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Mail & Gaurdian Article '08
Kevin Davie | Johannesburg, South Africa | 01 June 2008

There are three of us and we are about to receive some Basotho hospitality at the village of Ha Sepechela in south-eastern Lesotho.

The village is pretty remote, comprising about 30 chimneyless huts. Here residents leave the top half of their stable-type doors open to allow smoke to escape. There is a school, taps for water but no electricity or cellphone reception. For much of the year Ha Sepechela is accessible only by foot (your own or those of a horse). We have come by bike.

The Ha Sepechela village with the snow-capped peaks in the background

The previous night at the briefing at the home of Mark and Nicky McLeod, near Matatiele, we are advised to head for the nearest village should an emergency arise, rather than hunker down in a ravine. The McLeods have organised a cycle trip in Lesotho every year for about 18 years now.

Known as the Thin Air, the numbers are kept deliberately small because the logistics are so challenging from a cycling and seconding point of view. Many come back year after year to challenge themselves, or their vehicles, in the mountains. There is a strong community outreach element too, with funds raised beforehand to buy blankets for an orphanage and clothing distributed during the four-day trip.

We leave early morning from Matatiele in the Eastern Cape and travel by 4x4 up into Lesotho through Qacha’s Nek. Then we drive up precipitous passes and across rivers to the village of Ha Nyatso. Here we get on our bikes and begin traversing footpaths and cattle tracks.

We have a description of our route and GPS to make matters easy. By early afternoon we carry our bikes up to a neck 2 800m high. The tempreture drops to just two degrees and the weather is closing in. By now our little group of three has grown to five. The two newcomers, James and Kim, are in some distress.

James is woefully unprepared for the weather even though this is the third time he is tackling these mountains. He curls up in a foetal position whenever we stop, trying to retain some body heat. Kim shakes from the cold.

We know we have to go down to the village, but in the mist we cannot see how to get off it.

Our sole functioning GPS does not help, appearing to give contradictory indications of the direction we should be heading. At times we follow tracks of other cyclists who came through earlier.

By 5pm we have been on the mountain for several hours and it becomes clear that we need to get off it if we are not going to spend the night there.

We hear distorted sounds of village life to our left, but opt to trust the GPS for a while because the sounds might be distorted in the misty conditions. We finally succumb and head towards the clanking bells and people somewhere below us.

The end of the day nears when we finally see outlines of the first huts in the village. Our campsite is more than 20km away and -- given that we have spent more than two hours negotiating a single kilometre -- we can’t even think of going further.

James and Kim stop at the first hut and refuse to go any further even though we say that a vehicle might be waiting for us at the track below the village. It turns out there isn’t.

We are pointed to the chief’s hut. I realise that my so-called waterproof outer jacket really isn’t, even though I washed it in a special substance before the trip to make sure I remain dry. I am soaked right through and start shivering when we reach the chief’s house.

Once inside we sit around the small fire in a brazier in the centre of the hut. Gerrit immediately has to leave as he cannot take the smoky conditions. But, in the toss-up between the cold outside and the smoke inside, the smoke wins.

The chief is a shadowy figure in a Basotho blanket and boots. In the smoke and darkness I cannot make out his features. His wife sits next to him, cooking vetkoek on the brazier. This village is below the tree line and even though they plant their own trees, wood is obviously in short supply.

They burn a single log, frequently adding a type of heather to keep the fire going. A crackly radio brings news from South Africa.

Fortunately, one of our number, Hennie, is fluent in isiZulu, as is the chief’s wife. They tell us we can stay and feed us vetkoek and tea.

By about 6pm, we are shown to our quarters for the night, in the next hut. There is a foam mattress on the floor and eight Basotho blankets. I have started to shiver in my damp clothes from walking the short distance from one hut to the next. I take off most of my clothes and wrap two blankets around me.

We are given a basin and hot water to wash and a bucket to pee in. (You wouldn’t want to think about stepping outside during the night, even for a short period.)

In the morning there is a powdering of snow on the peaks around us. While eating more vetkoek, two people appear in cycling gear. I realise they are not Kim and James, but are part of a group of seven who spent the night in another hut in the village. Twelve of us -- about a third of the field -- have not made it to the overnight stop.

The 12 of us buzz with the experience of the night before as we cycle the muddy track away from Ha Sepechela. One host insisted that her guests sleep in her bed, which she vacated for them. Others refused payment, but when money was forced on them they used it to buy food to feed their cyclist guests.

Hospitality is deeply rooted in this culture. The weather is so changeable and conditions so extreme that getting caught in life-threatening conditions is part of the way of life.

We wonder, as we tackle the mud, on the way out of Ha Sepechela, what we would do if a Mosotho pitched up at our Joburg homes and asked to be accommodated for the night.

Underpinning the annual event is not much more than a deep love of the mountains. Nicky tells me that in the 18 years they have organised the annual jamboree, never have the conditions been as bad.

This is underscored some days later when we are safely back home and news comes through from further north in the Drakensberg of two deaths near Witsieshoek.

It appears that a prayer group got caught in the mountains. Several were hospitalised the next day and two did not survive.

You can’t win the Thin Air challenge. There are no prizes for coming first. Still this year the prize would have gone to Steve Black, a trail runner, who ran the 154km, several times ascending above 3 000m.

On day four we packed up our campsite alongside a river with a waterfall crashing into it.

The place is like a huge food basket, filled with vast rolling wheat fields and fat cattle, the whole circled by the mountain majesty all around us.

Our job is to get the 4x4s up the hill through wet and marshy tracks.

Black, meanwhile, armed with some Basotho bread and not much else, is running back to Underberg, about 40km away.