Most visitors explore Lesotho on ponies, which is why I took my mountain bike. Glenn Jones, who runs Malealea Tours, had offered to show me a secret side of Lesotho in the south. It would be a rough trip, he promised, with lots of camping and 4x4ing, and plenty of undiscovered mountain bike trails for us to pioneer. Any ponies would be purely incidental.
Along for the ride was Gary, our fishing-mad driver, an overgrown ridgeback named Jack, two Basotho guides, David and Jerry, and Big Ben, the 4×4 Syncro Bus. Our starting mission was to live a mountain-biking dream: 50 kilometres of empty downhill dirt track from Lake Letsie to the bottom of Thaba Moorosi. And I’d be the lucky person who got to ride it first….
Hard land, warm hearts
The old man and I stood on the side of the road looking at the bicycle. “Ehhh,” he said, shaking his head sorrowfully. “Yeah,” I agreed, “it’s broken.” We sat down in the dust together, the old man still making sympathetic noises. I bit back tears of frustration as I stared at the sinuous curves below. Two minutes ago, I’d been swooping along sunlit slopes waving at running children, overtaking men on ponies and feeling a freedom so heady I’d forgotten about fear.
A hairpin bend, a patch of loose sand and some hasty braking had put an end to all that. As Gary would keep reminding me, Lesotho is not for sissies. Nor is it for people who daydream while going 40 kilometres an hour on two wheels down a switchback dirt track. Gary wasn’t far away. He was fly-fishing on a bridge over the river just down the road. Glenn had already wobbled off on his ancient Giant to fetch him. But help was closer at hand.
Wearing a pink blanket, green cardigan, orange running shoes and a face-mask of yellow mud, my good Samaritan looked sort of scary – until she smiled. She paid no attention to the buckled bicycle. She only saw that the sad white woman wearing a cushion on her bottom and a bee-hive on her head was bleeding.
She gently examined my grazes and snapped orders in Sesotho at a gaggle of curious children. Out of the plastic bag on her arm came a little pot of Vaseline. A clean facecloth and a basin of warm water appeared at her elbow. What a lacerated leg and broken bike couldn’t make me do, the kindness of this Basotho woman did: I started bawling my eyes out.
A chief’s mountain is his fortress
Earlier that day, we’d left the scene of a much greater tragedy. As the sun rose, we drove out of the gates of Moorosi Chalets, away from the sphynx-shaped hump of Thaba Moorosi. In 1879, this mountain was the scene of a five-month seige and three bloody battles.
The British had tried to enforce their hut-tax system on Chief Moorosi’s Baphuti, a proud people who were unwilling to pay. When the magistrate threatened Chief Moorosi’s son, Dodo, and others with imprisonment, the chief responded by withdrawing his entire tribe – about 1500 people – to the top of Thaba Moorosi, which he had spent the last 10 years fortifying.
It was a strategy that had succeeded brilliantly for Chief Moshoeshoe, whose mountain stronghold Thaba Bosiu was never defeated. But Moshoeshoe never had to fight British soldiers with heavy artillery and siege ladders. The first attack on Thaba Moorosi was made in May and a second in July, but the mountain only fell in October. In their last stand, Moorosi and 200 of his men were killed, while 120 others made a desperate leap into the Senqu River. The British loss was two men wounded and one killed by an accidental shot from his own side.
If you walk up Thaba Moorosi today, you’ll find pieces of mortar shell (367 rounds were fired in four days), powder marks on the rock and the autographs of the victorious soldiers scratched into the stone of an overhang. You can stand on the cliff above the shining Senqu and imagine Dodo throwing himself from it. You can look down towards the quiet village where the British camp once was and imagine poor Chief Moorosi’s head looking back at you, from a spike.
Don’t count your trout before they’re cooked
With no bicycle and only one working leg, it took me the whole of the next day to reach the small village of Ha Liphapang 40 kilometres away. Big Ben was capable of getting there in a couple of hours. Gary and Glenn were not. About halfway to the village, the road dips briefly to meet the river at a wide drift where water rushes over pebbles shaded by silver birches and trout wait with open mouths for fishermen’s flies. This is where we stopped ‘for lunch’.
Lunch time turned to tea time as Gary and Glenn, lost in the time warp of fly fishing, waded slowly upstream. Fishing lines whistled, the river burbled, my stomach grumbled. At least there’ll be plenty of fish for dinner, I thought, and went to find Gary.
“How many have you caught?” I asked eagerly.
“Five big rainbows,” he said happily.
“Where are they then?” I said, looking around, puzzled.
“I threw them back,” was the staggering reply.
That evening, Gary and Glenn went fishing again in the river below the village. Gary hooked another four trout and this time he actually brought back two of them. But while they hung from a rafter outside our hut, a village cat swiped the big one for his dinner. Now there was only one little fish left for five people.
Cooked on a fire in tin foil with margarine, the fragment on my paper plate was better than anything I’ve been served on fine china. I never convinced Gary that the point of catching trout is to eat them, but I did learn that if you want to hurt a fisherman’s feelings, suggest that he didn’t catch as many fish as he says he did.
When wishes are horses, even bikers should ride
“Everything is flexible in Lesotho,” Glenn would say proudly, forgetting for a moment his annoyance at the havoc I’d played with his itinerary. I’d changed everything at the last minute and then changed it all back again, so he was now making it up as we went along.
That’s all very well when you’re in a touristy sort of place where cellphones work and there are things like signposts and electricity. It gets interesting when you try it in a remote part of Lesotho where the roads have run out and people send messages by relay shouting.
We’d spent all day 4x4ing to reach a thistle-filled field on the banks of the Senqu. Big Ben had done things that ordinary kombis shouldn’t and that most 4x4s think twice about. At some of the particularly tricky patches, I’d had to climb out and walk – purely for photographic purposes. The squealing noises I may have made during the rest of the journey were probably just a tune I was humming in a high key.
I had to admit that the camp site was pretty. It wasn’t really a camp site, but the only other occupants of the field were a couple of cows and they didn’t seem to mind. There was nobody else around for miles. This was a problem, because Glenn’s aim was to find me a pony and cross the river. He would cycle and I would ride to Ha Ntlasinye, a far-flung village in the Maletsunyane Valley that’s completely inaccessible to vehicles.
We sat on the riverbank in the shade of some weeping willows and drank Malutis while Glenn thought about what to do next. Far away on the other side of the river, a man on a beautiful bay horse was trippling (a cross between trotting and cantering that’s peculiar to Basotho ponies).
“Oh look,” I said idly. “What a nice horse.”
“Hang on!” exclaimed Glenn. “I’ll get it for you!”
This is how to get a horse in Lesotho. You spot a horse and rider up to one kilometre away; they could be across a river, a valley or on the next mountain peak. No problem. You ask your Basotho guides to hail the rider. Astonishingly, he stops. After half an hour of unintelligible yelling, you’ve arranged three horses, a guide and a ferry to meet you four kilometres down river at six the next morning. All five turn up an hour early. So much for cellphones.
And so much for my mountain bike. As we climbed up out of the deep river gorge, me sitting comfortably on the back of the bay horse, Glenn puffing under the heavy old bike on his back, I was surprised to discover I was enjoying myself. My pony walked steadily along the precipitous paths without any help from me. Glenn soon zoomed ahead, an exuberant red speck on the horizon blazing a trail for future cyclists. I didn’t mind being left behind.
After a week in the wilds of southern Lesotho, I had broken my bicycle and acquired a bandaged leg, torn clothes and a face covered in flea bites. Laugh if you like, but I still felt lucky. Lesotho had made a real traveller out of me.
Originally published Getaway Magazine, April 2008