Planning a moto adventure in the middle of winter to one of Southern Africa’s most iconic mountain passes don’t always come recommended. The weather and road conditions on Sani Pass can rapidly turn and you can become instantly humbled with the circumstances you find yourself in. We’ve had it both ways before, but this year - we lucked out all round!
From our experience with years past, we prepared everyone for the worst. At the top of the packing list was long underwear followed by extra layers to keep you warm. Those items luckily weren’t needed until the evening at the backpackers at Sani Mountain Lodge.
This was the third year that Bonafide Moto Co-led a group of riders from Johannesburg down through the Midlands and up to the top of Sani Pass. Each year sees riders of all skill levels, with various brands and styles of motorcycles - the only rule, Don’t Be A Dick.
We set out early on a Saturday morning avoiding all the commuter traffic that we normally run into when departing on our adventures. The first few hours leaving Johannesburg are always the toughest. You’ve been looking forward to this trip for months and you spend the first few hours on long and straight roads knowing that the turns will eventually come. The first set of fun turns quickly end just as we arrive into lunch into the mountain town of Clarens. For those who’ve never visited this area, it’s always a lively town filled with weekend warriors looking to get away from the city.
Leaving Clarens, the road begins to show off - cutting its way through the rocky cliffs of Golden Gate National Park. On this stretch from Clarens to the Amphitheater Backpackers, you finally get the chance to stretch the bike out, become comfortable leaning into the turns and take a chance to take in the amazing views with the city life now well behind you.
The arrival into the backpackers sneaks up on you just after chasing the person in front of you sweeping through the mountains. The lodge is tucked away into a small oasis in the middle of the rolling hills overlooking the impressive Drakensberg Escarpment. Settling into the lodge riders picked their mates for the night and fought over who would be the one on the bottom bunk.
With the mix of riders being from different towns, background and countries we like to arrange the riders goodie bags with luggage tags strategically at the big dinner table on the first night so that everyone gets a chance to meet someone they may haven’t gotten a chance to know. We find this tends to open up people to one another and offers them time to get to know one another.
Our departures this time of year tend to be quite early as we are limited to the amount of daylight needed to get us to our next stop. We left not long after sunrise and started to make our way closer to Sani Pass via the beautiful Midland roads. After stopping for lunch just 30 minutes away from the base of the pass we could all feel the excitement and tension in the air as we all knew we would soon find ourselves pushing our limits on Sani Pass.
Leading up to this adventure we reached out to local riders in the area to see if they had any feedback as to the conditions on the pass. Over the past year, construction has begun at the bottom section where bridges and outlines of where the road would be tarred had begun. We were told to expect very loose rocks and tough lines to follow.
We left lunch, fueled up the bikes before heading into Lesotho, stretched out the arms, took all the deep breaths we could and followed the signs for Sani Pass.
The beginning of the pass greeted us with extremely dusty conditions. The area hadn’t received any rain or snow for the past 2-3 weeks so we informed riders to give as much gap as possible so that they had visibility. Not only was the dust visibility a concern but heading up the pass just hours before sunset meant we’d be riding into the sun with dust all in front of us.
All were accounted for and came in quite close together as we got to the South African border post, which is the base of the Iconic Pass. From here on out to the Lesotho border, we didn’t know what to expect, but always to expect the worst.
With under 3 hours before the sun would set we felt well positioned to allow everyone enough time to get to the top before the border would close. Riders set out from the border at their leisure and the stoke levels were high. The loose rocks and tough lines were quickly visible as the climb began up to the first two river crossings. After the second river crossing was when things got interesting and when we encountered what we now call the “death zone.”
What normally would be a typical straight uphill climb into the mountain became a traffic jam of bikes slipping and sliding trying to battle their way up this extremely loose and rocky section. The first few riders made it up quite easily through the locals who were repairing the road but shortly after them, you could see the panic in the eyes of those that were next. Some of the riders had found good lines to go up, but the locals fixing the road began to block their lines and urge them to take another. This led into slippier sections with bigger areas of loose rock bed that soon got the riders stuck in one spot. At one point there were 4 bikes all on the brink of toppling over.
For those that had made it past this section, they had pulled over onto the flattest section possible to keep an eye on those behind knowing that there were going to be some riders who would need help. They quickly ran down to assist those who were spinning in one place and after a good, 30 minutes or so of pushing, lifting and digging the whole group made it past...this first gnarly section.
The riders who battled in the death zone were extremely exhausted and fatigued. This wasn’t a good place to be in as some of the toughest parts were still yet to come. Leaving the death zone the pass starts to level out a bit with a decent section of smooth lines before you begin to navigate your way up the iconic switchbacks of Sani pass. With the level of fatigue being high it also meant that the throttle hand was also tired. The key to a successful summit on Sani Pass is consistent throttle. The moment you back off the throttle on one of the sharp uphill twists, the bike stalls and you begin to find yourself quickly trying to find your feet. Depending on which way you lean (usually the downhill side) means you’re probably going to drop the bike.
Luckily the way we ride and the mentality we have at Bonafide Moto Co is leaving no man/woman behind. The riders naturally partnered up with those who were struggling so that when a bike went down they weren’t left on their own to pick it up.
We lost count of all the drops but that doesn’t matter anyway. What did matter was that just 30 minutes before the border gate closed everyone was accounted for, all bikes had made it to the top and we were safe and sound. To be honest, this summit of Sani Pass was by far the most challenging of all of our trips.
As mentioned before there were all types of bikes on this trip; 3 Triumph 1200 Scramblers, 3 Tiger 800’s, 3 Street Scramblers, 2 GS 650’s, 1 GS 800, 1 KTM 1290. But do you want to know which bike made it up with the most ease out of all of them? A stock Bonneville T120. Yup. It was the third time this specific bike had summited the pass and it did so quite easily. We’ve noticed that the lower the sense of gravity on the bike, the easier it is for the rider to get up.
That evening around dinner you could hear and you could sense the fear and realization of how challenging the ride up to the top was. Some riders were questioning whether or not they should go down the pass or take the long detour through Lesotho. For us, we prefer everyone stays together as a group, but we aren’t here to tell riders what they should do. After a good dinner, and a good nights rest the attitudes had changed. Everyone knew what they had signed up for and they each wanted to finish what they had set out to do.
Their reward after making their way down the pass? One of the most fun dirt roads connecting from Underberg to our final night stay at Nottingham Road Hotel. This 70km dirt road has been one of our favorites through the year as it’s thrown a bit of everything at us. The first year was a clay ice skating rink from a decent amount of rain that had come down on our way. This year was not the case and we lucked out with another dry, dusty and smooth ride into Himeville.
The last night is always the best as Notties Hotel has quite a unique local pub downstairs and this year it was all ours! We had all come a long way together, we pushed ourselves, we progressed our riding abilities and we struck up new and everlasting friendships that we will never forget.
Our next adventure into eSwatini, The Kingdom of Swaziland promises to be a good one. The neighboring country provides a beautiful scene for both asphalt and gravel riding of some of the finest in Southern Africa.
To join us on the next adventure to some of the other areas in Southern Africa head over to our www.bonafidemotoco.com and get ready for one heck of a good time!