The eastern border of Lesotho has a natural boundary with South Africa - the high cliff walls of the Drakensberg Mountains that rise up 1300m in the air. They don't call it the Mountain Kingdom for nothing.
Some crazy bastard actually built a road that climbs up that vertical face. Well, road might be a loose term. It's basically a path of loose rocks and rubble, twisting and turning its way from the bottom, all the way to the lip of the flat mountain-top.
It's called the Sani Pass, and the perilous path and amazing views that go with it make it a favorite for 4x4ers and adventure motorcyclists.
We've been monitoring the weather for the last 24 hours, hoping that the forecast for rain will change for tomorrow's departure.
No joy. In fact, it seems to have gotten worse with longer periods and heavier levels of precipitation being predicted.
It's such a nice sunny day outside. And they're calling for rain tomorrow? Inconceivable!
Our hosts are an older couple and we knock on their door to inform them that we're leaving today, even though we are paid up till tomorrow. Of course they don't mind. They know of our plans to scale the wall today and they agree with the wisdom of attempting it when the ground is dry.
As we ride off, they stand by their front door and wave goodbye to us: "Have fun storming the Drakensberg Mountains!"
Just before we are out of earshot, I hear the wife ask the husband, "Do you think they'll actually make it up the Sani Pass on those motorbikes?"
He answered, "It'll take a Miracle!"
We ride out of Underberg and head towards the road that takes us to the South Africa-Lesotho border
I keep remarking to Neda, "This is such a perfect day to be riding. I'm glad we're leaving a day early."
It's a quick 20km ride to the beginning of the Mkhomazi Wilderness Area, where the tar road turns to gravel. From here, it will be another 13 kms to the South African border control post.
The road to the border post is scenic, but the conditions are very rocky
It reminds me of the dirt road to Die Hel - bumpy with a lot of large, loose rocks. A couple of narrow water crossings as well.
We pass by several heavy construction vehicles. I read that they are planning to re-gravel the bottom of the Sani Pass. This section should be completed by this time next year.
There's also talk on the forums and Facebook groups about the government actually paving the Sani Pass, but all the 4x4 and Adventure Motorcyclists are passionately dead set against that idea. No one thinks it will actually happen though, as the cost is too high. And besides, the 8 kms of unpaved road between the South African border control post and the Lesotho border post is No Man's Land, technically not belonging to either country.
Stamping out of South Africa
The Sani Pass border control post serves two functions. First, it is a geo-political control point, stamping travelers in and out of South Africa. But secondly, the officers are tasked to ensure that any vehicle that passes this point can actually traverse the steep roads lined with loose rock and gravel successfully, without getting stuck... or worse, sliding off the road that hugs the cliff face to certain death. Or serious injury at least.
I've read that the husks of abandoned vehicles that have skidded off the pass are abandoned to rust forever. The exorbitant recovery costs probably exceed the value of the vehicles. Reminds me of the same thing happening on the Dalton Highway in Alaska
The customs officials don't come out to inspect our bikes. I guess they assume because we've walked into their office with our motorcycle gear on that we're able to negotiate the pass successfully. They probably scrutinize the low-clearance 2WD cars more closely.
We leave South Africa on Day 88 of our 90 Day Tourist Visa. If we had left tomorrow as planned, we would have slipped through the border by the skin of our topcases.
I just knew when we landed here back in November that we'd be rushing to get out of the country - just like every other place we've been kicked out when staying for the maximum duration of the Tourist Visa.
We stop several times to appreciate the beauty around us. And to take many, many pictures!
As we speed away from the Florin, um South Arican border, North-West(ly) towards Guilder, er Lesotho the roads become noticeably rougher, but the vertical-walled escarpment of the Drakensberg mountain range grow larger and the scenery becomes more dramatic.
The gradient at the bottom of the pass is very mellow and we make efficient progress while still able to enjoy the sights around us.
Runoff from the mountains summit threatens to continually wash away the road beneath us
In the valley of rocks
In several spots, the road is in danger of being washed away by water streaming down from the summit. To keep the soil and gravel in place, roadworks have laid down white plastic sheeting for vehicles to drive over.
Neda stares at this precarious setup dubiously. "You go first", she tells me.
"As you wish."
We watch from above as another high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle tiptoes over the rubble that we just cleared
Oh, those grass covered hills. I can imagine someone tumbling down one, yelling, "Aaaasss yooooouuuu wiiiiiiiiissh!"
Another scenic photographic break
Neda negotiates a sharp up-hill left-hander with the Drakensberg escarpment in the background
At this point, our route is getting steeper and steeper. To keep up with this change in gradient, the Sani Pass switches back on itself several times to make the slope more gradual for vehicles making the attempt. Despite all these hairpin turns, we still have to climb almost a 1000m in less than 7 kms. Steep, indeed!
Eyes on the prize. See the top of those mountains? There's where we're headed! Inconceivable!
More rough roads ahead!
We are having such a great time on the Sani Pass! Can you tell?
Things are about to change very quickly though...
Watching all the 4x4 trucks zig and zag up and down the Sani Pass
These 4x4s are all carting tourists who want to experience the Pass but are too afraid to attempt the drive in their own vehicle. The tour operators know the road inside out and they are a lot faster than we are.
Whenever we see one of these "tour buses" come up in our rear view mirror or ahead of us, we always pull over to the side to let them pass. Everytime we do, the tourists in the back seat crane their heads out the windows and give us the thumbs up. One of the ladies yells to Neda, "You are such a superhero! I wouldn't even try this in a truck!"
That makes Super-Neda super-happy!
Hero shot! Looking out over the valley of the Sani Pass at the road we came in on.
Zig and zag
Stopping again to take a shot of all the hairpins ahead of us. We really shouldn't be stopping on such a steep slope. Our right foot always has to be on the rear brake or the whole bike starts to slide if only the front brake is engaged. When the road is slippery, sometimes careless vehicles will just slide off the road and over the edge. So glad we are attempting the Sani Pass in the dry, instead of tomorrow when it's supposed to rain!
Finding traction on such a steep, slippery slope is difficult when you're starting off again. Neda is also finding it hard to get up and stand on the footpegs quick enough to get her weight over the front wheel and mitigate the rough terrain.
Those mountains in the background are so photogenic
Every time we stop, it's a bitch trying to get our rear wheels hooked up again on the steep rocky road beneath us. But we can't help it, the scenery is so gorgeous, we need to capture it for posterity!
The going is slow and exhausting!
The temperatures up in the mountains are perfect for riding, it's only in the low-20s. But we're so tense on the bikes trying to thread a clear path, dodging large rocks on the road and keeping our motorcycle upright, that we're both sweating profusely underneath our gear. We stop often not just for photographic breaks, but to take in lots of liquids.
My Non-Love-Affair (Hate Affair?) with my bike continues. Again, the suspension is not soft enough, and I feel like the wheels spend more time in the air than on the ground. I am up on the footpegs all the time now, and the soles of my feet are killing me because the pegs are too narrow! I look at Neda's wide, grippy off-road footpegs with envy. This is something I need to swap out, the first chance I get.
Neda stops in a corner
Unfortunately, she's fallen for one of the two classic blunders. The first being "Never get involved in a land war in Asia", but only slightly lesser known: "Never stop in the middle of a hair-pin corner during a steep uphill climb, especially when death is on the line!"
Well, maybe not death. But it is very difficult to get going again, once your nose is pointed to the sky like that and you have to make a 180-degree turn on loose ground...
I know if I stop like that, I'll never get the bike moving again, so I snap a quick picture as I ride past her, and keep my momentum up.
Just because you make it past the hairpin bends, doesn't mean you are safe
I'm up on the pegs, my wheels are hopping over these large, loose rocks and suddenly I feel the rear lose traction and skip sideways.
I'm not going fast enough to begin with, so the bike loses both momentum and balance, and in an instant the motorcycle is down on its side. Luckily I'm able to hop off the bike with only my pride injured.
Neda can't get going to help me right the motorcycle, and the sidestand is too long so she can't park the bike without it flopping over to the right-hand-side. So she just lets it drop gently where she is and walks uphill to help me lift my bike.
After my bike is set upright, we both walk back down to do the same for her motorcycle
I keep her bike steady and help her get moving through the hairpin that she's in the middle of, making sure her rear wheel doesn't slip too much. The hardest part for her is quickly getting up on the footpegs from a stop, especially on such a steep incline.
I keep pushing and holding the bike upright as her rear wheel spits up rock and gravel all over my legs and chest.
Finally she's able to get up on the pegs and meets my bike where we righted it.
OMG it's so steep! I stare up at the summit ahead of us. "We're going to ride all the way up there? Inconceivable!"
Neda replies, "You keep using that word, I don't think you know what it means."
Time for another scenic break. We are exhausted from all the pushing and pulling on these motorcycles
There are countless hairpins ahead of us, and Neda is not too confident that she'll be able to make them without help.
So we devise a strategy, I'll take the hairpin first, then stop on the next straightaway. Then I walk back down to where she is and help her out in the corners.
Then I'll walk back up to my bike, rinse and repeat until we're all the way to the top.
I stare up at the summit. There's gotta be like ten or so hairpins left. Ugh.
Waiting for Neda to make the next hairpin
If the turns are wide enough and there aren't huge rocks on the ground and the pitch isn't that steep, she's more than capable of making it through the corner and up without any assistance.
In fact, I don't need to help her up the next few turns at all. When she catches up to where I've stopped, I set off again to negotiate another hairpin and wait for her on the next straightaway.
We keep leap-frogging like that and the lip of the summit slowly comes into view. We might actually make it all the way to the top!
On this turn, the slope is pretty steep and the rocks are large, so I walk down to give her a hand.
Neda is getting very discouraged and frustrated. We stop to take another break.
Neda exclaims: "We'll never succeed. We may as well lie here!"
She's feeling very demoralized. So it's time to give her a pep talk.
"Come on, Neda. We've already succeeded. I mean, what are the three terrors of the Sani Pass? One, the South African border control. No problem. They didn't even come out to inspect the bikes. Two, the steep hairpins and R.O.U.S. lying in wait to eat our wheels."
"R.O.U.S? What's that?" Neda asks.
"Rocks Of Unusual Sizes" :) "And you've shown you can beat those too!"
She smiles. "What's the third terror?"
"Well they say there's a 200m stretch consisting of super-steep gradients, so combined with the R.O.U.S. on the ground, they manage to take down many motorcycles. But I don't believe it's that bad."
It's that bad.
I didn't even make it to the first of the three steep and tight hairpins. Once again, my wheels hit the R.O.U.S. and hop out from under me. This time, determined to keep my momentum up, I goose the throttle. To remind me of what a big mistake that was, the rear wheel, lacking any sort of traction, spins out 180-degrees, dirt-bike-style, finally pointing the motorcycle downwards when it lands on its side once again.
Oh. My. Dog. That must have looked as spectacular as it felt!
It's now Neda's turn to walk up to help me with my bike.
There are three turns left on the Sani Pass. Someone's already named all of them: Gray's Corner, Reverse Corner and Big Wind Corner.
Like any destination road (Deals Gap, Isle of Man), all the corners are named. Right now, we're at the plateau between Gray's and Ice Corner
From where we have stopped, the last three hairpins look super-steep and there's some kind of viewing platform at the top overlooking the pass. We can see a few people waving at us and cheering us on!
Oh man, now we have an audience for the most difficult section of the Sani Pass!
The turns are too close together and the pitch is too steep for me to stop and help Neda. When I get on my bike, I'll have to complete all three corners at once. I'll only be able to stop once I reach the top. However, our communicators don't work well when they're not in visual range, so there's no way of knowing how she is doing and where she is once I'm over the lip.
I tell Neda this and her face grows ashen and pale.
I try to assuage her fears: "Okay, so I'll wait for you at the top for 15 minutes. If I don't see you, I'll walk back down and help you ride it up."
"Make it 20 minutes!"
She seems satisfied with this plan.
It'll be quite a long and steep walk down from the top to this level. On the map, it's over a kilometer long and 100m of vertical elevation. Man, I hate hiking! I really hope she'll make it up without needing any assistance.
Yeah, yeah, I know... Not winning any Husband-Of-The-Year awards this time round...
I mount my bike and leave my wife behind in a cloud of dust. The last three hairpins are not that difficult, mainly because I don't stop and was able to maintain my forward momentum. The pitch is noticeably steeper than the last few turns we've done, and my beer belly is smashed up against the tank bag trying to keep all my weight forward towards the front wheel. But I keep my speed up, and the throttle steady.
The bike is feeling ok (well, not okay, just barely adequate) as it zigs up, than zags further up again, and then a final uphill zig and I see the gates of the Lesotho border control welcoming me to the summit.
I made it!
I park just outside the gates and wait nervously for Neda to follow me. I make a note of the time.
As predicted, because we aren't in visual range, our communicators don't work. Five minutes pass and no sign of my wife. No problem, I know how slow she is taking the turns.
I keep my eye fixed on that last hairpin, waiting for her motorcycle to appear over the crest. I don't think I even blinked!
Ten minutes pass, still nothing. Getting slightly anxious. Maybe I should walk down anyway, just to keep her company, give her some moral support?
Nah, she's a big girl and a good rider. Plus I hate hiking.
I stick to the plan.
Another ten torturous minutes pass and now I'm properly worried. Best case: she's still inching forward bit by bit. But maybe the bike has tipped over and she can't bring it back upright by herself? Worse case, she's whiskey-throttled her motorcycle off the edge of the cliff.
Ugh, don't even think like that!
The time we both agreed to has elapsed and I start walking down the Sani Pass.
I don't even make it 50 paces when I see Neda rounding the corner while standing up on the pegs of her motorcycle like some kind of triumphant warrior princess (Buttercup?). I swear somebody is playing Wagner's "Ride Of The Valkyries" like a soundtrack in the background as she rides up towards me, huge grin plastered on her face behind her visor!
She made it! Rode up the three steepest and tightest switchbacks all by herself! I am so proud of her!!!
So glad we're up here! We both agree, this was one of the hardest roads we've ever ridden.
Neda parks behind my bike, dismounts and runs up to me to give me a huge hug and plants numerous kisses all over my face.
Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. These probably weren't in the top five, but man was she ever happy and relieved!
"I almost gave up!" she explained when I asked her how it went. "But I thought of all those people watching me on that platform and DAMMIT, I wasn't about to let them see my husband ride my motorcycle up for me!"
LOL! Neda is awesome!
Feeling pretty ecstatic at the Lesotho border control at the top of the Cliffs of In-Sani-ty
Oh yeah, here's a video:
There's no line-up at the border control office, and we chatter excitedly with each other about the ride up as we walk up to the booth.
Getting into Lesotho is dead-easy, especially since we have South African-registered vehicles. Lesotho, along with four other countries, belongs to the Southern African Customs Union. This means no messing around with Temporary Vehicle Import Permits, which is one of the reasons why we purchased bikes in South Africa.
The customs officer asked us how long we were staying in Lesotho. Most motorcycle riders ride in and out in a day. Maybe stay overnight.
Neda and I look at each other. "What do you think? 14 days?" I ask her. She nods. "14 days" I tell the officer.
He looks at us like we're crazy. Lesotho is 200 kms wide and 200 kms long.
We travel slowly.
He shrugs and stamps us in for 14 days and now we're in another African country.
There's a hotel with a pub right at the top of the Sani Pass. I guess this is where we'll be staying tonight.
We order some drinks, and we mean it! Anybody want a peanut?
What a long and tiring day. Neda says to me, "Let's do absolutely nothing tomorrow!"
As we savour our well-earned beverages, I whisper in her ear: