‘We could die up here’: Riding the Lesotho Highlands
In April 2022, Wandile Msomi and Jonathan Pinkhard decided to get on their bikes and cycle from Joburg to Durban via Lesotho, a trip with moments as scary as they were rewarding.
“So, you guys are here to die? People come to die up here; do you know how many bodies I’ve found around here?” the soldier who runs a shebeen atop Lesotho’s snowy Maloti Mountain range, some 3,000m above sea level, asks Wandile Msomi and Jonathan Pinkhard. “And you guys are wearing shorts,” he adds. A short while earlier, Pinkhard had also been contemplating their mortality: “I remember thinking to myself, this is insane, we could die up here.”
They’d been cycling for days, they were exhausted; it was dark, windy, rainy and snowy. They felt as though hypothermia was beginning to set in as they cycled up the mountain pass. Pinkhard couldn’t see Msomi; he called out to him in the dark, “Wands, I think we’re out of our depth, I think we need to call for help.”
Silence. “Wands,” he shouted.
Eventually, Msomi shouted back: “This is what we asked for. This is what we asked for!”
Just a few days earlier, the two friends, “brothers”, 39-year-old Msomi and 33-year-old Pinkhard, left the latter’s home in Northcliff, Johannesburg, on their bicycles, with a plan to cycle some 930km to Msomi’s house in Durban, via Lesotho, over 10 days. They’d been a bit anxious as they left, especially as this was back in April 2022, when heavy rainfall had led to massive floods in KwaZulu-Natal, where they were headed, and Lesotho had had quite a bit of snow.
They’d prepared as best they thought necessary: a tent to share, sleeping bags, food, phones, a GPS system and clothes. “I put in quite a bit of training. Wands cycles and commutes a lot; he’s just kind of fit in general. Whatever you put in front of him, he’s going to conquer it,” says Pinkhard.
Five days before death on the Lesotho Highlands would seem like a real possibility, their trip kicked off to a physically intense, but gentler and flatter start. On that first day they rode a total of 186km; from Joburg to Vereeniging, across the Vaal River and through to Heilbron in the Free State.
“The next day we got into some gravel roads. We rode through beautiful farm roads, endless corn fields and soy plantations. For anyone that is looking for a peaceful non-traffic place to cycle, I would highly recommend the Free State’s rural farm roads,” says Pinkhard.
They found themselves a quiet patch of road next to a corn field, pitched their tent and slept peacefully under the stars. The following day brought colourful landscapes as they drove past fields of cosmos flowers through Bethlehem, and finally to the first hills as they approached the Drakensberg from Clarens, where they spent the night before heading into Lesotho the next day.
When they’d shared their plans with a friend from Lesotho before leaving Joburg, he’d responded by asking, “You know there are hills there right?” They didn’t quite get how intense those hills would be.
“I remember being, like, yeah that’s fine. But then when we were riding up those back-to-back hills, like, it’s something I’ve never experienced,” says Msomi, “When we cycled up to Clarens, I thought that was a lot. But trying to ride over Black Mountain in Lesotho, that is something I have never experienced in my life; it felt like the types of things that you hear about in the Tour de France; things that you hear and you’re, like, ‘Oh, man, it’d be so crazy to do that.’”
On the second day in Lesotho they experienced their greatest challenge, one that would lead them to the warmth of that mountaintop shebeen.
“We woke up to a cold front and it was drizzling,” says Pinkhard. Cycling their way towards the popular Afriski resort, 3,300m high in the Maloti Mountains, they took on the Moteng mountain pass. Although only 7.9km in distance, it’s steep and reaches a height of 2,820m – and it gets heavy snowfall in winter. Then they went higher still, towards the Mahlasela Pass, which leads to Afriski, where they were planning to stay in a backpacker lodge.
“As we were riding, it started getting dark, and it was probably about zero or minus one degrees Celsius, and we’d been wet the whole day. It was insanely challenging. The GPS indicated something like 10 or 11km left, which doesn’t mean much at that kind of altitude. Climbing up a mountain like that, it could take you forever,” says Pinkhard.
In the light of their headlamps, they could see snow begin to fall. “I remember a moment where I had to gather my coordination … my ability to operate my phone. I Googled the resort’s emergency number, called it and quickly put it down again, so that if I needed to I could just call quickly,” Pinkhard recounts.
It was at that moment that he thought they might be out of their depth, and called out to Msomi, whose eventual response reminded him that this was what they’d asked for.
“For the first time, I understood what adventure, getting out of your comfort zone and pushing your abilities to the max felt like. This was what we asked for; we were looking for an experience that would change our lives. It’s those moments that Wandile and I will always share; taking those experiences back into everyday life, and understanding what you’re capable of and understanding your strength,” Pinkhard reflects.
Just when they felt they couldn’t go any further, they spotted the shebeen. “We went in and said we’d buy a single beer so they’d let us in. There was a fire but no chimney to let the smoke out, but we were so cold we rushed in anyway. We sat down, warmed up, got dry and comfortable, but we couldn’t stay for long as we needed to get to the backpackers. As we were getting ready for to get back on the road, that’s when this soldier asks, ‘So you guys are here to die?’” Msomi recounts.
After a short exchange with the soldier, who couldn’t believe they were wearing shorts in the snowy mountains, they carried on cycling to Afriski.
“When we finally made it to the resort, at the brink of hypothermia, they just pulled us in, took our wet clothes off, helped us dry, took our shoes off. We just sat by the heater and just, like, took in what we just went through, which is not something I would recommend for anyone to just do,” says Pinkhard.
Lessons from the road
In addition to putting in enough training prior to the trip, they both recommend trying out shorter trips before embarking on a longer one. “Head out for a day or two, maybe from Johannesburg to Vaal; test your gear, make sure your bike is balanced, and everything’s packed correctly. Keep in mind that your bike will have additional load, about 10kgs of weight in our case, so it’ll be bigger and there’ll be more wind resistance, and it’ll take more energy to ride,” Pinkhard advises.
Msomi adds that it’s important to have put in lots of hours in order to better manage moments of panic, such as on days when they felt they weren’t making good time. Says Msomi: “The anguish of that leads to nervousness and so on. That’s why it’s important to put in those saddle hours, so, when panic sets in, it’s not overwhelming. I’ve been riding a bike for a very long time, and for over 10 years I rode a single-speed track bike. What that did was it allowed my body to literally be beaten brutally on a bicycle for over 10 years. So, when things started hurting, or I was not in a great space physically, I could still push through.”
Find the right bike
As for what kind of bike to choose, that would depend on whether one plans to ride mainly on tarred roads, or to go mountain biking. However, if doing a trip on mixed road surfaces, Pinkhard recommends going with a gravel bike. “It’s like something between a road bike and a mountain bike. So it has the best of both,” he says.
Nutrition and hydration, the duo advises, is also a key part of the journey. Importantly, it is also about understanding one’s own body, how much and what kind of fuel it needs. “Also, when it comes to food, realise you might need to leave your city slicker ideals behind. There are parts of the country where people won’t know what being vegan is,” Msomi adds.
Stay kind and curious
A love for and an ease with people is central to a successful trip, the pair says. “There are so many amazing South Africans who are ready to help and open up their doors to you,” says Msomi. That said, even with all the kindness of South Africans, and the pair’s positive outlook, they weren’t naïve about the role identity plays in South Africa.
“I told Jonathan, ‘Dude, I’m so happy that I’m doing this trip with you in the Free State.’ Because everyone speaks Afrikaans or understands Afrikaans. Some would see us coming, and seem a bit hesitant, and then once Jonathan spoke to them, they’d be much more at ease,” Msomi explains. Later towards the end of the trip in KZN, they ran into a protest, where Pinkhard was shouted at, in particular with reference to his race, where Msomi had to step in. “Not only did our unique strengths get us through this trip, but occasionally we also had to lean towards our identities in some manner,” he explains.
Those incidents didn’t define the trip for the two friends, both of whom found people in South Africa as well as Lesotho overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable. A stranger in Lesotho allowed them to camp on his lawn, and in the Free State a B&B owner charged them a camping rate, but gave them a room and a lot of conversation. “Go out there with an open mind and an open attitude,” says Msomi. “That also comes with responsibility with regards to the way you carry yourself and the way you treat the people you encounter. You can’t arrive with a bad attitude and expect people to be warm,” Pinkhard adds.
The city slickers also remark on just how often people would wave at them on rural roads. “What I also realised about being on the road is that people just want you to say hi, so that they know that your presence isn’t a threat. You know what I mean? They want to know that nothing in their radius is going to surprise them. So greeting people became a necessity,” says Msomi, “and, of course, the most asked question on the road was: do you have a cigarette?” DM/ML
In case you missed it, also read This is the sound of the suburbs: A bike essay