Lesotho: The road less cycled

Words: Shawna Cain ǀ Photos: Shawna Cain & Sean Fraenkel

The gruelling task of pushing our loaded bicycles up mountain pass after mountain pass left my cycle-virgin thighs trembling and sore. Despite the chilly autumn winds of the Mountain Kingdom, sweat dripped off my nose and chin and I feared my racing heart might beat right out of my chest. But I couldn’t stop, I was following adventurer Sean Fraenkel and he set the pace. While I was an untrained amateur cyclist, Sean had already been cycling for over a month on the Spine of the Dragon, South Africa’s premier cross-country mountain biking route, as part of his Barking Mad campaign, an unsupported cycle across South Africa and Lesotho with his two dogs for charity. Sean had generously agreed to let me tag along for a leg in Lesotho, to learn some tricks of the cycling trade, assuming I could keep up.

Photo credit: Shawna Cain

Sean would map out our next day’s route each night, nonchalantly proposing some 70 km route through several mountain passes and I would try my best to conceal my anxiety behind a quart of Maluti beer. But it was too late now. By stuffing myself and my trusty bike into a minibus taxi halfway across Lesotho and meeting up with Sean I’d taken my daydreams of becoming some cycle adventurer, like Dervla Murphy or Riaan Manser, into my own hands. The fantasizing was over, now it was time to step up and become the adventurer I’d always dreamt of. Never mind my lethargic tendencies, I was going to finish with the big boys, whether or not it killed me.

Sean was encouraging and promised he would be 'super slow' with the 60 kg of weight he was pulling in a trailer with his two Jack Russell’s – an unconventional addition to the average touring cyclist. However, Tequila and Turbo kept the morale high as they had unlimited energy and made us instant celebrities to each new community of shepherds and passing taxis.

The weight of our bikes and grade of the mountain passes limited our cycling abilities; on the worst of our days, there was more pushing than cycling. I watched Sean and mimicked his technique. Simple enough, one foot in front of the other – hey, this wasn’t so different than hiking. But the weight of the loaded bike and repetitive motion of twisting and bending against the handlebars for several hours a day left my body feeling spent beyond recognition. There were moments I swore my legs wouldn’t obey me anymore as they burned with condemnation.

But when we reached the top of a pass, the hard work paid off. Buzzing down the mountains with my loaded bike felt more like riding a motorcycle than a bicycle. I watched Sean fly down fearlessly on our journey’s highest mountain pass as my bike’s odometer climbed. I lost track of both our speed and Sean in front of me, as we reached fifty, sixty, seventy kilometres an hour. The gushing wind caused my eyes to tear uncontrollably, blurring my vision around the road’s sharp curves. I wasn’t as brave as Sean.

Though I tried to hone his advice and barrel down the mountain, every hairpin bend caused my fingers to instinctually grope the brakes to check that indeed they were still working. While pushing up the mountain had us dripping sweat, racing down the other side left us freezing and numb – though I am not sure if from the cold temperatures or mind-blowing adrenaline rush. By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain I was more amped up and enthusiastic than I’d ever been about the trip. Our newfound energy propelled us to cycle on as long as we could before we got off and began pushing up yet another monstrous mountainside.

The beauty of rural Lesotho made it easy to forget the pain and physical exhaustion. Cycling here means an intimate encounter into the miraculous Maluti and Drakensberg Mountain ranges. Lesotho seems like a land lost in time, as you cycle past flocks of sheep and goats followed by their shepherds clad in traditional wool blankets and their faithful herd dogs. The Basotho women, warriors of their own sort, walk past in lines from the fields carrying their days work on their heads. Horses and donkeys, not bicycles, are the preferred method of transport here as the climbs are intense and the terrain of unpaved mountain roads ideal only for a four-footed beast.

Photo credit: Shawna Cain

Lesotho is home to the friendliest of people and most curious of children. Even in the most isolated of areas, we couldn’t travel more than a few minutes without hearing a distant, “U ea kae?” of someone inquiring about our destination. My years of living here allowed me the personal gratification to be able to respond in the native tongue to requests of, “Liponpon,” (sweets) with funny one-liners like, “My name is not liponpon!”

With a variety of comments being yelled at us as we passed, my favorite had to be the young girl who, in English, screamed to me, “Are you crazy?” Not such a silly question, I had been wondering the same thing as we pushed up mountain passes for hours at a time.

Despite having travelled every district, I had never experienced such an affinity to Lesotho as when we cycled her undulating curves. Cycling allowed us to see the sunrise over the mountains and listen to the cattle bells with a feeling of complete unity with our environment. We breathed the crisp, thin mountain air while we challenged ourselves in ways we hadn’t imagined. At every stop we chatted with locals and ate as many makoenyas (fat cakes) as we could possibly consume.

We were graciously invited to camp in a maternal Mecca of sorts in a rural village – the home of four generations of women living merrily together, the fathers and husbands most likely off earning wages in a bigger town or neighbouring South Africa.

Lesotho will never be an easy place to cycle, and perhaps that’s why I decided to start my cycle touring adventure here. The harder the challenge, the sweeter the satisfaction. The experience of cycling the Mountain Kingdom is not for everyone, but for every cyclist or adventurer who gives it a spin, they will certainly never forget the beauty of the Kingdom in the Sky.

A special thanks to Sean Fraenkel for putting up with me for his Lesotho leg of his journey and showing me that anyone can do cycle touring with a proper amount of mental dedication and post-cycling carbo-loading.

Sean will be finishing his cycle tour from Beit Bridge, on the border of Zimbabwe, to Cape Town in the coming months. He is raising funds for the charity PETS, and any donation (and words of encouragement!) can help his cause.

More information
To read Sean Fraenkel's article about his campaign, click here or you can follow his journey at seanfraenkel.com