They say adventure is only glamorous in retrospect…
The sky was overcast and ominous as I headed away from Sani Pass. I could already feel butterflies in my stomach at the prospect of heading into the unknown all alone. Sani Pass and its lodge, bar and backpackers are still very civilised, very well known, and very close to the South African border. I had heard lots and lots of stories about Sani and seen millions of pics, but now, the trip was actually starting, and I could feel it strongly. Happy, but nervous to be on the bike again I made my way into great wide open, now with a pathological fear of having another puncture.
Heading away from Sani with the weather coming in
The weather started to worsen, the thermometer on the bike showed 0.0 degrees C, with a grey sky that was quickly darkening, and light that was fading. Then it started to rain, soon with increasing intensity on an already waterlogged, mud road. With the rain also came a cold mountain wind. Slipping and sliding over the wide, muddy roads, and steadily beginning to feel the cold, I made my way further up the mountain, gaining altitude as I went. When I look back at the GoPro footage I had taken from the helmet-cam, it had already been noticeably snowing for some time already, but I only realised later when I saw it against my black glove. To see the snow was very unexpected for me, it would be my first time riding though snow and I was really excited (oh the irony). I saw the snow as a blessing, and when combined with a beautiful view and a great rainbow I was overcome with relief and felt crazy-chuffed with myself for overcoming the hard morning I was having (Pffft! Hahaha!).
Noticing the snow for the first time, I was still excited about it at this stage…
Beautiful view and a rainbow before it all went to hell
And now for a phrase I’ve been waiting to type most of my life: LITTLE DID HE KNOW the unsuspecting biker had completed the relaxing, warm, dry, morning stage of the ride. And up I went. The weather got infinitely worse, and so did the road. Freezing temperatures, driving rain, snow, sleet, and hail (yup, that’s right: hail) made the ride unbearably uncomfortable, and to add to this, not only had I not attached my winter or wet layers into my gear, but my both my phones were useless. I had absolutely no reception and no-one knew where I was. This would prove to be one of the hardest parts of the journey mentally, which came as quite a surprise to me. The greatest source of my stress throughout the ride would be the idea of what my wife and mother might be going through back home after not hearing from me after I had promised to check-in with them daily. This theme played through my head for the majority of the ride, and I think the mountains taught me a great deal about the effects our decisions and our well-being have on our loved ones, and seeing things from their point of view. It taught me to worry about my safety not for my sake, but for theirs.
Anyway, enough with the touchy-feely fluff and back to the ride. The road was a bloody disaster and I was colder than a well-diggers arse, it had gone from a wide, muddy, dirt highway to an uneven, narrow, rocky pass, with very slippery mud and a sheer drop on one side. All then while the weather continued. In one clear, God-given few minutes, the weather held up to a drizzle, and after psyching myself up, I pounced off the bike, took of my jacket and my pants (not at the same time obviously- that would be insane) and zipped the waterproof and warm layers into them, shivering violently. In this period I even managed to put on a dry shirt and swap my gloves out for a dry pair with some glove liners underneath, whilst this was happening, two local girls walked past me and shared a very awkward moment with a half-naked, pasty-white South African in panic-mode.
The last shot before my battery died, it only got worse from here on
By now, the weather had started up again, it was becoming so foul that it became dark, and the sun ‘set’ at about 16:30. It was soon pitch dark, made worse by the weather, the road, my lack of cell coverage, the massive mountain and the fact that I was alone and no-one on Earth knew where I was. I was beside myself with a whirlwind of worry, and no matter how I rode, my destination didn’t seem to get any closer. I pushed into the night, counting kilometer by kilometer through the muck and the cold, never before have I had to work so hard to motivate myself to keep on going, even though stopping was not even a vaguely an option. So I carried on following my orange headlight through the night through kilometer upon kilometer of windy mountain roads. Soon, in the absolute middle of nowhere, I came upon a massive half-constructed highway overpass, very odd since the only nearby road was the crappy little one I was on, which went under the bridge. It made a very impressive scene, which was very post-apocalyptic in nature when viewed with a bit of imagination. As I rode under the huge concrete bridge I noticed that it provided amazing shelter from the rain as well as the wind, so for a moment I shared a thought with my own brain: ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking?’. I was desperate for shelter and rest, it was now about 20:00 and my destination was still a long way off. I would have to put up the tent again, it would be very cold. With the bike stopped I looked around, it was deadly quiet, and pitch dark, no workers, offices or any signs of life. This place looked completely deserted, had I made a wrong turn? Where was I? I suddenly had an intrusive, unwelcome thought about the movie “The hills have eyes”. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. We ride on! Immediately!
And so I pushed on, it felt like forever, but before long I saw lights, lots of lights. This had to be Thaba Tseka, the town before Katse Dam, and I have never in my life been so happy for my tyres to hit tarmac – I even did a little dance and accidentally ran a stop-street to celebrate. The thought of pushing on further to Katse dam seemed ridiculous at this point, a bad idea. And as I was thinking this, I saw a sign. The illuminated words ‘lodge’ were an absolute God-send, I rode in without delay. Met with a large, sopping wet man in full motorcycle gear, shivering, with red eyes and a filthy face filled with panic, the staff looked at me like an alien had just walked through the door. They were the most amazing people, immediately I had a room, the manager let me use her own cellphone to call my very relieved wife and organised me dinner when I was ready. For Thaba Tseka this is extremely impressive and was very unexpected.
I didn’t even realise how cold I had gotten, it had gotten to the point where it could have become very dangerous medically. This became apparent when, after peeling off my mud-soaked gear, I was still freezing cold and shivering after 15 minutes in a boiling hot bath. I warmed up, I ate, I drank hot-chocolate, and I slept in a warm, dry bed, where I could remember the idea of the overpass without regret.
Buggered… finally in Thaba Tseka
My Thaba Tseka room didn’t know what hit it…
In the morning I missioned off to the local PEP store and bought myself a sim-card with a Lesotho number – I was back in the loop and back on the radar. The benefit with being so close to Katse Dam was that I could take my time that morning, and really enjoy the ride. When I started the ride again it became apparent to me what I must have missed the previous day by riding in the dark and the ‘hell-on-earth’, I must admit, I was a bit sad about it, and still am.
The ride consisted of windy, open gravel road, every turn had a better view than the last. It felt like a massive luxury to have the sun on my back, and be able to stop for a drink here and there, play with kids in the villages, and be near-assaulted for “sweeties”. Life was damn good again.
This is Thaba Tseka – All of it.
Majestically introducing scenery – one of my many talents
This is the pass that I rode to Thaba Tseka: it’s much more relaxing from afar
The sweetie monsters
Most were very camera shy – not this guy
Before long, the beautiful ride led to Katse Dam, absolutely beautiful, and now I could see it properly. That night I ate like a king at Katse lodge’s restaurant with fancy 4x4ing families and followed it up with a dinner of junk-food in bed reading Jupiter’s travels – amazing. At Katse lodge I stayed in a dorm, I was the only person in a massive, echoey dorm, with communal bathrooms and a good creep-factor, luckily I couldn’t be bothered this time round and I had a blast, I did my washing and my room even had a powerful heater that managed to dry all my gear and even scorch one riding sock, what a win.
The GPS was being really helpful all the way to Katse Dam
And finally, I made it – Katse Dam wall
My dorm at Katse, not even slightly creepy.
This was the view from the dorm window – too cool
My awesome turbo-heater, doing a great job of drying out the gear
Coming up in Part 4 (The last one): Some of the best, and most satisfying riding ever, an amazing African ski resort and an unpleasant encounter with a taxi to bring to ride to an abrupt end –
For more on The Great Amertican Trek visit: www.greatamericantrek.com
Yup. Sani Pass. But we’ll get to that later…
What a great feeling… Having forgotten where you were and where you had lain your head, to wake up and realise you are on holiday, alone with your motorcycle, with days of awesome riding and adventure ahead of you and Sani Pass to climb after some brekkie. I was as happy as a pig in sh*t.
Once I had overslept, and arrived at the breakfast table I decided that, seeing today I was crossing a border, it would be a good time to try and organise international roaming, permission from insurance, a letter from BMW, change my daily withdrawal limit so I could withdraw all the cash I needed for the next week, and buy a toothbrush, which I had left at home. The joys of traveling without a woman to organise your life.Amazingly, most of the above worked out OK, and I couldn’t be bothered about the ones that didn’t, the mood was just too good. So I waxed the chain, filled up the tank, popped on the GoPro and whipped off down the road to tackle the great Sani Pass, that I had heard so much about.
Waxing the chain: not as rad as gleaming the cube
The tar road to Sani Pass is a work of art. With no sarcasm it is literally one of the best tar roads I have ever ridden. It is in beautiful condition, brand-spanking new and is made up of an awesome set of twisties – made for a motorcycle. After a short bit of scenic dirt road I reached the border, disappointed to not see my friend there from the previous night, according to the other official he had called into work ‘sick’.
The tar road to Sani – smooth as a baby’s bottom and nearly as wide as Kim’s
Finally, the dirt has arrived
After the mandatory touristy ‘look where I was’ photos, I hit the road with my serious-face on ready for the gnarly stuff. Now I don’t know who of you reading this article have ridden up Sani Pass, but I spent the whole trip waiting for the technical stuff. Now, it is steep, but maybe it used to be worse? Maybe all the Chinese contracting companies have ironed out most of the kinks? I’m not sure, but I like my dirt roads a little bit ‘kinky’. If anything makes Sani Pass a difficult road to ride, it is the sheer beauty of your surroundings. The need to stop and take it all in hits you every 100m, it hurts to keep on riding sometimes, past some of the views it throws at you, and we all know how dangerous staring at a beautiful view can be when trying to ride a heavily-laden adventure bike up a steep dirt incline on the edge of a cliff. It is really, really breathtakingly beautiful, and so refreshing to finally feel like you are on your way to leaving the beaten-track.
Granted: The road did get worse after this…
Touristy photo number 1 – Ya gotta do it though!
Touristy photo no. 2 – You HAVE to!
A tight turn: You have to place the camera on a tripod, turn around on a steep gravel incline, ride past, turn around again, ride back, and pack everything up again, for. every. single. shot.
Evidence of road works: not great constantly having to overtake these guys only to have them pass you again at every scenic spot.
Trucks, trucks, trucks.
On the way up the Sani pass, it is really beautiful
As you go up it just starts getting better, some of the most magnificent views I’ve ever seen
And there’s the valley you come out of
At the top of Sani Pass is the Lesotho border post, as you see it, you will instantly realise “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas (South Africa) anymore.”. I will never get tired of that feeling: a mixture of panic, pleasure and new things.
And this is the Lesotho side.
This is why people do adventure-biking. I cheerfully got my passport stamped and headed over to “The Highest Pub in Africa” at Sani Mountain Lodge for a pint, albeit a mighty-expensive one. This one beer turned into two, which turned into three, which turned into lunch. By this time I thought to myself that it might be a better idea to camp here, than to push, it was already past 13h00 and I wasnt in the mood to rush through a beautiful landscape and amazing riding. I wanted to take it all in as it should be. After trying to convince myself I was doing the right thing, yet still feeling heavily defeated, lazy, and soft, I set up my tent in an open area of the mountain and lay down for nap. What a lazy bastard.
Everyone’s heard of ‘helmet hair’, here’s your chance to see ‘helmet beard’ Sani top: ‘highest’ pub in Africa (excluding Afriski – sshhh)
Spot the sticker! We made it onto the bar—
The entertainment at Sani Top: They’re no Deep Purple, but they’ll do
Setting up a tent alone in the wind, you gotta have skills
My camp spot – all done (sneak a look at that rear tyre)
And my view from bed
Sani Summit – that’s Sani Mountain Lodge on the far right (the one with the pub)
After setting up my tent and putting on some jeans I went to meet and greet some the passers by in the backpackers and the camp-site. This is another great advantage to traveling alone. When traveling in a couple, or with friends, I find one tends to make fewer new connections, and meet fewer new friends. The social bubble of our familiars is a comfort and sense of security, but at the same time it is limiting what you take in and who you meet.
Among the people I met were three hikers, who had been hiking for 11 days through Lesotho, and camping in the wild with 3 days left to go, an awesome bunch of people (and absolutely nuts, they made my solo bike trip look like a Sunday drive). There was also a group of Afrikaans ministers and preachers doing a 4×4 trip, and a large group of bikers who had come to ride Sani Pass. The majority of the bikers were doing their first trip on the dirt and having their first camping experience, and they were loving it. Being on my own and probably looking like a bit of a sorry sight, the guys took pity on me, they fed me, boozed me, and entertained me to no end. I was very thankful not to have to subject myself to lonely baked beans on the camping-gaz in the cold that night, a braai, a fire, and a beer would do just fine.
My “windswept’ pose – had to put this late in the post in case it gives people a fright and they stop reading
Before I hit the hay, one of the guys noticed that my rear tyre was completely flat. After a torrent of foul-language topped with a ‘whatever, its future-Poodle’s problem’, I decided to wake up at the crack-o’-dawn and deal with the problem then. Below freezing in the middle of the night on soft soil, filled with beer are no conditions in which to fix a tyre.
I was up at 05h00. I got the bike to hard, flat ground, and started to work. Initially nervous about doing this on my own, I was surprised at how easily I managed in the beginning and my confidence was up (oh just you wait!). After repairing the puncture and feeling inside the tyre for any protruding nastiness I replaced the tube, wrestled the tyre back over the rim with valuable help from one of the hikers, who had spent time leading overland truck tours through Africa. As it turns out, Sunlight dish-washing liquid is a winner in this department. After getting the wheel back to the bike and hooking up the compressor, I quickly realised there was still a leak. So back to the start I went. What had happened was a thorn had lodged itself in the tyre in such a way that it only protruded when the tube was pumped up against it. By now, everyone was awake, people were keen to get involved or just watch the escalating scene I was causing. The scene was getting progressively more embarrassing too. It took 30-45 minutes to get the stubborn thorn out of the tyre, after which the new leak also had to be patched. Once hooked up to the compressor, I realised there was still a leak, the new patch hadn’t taken completely. By now the black powder-coat on the rim was scratched from the tyre-levers, my tools were everywhere, I was hungry, gatvol and fast approaching the “Lord, why have you forsaken me” stage, after having left the “what the hell was I thinking” stage behind me. Thankfully, and to my huge relief, the new patch worked. After about seven hours (yes, seven hours) of struggle, my bike was once again ready to roll. I have learned to look at these sorts of difficulties in a positive light. With The Great American Trek rapidly approaching, I now see these experiences as learning opportunities, they make me better, and they prepare me more thoroughly. At least I would have been there already when this happens to me in the middle of a foreign continent. Not only this, but I think it also strengthens ones resolve. Especially on your own, this sort of struggle will do wonders for your mental strength if you manage to solve the problem, which you will, you have to…
The ‘men-of-God’ who had been staying at the backpackers were kind enough to share their cooked breakfast with me and make me some fresh coffee, so after some chatting with the hikers, some cheering up and calming down, I took to the road once again. My technical difficulties had resulted in my departure time being delayed to somewhere around 12;30, but the weather had warmed up a bit and the Sun was shining, so I didn’t zip my waterproof and warm layers into my riding gear (rookie move!). I headed out in good spirits on the muddy road away from Sani and through the mountains. I was oblivious to the fact that what awaited me was the hardest day I would ever experience on two wheels.
A little taste of Part 3 – hardest ride I have ever done to date
Part 3 to follow shortly.
I first had the idea of venturing into Lesotho alone whilst I was busy (trying to) study for my surgery part one exam. As with most ideas, it was even more interesting and absorptive when surrounded by a looming exam. Megan had just taken some leave to go to a wedding in Cape Town, so I had a bit of leave to spare and no-one to spare it with. So on finishing up with exams, I threw everything I might need onto the spare room bed and gazed on with a mixture of excitement and ‘what the hell am I doing!?’. It took me about 2 weeks to plan and two days to pack. I had lots of fantastic advice, and some crappy advice, this encompassed my route, my equipment, and my skill set amongst other things. I did have to purchase some extra gear for the trip, which we would be needing for the GAT too, so I didn’t feel that bad about its impact on my trip-savings. This gear included a soft 5 Litre fuel cell, a 12 volt kit, a Hella to 12V adaptor, an air compressor, and a pair of inner-gloves of which one came home.
Packing – the usual mayhem
The decision to do the trip solo was a surprisingly easy one. Initially out of necessity, the solo aspect of the trip became central. I was looking forward to some alone-time on the bike, and in the wilderness, and as any biker knows ‘Sometimes it takes a whole tank of fuel before you can think straight’, and I was going to be needing a whole-lot of fuel.
The route I planned was around the East side of Lesotho via the beautiful Natal Midlands to a town called Himeville, where I would bunk down for the night. From here I would make my way up the legendary Sani pass and on to Katse Dam for my second night on my own. My route would then go far South West to make my way to Maletsunyane Falls, the highest falls in Southern Africa. After this I planned to make my way up to the Afriski ski resort at 3200m where I would head home via a night in Golden Gate national park. This was what I had planned, and we all know what they say about the best laid plans.
My route (or so I thought)
Day 1: Home to Himeville:
Luckily I had everything packed and ready to go the night before. So when my alarm went off at 04h00 I jumped into my gear, activated my GPS, pounced on the bike and excitedly sped out of the Garage and into night, eager to leave Joburg in the rear-view mirror, along with all the thoughts of exams, finances and worldly troubles.
There really is something special about riding a motorcycle at night. With adventure on my mind, a whole trip ahead of me, cool air on my face, and the solitude of my helmet I started chipping away at the 640Km to Himeville. I looked forward to the sunrise that would greet me as I left the tar and hit the dirt, and what a sunrise it was.
Sunrise on day 1
The differences between solo riding and riding with Meg or friends hit me early. When stopping for breakfast, there was no-one to ask if they were ready, there was no-one else to suggest a time or spot to stop at. Already I had to get my arse into gear and be more decisive, it becomes easy to see a spot and quickly think- ‘Nah, there will be a better one over the next rise.’. If this is done enough you will completely miss breakfast and will be stopping for lunch instead. So I stopped for some breakfast on a quiet dirt rode forming the driveway to a farm.
Breakfast – dual-sport style
After getting the winter woolies off and realising I hadn’t left space for them in the panniers, I hit the road again. The Midlands are strikingly beautiful; wide, flat, fast dirt roads lead me through the most amazing scenery.
About to hit the dirt – smiles for miles
The roads are lined with wild flowers, with green fields and trees stretching out into the hills on both sides. While riding there were about 3 times where duikers (a small antelope) would bounce across the road and into the bushes and there were constantly flocks of pheasant and guinea fowl to be encountered. I felt like I was in a bloody Disney movie.
Riding a bike cant get anymore hardcore than this…
By the end of the day I had put a huge amount of distance under the tyres and made my way onto the tar roads of the sleepy little town of Himeville, where I stayed at the Himeville arms, a great place near the base of Sani at the Lesotho border. The Arms is well known to the adventure biking community as a stop-over on the way up Sani Pass, a good place with friendly staff, clean linen, and most importantly, a massive bar.
The KZN midlands – ugly as hell
The Mommy-frightener and I, on the way to Himeville
After getting changed back into people-clothes I made use of the bar and put a few away with a steak, egg, and chips. Whilst trying to get over the dodgy feeling of drinking on my own, I met a really cool guy who was already well on his way to stupor, as it turned out, he was a border-official at Sani Pass, where I would be crossing the next day.
Just to top of the action of my first day on the road I received an injury. Being on a motorcycle trip, one doesn’t expect to twist an ankle and get carpet burns on your back and gear-changing foot from slipping on a water bottle whilst intoxicated in the dark, but that’s what happened to me. At least there wasn’t anybody around to wet themselves laughing and further damage the ego. After the shock had left me I had a good laugh at myself and hit the hay in a happy, and very satisfied mood, after all, I had the fabled Sani Pass to climb in the morning!
My room at Himeville Arms, the water-bottle is waiting for the opportune moment to strike
Part 2 to follow!