“Dumela”, "Good morning/Good Afternoon/Good Night" in Basotho
It was quite the journey, 36 hours of travel time from the Columbia River Gorge to Lesotho, Africa. Known as the Kingdom in the Sky, Lesotho is entirely land-locked by South Africa, and has the highest lowest point of any country in the world (1400m or 4593 ft). It is the only country in the world to be entirely above 1000 meters! It is the land of no fences -- rather, the land is owned by King Letsie III, who gives permission to inhabit the land.
Upon crossing the border in Maseru, capital of Lesotho, it was apparent we were out of our comfort zone, as street vendors lined the streets selling grapes and peaches, rushing vehicles as they sped by. Security were at every gas station wearing kevlar vests, holding a machine gun. We were mean mugged immediately by most of the population as we later learned our van was identical to a taxi, and we weren't stopping to pick anyone up. Shops, SIM card stores and hair salons lined the streets with their corrugated metal siding and roofs, as people roamed the streets. There was no order to this chaos.
We quickly worked our way to Roma and were greeted by the many smiling faces of the children of Lesotho as well as the lovely staff at Roma Trading Post (RTP). The trading post sits at the base of the Maluti Mountains, and up until 2017 was the original site of trade in Roma -- donkeys, grain, cattle, pigs, chickens, you name it. The premise was eventually converted into housing, and is the current site of one of Velosolutions #pumpforpeace pumptrack, offering the children of Roma a place to gather off the street.
So why Lesotho? Why Kingdom Enduro? We met Rene Damseaux and his brother Francois way back when in Molini di Triora Italy, after racing EWS Final Ligure. We rode Final, Molini and San Remo together, becoming quick friends -- We’ve kept in touch and when Rene invites us to his race (in its second year), the first EWS qualifier on the African continent, we knew we couldn’t miss out!
Ladies and Gentleman, meet Rene Damseaux.
Trails in Lesotho are all hand built by Rene and his team of locals — providing jobs within the local community. Trails are rugged, raw, and require hiking to the top, every time. And by top, I mean top of the mountain, because each trail literally starts at the top of a mountain. Trails feature slick rock, rock ledges, boulder gardens, and a tad bit of flow. But mostly techy rock. While the hike-a-bikes are a thing, especially in 90F heat, the views at the top more than make up for it! Not to mention, the herder boys and town children who run alongside you the entire way, “Give me sweets”, “Give me money” or simply to help you push or carry your bike to the top.
We were on bikes upon arrival, riding trails behind RTP with the town children. Practice started the next day, offering a short introduction to local dirt and hike-a-bikes. Over the next few days, we would wake early to beat the heat while riding, and practice days 2, 1 and 3 respectively.
Lunch consisted of chicken and pap: braai (BBQ) chicken with a side of pap (white maiz/cornmash: an accompaniment to every meal), and local greens with peri-peri pepper sauce.
Evenings were filled with crashing thunderstorms and hail that filled the streets with water. Around the dinner table, there was plenty of chatter amongst new friends, mostly from SA, some from Europe, and a few from the states. Notable riders included Chris Johnston, Ludo May, Max Schumann and Fabian Scholz, as well as SA Enduro Champion, Frankie Dupont.
Mid-race, Day 3 (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Race Days came and went: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. While a few trails were pedally, I was very happy with my decision to bring my Spartan 27.5. Trails were rocky, techy and steep, perfect for 165mm travel. The sun and heat were a challenge over the course of long days, but manageable. Days one and two of racing were my favorite, with steep rock roll ins, and challenging, but manageable tech, while Day 3 took tech to the extreme!
Racing through villages along footpaths made for some close calls, mostly with cattle, lots of them. Photo: Michael Kirkman)
Day 1, Stage 1 Start (GoPro)
Day 2. (Photo Keira Duncan, 2018 SA National Champion)
Follow the arrows, slick-rock style! Thanks for the mid-stage motivation, Rene!
Another stage, another start on top of a mountain (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Day 2, Stage 3: Bushman's Pass (Photo: Michael Kirkman)
Nick Hardin, mechanic, foodie, shuttle-driver and mega-husband (Photo: Kim Hardin)
At the end of the three days, I walked away with the win, followed by Frankie Dupont and Sandra Hohl— Pretty happy with that for the first race of the year! Chris Johnston (Santa Cruz) took the win in the men’s, followed by Ludo May (BMC) and SA ripper Tim Bentley.
While out recovering from ACL surgery, Nick wasn’t able to race, but was able to explore local gravel roads, climbing the passes by which the race descended, such as God Help Me Pass, Bushman’s and Blue Mountain.
Of perhaps most important relative to the event was the awareness brought to us regarding the local community. Unbeknownst to us, there were so many kids on the trails because local school teachers were on strike, meaning kids were not in school. This meant that the kids were not getting lunch, and were generally unsupervised throughout the day as parents were working. Poverty is very prevalent in Lesotho and a rising concern, as is the growing prevalence of HIV/AIDS -- about 25% of the population are HIV positive. Related to this, Kingdom Enduro raised enough money via Velosolutions to provide meals for all the local kids for a few months! We can only hope more aid comes to this country to help not only the current generation, but the next.
It's Safari time!
The morning after the race, a crew consisting of race director Rene Damseaux, Ludo May, Chris Johnston, Max Schumann, Fabian Scholz, Nancy Pellissier, Nick & myself took off on a 13 hr journey to Pont Drift, the border of SA and Botswana via Johannesburg for a safari by bike with Cycle Mashatu.
Mashatu operates specifically in the 29,000 hectares (72000 acres) Mashatu Game Reserve, located in the Tuli Game Reserve in the Limpopo province, a known higher-risk malaria area, as well as location of recent foot and mouth disease outbreak (animals only).
Cycle Mashatu, Botswana, Africa (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Entering Botswana, we passed through a "Foot and Mouth Disease Checkpoint" and were required to dip our shoes, and have our bike tires sprayed with chemical (Photo: Kim Hardin)
We were greeted by Mario, one of our guides for the trip, and quickly ushered into Botswana for lunch and a safety briefing: “we do not want to see lions by bike”, “snakes are more scared of us than we are of them” (but there are plenty black mambas, puff adders, and spitting cobras in the area), “stop when I say stop, and be quiet when I say be quiet”.
Mario (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Team Meeting, led by Mario (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
One of the many dry, sandy stream bed crossings. They only see water as flash floods in the summer "rainy season", between November and April (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Once on bikes, we hustled to camp before dark, while quickly learning the ins and outs of safari: the animals are quite different when approached by bike versus vehicle. They see each person as an individual, and us a “herd”, while a vehicle is viewed a one large Individual, making them less threatening, especially as the animals have become accustomed to vehicles on the regular. This meant that when approaching an animal, they would generally run away, or in the case of elephants, want to charge us. It was most important to respect each and every individual animal and give wide berth, especially to Elephants, always having an “escape route”. This is no zoo, this is the real bush, and the animals clearly rule the bush. As we were getting to camp on Day 1, we came across our first Elephant, who quietly stalked us—we looped away only to hear and see a mock charge and trumpet from a second elephant nearby, prompting another loop away. After about 20 minutes of sneaking through the bush, looping our way past Ellie’s, we made it to camp. What an intro! Did I mention, Mario guided us through the bush without use of GPS? He did this everyday over a huge area of land and knew where we were at all times - impressive!
Nancy Pellissier, Ludo May, Rene D., Mario, Nick Hardin, Chris Johnston, Max Schumann, Kim Hardin and Fabien Scholz under the great Mashatu Tree. (Photo: Chris Johnston)
Breakfast is served: Yogurt, muesli, fruit and fresh-made bread (Photo: Kim Hardin)
The circle of life was very apparent in Mashatu. Fabien shows us a Kudu skull: a savannah "antelope" (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Riding in the bush-bush, as Mario says of Day 2 (Photo: Nick Hardin)
Elephants or "Ellies" were everywhere (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Ludo May, dropping in (Photo: Chris Johnston)
Dinner by fire & coal: Curries, meat stews, boboti, squash, and "pap" were staples.
(Photo: Chris Johnston)
I'd say ACL rehab is going well... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Devinci Spartans in the wild (Photo: Chris Johnston)
Stories by firelight (Photo: Chris Johnston)
When in the bush.... (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
In the middle of no-where, Botswana, taking in the views of Mashatu Game Reserve (Photo: Nick Hardin)
The next few days we rode between 25-35km per day, guided by Mario and Lion. Between the two of our guides, they had over 12 years of experience guiding by bike, and a resulting plethora of knowledge in regards to animals, vegetation, and astronomy.
Photo: Nick Hardin
A group of giraffes is called a genie, while a single giraffe is known as a “tower”. Females have straighter “horns”, while males have tufts at the top.
A lions roar can be heard from over 8km away (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Mom and her baby Ellie (Photo: Chris Johnston)
While Lions mate for five straight days, every 5-15 minutes, elephants are pregnant for 24 months! A baby elephant on average weighs 250#. Elephants drink over 150l of water a day, and urinate over 50l of water a day!
Vervet Monkeys do indeed throw shit (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Just your typical Mashatu Safari camp (Photo: Kim Hardin)
A day in the safari life consisted of waking up around 6am to leave by 7am. Once on trail, we would “read the morning newspaper”, looking to the tracks from overnight as to what animals were nearby. We would see giraffes, zebra, impala, and baboons almost immediately, with Eland, cheetah, warthog, and leopard on occasion. The animal density was very high, meaning we never really had to “look” for the animals, they were always there.
Around 12:30pm, we would stop for high tea (Roobios of course. Coffee too, although most drink beer), and observe the hundreds of thorns in our tires. Thank goodness we brought extra sealant! We’d ride for another hour or two, Ludo would find a tree or two to ride down (or up?), while Max and Chris took proper photos, and the rest of us watched in awe. We’d then settle in at camp for a bucket shower and rest— it was simply too hot to be out pedaling midday for very long. Simple but delicious dinners were cooked over coals in cast iron. After an astronomy lesson or two, we’d go to bed and do it all over again the next day, hoping to hear the roar of a lion or cackle of a hyena in the distance.
It may have been 90 degrees out, but high tea was always a welcome stop! (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Ludo May, embracing the way of the Vervet Monkey (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Got sealant? Don't pull the thorns or you'll flat! (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Sometimes the "trail" was a road, sometimes the trail was simply our own going off-road through the bush (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
Proper tea time, Landcruiser and all... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
The third day of the trip was most memorable: we rounded a corner and our guide Mario stopped abruptly and told us to be very quiet. He pointed to the ground and what was a very fresh lion track. Lion in Mashatu are very elusive (6 in 23,000 hectares) and we were very close to one.
Mario, talking tracks... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Mario radioed the sighting, and a larger safari truck came for support, while we pedaled in a direction opposite that from the tracks. Whew, that was close! I think we all were excited about seeing a lion, but not so excited to be on the ground with one, especially if it didn’t like bikes.
That evening we “rolled da wheels” (Mario’s queue in Afrikaan accent), into our last camp: Rather than sleep in tents, we slept under the stars, in a “Boma” of sorts, a protected circle with a fire in the middle. Vervet monkeys made home in the Mashatu tree above us, greeting us with plenty of entertainment upon arrival (shit-throwing). The go-away bird was almost constant “wahhhh”, and quickly became the group’s “chant”. We were told to watch for lions as “this area has quite a few”. I was still on the look out for snakes.
Our "boma" camp for the night (Photo: Kim Hardin)
A view inside our "boma" camp for the night (Photo: Nick Hardin)
Nick and Rene, taunting the nearby baboons (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Chris Johnston making the most of sundown next to the renown Baobab Tree, Africa's Iconic "Tree of Life" (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Throughout the night, baboon and Hyena talked nearby, but the lions stayed away. Rhinoceros bugs were a plenty, as were the “talky talky” big, known to beat their legs against their chest as they walk in search of a female.
Our last morning came quickly, and we hustled back to the border, full of new perspective and appreciation for such a special experience. Between the Kingdom Enduro and our Cycle Safari, we're reminded how simple life is, and how it's not things that enrich our lives, but the people and experiences along the way.
Kim & Nick Hardin