In 1967, 52 years ago, the Roof of Africa Rally was contested for the 1st time.
After Basutoland received some international funding in the early 60’s, Bob Phillips, the resident road engineer in Maseru was involved with building a road from Butha Buthe to Mokhotlong up the challenging Moteng Pass. Mokhotlong was already linked to Natal via the Sani Pass.
As Bob’s road neared completion, Bob mentioned to his friend at the Royal Automobile Club, Louis Duffet, that he had built the world’s worst road & could he have some use for it through his club. Duffet took it to the Sports Car Club of SA where John Buttress was tasked to organise a Rally crossing the Roof of Africa, started at Kyalami race track in JHB, had an overnight stop in Bethlehem, crossed into Lesotho through Caledon’s Poort near Fouriesburg, up Moteng Pass & down Sani & finished on the beach front in Durban.
One of the competitors, Jurgen Hartel, a close friend of mine, was on that rally having told his mother that he wished to go to Durban for the week-end & could he please borrow her VW Beetle. However, he never mentioned his planned route to Durban. When I asked him if he still had the route schedule for the rally he said no & in any case it was not very accurate as they had all got lost just getting to Bethlehem. Then crossing Lesotho was easy as there was only one track. Some steep climbs necessitated putting the Beetle into reverse gear to get up. And everyone knows how to get to Durban.
In 1968 the idea of a rally was scrapped & off-road racing was born in Southern Africa. Mike Reid of the SCC organised the Roof which took the form of a race in the opposite direction to the previous event from Sani Pass Hotel across the Roof to the finish in the centre of Maseru. Apart from the necessity of providing help from 4-wheel drive vehicles to get the cars up Sani Pass, it rained heavily, leaving very few finishers other than the leading trio of Hettema, Tucker & Van Bergen. This Roof established the tradition that there should be no intermediate time controls, but rather a race from start to finish. Jan Hettema, famous RSA rally driver & Total Economy Run organiser, was victorius, driving a Volvo car.
In 1969 the late John Salters took over the race organisation & established the Star Roof of Africa Challenge with sponsorship & great media exposure through the Star newspaper. John’s dream was to make the route so tough that he would have to drive back along the route, from the finish, after final cut-off time & award the competitor that broke down closest to the finish with the winner’s trophy. After 50 odd years this has never happened but many times only a handful of competitors finished the race.
In 1967 & 68 only cars entered. These were an assortment of cars, jeeps & pick-ups or trucks as we called them. VW Beetles were the most popular choice & it also saw the advent of the beach buggies & home made vehicles like the Bates Mobiles. In 1969 the 1st motor bikes made their appearance racing on the car route & Barry Broady won in 69 & 70 on a Honda. The cars however were quicker over the route than the bikes. From 71 to 74 Roy Lindley won on a Yamaha. Riders had to carry fuel with them as it was not possible for the organisers to provide on the route. Roy was known to carry 25 ltrs of petrol in a jerry can on his back. In these years the route started in Maseru, crossed the Roof & down Sani where competitors were decontrolled & made their way to Matatiele in East Griqualand. The very hospitable community in “Matat” watered & fed the crews & they then made their way on the Sat via Ongeluk’s Nek back into Lesotho & finished in Maseru. A unique event within the Roof is the “Round the Houses” race on the Thursday morning before the time trial off-road section. The streets of Maseru in the centre of town are closed on the Thurs morning & 3-loop races according to classes are held on the designated track which was part-tarred & dirt. This is a huge spectacle & rules prohibited changing tyres after round the houses but this did not deter some crazy entrants from putting on slick tyres just to try to win their heat & then calling it a day to party for the rest of the week end. Some spectacular rolls & crashes were always guaranteed.
As motor-bike suspensions improved & for safety reasons, it necessitated splitting the bikes & cars to ride on different trails. The cars last competed in 2000 as particularly the advent of the bakkie manufacturers, the routes were considered too tough & damages too excessive. There were also organisational short comings by the Lesotho organising Club which curtailed the car event. The expense is also a huge factor. Today’s Toyota bakkies which train on the SA Off-road races in preparation for the Dakar event in South America, cost approx. 5 million Rand. A top class Class A special will cost you 2 million rand. And that’s before you go racing!!
Today it is only for motor bikes & the Roof is considered as the Mother of Hard Enduro races. Many regard it as the toughest in the world particularly because it is held over 3 days. The other 5 tough ones in the world are mainly 1 or 2 day events. Racing at altitudes up to 3000m over awesome landscapes & deadly tiring mountain goat paths, this endurance event remains one to be feared & never to be forgotten.
Only six international riders have beaten the RSA riders over the 50 years. Malcolm Smith, the American won bikes in 1975 & in a car in 1981, Elio Andreoletti of Italy – 1978 & 81, Australian Murray Watt – 1985, German Jurgen Mayer 1987, New Zealander Chris Birch 2008/9/10 & Graham Jarvis, England – 2011/13/15/16.
Only one Lesotho rider, Patrick Andrews won in 1992. In the same year Ashley Thorn won as a navigator for Richard Schilling in a sandmaster. Ashley Thorn won again in 1999 as a navigator for Stan Illman’s team.
The King of the Roof of Africa remains RSA’s Alfie Cox – he also had success with podium finishes on the Dakar. Alfie has won the Roof 9 times riding a Kawasaki. This feat will be very difficult to surpass.
Our son-in-law who still races, Alex Vowles, 43 yrs old, has the record for the most finishes on the Roof of Africa. 23 out of 24 entered. That includes 1 as a 16 year old navigator for his father in a Toyota bakkie when his mother who normally navigated was ill-disposed.
The Roof race week end is hectic from start to finish for everyone. Riders, support crews, marshalls, medical teams, choppers and today thousands of spectators.
It starts with a briefing on the Wed night when the route director will take riders through the 3 routes to be ridden over the three days. There is serious hype around this as the final route will only have been released to riders on that Monday. The route is kept top secret so as to prevent any riders practicing on the route which would then jeopardise overseas international competitors . The route area is actually closed 6 weeks before the event to enable the marking to happen. The marking is done using bio-degradeable spray paint by marking using dots & arrows on rocks. Loose rocks must be avoided especially for arrows as the shepherds take great pleasure from re-routing by changing the direction of the arrow.
Thursday morning is frenetic. Riders must be inside the Round the Houses loop on the Maseru Club cricket field by 8.00am. Crews must park where they can easily leave after their biker has completed Round the Houses in order to get to the start of the time trial out in the mountains. The Round the Houses races are flagged off by the King of Lesotho. There are side activities like sky-diving & motor bike stunts taking place to keep the huge crowds entertained between races . Businesses set up marquees & have braais & drinks going thru the afternoon.
Fri & Sat sees everyone gathering at the Start /Finish area where a whole tent town is set up. Racing starts at 6.00am. Marshalls have to be at their road crossings in good time. This can mean leaving Maseru at 4.00am or the previous afternoon to get to remote marshall points. Police also need to be at all road crossings. Service points will be set up where necessary where crews can get to. Because of limited flat ground in the mountains it is sometimes necessary to split the service points for the 3 classes.
Some refuel points are catered for by the organisers where it is difficult for service crews to get to. Here crews lodge fuel cannisters with the fuel trucks on Wed afternoon & fuel trucks will take those cannisters to the points on Fri & Sat & return all cannisters back to Maseru by Sat night.
The military air wing provide a dedicated helicopter for medical rescue. The injured will then be air-lifted from the place of accident to the hospital in Maseru or overfly to Bloemfontein in the event of a serious injury.
The organisers also provide a dedicated filming chopper for TV crews.
Each rider is provided with a satellite tracking device so that control knows at all times where the rider is. An emergency button can be triggered when there is a medical problem.
The whole Roof event is a massive organisational challenge that takes months of planning & coordinating. The weather is also something that can never be overlooked in the plan. 2007 taught us that river crossings have to be where there are bridges.
THE THORNS AMONGST THE ROOF
The Thorns in Lesotho – basic history.
The Roof as a Driver / Nav
I was in std 8 in 1967 when it started. My parents & brother got involved from 1969 both as competitors & through marshalling. My brother raced his VW powered beach buggy in 1970. In 1971 my Dad navigated for my brother in a Land Rover. In 1973 I navigated for my brother in a 1948 Army style Willy’s Jeep. We broke down on the top of Moteng Pass & were unable to get going again.
In 1980 after returning to Lesotho with Jennifer in 1979, I bought a sandmaster for R6000.00. This was powered by a Mazda Rotary engine. I entered the 1980 Roof with high hopes & much fear. The morning of the Round the Houses I was puking at 4.00am from fear. I managed to do a very good time on both Round the Houses & the time trial finishing in the top ten. I had managed to beat my good friend Robin Tilney, a Toyota L/Cruiser owner who was the 1979 SA Off-road champion & his words to me at dinner that night were “my boy, you are amongst the house-hold names.” I then proceeded to win the 1st timed stage on the Fri morning. As a local, I obviously had an edge but was obviously also talented behind the wheel. I had some great results with that sandmaster participating in the SA Off-road series. Notably a 3rd in the Swazi 500 & a 3rd in the Barberspan 500. In 1987 it was time for a new toy & I bought the best sandmaster in SA from a friend, Mike Moncur in Underberg for R23000.00. 1st race was at Sun City & I thought I had done really well – nerves had got the better of me & I finished a dismal 48th on the time-trial. Over the 1987 season without ever winning, I accumulated enough points to win the Sun International series – 4 RACES – & prize money of R1500.00. In 1988 I came 5th on the Roof of Africa which was my best result ever on the Roof on one of the toughest Roof’s ever. There were only 6 finishers. In 1989 I raced the 1000km Trans-Namib Desert race in Namibia & won. In 1991 I raced my last Roof as a driver after breaking down whilst in 3rd position chasing Buks Carolin. My mate & long-time adversary, Richard Schilling, then invited me to join his team & navigate. This was a very difficult decision as I am not a good passenger. I agreed to test the waters, so to speak, on the basis of one race at a time & permission to bail if I was not comfortable. I then got very cozy in the hot-seat & we won the SA Championship in 92 & 93 & I was awarded SA Protea colours in motor sport. I retired from the Schilling team after 12 years & then navigated for various other mates including John Moore, through until final retirement at the end of 2015.
ROOF ROUTE SETTER
I took up the challenge in 2007 to get involved with finding & setting routes for the motor bikes. This came about through trying to entice overseas riders to come out as they had become reluctant to ride the Roof as the same routes were being used annually & the overseas riders could not compete with SA riders who regularly practiced on these routes. 2007 was a year never to be forgotten. The heavens opened the night after the time trial & +150mm was recorded by 9.00am that morning. Jennifer & my daughter Andrea also witnessed our son Richard, a competitor, being washed away with his bike down a raging river. He spilt out about 300m down-stream & managed to grip his bike as it flowed into him. He drained his bike & got going only to have me time-bar him at the start of the next stage. He is yet to finish a Roof.
2007 was won by a S.African & a Mosotho, Seamus McCarthy came 2nd. 2007 was the start of what we now call hard-enduro racing. My route finding partner, Bryan McCarthy & I got fired after the 2009 event after setting an almost impossible route. Only 9 finishers made it through on the Fri evening after cutting back the set end point by 60km.
Bryan & I were recalled in 2012 & we were involved with the event until 2018. Route finding starts in May every year & entails hiking the Maluti Mountains virtually every week end searching for new trails. Bryan & I are not bike riders & are too old anyway. Riders call us the OLD GOATS! The efforts of finding new routes is essential in order to keep the overseas riders interested. We have managed to entice Graham Jarvis regularly since 2011 when he first won. Graham is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, hard enduro riders in the world.
THE ROOF & LESOTHO ECONOMY
The week in November every year attracts a spend estimated at 40 to 50 R million. The event attracts more than 10000 visitors. It is the biggest sporting event in Lesotho annually. Every bed in every hotel & b&b in & around Maseru is occupied. All camp sites are fully booked. The demand for entries which are limited has been hugely oversubscribed. This has necessitated a one day qualifier event in May each year when all Bronze riders participate to qualify for the seats available. This year there were over 300 entries. Another big spend week end. Petrol is cheaper in Lesotho so everyone fills up before departing. The total entry is normally limited to 400, Gold, Silver & Bronze classes.
The three classes ride tracks of different lengths with Gold being very extreme & technical. Eg 120km for gold will take 6 to 8hrs to complete.Throughout the year, the lodges close to the Roof trails are fully booked at week-ends by riders coming to train. Enduroworld is a company in RSA that specialises in providing Roof training & they have in the past hosted two of these training week ends during the year at lodges in Lesotho.
The business of hundreds of bikes riding the trails through the year has necessitated community workers to be out there amongst the communities to explain the importance of this Bike Tourism for the economy of Lesotho. Also for damage control as bikes are environmentally damaging & riders at times inadvertently ride in ploughed / planted fields & farmers need compensation for losses / damages. These community workers are employed by the lodges & they have also been involved with helping finding trails & marking the Roof Route 2/3 weeks before the event.
The lodges hosting training riders charge a Community Levy of R100.00 per rider per visit. This levy helps pay for the claims that may arise. Some bikers also underestimate ride times & distances & get stranded in the mountains or bikes break down & have to be recovered. The lodge will then facilitate the recovery which may entail pushing the bike out of inaccessible areas.
The Roof has also opened the window of Lesotho to the world. The event through Red Bull / Motul sponsorship is widely televised throughout Europe & America. Motul, an oil company & main sponsor of the event is an international brand now associated with the Roof. Both these sponsors are trying to entice the world’s top riders to come to Lesotho & ride the Roof. In 2016 they managed to bring out Adreas Gomez who tailed Graham Jarvis for three days, Jarvis eventually winning by a very narrow margin.
2019 promises to be bigger & better & we hope the world’s top riders can be persuaded to participate.
Charan Moore has embarked on Promoting the Retro Roof in 2019 & together with Buks Carolin a famous South African Off-Road car racer, hope to re-introduce cars into the Roof of Africa.
I take this opportunity of congratulating them on this wonderful concept & wish them every success in their ultimate goal