If the forbidding Maluti Mountains of Lesotho could talk, they would tell stories of harsh winters and blankets of snow, of resilient people who have survived in its peaks for centuries. They may be even more eager to spill the tales of the skates, how two-legged creatures on four-wheeled planks descend them at heart-stopping speeds – for the thrill.
How many people really associate skateboarding with adventure? For most, its reserved for the likes of pestering mall-rats and show-offs at the beachfront. For a few, though, nothing gets the blood surging through their veins like a near-death experience on arguably the world’s least-safe mode of transport. Some chase this adrenaline thrill so desperately that the descends in their cities just don’t quite cut it – like the surfer seeking bigger waves to ride, the skater, too, looks for bigger hills, deadlier drops, scarier stretches of tar to dominate. It’s that thirst which brought them to Maluti; the impossibility of being quenched that keeps them coming back.
The longboarders use a technique called sliding to get themselves around corners safely. It involves swinging the board onto its side so that the wheels go against the grain to help them slow down. To execute the slide correctly, one must first learn the hundreds of ways to do it wrong before the few ways of doing it right. Every bail is known as road tax – to shred you must first pay in skin, which is why the most recent tour to Maluti was known as the VAT increase tour. Safety is integral because some people see them as daredevils trying to kill themselves, but ultimately they want to live to skate another day, so there’s a strong emphasis on safety. They never skate without a helmet and gloves.
So if it’s so intense, and almost definitely a path to pain (everyone gets injured here) why do the crews keep returning to the wild hills of Lesotho? You’re surrounded by hills and skaters, and you go with the purpose of pushing yourself. Mafika Lisiu – a notoriously dangerous road full of steep gradients and sharp curves – is 16km of a downhill skater’s dream. The run can be split up into sections that are much longer than any that lie near the major cities’ limits, even Durban’s Valley of 1000 Hills doesn’t really compare. Skating in Lesotho means going faster for longer, getting comfortable at high speeds, and being able to spot if a car’s coming for miles. The quality of the tar and the spectacular panoramic mountain views mean that skaters can be out on the road for 5-8 hours a day for three days straight.
Being constantly surrounded by other skaters means constant froth about wheels, hills and finicky board setups. People travel from Cape Town, Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape to hang out and shred together; and this community usually only convenes at races, so the camaraderie is free to grow without the competitive element that accompanies a race. Instead of competing with each other, skaters contest with cows and what’s called Lesotho handbrakes – bricks that are used to stop broken-down cars from rolling down hills – so they have to stay sharp.
The local people are extremely welcoming of the skate tourism, and skaters on the tours generally take time to teach the kids how to skate, with some missions including a massive board collection to leave behind. Skaters also rely on lifts from people travelling back up the hill, because it’s a long, long walk back to the top. One of the missions even warranted an unexpected bumping into the Minister for Sport and Recreation for the country, who was delighted by the activity.
Ultimately, Lesotho is the ultimate test of perseverance for a South African skater. Tyler Durban says, “Part of skating is to realise that you can carry on. Yeah your legs may be sore and your ass has a chunk missing out of it and it’s a little hard to breathe because of the altitude but you just go anyway.”