Dear Witsieshoek
Many thanks for your hospitality and helping us with our little expedition over the weekend. The showers (with shampoo) at the end were really appreciated. If anyone wants to ever do what we did, ask them to call me so I can persuade them not to do it… then I will volunteer as their guide! The lodge is in a fantastic area – I will definitely be back with the family some time!

Want to know more about the “little expedition”? Read the story here…

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The LMA (Lesotho Mountain Adventure)

The question was raised, “How, if you always ride your bike through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, on the trails in Giba Gorge, from Underberg to the sea and across the sugar cane fields around Durban, can you call it Mountain Biking?” Point taken; we needed to put the “mountain” firmly back into MTB! Before I tell you how we were going to achieve this, allow me to introduce my fellow adventurers.

The SSOMSMTBCON, an acronym for “Seagull Sh@t On My Shirt Mountain Bike Club, Of Note” is a group of around 25 middle aged mountain bikers living in the Upper Highway area of Durban. Spoilt for riding options, these riders can be seen tearing up the trails in the early mornings, winter and summer, Wednesday evenings into the night on the numerous exciting trails in and around Hillcrest. Everyone in this group has, over time, received their own nickname, aptly chosen by the head elder, “Captain”. Elvis, Snake-one, Rabbit and Big Dog chose not to take part, we think they were scared.

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Leader/navigator/map reader: Vasco
Spin doctor, in case we get accosted by border police: Kermit
Team mechanic and brick-layer: Jolly
Pool bar and entertainments manager: Charlie
Clothing and apparel coordinator: Ragman
Visual image consultant: Snake 2
Co-pilot and cement mixer: Roomie
Dis-orientation specialist / alternative path finder: Rascal
International representative: Wilmer

An adventure had to be planned, it had to be in a place where we had not ridden before, and to appease the old farts of the group; overnight venues had to be equipped with beds on legs, cooked food and ice cold beer. Google Earth is an amazing tool for planning new routes, it provides a bird’s eye view to map out paths, plot waypoints and create amazing fly-through videos. However it fails dismally when representing the true aspect of the Drakensberg escarpment.

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The Lesotho Mountain Adventure (LMA) was conceived, with the starting point being the picturesque Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge at 2500m ASL overlooking the Sentinel framing the northern flank of the Amphitheatre.

Day 1 was to travel North through the settlement of Phuthadijhaba and head to the west, up and over the mountains with the aim of arriving at Oxbow Lodge in Lesotho. A manageable distance of 65km I thought, but the vertical ascent of around 2600m making for a challenging day. A thorough scouring of Google Earth for possible pathways over the escarpment at 3000m ASL came up blank – but we were going to give it a try all the same. Compulsory space blankets would be used if we did not reach our destination.

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Day 2 starting at Oxbow Lodge, 2500m ASL, would see an epic climb up past Afriski at 3200mASL, breaking eastward through the high altitude wilderness, past the highest point in Southern Africa, Mont Aux Sources, to the chain ladders descending at the Sentinel and back to Witsieshoek. A shorter day of around 45km, but the unknown of descending vertical chain ladders with a bicycle and backpack strapped to your back would add excitement, nerves and time to the day.

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The trusted long term weather report obtained from changed daily, vacillating between clear sunny days in the twenty’s to deluges of rain, wind and single digit temperatures. Visibility was always to be our major concern, the thought of navigating in mist through the mountains was something that terrified me.

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Besides the risk of bad weather, we were taking other chances; obtaining permission to undertake this journey would be a challenge as we simply did not know who to ask. Was the land owned by the state, tribal land, or private? We knew that we would be crossing a national border illegally as we were far from any border control points. We chose something I would never allow my kids to do and adopted the view that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. We were going in blind.

There was to be no backup vehicle, all kit, food, spares and emergency items for the two days had to be carried on our person. The aim was to travel light, but without compromising safety. Emergency numbers were loaded into cell phones, one GPS programmed with a set of waypoints and we were ready.

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The Sentinel and escarpment flanking it is a truly spectacular sight, far more intimidating than I remembered and in comparison to the views from Google Earth it seemed an absurd task to want to cross it with a bike. As the car approached Witsieshoek my heart sank, this looked like too big a bite, and we would most likely choke, the only good thing was that the weather was clear and every cliff and crag was clearly visible on the mountain. Nervously, we settled into a few calming beers over dinner and a safety briefing. Then the mist rolled in, wind and rain, and a sleepless night was spent wondering what I was going to lead my friends into in the next days.

As we descended toward Phuthadijhaba the thick mist and light rain cleared, but clouds packed tight up against the mountains and hid them from view. A stern and somewhat unsettling warning, issued by two men at the start of a cattle path toward the mountain, cautioned us that there was black magic ahead, tribal rituals were being performed and we were most certainly not welcome. When we explained that we were just passing through and planned to cross over into Lesotho over the mountains we were told that the task was impossible; there was no path or passage over this part of the escarpment. This news was somewhat unnerving, what was I leading my friends into? Would we have to turn back at the mountain face? What if we upset the locals conducting their tribal rituals?

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With every kilometre travelled, the trail dissipated and soon we were faced only with a criss-crossed network of cattle or goat paths. We seemed to be forcing the cloud line upwards as we gained altitude. All of a sudden the cloud lifted, just long enough to reveal the massive cliff where we had planned to summit. It seemed impossible. Riding, pushing and carrying a bike and backpack at 2700m was proving to be an exhausting challenge, the air was very thin indeed. I pointed out a neck where we were headed; if there was any possibility of us getting over it, this was where we would have to go. There was no path, the slope was at an angle of more than 60 degrees and serious doubt was settling in. A short clamber up the neck revealed some hope, a path joining from the north side showed evidence of hoof prints headed upward. There was still 200m more climbing before the summit and the gradient was made up of a scree slope of loose angular rocks, requiring enormous effort to haul a bike, backpack and still maintain your balance without dislodging rocks.

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The scree slope ended at a narrow ledge, left side dropping off a 150m cliff and on the right a similar vertical cliff rising above us. The cloud lifted and we could see for ever, a beautiful vista over Golden Gate, the Freestate and to the South the Sterkfontein dam and KZN as far as Estcourt. The relief was immense, we had found a way to the top, but could we find a route down the back?

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The gradient was not steep and soon it became possible for us to ride again. We picked up a stream, it was the source of the Tsehlanyane river, sweet clear water that quenched our thirst and would guide us home for the night. Two derailleurs suffered damage by rocks, one broken off completely forced us to perform a single speed conversion as we crossed the river as it grew, added to by thousands of little tributaries until it was a raging torrent at the bridge and road to Oxbow Lodge.

Twelve hours after setting off, we arrived, tired and extremely relieved that space blankets would not be our warmth for the night. Oxbow Lodge offers basic, but clean and comfortable accommodation. The staff are extremely helpful and with limited resources, provided a four course meal with a massive T-bone steak as the main course. The anticipated barrow of beers was replaced with a table of soda cans, a tribute to the effort and exhaustion that everyone felt. The effort required to climb the summit of the escarpment with a bike was completely underestimated. The next day was going to be just as challenging and we needed to factor in an adverse weather report.

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A short negotiation process brought a sigh of relief from everyone. The first 12km climb from 2500m to 3200m was eliminated by contracting a local with a bakkie, who would charge R20 per head for the trip to the top. This was by far, the best twenty bucks anyone had ever spent. Day 2 started with an icy cold ride on the back of a hammered Toyota up to Afriski. The second load of cyclists arrived 50 minutes later and in a whipping wind at 6 degrees we began making our way across the highlands of Lesotho. Oxygen was so scarce that even insignificant climbs resulted in riders dismounting to walk. The whipping wind was replaced with driving sleet, hail and snow as Mont Aux Sources came into view.

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There was no path, and any hope of riding across the grass clad hills was dashed by a barren rock strewn landscape. A bank of mist engulfed us as we caught the first sight of the escarpment, and hearts sank. “Vasco, how far?” became the frequently asked question. Had I guided my good friends into a dangerous predicament? I was genuinely concerned, how was I going to deal with this situation and face people back home? And just as fast as the mist rolled in, it withdrew and the warm sun beat down, and jackets were shed.

Distance between waypoints was the only information I was going to divulge. I knew we were travelling at around 3km per hour, bikes needed to be carried and frequent rest stops were needed. There just was not enough air to power our bodies any faster. I had programmed waypoints in my GPS at approximately 4km intervals, in hindsight too far, especially if mist rolled in again. There were four more waypoints to pass before we were to arrive at the chain ladders.

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Spirits rose as we rounded a ridge when the Sentinel came into view, a spectacular basalt monolith rising high above the Amphitheatre. We could almost see where the chain ladders were to be found. Nerves were offset by the need to get off the mountain as we made our way to the cliff face, and there they were, steel chains protruding from the rock, showing our only way down. Clear sky transformed in seconds into loud thunder and a wicked wind chased up the cliff face. Rain began wetting the rock and steel rungs, things were getting slippery. Backpacks were taken down first, with riders having to climb up a second time to strap their bikes to their backs. For some, this was a bridge too far and had to rely on others to do a second trip to fetch remaining bikes. Unknown to us was that there are actually two sets of chain ladders, the upper being around 20m high followed by a lower one that is far higher, around 30m, and still to be done.

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A massive sense of relief came over me as the group left the base of the ladders, the storm abated and the sun emerged, we had conquered the dragon. All we had to do was descend from 2900m back to Witsieshoek and head for home. Challenged by high altitude, snow, sleet, gale-force wind, thunder, lightning, driving rain and burning sun, day 2 had taken 9 ½ hours and challenged us to our very core. A sense of achievement in completing the LMA is overshadowed by the incredible camaraderie, friendship and support shown by everyone in the group. We all experienced low points at times and it was a true privilege to see how others recognised this, shouldered the load, encouraged and lifted the spirits back to the positive.

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It was a true honour to share the adventure with such solid friends. SSOMS, Rocks!