My touring to date has been with friends on roads in northern Europe, so signing up for a mixed on and off road tour of southern Africa with a group of strangers was going to be a new experience.
Riding between 200km – 350km a day, our routes criss-crossed the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Rarely dipping below 5,000ft we moved between the wide open high veldt and the majestic scenery of the Drakensburg mountains where twice we rode over passes higher than 10,000ft.
Compared to Europe the roads were immaculate, practically empty and ran through spectacular countryside, though there were still one or two surprises to keep your heart rate up. Off the tar the tracks on the veldt were smooth and made up of gravel over compacted mud, giving a sensation of aquaplaning, but at higher altitude they were slower, more twisty, lumpy and rain damaged, with plenty of ruts and lose rock to negotiate.
The local people were without exception friendly and welcoming. South Africa felt more European, but life in Lesotho felt slower and simpler particularly deeper into the countryside. Whenever we stopped children appeared in seconds out of nowhere, clambering on the bikes given half a chance. We must have been quite a sight on our bikes, dressed in suits and helmets compared to the more usual local combination of balaclavas, blankets and wellies with riders mounted on ponies.
It seems unfair to have to pick out highlights, but the ride up from Pitseng over the 10,500ft Mafika Lisiu Pass was breathtaking. The view from the top of the pass looking 25km back down the valley was stunning, and we could see most of the road we had just ridden – mile after mile of climbing flowing bends on an immaculate deserted surface. Of equal splendour was the view of the plain from Paradise Gate at Malealea, which we crossed from the other direction a week later.
The Sani Pass, on most bikers’ bucket list, was everything I hoped for, while the view from the foot of the 200m Maletsuyane Falls at Semonkong with the sun making rainbows through the spray truly awesome.
There was much to learn and re-learn, for novices and experts alike. Treat knobbly tyres with respect; never pass a fuel stop; good roads are not immune from rockfalls, speed humps and itinerant livestock; off road or on, ride assertively, maintain momentum and trust the bike, which for an off-road novice takes more courage and faith than you think.
Above all though, go at a pace that lets you appreciate your surroundings, and stop often to chat with the locals. Oh, and lastly, don’t go on a big bike unless you’re sure you’ll be able to pick it up on your own!