Blog 4 by Mick: The Roof of Africa
We woke still quite stiff and sore from our exploits at KwaGengeshe the day previous, however it was a beautifully sunny and still morning and we were all excited about what was to come. After fueling ourselves and the bikes, we all had a bit of fun and a blat on the rough track to the South African Border Post at the base of Sani Pass. We got our exit stamps and a few envious looks from tourists who were about to make the climb stuffed like cattle into crowded four wheel drives.
The tight and steep switchbacks towards the top of Sani Pass had worried Tan on our previous flying visit to Sani Top, the weight of the DR’s being a lot to handle at such slow speeds. But to add to the challenge, this time we were fully loaded with all our possessions, and 30 litres of fuel to boot. Lessons had been learnt though and everyone made there way to the top incident free; Tan whooping it up on the intercom as she successfully negotiated the last tricky hairpin and sighted the Lesotho Border Post.
We got our stamps and headed for the pub, as you do when arriving at Sani Top. That our watches only read 10am was irrelevant. After some chats, photos and a chocolate infused milk stout (one of those things that has to be tried), we hit the road, or what was left of it after the Chinese road works crew had done their thing. The Chinese are investing in infrastructure all over Africa, generally in exchange for favourable business and trade deals, many involving access and rights to minerals. And here they were at the Roof of Africa destroying the rough and steep tracks that fill the dreams of adventure riders the world over and replacing them with the nightmare that is boring tar.
On that note, there is talk (and apparently has been for quite a while) of sealing Sani Pass from top to bottom. The tourist operators are resisting this development as the state of the pass, and Lesotho’s neglected roads in general, are a tourist attraction in their own right. This sparked a serious discussion among us, should the business operations of a few affect the ease of transportation of many? Submit your answers in 500 words or less.
Anyway, a serious message to advriders: get to Lesotho now, before it is too late.
We motored over Black Mountain Pass; all of our bikes struggling in the thin mountain air above 3000m. The cold weather system that had crossed South Africa a few days previous had left snow on the high peaks that made for spectacular views and some great photo opportunities. On our descent, Fred was forced to turn around and head for home due to work commitments the following day. Unfortunately no amount of peer pressure, emotional manipulation, or encouragement to “chuck a sickie” could sway him.
We rode on to the first major township of the northern route across Lesotho, Mokhotlong. A remote centre in the north-east of Lesotho, Mokhotlong is full of Besotho in traditional dress of woolen blankets and straw hats, many on horses or donkeys. While everyone we met was friendly and polite, and most kids waved as we rode by, our observations of Mokhotlong suggested the vast majority of business enterprises were Liquor Stores and Taverns set up in roughly made shanties. It seems the vices that ail the poor and disadvantaged are universal the world over.
We stopped for some lunch that arrived at nearly dinner time, our pizza chef by all accounts had a watch set to Africa time minus a few hours, which he had then broken. And then lost. We found some very basic local accommodation and made a plan to hit the road early, our untimely encounter with the worlds most casual pizza chef had meant we hadn’t got as far as we had hoped.
The sun rose at 7am and we were on the bikes at 7:30, all three motors protesting against starting in the extreme cold much as we had done when the alarm went off half an hour earlier. While the thermometer on our speedo’s is a little unreliable, the reading of -5C that morning as we started riding seemed about right and was confirmed by the thick blanket of frost on our seats.
We hit the road with our heated grips set to “inferno” and headed west. Two and a half hours later, after spending more that 50kms above 3000m and travelling past Lesotho’s only ski field, we stopped for morning tea at Oxbow, a small settlement only 110kms from our start point. Such is the slow nature of travelling in Lesotho, ~50km per hour on a motorbike is normal. In a car it is 30 to 40.
AfriSki, one of two ski fields in southern Africa, is probably our most sobering sight so far in Africa. A single 700m long, 40m wide, low angle run of man made white slush serviced by one t-bar sent us to a new emotional low. Like a gruesome traffic accident, it was hard to look at, but harder to turn away.
Past Oxbow the road turns to tar and we had a blast on the winding road that culminated at Moteng Pass. There, I pulled over for a photo opportunity and to regroup our party and was followed in to the lookout by a modern duel-cab ute with some sign writing down the side. “Ahh so, perhaps I was having too much fun through the twisties” was my initial thought.
Out popped a South African fellow who introduced himself as Gary aka Mr Zog. The week previous I had introduced Tan and myself on South Africa’s adventure riding forum, WildDog.co.za. Mr Zog, who works at a large diamond mine in Lesotho, had given us some on-the-ground information regarding the cold snap that had frozen the highlands for a few days. He had recognized the bikes and stopped for a chat and a few photos of the awesome views of Lesotho’s “lowlands” (their words, not mine) from the pass.
The temperature rose dramatically as we descended to the base of the pass. We turned off the main road towards Monantsa, a remote pass in the northeast corner of Lesotho. The rough dirt road wound along the valley of the Caledon River and made for spectacular views and riding. The saying of the afternoon was definitely “How good is this riding?”; Charlie, Tan and I continued to ask one another in exasperation just incase the ask-er was hallucinating or the ask-ee (I think I just invented a word) was somehow riding with their eyes closed.
We rode through remote villages that obviously don’t see many tourists; we met many kids with mouths agog, some begging for sweets or money when they came to their senses, but most just waved and smiled and chased the bikes on foot as best they could. The pass itself was very steep and thankfully concreted as it would have been a real handful unsealed. We came to the top and were greeted with fantastic views of South Africa.
With no Lesotho Border Post at such a remote pass, we entered straight into South Africa and rode down to the township of Phuthaditjhada where we were greeted with high razor wire fences and litter. We left as quickly as we could refuel the bikes and made our way towards a simple backpackers at the base of the Sentinal, a striking rocky peak in the northern Drakensburg accessed by a paved road, literally paved with pavers, with incredible views.
The backpackers turned out to be more basic, more rudimentary, than simply “simple”. An old brick building of a single dorm with lifting lyno floors, old and sagging bunk beds, many with no mattresses, and a long drop was all that constituted the establishment. But at R65, or less than $7 a night, and with views to kill for we weren’t complaining.
On the way to the Sentinal, we had ridden past a small mountain resort called Witsieshoek, and we decided to backtrack slightly and enjoy a proper dinner and maybe a soothing ale at the restaurant before crawling into our sleeping bags for the night. Once there we settled in with a Windhoek Draft and got chatting to the managers, Barbara and Jan. They listened to our tale and offered us their hikers hut, complete with actual beds and showers, for the same price as the “backpackers” up the hill. We gleefully accepted and our tired bodies relished the hot showers.
The final episode of our riding escapade with Charlie would be Bezeidenhouts Pass, a little known technical descent down the escarpment that constitutes the border between the Free State and KwaZulu Natal. We got to the pass after riding some lovely farm tracks, some of them eerily reminiscent of Australia; Eucalypt lined dirt roads through brown paddocks.
Bezeidenhouts Pass is best described as an unmaintained and heavily eroded farm track down the steep escarpment. The top of the pass was very loose but didn’t pose too many problems. At the first major obstacle though, we all had to stop and plan our lines down the considerable drop-off. Negotiating these drop-offs, and there were quite a number of them, took a fair degree of planning and commitment on the loaded up DR’s. The 10km of the descent took about an hour to complete.
Tan was visibly relieved when we got to the bottom, Bezeidenhouts easily being the toughest riding we have done so far and bloody hard work on the loaded bikes. We finished the days riding a bit after midday at the nearby Amphitheatre Backpackers, however we were denied the right to order lunch until after the uber-intense manager had finished his quite regimented introductory spiel.
Once granted permission to have some food, we exchanged videos, photos and farewells with Charlie and he hit the road for Howick and his family and we settled in for some well-earned rest.
Blog 3 by Mick: Ambush at KwaGengeshe
After fixing my bike and still with access to a well-stocked shed, I was keen on checking Tanya’s stator to ensure it didn’t meet the same fate as mine. Thankfully everything was still tight and in its correct place, but I took the opportunity to Loctite the stator securely so it couldn’t happen in future.
With that done, Charlie and Fiona offered to show us to the local Mandela Monument at his capture site and around some local trails in Howick. With Chalrie on his XR500 and us on our unloaded DR650’s, we then headed off onto some forestry tracks around the Karkloof area. It was a great ride and climaxed with a hill-climb known locally as Kyber Pass, a steepish climb with water bars that gave the opportunity to give the DR-osaurus a bit of airtime. Best of all however, was that my DR was back to 14.4V and doing everything it should. The stator repair was successful.
On Saturday we figured we better actually do something and get out of Charlie and Fiona’s hair; our claim to be world travelling nomads was becoming questionable as we were doing quite convincing impersonations of squatters. So we took the opportunity to cook them some dinner to thank them for their hospitality. For the record; Beef Madras with Lemon Yoghurt Cake and Mulled Wine turned out very nicely indeed.
So Sunday we hit the road with Charlie and his friend Fred on a R1200GS. Our destination was the Cobham National Park in the Southern Drakensberg. Charlie had recommended Cobham as one his favourite places to camp in the area and that was too good a recommendation for us to ignore. We took some forestry trails and a railway service track to Nottingham Road, a town just north of Howick, and then a fantastic winding dirt road with great views of the Drakensberg which came into the back of Himeville.
We spent the next 2 days sleeping, resting, reading, eating, and not much else. We sat down by the creek for a quite a few hours and did some trail walks. Lunch at the local pub, the Himeville Arms was great as it gave us a bit of time to chat to the publican about the area. He was a biker himself and quite interested in our trip. Sadly though, as with many of our discussions with locals, the conversation turned to the current state of South Africa and its increasing levels of crime. This fellow, an obvious and unashamed Africaphile, loved his country but was disheartened by what was becoming of it. Three separate farm murders the previous summer, including a close friend of his, had left the community shell shocked.
After a couple days we returned to Howick to pick up some new tyres. Our rears were the same tyres had headed out on our shakedown trip on the Holland Track in Australia on, and they had worn reasonably quickly. We had tried to pick up some replacements on our first visit to Fiona and Charlie’s, but Goodenough, the fellow at the local Yamaha dealer who Charlie had ordered the tyres through, didn’t live up to his name and didn’t actually order the tyres.
This was a blessing in disguise though as it gave us an opportunity to spend some more time with Fiona and Charlie and their friends. Fiona, a primary school teacher, asked if we would come and talk to her students. So we made our way down to Pietermaritzburg and spent an hour or so with her class talking about our trip and Australia with her enthusiastic pupils. Some bizarre questions were asked but it made for a fun and interesting afternoon.
That evening we spent time with a group of Charlie and Fiona’s friends; with their riding buddies John, Fred and Jimmie pouring over maps and scheming cunning routes for our coming weeks; and with Pete and Beth, kind neighbours of theirs reviewing our medical kit. Peter, a doctor, then thoughtfully sourced for us a variety of bits and pieces to augment our supplies. After another successful Sticky Date Pudding, Charlie and I spent quite a bit of time in the shed putting his Yamaha XTZ750 back together. Charlie had removed the motor and rebuilt the top end and I was keen to help with putting the motor back in, a job much better done with two pairs of hands. We finished up after 4am with a few extra jobs on the DR’s done and the XTZ looking like a proper bike again.
It was an understandably late start the next day. Tan and I had thought of heading off into the Drakensburg in the morning, but the late finish the night previous for me and the opportunity for Tanya to spend some time with Eryn, Charlie and Fiona’s daughter, meant we would spend yet another night with our surrogate South African family. The extra day gave Charlie and I an opportunity to finish off reassembling his XTZ, which was soon running as sweet as you’d like. We also spent some time with Paul, one of Charlie’s neighbours, who shouted us a few beers and was the proud owner of a mid 30’s 350cc Velocette RSK and an early 50’s 500cc Vincent Comet, both beautifully restored.
With the Yami running again, on Friday Charlie and I went off trail riding while Tan spent the day studying and then doing an exam. Tanya is finishing her Bachelor of Commerce degree while we are travelling and paid the price for her hard work and diligence by missing out on some great riding and views! Charlie and I swapped bikes for a bit, and if I was to embellish just a little then you’ll have to forgive me, he duly led me into a deathly quagmire capable of swallowing bikes and brave men whole. The stench of death in the air was overwhelming. The DR floated through like an angel, while on the XTZ I suffered the fate of any earthly bike in a mud tsunami of biblical scale. After a heroic fight, the XTZ went down and the rear brake lever bent, minor collateral damage considering the gravity of the situation. Thankfully I managed to lift the bike and extricate myself from the obvious trap before photographic evidence was taken.
Sadly, the actuality – in my humble opinion – is not so interesting so I wont bother to bore you with that… who would want to hear of someone dropping a bike in puddle that could be bridged with a newspaper? Bah, consider this gonzo blogging…
The other benefit of not heading off to the Drakensberg the day previous was the invitation to a braai that evening at Jimmie and Nicki’s house in Hilton, near Howick. Nicki skillfully cooked many lucky animals in various forms on the braai, all topped off with garlic bread laced blue cheese and local red wine. We went to bed very fat and happy.
The following morning, we cooked our favourite breakfast of French Toast, bacon, maple syrup, yoghurt and berries to power everyone up for the coming day’s ride. We were to ride to the bottom of Sani Pass via back roads with Jimmie leading the way on his KTM 525, Fred on his XR400, Charlie on his XTZ750 plus Tan and I. We rode towards the Mkomazi River valley and up to a high lookout post used for spotting bush fires to view Helehele Pass and our next challenge – KwaGengeshe.
At KwaGengeshe, there is a small track that leads to the Mkomazi River via an incredibly steep trail, part of which was so steep it has been concreted. We descended into the valley and the trail got narrower and narrower, almost to the point of single track. Then the concrete road started and the track steepened to probably 1 in 4 i.e. very bloody steep. In fact so steep, I stopped halfway to ensure I didn’t over heat the brakes on the loaded up DR.
At the bottom of the concrete road, Charlie, who was leading, turned right onto a narrow rocky trail for the final descent to the valley bottom. I followed, and soon realised I was in big trouble on the loaded DR. The track was so steep, and so rocky and loose I was struggling to keep the bike up. I wanted to call to Tan on our intercom not to follow but her battery was dead. I looked up to see her coming down. We were committed. I’m not sure what Mkomazi means, but that river on a fat DR is certainly akin to shit creek without a paddle.
We all managed to get to the bottom and had a look at the river, a bit of a chat and then decided it was time to attempt the ascent. Charlie went first, and half way up slipped into a loose depression on one side of the track, which robbed traction and knocked him off line. He turned around and came to the bottom for a second attempt. This time he got further but still slipped to a stop near the top. Thankfully he was close enough to walk and wheel-spin his way to the top to loud applause from us spectators at the bottom.
Next up was Fred. Attempt one had the XR400 halfway to the top, before losing traction, spinning sideways and rapidly accelerating off into the bush at right angles with Fred hanging on for dear life. From the bottom, all we could hear was Charlie filling the valley with laughter! Fred came back down for attempt two, which got the XR further up the climb. I walked up the trail and we helped to get Fred to the top.
And then it was me. I made my first attempt fully loaded, my reasoning being every metre done with lugguge on the bike was one less metre I didn’t have to carry it. I hit the bottom of the track in 1st gear, maybe 4000 rpm where the DR makes a good amount of grunt. The bike skidded and slipped underneath me but I managed to keep in pretty straight. There was a slight left turn near the top and the bike slipped and the rear wheel spun as I turned. I feathered the clutch to control the wheelspin, but released too quickly – lofting the front wheel high and nearly dumping the bike and all my luggage on top of myself.
I vented quite a few loud and choice profanities as I nearly had it, so close but I’d fluffed it. Charlie and Fred helped me stabilise the bike and unloaded the luggage. With no momentum, finishing the climb loaded was never going to be achievable. With their help, I managed to walk the unloaded bike to the top of the climb, then came back for the luggage.
Jimmie on his light KTM put on a hill-climbing clinic for us. He came up at a fair rate of knots making a mockery of all our struggles.
Last up was Tan on her DR. First attempt had her rear wheel spin out in the rocks. We unloaded the panniers and she turned around for a second attempt. This time she got further before spinning the rear wheel and going offline to the right. She valiantly turned for a 3rd attempt, sadly this time with the same result. She conceded defeat and I jumped the yellow DR-osaurus.
I was so physically tired by this time after helping lift, stabilise, and turn bikes on the steep slope, carry luggage, and walk up and down the hill a few times for various reasons, all in the midday heat, that once back down the bottom of the valley on Tan’s bike I turned off the ignition for a few minutes of rest and silence to focus for the coming climb.
I hit the climb much like I did on my bike, but this time managed to negotiate the left hander near the top without too much wheelspin. Right at the top, with the rear wheel spinning I hit a rock about the size of a rockmelon and dropped it, but I was at the top and out of the valley proper. I picked it up and put down the side stand. It had taken us over 3 hours to get the bikes out. The Ambush at KwaGengeshe was over.
We all rested for a good 30mins in any shade we could find, my bash plate water tank coming in very handy as Charlie and Fred had both finished all the water they were carrying. It was hot and we had all been working hard. Extra water is always good.
We rode out of the valley through Helehele Pass and on to Bulwer, a small town where we had lunch at the Nip Inn, a local pub. I had a few celebratory beers and there we said our goodbyes to Jimmie who had to head home. In that short time, the tiring ordeal in the valley had faded to a fun adventure and we all thanked him for leading the ride. Everyone agreed on that; it had been tough but was fun. A bloody good days riding was had.
We finished the day with a short ride to Sani Backpakers for a well deserved nights rest, readying ourselves for a motorbiking blitzkrieg on Lesotho……
Blog 2 by Tan
After a wonderful nights stay in the palatial honeymoon suite (complete with double open air showers and the most scenic of views afforded from a toilet seat I have ever come across), we reluctantly moved on to experience some more fantastic dirt road riding through mountainous Zulu country. I managed to survive some tricky descents without the aid of a rear break which Mick went on to fix the next day after I suggested leaving me with no rear break was his attempt to turn this trip into a free wheeling bachelor adventure. The riding was world class and the views got better and better around each bend. Unfortunately the better the view and the better the riding, the less chance of taking the time to take photos so you’ll just have to trust us that the views were a notch above epic.
Just as we got on to the tar road approaching the famous Zulu battlefields we had our first mechanical misadventure of the trip. My bike started to hesitate, which I later learnt to be the correct terminology for the problem when the bike starves for fuel. My first attempts to describe the fault to Mick where met with befuddlement; apparently my description of the bike “going like ‘rrrehhhh then like ruuurrghhh’ and it pulls back” didn’t quite cut it. We suspected a fuel issue (or at least Mick did, I suspected gremlins or voodoo), so off came the luggage, sides, and tank. Upon seeing a quite loose spark plug, Mick thought that might be leading the motor to lose compression and be the cause of the problem. So that was tightened and everything went back on and the bike started again.
The time lost on the side of the road had us hightailing it back to Stuart’s house in Peitermeritzberg, but not without my bike protesting within about 20 minutes with the same symptoms. It came to a stop in Tugela Ferry, unfortunately not the best place for an impromptu visit. Once again everything came off and the carb, fuel lines and fuel filter were drained and the source of our woes revealed itself. Water in the fuel was to blame and we were on our way again.
We spent the next two nights with our trusty guide Stuart where he and his family treated us with wonderful hospitality. For Stuart’s last day of motorbiking freedom before heading back to work we decided on a unencumbered blast up Sani Pass. With all our luggage sitting in Stu’s garage we were able to enjoy the riding to its fullest. The road up to the highest pub in Africa is rough and fun but not crazy and winds steadily up through the southern Drakensberg Mountains, aptly named for the resemblance to the spine of a dragon. The views were astounding and only improved the higher you went.
Thankfully there was no ice or snow on the road which can be common in winter (thanks, global warming!), but we still had to negotiate some very loose, tight and steep (never a good combination) switchbacks towards the very top of the pass. Mick ate them up for lunch. I did not enjoy them quite as much, especially on the way down where I demonstrated my displeasure by momentarily overheating my newly functioning rear brake. I should mention that Mick valiantly rode my bike the rest of the way down so I had the security of both functioning brakes – my hero!
After a fond farewell to Stuart we headed back to Zingela Safari Lodge to pick up some gear that we had inadvertently left there. Naturally we were happy to return to stay with Linda and Mark whose kindness was only exceeded by their incredible story telling ability. It was that evening that I succumbed to the most wicked of flus, which saw us staying at the park for another 6 days. We were spoilt rotten during this time and I spent most of my days sleeping, coughing and taking baths in a divine claw foot bathtub overlooking the river. No, it was not all bad.
Once I was feeling up to the challenging riding required to leave the game park we were on our way, though it must be said it was hard to tear ourselves away from our little oasis and second home. Sadly, after a 100% giraffe spotting success rate anytime we got on a bike at Zingela, we were snubbed by the giraffes on our way out of the park. Oh well, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.
After a quick snoop about the Anglo-Zulu battlefields of Isandlwana and Rourkes Drift (that was for you Dad), plus lunch and a look at the museum at Dundee where we were surrounded 3 or 4 deep by local school kids gawking at us and the bikes, we made our way to Howick to stay with Charlie and his lovely family. A fellow traveller and motorbiker, Charlie contacted us through HU with the offer of a bed and access to a well-stocked shed, which we were in dire need of as Mick’s bike had recently stopped charging. Some quick investigation revealed that the stator had come loose after its modification in Aus. There was damage to the stator by the flywheel, but was fixed with some dexterous soldering and extra epoxy. Hopefully it holds up.
The highlight of our time here by far was been introducing a friendly group of South Africans to the joy and wonders of a mean Sticky Date Pudding whilst they recalled their favourite quotes from the classic Australian movie, “The Castle”. We certainly approve of these South Africans! Next up on our travels, we are going to Bonny Doon! No no, unfortunately not, but we will head back for a much better look through the Drakensburg and into Lesotho where I am sure we’ll enjoy the serenity… “Ahhh the serenity”.