Can you really experience the culture of a country while racing through it? Kristi Stump finds herself pondering such things, when perhaps she should be concentrating on not crashing.
Words Kristi Stump Photography Steffen Schraegle
Shortly after the first feed station, I passed my teammate as he’d stopped for the hundredth time to take photographs. I dropped into a steep, sketchy singletrack, realising immediately that I’d forgotten to unlock my suspension after the last road section. But I was already on the first big rock ledge and it was too late for adjustments. I ungracefully threw my weight back just enough and just in time, yelling ‘big drop!’ to Steffen. A few seconds later I heard that terrible sound of bike metal scraping across rock and started praying to the African gods that my partner was still in one piece. I ran back up the trail and was relieved to find him standing, but, strangely, taking off his outer shorts. “Are you OK?” “Yeah, yeah, all fine. But these baggy shorts have to die – they keep getting caught on my seat.” Meanwhile blood was dripping down his chin, so I asked him to show me his teeth. He smiled widely – fortunately teeth were all intact, but his chin opened up like a crevasse. “Don’t do that again,” I said, and started digging through our first aid kit. Chins are almost impossible to bandage, especially with four-day stubble, but I did my best, grateful that this was seemingly the extent of his injuries. He straightened his handlebars, did a quick brake check, and we were rolling again.
Wake up call.
All was good again, so I relaxed and let my mind wander – thinking this was one of my new favourite places to ride, how overdressed I was now in the afternoon sun, and wondering how far it was until our next food stop. Suddenly Steffen stopped and asked: “Where are my shorts?” “In your pack,” I answered. He stared at me blankly and I felt slight panic. “Do you remember what happened?” I asked. “Ugh, no.” “But you know where you are, right?!” “Yeah, sure… we’re in Lesotho, but it’s like I just woke up on my bike… this is so weird.”
The beauty of being concussed is that we don’t remember those last seconds before face meets ground, or to be afraid of the next rock drop. So I was happy for his state of ignorance, despite already breaking our ‘no crashing’ rule on day one.
It all started with a random email from a colleague, saying: “This looks like something you guys might be interested in.” A six-day stage race called Lesotho Sky – somewhere in Africa – claiming to be ‘a ride of passage’ on ‘real mountain trails’ and allowing only 100 riders… sounded interesting. My partner Steffen said he thought maybe we should do it. I said “why not?” Without thinking too much or too long, we registered our mixed team entry. It was not until later that we asked the obvious question: so where exactly is Lesotho?
We were surprised to learn that it is a kingdom – an independent country surrounded by South Africa, about four to five hours from Johannesburg. With its lowest elevation at 1,400m it has the highest low point of any other country – perhaps a worrying sign for a mountain bike race. While it has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa – impressively, 95% of women are literate compared to only 83% of men – the healthcare statistics are more depressing. With some of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis infections in the world, a Google search for Lesotho offers up a whole range of health indicators, NGO reports and academic studies, as efforts are made to improve the situation. Despite some improvements in life expectancy, access to healthcare remains a problem. I said to Steffen: “We shouldn’t get hurt there… for real, crashing is not an option.” And when I said ‘we’, I really meant him, because besides being accident-prone, he tends to crash in the most remote places. At some point I decided it would be better to stop Googling Lesotho, which is why the week before our trip we were still asking ourselves where we were going.
While packing in the last few days before we left, we realised the elevation was quite high, and the weather forecast suddenly showed freezing temperatures and snow in the mountains. In Africa? Further investigation showed we were headed to the Maloti range, where the highest mountain in Lesotho stands at 3,482m and snow falls even in the summer months. And we were going even earlier, in their springtime. So along with my worries of needing an all-eventualities first aid kit that included sterile needles, I had to prepare properly for hypothermia as well.
Prepared or not, we found ourselves standing in a small tavern at the Ramabanta Lodge, somewhere in the middle of Lesotho, checking in at race registration. Unlike most stage races, Lesotho Sky starts the evening before the first stage – so we were able to move into our accommodation and sort out our equipment. As usual we’d signed up for the camping option, because we like to be in the middle of the little makeshift community that develops over the week of a stage race. The more comfortable option often means sleeping in hotels far away from the race village – which means extra logistics, costs, and often a disconnect from the social aspect of these events. But because Lesotho Sky is small, we could all be together, sleeping either in the lodge rooms (traditional rondavel huts), or camping in nearby tents.
After our first dinner together we sat outside to watch the race directors’ presentation. And it started getting cold… really cold. We watched a video of the last year’s highlights and I noticed that everyone in it wore shorts and looked warm. As I sat in my down coat, wool underwear and hat (and was still cold), I guessed that Lesotho was having record low temperatures for September. Just as Spain had had record highs the year before in the Transpyr and we almost died of heatstroke riding across the Pyrenees. Hmm. As the temperature continued to drop, I started-second guessing our decision to camp. But later, as we settled into our little tent, after a few minutes in my warm sleeping bag I remembered why I love sleeping outside. I love the feeling of cold air on my face while the rest of my body is warm and cocooned in down and wool. And I thought if I am ever reincarnated as an animal I should either be a goose or a sheep, so I can wear these coats all the time.
Besides the cold, the other downside of the camp community is the middle-of-the-night-peeing situation. The tents are usually too close together to jump out and take a stealthy pee on the grass so we have to walk, sometimes quite far, to a shared bathroom. And I almost always have to pee in the middle of the night. So on that first really cold night, of course I had to go. Cursing my small bladder, I put on my coat, hat, headlamp, and shoes for the walk. But on the way back I remembered another reason I love camping. Every night rewards me with the amazing life of the dark hours – the stars, the moon, and the sounds of nocturnal animals. I stood for a minute soaking it all in, appreciating the opportunity to see a beautiful African night before jumping back into the tent.
Our first stage took us 69 kilometres from Ramabanta to another small village, Malealea. Apart from Steffen’s small concussion incident, it was a perfect day. The air was cold and clear, the sky a brilliant blue. Already on the first day’s ride, Lesotho Sky lived up to its promise of ‘real mountain biking’, with natural trails, technical terrain, and wonderful scenery. It reminded me of riding in southwestern USA – sandstone rock formations, rugged mountains in the distance, wide river valleys, with desert sand singletrack in perfect post-rain condition. But there was the small detail of being on the African continent, in a remote, unknown country where status symbols include horses and blankets.
Instead of ATVs or jeeps, we passed men on horseback, shepherds tending sheep, women washing clothes in shrunken rivers, kids in uniform walking to school. We passed through beautifully kept villages with enormous cactus gardens, pristine rondavels – many with brightly painted doors and windowsills – and notably, no fences between them. The local Basotho people stopped whatever they were doing to watch us ride by and I had the feeling that the last mountain bikers they saw were the previous Lesotho Sky racers, the year before.
We finished the ride at Malealea Lodge, a beautiful place where we would spend two nights. A perfect venue for recovery and relaxation, with colourful flower and cactus gardens, a large grass lawn, rock-lined paths leading from the main lodge to the huts and tent sites, and even a little café with delicious coffee. Steffen got stitches in his chin at the medical tent, run by an independent South African organisation that travels to sporting events. There had already been 13 incidents that day. My pre-trip Googling had said healthcare delivery is challenging at best in these remote rural villages where most of the population lives. It can take several hours walking over rough terrain to access the closest clinic. In addition, the country lacks providers with approximately one doctor per 2,000 people. So again we agreed that crashing in Lesotho is a bad idea and should be avoided.
Degrees of suffering.
The following day we rode the same 55km route as the one-day race called the Malealea Monster, held every spring and organised by the lodge manager. There is strong community support for mountain biking around Malealea, evidenced by their groomed and well-maintained trails. But there was still plenty of spice in the riding, just enough to keep things interesting and fun and a perfect diversion from the lack of oxygen at 1,900m. Although I wasn’t as affected by the altitude as Steffen, my back was killing me. I wanted to complain, but we kept passing women walking with impossibly large loads of wood, blankets or other heavy items stacked high on their backs and heads. All my training in the right zones, in the gym, in the mountains… but these women made me feel so wimpy. They were the true definition of strength. Well into their elder years, they work hard in their homes, fields, and villages. I thought about the meaning of ‘suffering’. The suffering I was experiencing on my bike – back pain, burning leg muscles, hunger – were all a type of privileged suffering, chosen and voluntary, and, therefore, not true suffering at all. At the end of the day, I would eat tasty, plentiful food, take a hot shower, have access to clean drinking water, and even a massage if I wanted to pay for it. These would all be considered luxuries for the average Basotho.
That’s the weird thing about participating in an organised event and staying in tourist accommodation in a poor country. There’s a disconnect between the foreigner and the local people, between the comforts the visitor demands and the hardships of village life. I wanted to see their real lives. To be invited in for a chat, and see what they were cooking, and where they stored their food and water. But we only rode through and past, while trying to absorb as much as possible. The woman sweeping the dirt in front of her house. The sheep running through the meadow. Fields of yellow flowers blooming. The big white USAID tent, the American aid organisation, where people distributed large sacks of goods. Old people walking along the road, smiling and laughing as we passed. And then, finally, Roma Trading Post, our destination for the night.
Roma is bigger than the other towns we visited. It has the country’s only university and a long history of missionary work. Even on the outskirts of town where we stayed, I felt a different energy. It reminded me of something I experienced while trekking through the mountains in Nepal many years ago. After walking for several days through small remote villages, my friend and I arrived in a larger town where many people wore Western-style clothing and the shops sold recognisable brands of snack foods, candy, and sodas. Our usual ‘namaste’ greeting was not as warmly returned as in other places, and it was the first time we felt a little uneasy as two women travelling alone.
Around the globe there is a complicated mix of positive and negative impacts that the modern outside world brings to a developing country. I suppose it’s unrealistic for people to implement a clean water system or a vaccination programme in a remote village somewhere without intentionally or unintentionally influencing the locals, despite having the simple goal of improving health outcomes. With the benefits of education and opportunity, often come the negative aspects of outside influence. We have a basic human right to access things, tools, ideas that make us healthier and smarter. But how much is too much? How do we live simply in a world that is constantly telling us to want something more or different?
I must admit that on the next day’s ride, I was guilty of ‘wanting’ something different. The thing is, I don’t actually like racing. There’s that whole competitive thing that can take the fun out of a good ride. And there are lots of uphills – not my strong point. Stage racing rewards the consistent, prepared and patient rider. Taking big chances today means paying for it tomorrow, and there are many tomorrows in a stage race. My problem is that I’m always worrying about tomorrow, so I ride too slow today. My only race strategy is to try to ride faster than people who aren’t nice to me. Let’s be real… anyone riding in the back of the pack where I am is clearly not in contention for a podium finish, so why not take two seconds to say hello?
Lost in thought.
This was the first year that Lesotho Sky required the use of GPS instead of providing route marking. Sometimes it was a little difficult and we questioned the route when it looked like we might ride directly through a farmer’s pasture or a private footpath behind houses. But inevitably there would be a local nearby to point the way, assuring us we were still on track. And at the end of stage four we were happy to be back at the Ramabanta Lodge, taking in the views of the Maloti Mountains. Day five was one of our shortest (52 km), but most technical days, on a loop that brought us back to Ramabanta. The riding was fun and varied with steep, rocky downhills, flowy singletrack, technical uphills and creek crossings. I had so much fun that I forgot to feel tired. By this time, we had made friends with many riders in the back of the group and had fun both encouraging and heckling each other along the way. I love this about stage races – it is so easy to bond with people in this environment. At five to seven days, they offer the perfect mix of time, bike riding, and pain that inevitably brings people together.
While our race timetable kept us separate from local life, the organisers did their best to teach us about the positives of Lesotho, aspects perhaps not revealed in internet searches. Every night we learned a few phrases in Sesotho, the local language, and something about the advocacy work that helps promote and develop cycling in the country. We were introduced to the ACE Lesotho MTB Team – the country’s first professional mountain bike team, who for the first time had entered two female riders in Lesotho Sky. Bakang, a road racer from Botswana, told me that she is one of only three black female bike racers in her entire country. It was more food for thought in a trip which – while riding a bike worth more than a Basotho family’s annual income – had me wondering about my role as a visitor, a woman, and bike rider.
Not just passing through.
The Semonkong Lodge, our starting point for the final stage, is in a beautiful canyon on the Maletsunyane River. Semonkong means ‘place of smoke’, named after the ‘smoke’ spray created by nearby Maletsunyane Falls. This stunning area and the lodge is a peaceful oasis in contrast to the nearby town centre of Semonkong, which consists of corrugated metal shacks lined up in tight rows. The shacks serve as tiny stores where merchants sell anything from socks and beer to roasted meat. There is a gas station and one small grocery store (where later we would feel ridiculous parking our family-size rental van next to two donkeys in the dirt ‘parking lot’).
We started our ride by climbing out of the canyon, and although my legs were resisting another day of riding, I wanted to soak up the last of the Lesotho magic. It had been a week of beautiful landscapes, trails, and people – not uncommon for a stage race. But riding in a drastically different culture added so much to the experience.
Lesotho Sky promotes itself as ‘a ride of passage’, and I couldn’t have described it better as it made me think about the importance of broadening my perspective. Riding new trails in different places will not only expand my skills, but also change the way I see the world. There will always be someone faster, trails I can’t ride, and new techniques to be learned. There will always be people with more and people with less. While I may not be able to solve all the social inequalities of the world, I think it’s my responsibility to at least understand them better, and to practice humility and gratitude in everything I do. In the meantime, Steffen and I are looking for our next mind-expanding ride, because we’re pretty sure that we’ll find most of life’s answers while riding a bike.