Save more on your favourite summer Essential kit | Shop now for a limited time only

Kea Leboha, Lesotho

Lesotho. Africa’s kingdom in the sky. A country the size of Belgium, totally landlocked by South Africa, perched up in the Drakensberg mountains at the foot of the continent. It’s home to an endless range of green mountains, the Sotho people, world-class roads and the highest pub in Africa.
Words: Jared Kieser, Photos: Jared Kieser and Julian Robinet

9 days of riding, 60% of it unpaved

As a South African, Lesotho had been on my list of countries which I needed to explore for years. Each year went by and like so many other places on my list, it remained unticked.

That changed earlier this year when my two friends Herman and Julian, both certified hardmen, announced that they were planning on doing a 9-day bike packing trip through Lesotho. I knew I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to check it out, I was in!

Herman planned the whole trip. He mapped out the route, organized the accommodation, identified the emergency water points, everything.

I had absolutely no involvement in the planning process because

1) I naively trusted Herman to plan a rideable route.

2) I wanted to go in without fully knowing what to expect.

All I knew was that it was going to be 9 days of riding, 60% of it unpaved. We were to start in Bloemfontein, in the Free State province of South Africa, head east through Lesotho and pop out in my home province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. All in all, it would be just shy of 1000 km with around 17000m elevation.

The only thing that Herman seemed to be a bit concerned about was day 4. He kept saying stuff like “we might have to do a little hike a bike”. Julian and I weren’t too worried. I was just pumped to get into the mountains and complete a couple of my Lesotho Side Quests.

  1. See a Lammergeier (Rare Bearded Vulture)
  2. Have a Maluti beer.
  3. Ride Sani Pass (One of the most epic passes in Southern Africa)

After borrowing some bike packing bags and slinging them onto a beautiful Onguza steel frame gravel bike, lent to me by Dan Craven I was ready to roll. Kind of.

Day 1 - smooth

We started our trip at Bloemfontein Airport. 155kms of smooth gravel through wheat farms and sunflower fields. It was a good day of riding, no mechanicals, tailwind the whole way through the scenic Eastern Free State.

We finished in the small town of LadyBrand, right on the border of Lesotho. We checked into our humble accommodation for the night, excited for the next day, we would cross the border into the Mountain Kingdom… and the trip would truly begin.

Explore the Escapism collection

Day 2 - the Lesotho we had imagined

We hit the road at 6 am. It wasn’t going to be a massive day of riding, 112km, but we wanted to get to our destination before getting rinsed by one of Lesotho’s infamous late afternoon showers.

We were through the border post and navigating our way through the capital city of Maseru by 7:30. It took us a couple of wrong turns to finally wind our way out of the suburban outskirts of town and onto the road that would lead us to Ramabanta.

Every kilometre we pedalled it seemed like our surroundings were growing more and more beautiful, the land was getting greener, and the peaks around us seemed to be getting bigger. There was nothing out there except for the odd herd of sheep accompanied by their friendly shepherds. The herders and shepherds are such a ubiquitous sight in Lesotho, dressed in a traditional outfit of a Basotho blanket and gumboots often with a balaclava or Mokorotlo hat. We were getting closer to the Lesotho we had imagined.

The riding was fantastic. We had a bit of everything, flowing gravel rollers, river crossings, single track, beautiful climbs, sketchy descents.

About 15km from the end things started going pretty pear-shaped. The road we were on decided to turn into a bed of unrideable boulders. Our first bit of hiking. Herman crashed, I bonked, and we were joined by a friendly kid and his donkey for the last 5km.

We were pretty battered when we arrived at our accommodation at the Ramabanta trading post, but we were buzzing. The first day in Lesotho delivered. I also had my first Maluti beer that night. Sidequest 1 - check.

Day 3 - the "Rest day"

Herman lied when he said day 3 would be our “rest day”. The fact that it was only 60km and pretty much all on tar was pretty deceiving. Straight out the gate, we hit a massive 20km / 1000m climb. I realised pretty quickly that my idea of what bike-packing-pace is was way off. The dudes were going full gas and I got dropped, hard. It was ok, it’s nice riding alone out there and taking in the sights. The tar roads out there are amazing. We only saw 2 cars in 3 hours.

A highlight of the day was checking out Maletsunyane Falls. Spectacular. The white plume of water blasted off into a deep gorge with dozens of Cape vultures circling above the plume of spray. Among them, a lone Lammergeier. Sidequest 2 - check.

One thing was becoming pretty evident, the convenience stores in rural Lesotho didn’t really provide the cushy selection of food and drink we were accustomed to. Most of them were dark and dusty with expired goods and warm cokes. One of the staples at these shops is “vetkoek” which is kind of like a deep-fried ball of dough. They’re tasty, (when they’re fresh). We stocked up on what we could find that afternoon because the next day, day 4, was the Queen Stage Herman had been warning us about.

Day 4 - route over the mountain

Day 4 started off well. We got out of Semongkong before sunrise and started the journey towards Tsaba-tseka. This was some of the most scenic riding I’ve ever done. Crazy mountain passes, with pristine lush little villages that could’ve passed as The Shire. We were truly blown away by the natural beauty, this was the Lesotho we had dreamed of.

It wasn’t long before we got to the section of the route Herman kept warning us about. The dirt road suddenly disappeared and we found ourselves on the side of a mountain. We had to somehow get down to the river way below us, then get up and over the mountain on the other side. It wasn’t rideable, not even on an MTB. It took us about three hours to move 4km, and we ended up digging pretty hard into the food/water supply.

The hiking took it out of us, but the scenery kept the spirits high. After a while, we managed to get back on a bumpy road that eventually took us past a small village. Thank God! We found a little spaza shop that had some warm cokes and vetkoek, those things saved us. We eventually got to a tar road that would take us to Tsaba-tseka. Just as we thought we were out of the woods Herman’s rear derailleur cable snapped. The sun was going down, and there wasn't much we could do, it became a “tomorrow problem.”

Day 5/6 - Katse Dam

Day 5. First mission of the day was to get Herman’s bike shifting again. Surprisingly, we found a dude in Thaba-tseka with a little bike repair shop. Somehow, with very limited supplies he managed to sort Herman’s derailleur issue out, what a legend! We were off again, next stop was Katse Dam. The Katse is huge and supplies South Africa with a large amount of its water.

The next 2 days were the easiest and shortest of the trip. We skirted along the side of the Katse dam, amazing gravel, beautiful scenery and frequent stops to snack, swim, check out the views and just enjoy where we were. We also got a chance to try out some of Lesotho’s famous trout, 10/10.

Day 7 - the wake up call

Day 7 was gnarly and probably my hardest day of the trip. 130km with 3400m elevation. The route followed a beautiful river that cut through the mountains. The first challenge was a 20km climb that took us past an old Diamond mine and onto a windy plateau at an altitude well over 3000m above sea level. I also had my first big kook slam of the trip. I took my hands off the bars and the wind swept my front wheel out from under me. I came down with a very un glamorous wobble and thud. I was lucky to get away with only torn bibs and a bashed up camera.

About 20 minutes later Julian also hit the deck. He came off hard on a fast descent, also a victim of the wind. He was cut up pretty bad and his bibs were totally shredded but he managed to walk it off with no broken bones. Hardman.

The 2 crashes were a bit of a wake up call, we were out in the middle of nowhere without any signal, we would have been really screwed if one of us got seriously hurt out there.

I’m not sure if it was the altitude, the crash or the fact that my diet for the past week consisted of 80% of Vetkoek, but my body was starting to feel it. Second major bonk of the trip.

We pulled into our guesthouse in Mokhotlong at around 5pm, just before the afternoon showers rolled in. The following day would take us down the mighty Sani Pass and back into South Africa.

Day 8 - The Highest Pub in Africa

Our last day in Lesotho was a windy one, probably the strongest winds I’ve ever had to deal with on a bike. Lucky for us, it was at our backs the whole day. The day started off with another 1000m+ climb that took us to the top of Black mountain pass (3242m). The thrilling descent down to the border post saw us all clock in new top speeds.

One last stop before leaving the country, The Highest Pub in Africa. Sitting at the top of the iconic Sani Pass, I couldn't think of a pub with a better view. The pass is a series of steep unpaved hairpins that winds its way down 1300m to the SA border post.

After lunch and a beer we started the descent. The descent was straight up treacherous. The road is incredibly rough and rocky and the sudden gusts of winds led to a couple close calls. The Pass itself is magnificent though, especially once you get to the bottom and you look back. We got down to the SA border post pretty rattled but all in one piece. Sani Pass done… sidequest 3, Check.

The perfect trip

Dropping down into Himeville from the border post was surreal, and easily the highlight of the whole trip for me. The wind died down and we got onto a freshly tarred road that flowed through an incredibly lush valley. The late afternoon sun, the blue sky, the bright green hills, it all got me feeling quite emotional, in a good way.

Lesotho surpassed my expectations and was amazing in every way. The warmth of the Sotho people, the incredible views, the dreamlike gravel, great weather. It was the perfect trip. Having said all this, I was so stoked to be back in South Africa, and so grateful to live in such a beautiful part of the world.

By the time we arrived at our accommodation at the Himeville Arms it had started getting dark,cold and heavy fog started to roll in. After showering up we headed to a cozy old English pub for a pie and a beer. Perfect weather for it.

Day 9 - final day

Our final day, a 155km leg from Himeville to Hilton, was a great way to wrap up the trip and get reacquainted with South Africa. The pristine, Strada Bianche’like gravel roads lead us back to the humidity and hills of my home province. It was good being back down at a reasonable altitude.

Kea leboha, Lesotho.