The Roof of Africa Rally is the granddaddy of extreme off-road racing in Africa, and perhaps the world, having first run in 1965— 13 years before the Paris-Dakar started.
It is one of five global extreme enduros, and its various routes over the years have always included very difficult terrain across the northern part of Lesotho, a small mountainous kingdom that is entirely surrounded by South Africa, and is known as the “Roof of Africa”.
The Kingdom of Lesotho sits high, almost entirely between 2,000-3,200 metres in elevation. It became a British protectorate in 1869, rejected inclusion in South Africa, and gained independence in 1966. Although it has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, the population survives by subsistence agriculture— largely cattle and sheep herding.
Darrell van de Merwe operates a game farm outside Johannesburg, but his passion is riding his BMW R1200 GS Adventure all over the southern half of Africa. I first met him back in 2010, when he helped a misfortune-plagued group of 35 Canadian dual sport riders on a planned 36-day grand tour of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Darrell was instrumental in rehabilitating that trip from a dark comedy of errors into a life-defining experience for its participants.
After that adventure, my longtime riding buddy, Harry Strothard, persuaded Darrell to put together a trip of all of his most challenging rides in South Africa and Lesotho. The star attraction was to be the primary route of the Roof of Africa Rally, including its most challenging part, the famous Sani Pass.
That was how I found myself on a BMW F800 GS rental, chasing Darrell, Harry and Scott Dill over 4000 kilometres of two-lane tar road, mountain passes and rocky traverses over 13 days this past winter. As Darrell explained, this had been set up for riding — not sightseeing — through the most challenging of routes and mountain passes. The WFO character of the trip had not really been apparent in advance, but here we were, rocketing across the African countryside, with Chris Procter making up our group of five. I asked myself, Why am I doing this on a rental that has to arrive back in perfect shape, while interesting countryside flies by at 120?
Our adventure started in Cape Town where we picked up our rental machines before spending the first night in a hostel. The next day gave us an opportunity to get used to the bikes. We ventured south along the beautiful Garden Route coast to the Cape of Good Hope, then to Cape Agulas, the most southerly point in Africa. From there it was up through the desolate Karoo area on route 62, with the obligatory stop at Ronnie’s Sex Shop — an isolated roadside bar with a great marketing hook, and into the Swartberg Nature Reserve.
This was country made for BMW’s big R1200GS, which explains why it was introduced to the international press here when it was launched in 2004. It is, by far, the predominant motorcycle seen in South Africa. All types of terrain exist here, from wide open terrain to rocky roads, dead straight dirt paths to paved twisties, which are all perfectly suited to the GS lineup. Our target for the night was an isolated farming settlement at the dead end of 45 kilometres of rocky mountain switchbacks (appropriately known as Die Hel — The Hell). We arrived safely and dinner was delivered, by basket, to our adobe hut deep in the valley. We chowed down and drank beer under lights powered by car batteries.
The next day was more back country and high desert dirt roads (at high speeds) on our way to the Baviaanskloof Nature Preserve. That night’s stay was in a large open cave, reportedly subject to night-time snooping by a local leopard. It was quite comfortable, really, and we rested well for the next day’s adventures.
Day three took us through the Baviaans area, where we dodged monkeys, baboons, donkeys and long water crossings (thankfully low at this time). Darrell’s GS inhaled a few quarts of river and gave us the first of our mechanical adventures. It was then over another mountain pass, through a beautiful and rich citrus grower valley, and finally to Jeffrey’s Bay, a world surfer mecca where we claimed comfy seaside rooms in a hostel filled with surfer kids and backpackers.
The next day was a long transit day to get close to Lesotho, our own mecca on this trip. We left at 6 a.m. to tackle the 600 km trek into high ranch country, finishing off with another challenging and beautiful mountain pass Darrell had in his bag of tricks. We stayed at the Mountain View Country Inn in Lady Grey, which turned out to be owned by a former R&D engineer for BMW who moseyed out of his fully equipped workshop with some tips the next morning when we were puzzling over another mechanical issue. What are the odds of that?
This was the day for us to venture into Lesotho for the heart of the trip. Lesotho features lush desert, magnificent scenery and no infrastructure to speak of, peopled by ancient tribes living at subsistence levels. The roads are not primarily used by vehicles, but by people and livestock, walking — everywhere, even in remote areas — with shepherds tending or droving their herds at every bend.
While Darrell tended to a mechanical issue (a duff fuel pump), we set off by GPS, stopping in the university town of Roma to lunch on chicken roasted on half an oil drum, with corn meal and spinach on the side (flavouring was partly Castrol). The tropical medicine doctor had warned against eating this sort of thing, but it was delicious, and no ill effects followed.
The high point of the trip for me was the long afternoon ride on dirt roads into Semonkong, a remote town in the centre of Lesotho. The roads and hills offered expansive, green vistas, peppered with people and livestock, the ladies in their church-going best (it was a Sunday). We saw young boys struggling to plow small hillside plots with massive oxen, donkeys with quarters of beef strapped to each side or laden with massive sacks of maize meal, washing days in progress in the sun, kids swimming in rivers or galloping bareback on the local ponies, women balancing five gallon pails on their heads, shepherds wrapped in their felted balaclavas and heavy blankets, impassive until our waves prompted hearty thumbs up, minibuses careening along full of people, schoolyards swarming with kids in their school uniforms going berserk over the motorcycles. As dark rain clouds gathered and then let loose, we rolled into Semonkong’s litter-filled dirt streets, lined with corrugated metal shacks, and broken down camping trailers. Cocky young shepherds strolled around in their blankets, rode in on ponies or huddled in shacks or trailers, all very friendly and outgoing.
Semonkong provided another high point, in accommodation this time— the Semonkong Lodge, originally built for managers of the Fraser Trading Company (a dominant supplier in Lesotho) but now operated for the few adventurers who make it that far. Superb food and service, including tea, coffee and biscuits were delivered at the door of your luxury thatched roof hut at 7 a.m.
After watching the morning commute of sheep, cows, shepherd dudes and fathers taking their kids to school on horseback from our breakfast terrace, we were on the bikes again to see the spectacular Maletsunyane Falls, the highest single-drop waterfall in southern Africa at 192 metres. The good folks at Semonkong Lodge offer an “abseil” (rappelling) down the face of the falls, but we could not, ahem, er, spare the time, sadly. We pressed on to another mountain lodge in Malealea, where we passed the late afternoon doing our best to rehabilitate a duff wheel bearing with a spare toothbrush, gasoline, axle grease— and more beer.
The next day, the bearing was not clanking above 40 km/h, so we were good for the long ride around the entire southern rim of Lesotho. This was mostly along the Senqu River, providing great views again, and the best two-lane blacktop I’ve ridden: 175 kilometres of swooping, twisting, mountainside thrills and very little traffic. Thankfully, I had adapted to carving left-side lines around trucks that suddenly appeared around bends with big drop-offs…
Our destination on day eight was the former Prime Minister’s lodge at Sehlabatheba National Park, accessed by some challenging, badly potholed mountain dirt roads, and a long double-track trail of fist-sized rocks of all shapes. The F800 GS responded well to dirt bike-style attacks, but my new Anakee rear tire did not, yielding a three-inch long gash that blew out with an explosive pop the next day. More adventure, especially considering the backup tube was junk.
The lodge was set in a beautiful and isolated area of unusual rock formations and mountain cliffs shrouded in fog. There was no electricity, but functional were the gas-fired stove, water heaters and old-style gas mantle light fixtures like we haven’t used in Canada in a century. Dinner was DIY from random items we picked up in town.
The next day took us out of Lesotho to the Drakensburg mountain area of South Africa, by way of a decrepit border post with a broken down tour bus labeled “Ghetto Tours” (I’m still puzzled how that marketing hook was supposed to work). After some brutal roads, we wound up in farming country reminiscent of the English countryside, replete with stuffy old Brits tootling around in their Jaguar saloons and vintage Land Rovers.
After a night anticipating brawls in the hotel bar sparked by some jolly bikers testing the new BMW K1600 GT, we scheduled a free day to just mosey around or blast as we chose, some down to the city of Durban, others around the countryside. The downtime and freedom was rejuvenating. The next day featured the notch-in-the-belt highlight of the trip — the Sani Pass — a rock and shale-strewn climb from South Africa into Lesotho again, to a height of almost 10,000 feet, on which the only autos allowed must have four-wheel drive. This pass rivals the Stelvio Pass in Italy not in the number of hairpins, but in the dread that a glance over the barrier-free drop-offs provokes. We made it up with only one minor bike drop (mine, and expensive), and we were soon inhaling well-earned suds at “The Highest Pub in Africa”.
We then had a long traverse over the northern part of Lesotho to our lodgings just over the border in South Africa, the primary route for the Roof of Africa Rally. This involved 250 kilometres of a seriously degraded main road, with spots of paving interspersed in what was really a broken field of interminable potholes, all at 10,000 feet. We were looking down at the clouds over South Africa, flying over ten-foot-long potholes that had the centrestand scraping the road as the suspension bottomed. The BMW performed admirably. Good on you, F800.
Our last night out was in Fouriesburg in South Africa, another holdout of the old Afrikaans Africa, with bluster and charm to suit. That led into our final day, another high speed 300 km run to Johannesburg to return the bikes to the rental shop on time. There was a lot of hemming and hawing over hefty charges for cosmetic damage, but that’s what you’re in for on rental bikes. We sorted that out, cleaned up at a day lodge and headed to the airport to catch our flights back.
Lesotho is a must-do for adventure riders, and this was a great trip — just under 4,000 kilometres in twelve and a half days of navigating some of the finest riding areas on the continent.
If You Go:
Be aware that medical care or breakdown assistance in Lesotho will be one or two days away, unless you put a helicopter on standby. There is no auto insurance coverage to speak of in Lesotho or South Africa, and rental bikes have to arrive back in perfect shape (our combined bill for cosmetic damage to three bikes was close to $2,000). Although this trip was set for all-out riding, Darrell offers many trip options through his company, GS Adventures Motorcycle Tours, including touring, sightseeing and wildlife. He can also do a shorter tour into Lesotho from and returning to Johannesburg, which I would recommend.
Paul Trethewey is a business lawyer practicing in downtown Toronto. This story was first published in Inside Motorcycles print issue 15.03 May/ June 2012.