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.