I’m not sure what I was expecting from Lesotho, but it sure wasn’t Marmite. As we sit down to breakfast I spot several pots of this black, glue-like yeast extract dotted about the table, ready to spread on our toast. Marmite is about as British as you can get. It’s sharp and ridiculously salty — too salty to be liked by Canada’s Kevin Landry or Switzerland’s Claudio Caluori and most of the rest of the world— and is probably Britain’s least successful export. You’ll struggle to find it anywhere outside the U.K. but Lesotho has it stockpiled.
Lesotho is a small country completely encircled by South Africa, that for 98 years was a British protectorate. That’s the Marmite connection. In the 1800’s, the British helped the local Sotho tribes to ward off the land-grabbing attentions of the Boer settlers, and kept a colonial grasp on this small country until Lesotho finally got its independence in 1966.
But the reason you won’t know about Marmite in Lesotho is the same reason you won’t know that this country has some of the best mountain biking on the planet. Simply put, Lesotho has almost zero foreign tourism and word about its trails hasn’t travelled far, until now.
In April I arrived in Lesotho with Kevin and Claudio to ride a six day traverse of its southern mountains, an idea put together by Christian Schmidt and Darol Howes, a couple of local mountain bikers who organise the Lesotho Sky XC race. Their idea was to showcase this amazing country and put it on the mountain bikers’ map. The route they had plotted for us to follow was a 180-Kilometre long ride across wild mountains and through remote villages connected only by horse trails. Nobody had ridden this route end–to-end, and to make sure we finished it we had HaveAGoodOne’s Tobi Steinigeweg and Max Stolarow along to film the endeavour.
Lesotho has few roads, especially within its interior mountains. But the car-salesman’s loss is the mountain biker’s gain. Here the horse is the vehicle of choice, and a century of horse riding has left a legacy of singletrack trails that crisscross the mountains between villages. Our 6-day ride followed these horse trails, and out front we were led and guided by a horseman, Leputhing ‘Isaac’ Molapo. Isaac is 22 years old and one of the latest generation continuing the country’s iconic horsemen tradition.
We arrive at our ride start point thanks to the efforts of Mission Aviation Fellowship, who squeezed us and our bikes into their 4-seater Cessna’s for the short flight to Semonkong’s airstrip. Our pilots Matt Monson and Justin Honaker are happy to lend some help to get our trip off to a spectacular start, and to help get word out that Lesotho is open for mountain biking tourism. In this poor country, tourism can play a big part in changing lives for the better in many villages. Our pilots bank their little planes low over the Maletsunyane waterfalls — probably Lesotho’s only known tourist attraction— before touching down in Semonkong, in time for breakfast and Marmite.
Later we ride out to the waterfalls on trails we spotted from the air, before riding out of Semonkong the next day brimming with excitement and the usual anxieties that come with committing rides into the unknown. Ahead of us are countless climbs and descents, all on natural trails that come with the rewards and surprises of real all-mountain riding. Here we’re a million miles away from bermed DH tracks and bike park northshore. Instead our ride is one of steeped in adventure.
Our horseman Isaac leads us effortlessly over high mountain passes and drops behind as we rail descents, pushing our wheels through dusty rock gardens and cold mountain rivers alike, before beginning the next inevitable climb towards our night’s accommodation.
Unseasonal rainstorms add to the challenges and make the couple of nights we spend in luxurious lodges a very welcome reward for our efforts. On other nights we camp or are housed in old, disused trading posts, local villagers cooking up a feast for us in makeshift kitchens erected next door.
Our six days are some of the most rewarding any of us have had anywhere, mixing real all-mountain riding with endless cultural interactions with locals. We ride trails choked with technical challenges in places and endless flow in others, and emerge six days later, tired, dirty but happy.
We have experienced Lesotho’s horse trails and its hospitality, being welcomed into people’s houses as if we are family. And we have made new friends, including one called Isaac.
Few people, if any, have ridden bikes on these trails before us, but we’re sure plenty will follow in the footsteps of Lesotho’s iconic horsemen. Whether Isaac is leading you or not, riding these century old horse trails over rugged, wild mountains means following the horsemen.
Ride this trip for yourself here.
Words/Photos : Dan MilnerVideo : Haveagoodone