Ladysmith – Border with Lesotho

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11th – 19th of May 2024:

After a restless night with mosquitos in our room, we continued cycling southwards. At a farm shop, we took a break, enjoyed some banana bread and bought some dried meat. After a long ascent and a short descent, we reached the city Escourt.

John gave us a contact there from a bus company. Our goal was to deposit the bicycles again and reach a mountain valley with hitchhiking. At the end, we could leave the bicycles and most of our luggage in a workshop. The friendly owner asked his son to bring us to a fuel station, from where we would try to find a car in the right direction. At the end, the young man with Indian descent drove us much further. From there, we found a bus quickly and like that we were already quite far. In the last larger town before reaching the mountains, we bought supplies for 2-3 days and ate delicious Shawarma and chips in a restaurant.

Afterwards, we found another bus, which brought us to the last house of the last village. On the way there, we saw many people on their way back from church or from their visit at a friends place. Especially the women were dresses in vivid colors and some wore a face cream made of dirt and water. We realized that from this point, there were no more cars going up to the campground, which we defined as our destination. Therefore, we had to bargain with the only taxi driver about the price for the 13 km long, hilly road. After around 30 minutes, we agreed on a price and approached slowly the impressive mountains, while listening to the beats of south African songs. The driver Mzo and his friend had a good humor and worked both as guides and porters in the national park. After about an hour, we reached the campground in the dark and thanked the guys for the bumpy ride.

After a restful, long night, we were surprised in the morning by the fog and clouds in the surrounding mountains. Apparently, a weather front moved overnight from the coast into the mountains.

Until noon, we enjoyed the tranquility at the campsite and exchanged ideas with other guests about hikes in the national park. Afterward, we set off towards Centenery Hut, a mountain hut located about 11 km and 800 meters in altitude away. The hut was in very poor condition and we had to bring everything except the tent.

The hike started flat, leading through a grassy landscape until suddenly a river was in the way. A cable was strung across the river, symbolizing that we really had to go through the water. There was no spot where we could hop over the water, so we had to take off our shoes and even our pants to cross the knee-deep river. After that, the trail led us through tall grass. Sometimes we couldn’t even see the path anymore because it was so overgrown. We took a break before a smaller stream crossing and enjoyed the rocky and rugged landscape. We continued following the water until the path led us steeply uphill after about two hours. Unfortunately, due to the fog, we couldn’t see the very high peaks. After the steep ascent, we reached the hut at about 2300 m.

Although the hut had been recently renovated, it had neither a table, chairs, nor a toilet. It had four beds, but they were not in good condition, and there were no mattresses either. We decided to spread out our sleeping pads on the floor and sleep there. Our cell phone flashlights allowed us to see a bit because there wasn’t even a lamp available.

The wake-up call was at 5:45 AM, as we had a long day ahead of us. First, we had to hike about 900 meters uphill before reaching the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Suddenly, the fog above us cleared and we saw an imposing rock formation. Therefore, the last 200 meters to the border were quite technical and we needed to use our hands occasionally to overcome the steep sections. Additionally, navigation was not always straightforward.

After the steep section, we reached a kind of plateau, which was on the Lesotho side. The landscape there was desert-like and more hilly than rocky and steep. Soon, we saw the first horses and cows, which enjoyed the tranquility in this unique landscape all alone. After a flat section, a final ascent led us to the summit of Mafadi. At 3450 meters high, this summit is the highest mountain in all of South Africa. In the lee, we took a break and enjoyed the view of the sea of ​​fog and the steep cliffs below us.

To explore more of this area, we decided to take a different route down to the campsite. So, we walked almost two hours parallel to the border and thus the rocky formation, to Leslie’s Pass, where there was a break in the impassable rock wall. During a short break, a young shepherd suddenly approached us. He was wrapped in several cloths and wore rubber boots. He asked if we had cigarettes. Otherwise, he didn’t understand much English, but we were still allowed to take a photo.

Over 3 km, we lost about 1000 meters in altitude and slipped several times on the loose ground. Nevertheless, we managed to get through this steep section and reached a spot where hikers pitch their tents. From there, it was several more hours along a stream and through thick bushes. Several times, we lost the trail until we found it again after a short search. We felt like we were in a mini-forest because the trail was extremely overgrown. After over 10 hours, 31 km, 1500 meters up, and 2400 meters down, we reached the campsite tired but happy.

We woke up with a medium muscle ache and asked at the reception of the campground, if there was a vehicle driving out of the mountain valley in the following few hours. The nice lady told us that there was a woman on the way from the next large town and she is going to pick her up from the last village. So, we could ride with her until that village. While we were waiting, we observed leaves falling from the trees, since winter is on its way in South Africa. In the mountains we often wore long pants and a jacket, since the temperatures were sometimes close to the freezing point.

Two hours later, the car was approaching and we left the campsite. On the way, the vice manager of the campsite made some phone calls to check when the next bus leaves in the direction of Escourt, where our bicycles were waiting for us. Directly after we reached the village, a bus driving to this town without changing the vehicle arrived. Therefore, we travelled efficiently for African standards and reached our destination in less than two hours. During the drive, passengers pay for the ride through handing the respective fee to the person sitting in front of them. This person gives the money to the next person until the driver receives the money. The change moves the same way back tot he customer. This system works perfectly and nobody looses time before or after the ride.

In Escourt, we packed our bags and said thanks to J, who made sure that our equipment was safe during our absence. Afterwards, we cycled up a hill and down again. Below, we realized that we missed our turn, since there was no sign. Since we were too lazy to cycle uphill again, we decided to take the highway instead. There was no sign saying that bicycles are not allowed and there was a wide shoulder. Like that, we did not save ourselves any kilometers, but a few climbs. The highway was probably one of the safest roads available, except the section where there was a bushfire and we could not see anything. Additionally, there was a truck which had broken down exactly at this spot. Using one of the next exits, we left the highway and entered the main road again.

The night directly next to the road on one side and the train tracks on the other side was with 5°C one of the coldest since the start of the trip. There was not much traffic and only about three trains during the night, so we anyway had our freedom. After 5 km, we reached the small village of Nottingham Road. There, we surprisingly found a top-notch Café, which usually can be found in a larger city. The Café was busy and many locals asked us, where we are heading. We enjoyed the exchange and the interest of the South Africans.

After we bought groceries for the day at Spar, we started a semi-spontaneous shortcut, which will bring us close to the border with Lesotho. Originally, we wanted to take a longer way using a main road, but then decided to try a calmer and shorter gravel road.

Surprisingly, the first 30 km were even tarred. The landscape was getting more impressive, wilder, hillier after every turn. At a farm, we filled our water bottle and had a conversation with the manager of the potato production. The farm produces mostly potatoes which can be used to grow more potatoes. Each day for four months a year, they produce around 40 tons of potatoes.

The quality of the gravel road was not as good as expected and we were shaken thoroughly on a regular basis. A long descent followed and before the next long ascent started, we found a stunning spot for our tent on a meadow with a panoramic view.

We continued with a longer ascent and a stunning view as we reached the pass. After a bumpy descent, we reached the only village on the 100 km gravel road. For another 30 km, the road followed the border of the Maloti-Drakensberg National Park. Besides a deer, we didn’t see any wildlife. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the sight of the tall mountains and the wild streams flowing from the mountain valleys. Once, we even encountered about a 5-year-old boy on a horse, without a saddle or helmet.

Around midday, we reached the junction where a road leads to Lesotho. However, because we urgently needed rest days, we continued straight to Himeville. There, we found a small snack bar where we devoured a delicious burger. A few minutes later, we arrived in Underberg. Since Maputo, we had been in contact with Cynthia and Jelle, who live here and operate a profile on the Warmshowers platform. We were warmly welcomed into their beautifully situated house, and the cyclist’s room was immediately shown to us. The couple enjoys interacting with travelers and used to travel by bicycle themselves. Even today, the older couple still travels with a tent and on off-road trails, but now with a car.

During the two rest days overlooking the Drakensberg Mountains, which form the border with Lesotho, we were treated to culinary delights. Additionally, we enjoyed engaging conversations about South Africa, traveling and our upcoming route. After mentioning that we had not yet experienced a traditional barbecue, called a “Braai,” the grill was fired up, and we savored South African beef and Boerewors (farmer’s sausage with coriander). Furthermore, we sampled various beers from South Africa and were treated to tasting red wine.

On the first day, we ventured with Jelle into the Maloti-Drakensberg National Park and strolled along a stream to appreciate the mountains and the tranquility. We even briefly jumped into the cold water, hoping to regenerate our thighs plagued by hiking soreness.

After saying goodbye to Jelle and Cynthia, we headed towards Lesotho. Initially, we didn’t gain much altitude as the road kept descending. However, after a few kilometers, the road became steeper and we steadily gained altitude. Soon, we reached the South African border post. Just before that, the quality asphalt road ended and a rough gravel road followed.

We had a pleasant conversation with the border official, got our exit stamps and filled our water bottles. Additionally, we reduced the tire pressure to increase traction.

Although it was only a little over 7 kilometers, there were more than 800 meters of elevation gain to the border and the Sani Pass. Soon, we had to push the bikes for the first time as large rocks littered the road. We took short breaks frequently to catch our breath, take a sip from our water bottles and enjoy the phenomenal views into the valley. There were brief sections where we could ride, but the steep sections required pushing. Especially the last 300 meters of elevation were very steep and the switchbacks made cycling impossible.

After a little over three hours, we reached the pass summit at 2876 meters above sea level. The Sani Pass is one of the steepest mountain passes in the world and definitely a highlight of our journey. With the pass summit, we crossed the border between Lesotho and South Africa.

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