downhill heading towards Mokhotlong. The road is under construction with what appears to be a three lane highway which is rather sad to see as it was previously the most delightful meandering dirt road leading down the valley. A few short climbs and a nasty head-wind made for hard work in the last 20km getting to our overnight spot at the Mission House in Mokhotlong. After some confusion with directions finding our abode, it was with relief to finally arrive around 14h45 and be welcomed by the wonderful people at the Mission; Cleonie, Dirk and Val (visiting missionaries) and our hostess Matsolo and her helpers who went out of their way to provide scrumptious food for us and make sure we were well fed and comfortable.

DAY 2: Mokhotlong – Oxbow Lodge, 110km. Riding time: 7h10 / Total ascent: 2525m

An early start for day two ahead of an anticipated long day in the saddle. Advice from the locals told us the wind tends to pick up later in the day, so after a hearty breakfast of scrambled egg, russians (who kept us company for the rest of the day!), baked beans and home-made pot-bread we were on the road by 6h15.
High cloud and perfectly cool temperatures gave us ideal riding conditions early in the day. A good tar road took us from Mokhotlong through the small town of Mapholaneng along the A1 route and on towards Mothae and Letseng-la-Terae diamond mine. The road surface deteriorated after 40km and became a good dirt road. The gradient kicked up at the same point as we climbed the biggest attitude gain of the day; a mighty one thousand meter haul over about 20km. Easy does it. The weather changed as the gradient eased off and we stopped to pack on warm gear. Then the rain started; gentle at first and then a little harder. Willie kept in close contact with us as the conditions worsened but with only one available seat in the back-up vehicle there was no option to bail. We took ‘shelter’ behind a stone hut and added more clothing. At this point we still had 35km to go; past the Letseng Diamond Mine and with the Tlaeeng Pass (3255m) and Mahlasela Pass (3222m) ahead of us. Keeping moving was top priority. The temperature dropped below five degrees (without the wind chill) and it became a mind game of grit and bear it. The final 12km descent to Oxbow Lodge was everyone’s nemesis as hands and feet were now chilled to the bone, the road was muddy and slippery and the effects of altitude and cold has taken their toll. A hot bath had never felt so good!

DAY 3: Oxbow Lodge - Clarens, 110km. RAIN STOPS PLAY !

Well fed and replenished after a comfortable night at Oxbow Lodge, we woke to drizzle, low cloud and cold. With the previous days’ discomfort fresh in our minds, the thought of facing another long ride in the rain was intolerable and the general consensus was ‘hail the rescue vehicle’ ! Willie’s son Jaco was given the call-up; a five hour trip from Pietermaritzburg, whilst possibly clocking the fastest ever entry/exit at the border control. We could have been stuck in worse places and spent the morning playing some very entertaining table-tennis, swallowing copious amounts of hot and cold brown liquids and finally signed ourselves out around midday having supported the local cuisine of toasted chicken sandwiches and hot chips (justified by the high calorie burn in the previous two days).

It was disappointing not to complete the journey but a sensible decision. The route profile deceptively showed a predominantly downhill cruise through to our planned finish spot in Clarens. As we sat in the comforts of a vehicle, cogitating on the previous two days of challenging cycling we had conquered, we marvelled at the sights around us. The first 10km leaving Oxbow would have been a sure test on weary limbs. Then you it the alpine-like Moteng Pass. It is seriously impressive; switch-backs to rival any European pass as one drops off the Lesotho highlands for about 25km into the lowlands. Now tuned into ‘cycling mode’ we carefully analysed the route we would have ridden with some element of regret to not be in the saddle but at the same time quite relieved.

Over a much needed coffee and waffle stop in Clarens, there was talk of making this the GABRAL (Great Annual Bike Ride Across Lesotho [Alan Martin] as we reflected on our adventures through this beautiful country of Lesotho. Definitely unfinished business that will require a return trip to complete.

And a warning to the uninitiated: Lesotho is not for sissies !


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