Slip-sliding around Lesotho

Lesothoslider

People like to travel around things: around Africa, around the world. What about Lesotho? It’s roundish on the map and there are some delicious dirt roads that skirt the border. And even better, why not do it on a motorbike?

WORDS & PICTURES WILLEM VAN DER BERG

It’s easy to just keep going past Verkeerdevlei in the Free State, but I always turn off for a visit. There are only two stores in town and I stop at one of them to buy a Coke even though I’m not thirsty. Why? Once, when I stopped here, a pretty girl opened the shop especially for me. I snuck glances at her from behind boxes of Omo and plastic-wrapped packs of toilet paper, surprised to find such beauty in such a faraway town. Besides that encounter, however, I’ve never seen anything else happen in Verkeerdevlei. Today the town is quiet and the girl is not behind the counter. I pay for my drink and leave. Outside, I meet a farmer standing next to his bakkie. “Are you afraid you’ll lose your hat?” he asks me, pointing at the neck brace I wear when I ride my bike. Ah, my helmet! He thinks the brace is a device to keep the helmet on my head. I laugh and explain its real purpose, and the farmer introduces himself as Dawid Ferreira. His red moustache is like a permanent smile.
“Where are you headed?” he asks.
I tell him that I’m planning to circle Lesotho along the back roads.
He looks bemused. “Did you pack a rain jacket? Jy gaan vrot reën daarlangs dié week.”
I try to act nonchalant, like a rugby captain who knows his team is going to lose, and I mumble things like “I’m prepared for the rain” and “I actually like riding in the rain.”
Dawid and his moustache smile as if they know something I don’t. “Well, enjoy it,” he says. “And hold onto your hat.”
Crack

Chasing clouds

The reason for my ride is the annual BMW GS Eco – an event attended by BMW off-road bikers from all over the country. This year it’s being held in Clocolan in the Free State, but only in four days’ time. My plan until then is simple: Ride anticlockwise from Clocolan and stick to the Lesotho border as closely as possible. I steer my BMW F800GS south-east in the direction of the Peka Bridge Border Post. Between Peka Bridge and Hobhouse I pass sandstone cliffs, lone poplar trees and dirt roads that criss-cross tributaries of the Caledon River, which forms the border between South Africa and Lesotho. On Lundean’s Nek it feels like I’ve entered a new realm. High in the mountains, surrounded by mist, I make my way through remote villages, past a man on a Basotho pony herding cows through the river. Up here the border is just a line on a map. The mountains and rivers belong to everyone and people on both sides live equally hard lives.

At the top of Lundean’s Nek I meet rifleman Gregory Meyer from Cape Town. He and his SANDF colleagues were deployed here to fight crime on the border. Gregory battles with the isolation and the lack of cellphone reception. “I have to climb a mountain just to let my wife know I’m still alive,” he says. What about the people who cross the river as they please? “This is not a proper border,” he says. “We just check that nothing hectic happens. It’s a hell of a walk to get over these mountains.” He waves his cellphone through the air in search of signal. “You’re not an intelligence officer, are you?”
Lonely

No ordinary day on the bike

The town of Rhodes is always fresh and pretty but today it’s dark and wet. I park my bike in front of the Rhodes Hotel and get a room for the night. Rain sifts down and when I wake up the next morning it’s still drizzling. Last night, a guy in the bar warned me that the road between Rhodes and Tiffindell – and the military jeep track along the border to Naudé’s Nek – gets extremely slippery when wet. Despite his warning, that’s the way I’m riding this morning. By the time I get to Tiffindell the rain is pelting down. I study the rocky road and wonder whether I’m doing the right thing. Oh well, you never know until you try. I push open the farm gate and carry on. Soon I realise that this will not be an ordinary day on the bike. I slip and bounce along the track while water seeps through my clothes, wrestling the bike down and down until, like a beacon of salvation, the Tenahead Mountain Lodge appears out of the rain and mist.
Welkom
In my soaked clothes and muddy boots I’m not the kind of visitor they usually receive, but all I want is a place to escape the rain for a while and have something hot to drink. Chani Venter at reception takes pity on me and switches on the kettle. “Why are you out in this rain?” She asks. “It’s silly.”
Good point, Chani. I’m not any drier when I leave the lodge. It’s still raining, but at least I have a coffee aftertaste to keep me company. Naudé’s Nek is a muddy soup and I travel at a snail’s pace. Where the road levels out I make better progress – the rain has stalled and the surface is not as wet. It’s late in the afternoon and I’m behind schedule, so I give the BMW free rein.

Thunk!

A pothole appears out of the blue. I careen into it and the bike slides out from beneath me. For a second I’m flying, then I’m lying next to the road in a ditch. Shaking from head to foot, I pick up the bike and inspect it – luckily nothing has been badly damaged. Normally I’m not one for a tar road, but I’ve never been more grateful when I get back onto one near Mount Fletcher. The town itself is a hive of cars and people, taxis, bakkies and police vehicles all queuing at the only filling station for petrol. Some drivers lean on their hooters, others turn up their radios and a chap in a silver BMW revs until his limiter sings. For sanity’s sake, I push on to Matatiele, about 60 km further.
Wild ride

Back to earth

Matatiele has some nice restaurants and places to stay. I book in at Resthaven Guesthouse. The following morning, owner Phillip Rawlins takes me up into the mountains to see a lake as the sun breaks through the clouds. Then it’s time to head back to the border, past farms and herds of Jersey cows. When I stop to look at the view near a dam, I notice another thunderstorm brewing in the distance. Thick, black clouds roll down the mountains. I crank the throttle and speed towards Underberg. Along the way, lightning strikes the road right in front of me. I can feel hair standing on end inside my helmet.

As I skid to a halt in front of the Lemon Tree Restaurant in Underberg, the skies open. I dash inside and wait out the storm. Two hours later, things are looking better. I climb back aboard my battered steed and ride on, via Himeville and the foot of the Sani Pass. Green mountains tower over me, their peaks shrouded in cloud. I try and stay as close to the mountains as possible, riding north along zigzagging roads to Bergville, where I plan to spend the night. It’s a lonely, remote and rural part of the country, dotted with traditional villages and animals that wander about as they please. At one point I get lost and I have to head away from the mountains towards Estcourt, but eventually I find the right road again. As I pull into Bergville the heavens open again. I think Dawid Ferreira from Verkeerdevlei is behind this weather…
Moo are you?
Lo and behold, the sky is clear for the first time the next morning. The views around the Little Switzerland Hotel are jaw-dropping – so is the road next to the Sterkfontein Dam, but for less pleasant reasons. It’s a mess of roadworks and potholes. Beyond the dam, however, the snaking roads of Golden Gate are a joy to ride. From Fouriesburg I follow the border closely and before long I’m back at the Peka Bridge Border Post. I’ve ridden nearly 1 700 km around the Mountain Kingdom, but I have stories to tell worth thousands of kilometres more. If I had his number I would give Dawid a call and let him know that I did it!

The showground in Clocolan is crammed full of motorbikes and bikers. A guy in a spotless BMW jacket tells me about the “wild route” he followed to get here. “I rode 400 km of dirt from Pretoria; it was intense.” he says. “How did you get here?” I don’t think he’ll believe me if I say I rode via heaven.


KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Map
Best time to go? Early spring and late autumn. It rains in summer and snows in winter.

Which map? I used MapStudio’s Book of the Road. Get a map here

Cellphone reception? Patchy at best. Go in a convoy or take the necessary spare tyres and parts to fix your vehicle in case things go wrong.

Road conditions? You can do most of the route in a two-wheel drive with high ground clearance, but you’ll run into trouble if it rains. If the road from Tiffindell to Tenahead is wet, it’s only passable in a 4×4.

Fuel? The only place where you might have trouble with fuel is Rhodes – they have limited stock.

Don’t miss out. The road between Tiffindell and Tenahead is rough but it’s the highlight of the route.

Give it a miss. Mount Fletcher is chaotic. The R74 along the Sterkfontein Dam is also a pain, especially if you’re travelling in a car.

Most scenic spots? Spend a few days in Rhodes, Underberg and Himeville. And stop at the top of Naudé’s Nek to take in the landscape and the fresh air.

Sound bites

“The shortest, fastest and most beautiful road from Durban to Cape Town is the R56. Undisputed.”
– Phillip Rawlins, Matatiele

“Thunderstorms from Lesotho can roll in at any time. They hit us hard here in the foothills of the Drakensberg.”
– Anne Smith, Underberg

Pit stops

  • The Bingelela Restaurant near Bergville (083 627 8503) has a great bar and delicious food. The lamb chops (R110) I had were exceptional.
  • The Lemon Tree Restaurant in Underberg ( 033 701 1589) has a nice atmosphere and good food. You can’t go wrong with a burger and chips (R27).
  • There’s a great view of the eastern Free State from the restaurant and bar at the Zuikerkop Lodge outside Clocolan ( 083 389 0587).

Stay here

Tenahead Mountain Lodge This luxury lodge won’t suit everyone’s pocket, but you’re tucked away in the mountains far away from everything. Rates from R860 per person sharing (breakfast included).
GPS: S30.70200 E28.13623
Contact: 045 971 8901;

Resthaven Guest House This is a good place to stay near Matatiele and the food is delicious. Rates from R350 per person (breakfast included). Dinner is R90 extra – don’t be shy, you’ll be encouraged to have a second helping!
GPS: S30.34469 E28.81236
Contact: 039 737 4067

Rhodes Hotel Midweek, staying here is a bargain: R250 per person including dinner and breakfast (the usual rate is R580).
GPS: S30.79544 E27.96366
Contact: 045 974 9305