MASERU — The Baboons Lesotho Sun Roof of Africa — considered one of the five most extreme endurance motorcycle races on the globe — roars into life in Maseru on Thursday.
From a mere 20 bikers in the inaugural edition of the competition in 1967, the event has grown steadily over the years to become an important fixture on the international calendar of off-road motorbike racing, with hundreds of participants from all over the world now descending on Lesotho for the annual, three-day festival.
Back then, participants met with hostility from the indigenous population which viewed the race as being exclusively for white people, with riders alleging locals were constantly throwing stones and other obstacles on the trail, making it difficult for them to navigate the course.
Organisers of the event have since realised the importance of involving locals in the race.
Baboons Lesotho Sun Roof of Africa public relations officer Keketso Malebo said as a result attitudes are slowly changing among Basotho.
“We have realised it is wiser to work with the community to help improve on the racers’ safety,” Malebo said.
“We now have marshals being drawn from the communities and these are the people who have been playing a pivotal role in making people aware of the significance of the race.”
The same people who used to throw stones and change markers during those tension-filled days have now become part of the race, much to the improvement of the sport.
“We have specifically recruited people who used to throw stones because they know exactly how to deal with this kind of problem,” Malebo told the Sunday Express.
“With their help we’ve managed to eliminate most of the problems we had in the past. We have trained these people and made them community marshals, to make sure they do their job efficiently.”
“Unlike in the past when we used to bring people from Maseru to work as marshals, it is much better to work with people from the villages.”
Heat, mud, high altitude and intense competition is all that racers now worry about.
More internationally acclaimed racers are looking forward to this year’s competition.
These challenges are what make the race unique.
“We are expecting the race to be tougher because of the rains,” Malebo said, adding the route had been planned without factoring-in the extreme wet-weather conditions.
“Before we decided on the route we consulted with weather forecasters and were told we might experience long-term drought. But this had changed drastically.
“Racers are definitely prepared because our motto is It’s Man Against Nature.”
Malebo said there are some new faces in this year’s race with 221 riders having confirmed participation by Wednesday last week. The figures are however still short of last year’s 280. He also confirmed Chris Birch, the New Zealander, would be coming to defend his title.
Another international rider to have been confirmed is Latin American Enduro Champion and the first Mexican ever to finish the Erzbergrodeo, Jesús Zavala Garcia.
Participating countries include Germany, Britain, Mexico, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya, England, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, local rider Tsépo McCarthy who has just recovered after breaking his leg in a car crash early this year is downplaying his chances at the race.
“I don’t know what to promise Basotho because I have just recovered from injury I sustained in a car accident in February this year. I did not have sufficient time to prepare myself for the competition,” McCarthy said.
He, however, is aiming for a Top 25 finish and would also be using the race to prepare for the 2010 edition of the competition.
“I am hoping to make it into the Top 25, at least that is my aim for this year,” McCarthy said.
“I am participating because I don’t want to be a spectator and have made it an obligation to take part in this race for 10 consecutive years.”
This will be McCarthy’s nineth Roof of Africa race.
Lesotho last won the Baboons Lesotho Sun Roof of Africa in 1992 when Patrick Thabo Andrews took the glory.
The Lesotho Defence Force team of Tsépo McCarthy, Molamu Morojele and Curslay Vencastasamy will form part of the Lesotho team.
Meanwhile, defending champion Chris Birch said he is ready for the competition.
“I’ve just finished pack-jamming all my gear and am ready to fly out for the Roof,” Birch said on his website.
“This year, I will be racing under the KTM South Africa flag on the same 300EXC. The bike has had a good going-over at the factory and should be ready to go.”
Birch predicted competition for this year would be tougher as more international riders participate.
“The level of competition has really stepped-up this year with lots more international riders taking on the mother of hard enduro,” he said.
“The locals seem to be pretty fired-up too!”
Malebo echoed Birch’s sentiments. He said the South Africans have been coming into the country throughout the year to prepare for the race.
“I have never seen these (South Africans) guys this fit and so determined to win this race. They are in perfect condition. They are super-fit. It should be a very interesting race.”
Malebo said the purpose of the event is to promote off-road motorbike-racing as well as bringing more tourists into the country.
“The Baboons Lesotho Sun Roof of Africa has boosted tourism so much because international racers come almost all-year-round to train for this race,” Malebo said, adding they are working hard to ensure more local participation.
He pointed out though that it was an expensive sport which many people could not afford.
Organisers were also working towards helping-out villagers who live along the racing route
“There will be collection-boxes that racers can use to donate a minimum of M100 and some clothes to help local communities.”
And organisers insist this will be the mother-of-all races that will test both man and machine.
A statement on the Roof of Africa website reads: “Like every year before, the 2009 Roof of Africa will be very exciting, especially because the route is somewhat different to the previous years.
“It leads through some of the most gruelling tracks where Basotho lead their donkeys to and from water supplies and trading posts.
“Often the route will track along cliff ledges, where the mountain goats seek their food in the hillside greenery.
“The extreme height above sea-level and rugged mountain terrain make this country one of the most amazing off-road playgrounds, with no fences between farms, an open countryside, spectacular views of wide open space and magnificent mountain views.
“It stirs-up an experience that only the extreme athlete can attempt and ensure an adrenaline-rush to reward those brave enough to conquer the challenges that nature serves them. The mother-of-all extreme enduros will test man and machine, and only the strongest will survive.”