Come on a mesmerizing journey through the tip of Africa as told in Ride Out!
Mountainous and landlocked Lesotho is a more challenging and much chillier option than South Africa, but adventurers traveling to this neighboring region will be rewarded with immense natural beauty and untouched hilltop passes.
The Garden Route is a spectacular stretch of the coast road N2 running for 200 km (120 mi) through Garden Route National Park, a land of ancient forests, blue-green lagoons and estuaries, and golden beaches.
Southern Africa, the region at the verdant tip of the continent, is a wilderness quite unlike the sandy, rocky deserts, dense tropical rainforests, and sprawling Serengeti grasslands that cover the north. South Africa and Lesotho are defined by the Great Escarpment, the soaring edge of the African plateau that tracks the curved southern coast about 50 km (30 mi) inland, almost touching it in places like George, and giving Cape Town its startling Table Mountain backdrops.
It is the remnant of a rift valley created by the Gondwana supercontinent ripping apart about 180 million years ago, the opposite wall of which is today somewhere in the sea off the east coast of Argentina. South Africa completely surrounds landlocked Lesotho. A sort of Switzerland of Africa, Lesotho is a mountainous island with a complex topography forming an impassable natural border that has kept it somewhat immune from the continent’s historical turbulence. It has the promise, then, of cruel switchbacks and delightful vistas. While South Africa is heavily touristed with generally excellent infrastructure, Lesotho is isolated, poor but safe, with dirt roads the standard, four-wheel drive necessary, as many horses as cars, and occasionally devilish passes that require sustained attention.
Leaving Cape Town beneath the colossal Great Escarpment, the first stretch of the inland Route 62—a tourist road running 800 km (500 mi) east to colonial Eastern Cape city Port Elizabeth—is worth a visit to ease into this adventure. It meanders through the city’s eastern hinterland before breaking out into the picturesque, gastropub-dotted Winelands region, home to Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and others, with activities such as spelunking and rock climbing on offer. Onward to the semidesert Karoo, where past Oudtshoorn’s ostrich farms (which offer rides on the giant birds) there are turnoffs south to the western start of the famous Garden Route around the coastal towns of Mossel Bay and George. The Garden Route is a spectacular stretch of the N2 coast road running for 200 km (120 mi) through Garden Route National Park to the border of Eastern Cape province and the green gorges of Tsitsikamma National Park. It is a passage through a land of ancient forests, blue-green lagoons and estuaries, and golden beaches.
A large number of wildlife sanctuaries appear around resort towns Plettenberg Bay and Knysna, such as Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, and numerous others, housing everything from snakes to elephants to cheetahs to sharks. The N2 continues on to Africa’s most southern city, Port Elizabeth, a good place to see migrating humpback whales from June to August, and southern right whales from November to January. Looking south over the Southern Ocean, it’s a clear shot all the way to Antarctica.
South African roads are in good shape, with gas stations frequent and rarely closed. The country’s tropical weather makes for hot summers—especially inland, with regular 30 °C (86 °F) days—and afternoon storms (November to March). Winter is marked by warm days and chilly nights. Lesotho is essentially the opposite: summer is the rainy season (but heavy from October to April), hot in the valleys and below freezing on the mountains; while winters are clear and cold, with frequent snow. Spring (September to November) and fall (March to May) are ideal for missing the extremes.
The N9 connects the coast to Lesotho; climbing north from George, it takes in popular local passes like Lootsberg and Naudeberg and merges with the provincial road R26 that encircles Lesotho to the north. Enter Lesotho here at its main bridge leading to border capital Maseru, on to the well-named 2,318m (7,604 ft) God Help Me Pass, and down into the country’s lower interior and the pride of Lesotho, the graceful Maletsunyane Falls. Earlier branches off the N9 follow the Orange River (here called the Senqu) directly to entrances along the western Lesotho border.
Lesotho quickly reveals itself as a wild alpine land of high passes, snowy peaks, and deep valleys, with grass-thatched huts stretching across ancestral lands, and ochre-colored fields as far as the eye can see. Camping in the wild or staying in traditional huts are possibilities, but a fashionable choice of accommodation is Sani Mountain Lodge. Home to Africa’s highest pub, it sits atop the treacherous Sani Pass, up through sublime UNESCO World Heritage site Maloti-Drakensberg Park, reminiscent of the lower Alps.
Leaving Lesotho to the north from the central Afro-alpine grasslands and wetlands of Bokong Nature Reserve, there’s the more manageable Moteng Pass and a sweep through the serene Golden Gate Highlands National Park on the northern border; or the infinitely dangerous and icy 3,090m (10,137 ft) Mafika Lisiu Pass, which wriggles its way to market town Hlotse and back to the R26 via the bridge to Ficksburg. National Route 1 runs from nearby South African regional capital Bloemfontein in a 1,000 km (600 mi) straight line back to the coast, the southern section of the 10,228 km (6,355 mi) Cairo- Cape Town Highway. Now you can sit back in the saddle and dream of distant and exotic North Africa.
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