Return to the Mountain Kingdom

Blog 5 by Mick: Return to The Mountain Kingdom

We woke more rested but found our room at the Amphitheatre Backpackers had been booked out that morning, so we moved to the campground as we were still in need of some quiet time. We settled in for a couple days of chilling; with me reading, writing blogs, and admiring the views of the Drakensberg with a beer or three, while Tanya was far more disciplined and used the time to do some study. It was a good time to be inside as the westerly wind was hellish and our tent flapped like crazy.

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Setting up camp at Ampithetre Backpackers

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Sunset wasn’t half bad

Some interesting characters materialised, one being an aussie fella, Liam, on a 1981 Yamaha XT500 which he had just bought and wanted to ride throughout Africa. He was also an avid photographer and offered many of the guests a free lesson in nighttime photography as conditions were near ideal; the moon set early and we were in an agricultural area with minimal light pollution.

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The Milky Way in all its glory

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A fire on a local hill made for spectacular photography

Liam’s XT500 wasn’t running particularly well, at full throttle it was protesting loudly with lots of backfiring. We did a bit of investigation, pulled the plug, checked the air filter and did a couple test rides; it seemed it was running a bit rich so we did a poor-man’s rejet and removed the cover off the airbox. The bike ran better so we assumed we were on the right track.

The following day we figured we better go see what this old XT was capable of, so I plotted a route of interesting looking local tracks on the GPS and off we went. Alarm bells should have rung when we started going through a few farm gates, but I assumed that if the tracks were plotted on the map (in this case the GPS) they must be public access, farm gates or not, much like many station tracks are in Oz. Just leave them like you found them and all is well.

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About to hit some trails on the XT500

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that’s not quite right though. After about half an hour on some really nice trails we ran into a farmer who was very, very confused as to who we were and why we were there. He let us move on once he realised we were dumb tourists and pointed us in the direction of the main road. The magnitude of our folly crystalised as we arrived at the back of a quite high-end accommodation village called Little Switzerland, complete with rows of European style cottages and a couple Zebras. We amused the security guards greatly as we appeared from nowhere and exited past the guardhouse and through the boom gates.

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Just gone through a farm gate on the way to Little Switzerland

We pushed on up Oliviershoek Pass and out to Retiefklip, a small memorial for early settlers who travelled through this way from the Free State and down to KwaZulu Natal. The XT was behaving itself and was managing the dirt roads without a problem so we followed a sign out to Retiefpas with a hope of finding an interesting way back down the escarpment. There was a small trail plotted on the GPS but it didn’t seem to join up with the road, but maybe with some investigation we could find a way.

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Bikes at Retiefklip

Unfortunately there was no way down we could see at Retiefpas, which was confirmed by a grumpy farmer at the end of the road. We turned back the way we came, but not long later the XT disappeared from my mirrors. I turned around and found Liam stopped over a large puddle of fluid a few metres after a 200mm high square edged lip where the dirt met the tar. Oh shit, this isn’t good.

Thankfully my initial thought that the bike had cased out and cracked the crank case wasn’t the case at all. Liam had slowed enough to avoid that, but the sharp hit had caused the float mechanism in the carburetor to unhinge and fuel was leaking everywhere. It was starting to get late so we decided to tow the XT home, which was about 25kms away including the descent of Oliviershoek Pass.

We didn’t get home without incident however, at one stage the XT got out of alignment and the DR went over the towrope, wrapping around the rear wheel and snapping. Thankfully no damage was done to the bike, and after cutting the rope from the rear hub, we got underway again and the DR tractored away and lugged the XT home. Liam shouted the beers that night.

We pulled the carb apart the following day and fixed the float, checking the main jet and needle while we were in there. The cause of the rich mixture was found with the needle lifted nearly as high as it could go. Some owners are so damn clever sometimes, especially when it comes to making “power”. We dropped it to the middle of its travel, gave it a clean and had the bike running sweetly again.

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Liam with his carb in bits

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I took the opportunity to reverse my front tyre which was wearing unevenly

That night while everyone was enjoying themselves after dinner, two quite drunk and quite large local farming types turned up (driving, it should be mentioned) and looking for trouble. They unsuccessfully tried to pick a few fights and when asked to leave, robbed one of the vehicles in the carpark after trying to break into some of the rooms. When confronted by the owner of the bakky (ute) which was robbed, they attempted to run him over. Twice. Caught in the act, they raced off and clipped the gate on the way out. With all that excitement, it was time for us to go.

We all hit the road the next day, Liam heading north on his XT and us heading west. We made our way back up to Witsieshoek, where Barbara and Jan, the managers there, remembered us and once again looked after us very well. During our flying visit to the Sentinel with Charlie the week previous, we had decided had to return. We had been told there were some great hikes with chain ladders and we figured we better see them.

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Liam all packed up and heading to Ladysmith on the old girl

We settled in with a few rums, a fantastic steak and caught up with the news. To our great concern, we learned of a coup de etat in progress in Lesotho, which we planned on entering in the next couple days. This was quite worrying, as there were reports of police fighting in the streets with elements of the army who were attempting to overthrow the government.

We had a wonderful nights sleep in the suite that Jan and Barbara had upgraded us to, and made our way up to The Sentinel carpark in the morning. With little real knowledge of where we were actually going, we set off up the trail, which must be said, isn’t particularly well marked. We had left under the assumption that the chain ladders are used to climb The Sentinel itself, but after about one and a half hours of following our nose, and then about 15 minutes or so of backtracking to find the trail to the top of the Sentinel, we realised it doesn’t actually exist. So we carried on, found the chain ladders, and finished the hike at Tugela Falls at the top of the Amphitheatre.

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Hiking trail below the sentinel

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And some more

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Tan on a tricky bit, the trails were a bit rough

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Tan on the first chain ladder

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Me on the second chain ladder

We relaxed at the top of the falls for half an hour so enjoying the spectacular view, when a group of young French guys arrived and we got chatting. They had planned on touring Lesotho, but had recently been advised by the French Embassy in Jo’burg to not enter due to the political instability. That night we had a good chat with Barbara and Jan about the situation, and as they seemed not overly concerned by it, we resolved to get some reports a little closer to the action before deciding whether to abandon the Lesotho leg altogether.

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View from the top

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Chilling in the sun

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The walk back down

We dawdled the following morning as we endeavored to get the blog to upload. Reliable internet has become a perennial struggle for us – it was one of the reasons we stayed so long at Amphitheatre Backpackers and left so frustrated, their internet was horrifically slow and hideously expensive. Thankfully Witsieshoek was better and got the job done, and our delay meant we ran into a local fellow who stopped for a cuppa.

We chatted with Mark about Lesotho and he mentioned the “Roof of Africa” Extreme Enduro, a tough offroad motorcycle race through Lesotho’s rocky passes which he had competed in a number of times. Talk of the race peaked our interest, so we checked out the website and found on the ground and up to date Lesotho info and news articles on their facebook and twitter feed. A quick look there confirmed that all was quiet in the capital Meseru and we decided to go have a look at the border the following day.

We left and rode out to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, the location of the Besotho Cultural Centre. We did a tour there, learnt about Besutho history and culture, dressed up in cow hides and blankets, drank some traditional sorghum beer, ate some sorghum porridge and quite enjoyed the visit, not so much the sorghum.

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Milling sorghum by hand

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Witch doctor can tell your future from some bones for 30 rand. I passed up the opportunity……

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Tan getting dressed up

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Traditional Besotho house interior

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The ride to Clarens through the NP was stunning, a great road past overhanging cliffs of wonderful oranges and reds, including spotting a herd of Zebra. Clarens was an eye opener, a lovely little town on first sight and very reminiscent of Hanmer Springs in New Zealand with a very touristy village feel. The backpackers we stayed in was an eye opener too. The walls between the toilet cubicles were about waist high giving a quite communal, community feel. And Tan got the fright of her life when she found a fellow traveller sitting in his car checking if his pistol was loaded. Rest assured we slept with the doors and windows locked.

Lovely views in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Our planned ride the following day was only a few hours so we took the time in the morning to check the bikes over and lube the chains. We found Tan’s bike low on oil and I was in need of more antihistamines. The westerly winds that had started a week earlier were playing havoc with my sinuses and I had quickly consumed our meager stock of medication.

We rode through to Caledonspoort, a major border post in the north west of Lesotho. Everything at the border was functioning as normal so we were happy to enter, however we hit a hiccup when we got to the Lesotho side. Our immigration official was very unhappy that hadn’t gotten stamped out the previous time we left the country through Monantsa Pass. We had been advised by some locals who had used this route previously that when re-entering Lesotho the next all that was needed was an explanation that you had exited stampless through Monantsa and all would be fine.

This is not so.

Our official was a very grumpy lady indeed that we had left this way unstamped and put us in the naughty corner to wait for her boss to return from lunch to decide what to do with us. We pleaded ignorance and begged for forgiveness but weren’t overly concerned, we could always just head back into SA, and settled in for our estimated hour and a half or so of time-out before the big boss would return.

15 minutes later the lady called us back and stamped us through, her patience was a little feebler than ours. Two foreigners camped up in the middle of immigration reading books would be rather annoying I would assume. So we were told to have a good hard think about ourselves and promise to be good next time. We got our visas and made our merry way, returning to the mountain kingdom.

2 Comments on “Return to the Mountain Kingdom

  1. Loving the stories Mick! (And the night time photography!!!) I hope Tanya’s studies finish up soon so she can fully relax 🙂 keep up the good work!

  2. No doubt about it, your SA experience is so much better than ours. So glad for you to have these wonderful times and meeting so many good people along the way. Charlie didn’t get in touch, shame too. The photos are brilliant and the night sky photos are stunning. My hope is to become a good night sky photographer also. Love Mum