By Shane Quinnell
The Rocky Mountain Festival 2016 lived up to its promise of adventurous high altitude mountain biking madness at Afriski in Lesotho’s Maluti Mountains.
It started with a bang on Friday the 4th March when the riders and their Afriski hosts rocked up and geared up for the valley ride. Intended as the warm up for the weekend the ride started in the Northern “lowlands,” close to the Caledonspoort border post at a mere 1 600-1 800m altitude.
The warm up quickly progressed and dwarfed all expectations as the ride leaders followed small cattle paths up the Sandstone Mountains. The higher they got the more epic the views became as the valleys dropped away and the horizon extended to show the incredible landscape the riders were in.
The track continued to wind through the small omnipresent villages which much of the local population call home. Riding past and through traditional settlements it was as much a lesson in culture as it was on riding. The local Sothos hearing the raucousness waved and cheered the riders along.
In places, the ride was relatively technical and steep along the side of large ravines. The altitude was definitely noticeable as small hills stole more breath than they deserved… and this was the baby hills.
Some of the riders got slightly lost as they escaped the dramatic sky which was building dark black in the background. Finding themselves on tar, mountain biking was soon forgotten as the whizz of wheels rose to deafening with the small group pelted down hills at 80km+.
The remainder of the riders tackled the challenge and returned slightly worn but super stoked as Lesotho’s “lowlands,” gnashed their teeth. Tales of the ride were shared over cold Maluti Lagers with an air of suspense as the group started thinking about the lowland’s rather large friends who were waiting for them at Afriski.
Afriski’s Sky Restaurant provided a nonstop service of amazing food and locally brewed “three triple two,” craft beer, named after the altitude at the top of the pass by Afriski, from the moment the riders arrived till they left. Fashioned after an Austrian Ski Station it has an amazingly homely feel and way of comforting bodies aching with self-inflicted adventure pain.
Those who were awake enough to attend had to tear themselves away from Sky’s comfort as they embarked on a short night ride in the mountains surrounding Afriski. Met with warm cinnamon infused gluhwein, a giant bonfire and a star spotted sky the sacrifice of comfort was well worth it for those who attended. For those who didn’t, bed never felt so good.
Day two started with a buzz of excitement as breakfast was wolfed down along with coffee that Cape Town barristers would be proud of, quite a feat for 3 222m in the mountains. Riders were faced with the tough choice between semi-grueling but extremely rewarding ride to the escarpment or the incredible trails which call Afriski home. They had an even tougher choice between the insanely awesome demo bikes that the Rocky Mountain Bicycle crew had set up outside the door.
Most attendees ended up temporarily with serious upgrades as they selected from the group of shiny 2016 models. Whether they ended up on the Thunderbolt, Element, aptly named Altitude or any of the other models present everyone ended with smiles on their faces seriously considering if they could afford the luxury of a Rocky Mountain Bicycle.
The 16km escarpment ride lived up to its reputation of being remarkably amazing and bad-ass at the same time. At times 3300m altitude gave the riders exactly what it promised, high altitude training and sore lungs. Reaching the escarpment was a worthy reward as the dramatic Drakensberg range dropped and South Africa stretched into the distance.
Despite only having ridden 16-20km the altitude and terrain had taken its toll and the group was clearly tentative to start the trek back. Fortunately one of the amazing Afriski staff had brought some sustenance in the form of protein bars and electrolytes provided by Pure Nutrition. This was soon devoured by the riders and quickly gave them a new pair of legs.
Meanwhile back at Afriski the Downhill Junkies were hitting massive kickers and flowing trails without even having to pedal thanks to the ski lift which was operating on the slopes. The T-bar saved so much time and energy that some of the riders were able to hit more than 15 runs in a day. Meaning more fun, more air and more awesome aerials. Even those who returned slightly broken from the escarpment couldn’t help but get involved.
For the spectators there were also adventures abound. Some people watched the riders tearing down the hills in awed respect and some took off for their own adventures to the beautiful Katse Dam and beyond.
Word on the slopes was that people couldn’t get enough of the awesome trails. Only sundown, eventual fatigue and the scent of a mouth drooling spit braai lured everyone back from the mountains. There were war stories abound as each rider took turns telling tales of at least one 20m jump with triple summersault and ride to Johannesburg and back… maybe slightly exaggerated but awesome none the less.
This explains potentially one of the biggest attractions at Rocky Fest, in addition to the epic landscape, amazing rides and trails, it’s the people that make the festival and experience. From the staff at Afriski and Rocky Mountain to the multitude of people who arrive seeking adventure everyone is amazing to talk to and the vibe infectious. One can’t help but leave feeling more motivated than ever to ride amazing trails and live a life a bit closer to the one that they imagine.
Sunday, the final day of the Festival, greeted the riders early with slightly slushy trails. Most of the Rocky Mountain bikes were pre-booked as riders tried to get their hands on their new found loves. The justification “it’s not cheating if she’s inanimate,” came to mind.
By Midday all the human riders (there were a few super human specimens in the group) were worn out and they grudgingly returned from the slopes to reluctantly hand over the demo bikes. The festival was done but the spirit imbued by it would no doubt live on in those who attended and encourage them that all the early morning rides on the Spruit are worth it if for nothing else other than the opportunity to get involved and keep up at Rocky Fest 2017.
Entries for the 2017 Rocky Mountain Festival open on the 29th of April 2016 and you can find our more here.