Landlocked Lesotho (which translates roughly into the land of the people who speak Sesotho) is the only independent state in the world that lies entirely above the altitude of 1,000 metres (3,281 ft). Its lowest point of 1,400 metres (4,593 ft) is the world’s highest. The kingdom’s geological exuberance is possible thanks to massive tectonic events, that left the land disfigured by a jumbled mass of mineral scar tissue, peaking over 3000 meters. The most popular entrance to the kingdom is via an off-road legend, Sani Pass. This was to be our second attempt to tackle it, after having to forfeit with a faulty tyre. This time would be different: fully loaded bike & gear and on a road oriented back tyre, but what the hell!
Tipped by John @ Gear Up Umhlanga, we took a different, more scenic route, via Hella Hella Pass. The brisk morning and the empty bends cheered us up.
The place was just as stunning as we remembered it to be. Rolling mountains, cool springs, rocky steep trail. The wind though was another ball game: it was blowing hard this time, downhill.
The Sani Pass is as beautiful as they say it is, it’s not the hype, it’ s an addiction. Many succumb to it. As it was the 27th of April, so public holiday in SA, celebrating the first multi-racial democratic elections, the place was swarming with four-wheelers and bikes. Many 1200 GS and enduros, some of the guys visibly enjoying the ride more than me, on light set ups and full taps all the way!
Our beef was with the wind: blowing so hard that several times I was about to drop down on the loose rocks. It was a bit unnerving having the tour operators’ 4x4s rumble and come past the bikers (and us) on the steep bends, clearly less affected by the strong winds. About 2 km before Sani we met a biker who was catching up his breath after the descent and kept worrying about his mates who had already taken a couple of tumbles and were lagging somewhere behind.
‘I’m going to walk a bit” Ana said, determined to take some shots of me climbing anyways. ‘No ways am I going to sit in these tracks and wind through the climb!’ ‘Try catch a lift from one of these cars if you can’ I mumbled, then watched as she wobbled up, step by step, struggling to keep a steady pace against the wind. A couple of minutes later I gunned down the engine and hallway thru the second climb I realized that if I dropped my bike in there, all I could do was scramble up and hope for the best after impact with the hard rock. The inevitable happened a hairpin later: the road just too steep and the downhill winds just too strong not to lose traction. With the help of a driver I lifted up the 400 kg of machine and gear, while Ana hitched a ride up.
The last part of the climb kept me quite busy, those were some of the most intense minutes I have spent on this bike.
At the border we negotiated our entry to the kingdom african style. After that was done, a mandatory drink at the highest (priced) pub in Africa. In the courtyard it looked like a BMW and Yamaha reunion.
The beer effect took a while to wear off, so we took a bit of a tumble. That left a crippling scar on our left pannier. We could barely lock it now. The scenery was stunning though.
We rode by some scattered homes almost indistinguishable from the rocky environment. But already some of the villagers are dropping the traditional and very functional wind-resistant round shape of the house in favor of the more contemporary rectangle layout.
The local economy thrives on sheep and cattle herding, but since recent years has been gradually opening up to tourism. The operations are still small and mainly catering to the South African market. Here and there one can have a glimpse of how an invasion of large eco-tour operators and big hotels (the alpine ski resorts in the east for example) could change this fragile place and disenfranchise the locals, reducing them to street hawkers and parking boys. While scale economies can bring in significant revenues and commercialized tourism promotions can increase visits, the risk that this will reduce Lesotho’s culture and lifestyle are high. Money always has its drawbacks. Some may disagree, saying that it’s egoistical to keep countries in poverty just so some can enjoy their human safari; but it pays to have diversity, just look at Thailand, its got its posh beach resorts for the rich and lazy as well as the edgy, remote places for the cheap and adventurous. Lesotho is small and beautiful. It’d be nice to try and keep it this way.
People kept creeping up from behind the rocks: blanketed in their thick wooly attire and all sort of hats to protect them from the whipping wind. Some were on foot, wearing the same rubber boots.
6 p.m. and still no camping option in site: too damn cold to pitch our tent and quite a few people walking or riding their donkeys about.
The darkness hindered our progress on the rocky bends, but 6 km down the road we managed to navigate our way to what appeared to be a guest house. It had no electricity, but did offer gas heated water, so we enjoyed the warm candle lit shower and dinner (more SPAR chicken). To conclude a top day we downed a bottle of Fairview’s vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, that we have been toting since Cape Town, when we had bought it with plans to drink it with our friends Harry and Laura. We were both mentally and physically spent: me from riding and manhandling the bike after each fall, Ana from walking on rocks in touring boots. We both slept like dead things that night, snugged under multiple wool blankets harvested from the empty beds in our dorm.
More riding excitement was to follow the next day, saving the best for last, as they say! We started fairly early, cooked some porridge and tea, packed our bits while a man came playing his setolo-tolo, and by 8.30 a.m. we were already getting into the swing of things.
First, we had to retrace our ride to the main road.
It was good African tar for a while.
Then we had to negociate 25 km of reasonably smooth flowing gravel, followed by 35 km of sketchy potholed tar filled with a crumbly mix, the hard edges masked by the dust and not easy on my front fork. Then we hit good gravel and finally some decent tar, which made the tight bends enjoyable again. Rolling down the road we chilled out, just taking in the scenery, the day so clear that we could see for miles on end, our Tenere surged forward in the cold air that was being forced through its throttle body.
Long day in the saddle – 10 hours. We spent all day crossing the mountains at between 2500 and 3283 meters. It was a breathtaking road, but it also meant it was freezing cold for 300 km. We wondered how the locals cope with this weather; must be that those blankets do their job quite fine.
The sun light smeared pink the fringes of cloud clusters. We crossed many streams, some merely dripping from the rock edges. In this stunning solitude few huts popped here and there and even fewer unconspicuous locals dared to walk closer. The people are sweet and timid, only a boozed dude barely mentioned ‘gifts’.
Anyone that brags about fantastic fuel consumption and good tyre grip on these roads are not enjoying their bike to the fullest. Just look at this! Lesotho offers more than a stunning ride, I would do these bends any day! We stopped in this place to snack on our lunch, and stumbled in other people’s lunch! KFC does have a tight grip on the southern sub-continent and one can find their greasy fare even in small villages.
Down at the border to South Africa our last image of this remote and fragile country was a herd of sheep munching on the brittle grasses. A few months from now the food will have payed off and the sheep’s wool will be harvested to manufacture the new season’s Lesotho-wear.