The Drakensberg is the highest and longest mountain range in Southern Africa. Starting in the south, it spans the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and ends in Tzaneen in Limpopo province in the north. At 3 482 metres, Thabana Ntlenyana, in Lesotho, near Sani Pass, is the highest point. That’s some mountain range! It’s longer than the Alps but it doesn’t seem to hold quite the same appeal to bicycle riders. Perhaps it’s because there aren’t many roads or trails heading up and over the Drakensberg. Perhaps it’s because we have so many other great places to ride. Either way, this massive mountain range is there and should be ridden. In this feature, two mountain bikers, Tim Whitfield and Mike Ward describe their very different recent experiences of tackling these big mountains. Tim rode in a very organised group with plenty of back-up and support, while Mike went the minimalist route and just took along his make Steve Stead for company… – Photos: DeTour Trails & Mike Ward
Bikepacking in the Drakensberg
By Mike Ward and Stephen Stead
Mountains inspire us. Mountain bikes can be a path to this inspiration. The trick is to bring mountains and mountain bikes together. The longer we can sustain this togetherness, the more inspired we become.
A fleeting thought: Would it be possible to carry everything that we needed for a few days out in the mountains on a mountain bike? The Internet quickly revealed that not only was it possible, but that many people were already doing it and designing some amazing gear. With the exchange rate going south, it was time to crib some designs off the Internet and get out the sewing machine.
With the gear sorted out, the next step was to find some mountains. A chance detour into the Wartrail area of the Drakensberg provided the perfect mountain environment. With the help of Google Earth we plotted a route – a combination of high mountain passes and big blank areas with vague tracks over remote peaks.
The route would start at the Wartrail Country Club near Barkly East, head up the Bokspruit Valley to a dead-end that seemed to have distinct sheep tracks heading up into the mountains. Then over what we later learned was Sephton’s Pass down to the Naude’s Nek Road. Over Naude’s Nek to Rhodes Village and then back to Wartrail Country Club.
A few emails to landowners to get permission to go through their properties confirmed that the area was remote and, as far as they knew, Sephton’s Pass had not been done on a mountain bike.
In late September we headed up to the Wartrail area. The mountains soon enveloped us. As we headed out on the farm roads the valleys and peaks suddenly made us feel very small and insignificant. The little packs of gear and food seemed hopelessly inadequate. But we made good time. Almost fifty kilometres by lunch time and we were feeling good. Then we headed up into the blank bits on the map with only a line on the GPS telling us that we were headed in the right direction. The next five hours were desperately hard with lots of pushing and a bit of carrying to add a further six kilometres to our total. That’s right, six kilometres in five hours! Shattered, we crept into an old kraal in the mountains and listened to the wind howl through the night.
Day two started well with a couple of hundred metres of riding, the wind was at our back and the mountains were everything that we had dreamed of. Then it was back to pushing along deeply rutted sheep track, rocks and long grass. The wind turned into a gale that at times threatened to blow our bikes away. We were having fun but moving slowly.
At last, the top of Sephton’s Pass. Any thought of riding down the pass dissipated as the loose, broken rock of the pass came into view. So now we were pushing our bikes downhill. We were moving far too slowly and we were not having fun.
Suddenly a grassy slope and we were on our bikes and into ten kilometres of the best single track that we had ever ridden. Everything that we had learnt riding trails close to home was being used to keep us racing down the mountain. Our spirits soared. If this was all we did, this piece of mountain riding made all of the pushing worthwhile.
But downhill must end and the uphill of Naude’s Nek, at 2 600m above sea level the highest dirt road pass in South Africa, began. Shattered and still a long way from the top we camped out in a pine plantation, laid out our sleeping kit, pulled the bivy bags around our heads and went to sleep.
We awoke to another perfect day and Naude’s Nek still looming above us. Granny Gear is made for this kind of riding and we settled into the slow grinding pace that gives you lots of time to look at the mountains moving imperceptibly by. These are big mountains and the view from the top takes the last bit of your breath away. Then down the other side to Rhodes Village. Well, not all down but when it is down, it is brake pad-burning down. Screams of joy, huge views, Lammergeier overhead and the promise of a beer at the bottom. This is what we came to these mountains for!
Call us soft, but the lure of a small cottage with hot baths and soft beds got the better of us and, if we had not had commitments somewhere out there, we may have just stayed in Rhodes. But there were mountains left to explore and everybody kept saying it was all downhill back to the Wartrail area. Maybe in a car, but with tired legs and a thumping headwind, even the downhill was uphill and there was lots of real uphill too. Not that we were complaining. We would do it all again tomorrow.
Suddenly the possibilities to bring remote mountains and lightly laden mountain bikes together over multiple days has exploded and every trail into a remote area has new potential.
Fact File: 200km; 4450m altitude gain; 3.5 days; all camping gear carried on bike
Good start/ finish option.: Woodcliffe Cave Trails. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for access permission, accommodation and trail information.
Self-supported bikepacking – what to take?
Packing for extended self-supported trips into the mountains raises the big dilemma: dirty, fast and light at the one extreme, or civilised, comfortable and safe. Bikepacking undoubtedly positions you at the dirty, fast and light end of the scale. By getting rid of the panniers and bike trailers you are able to fly along singletrack and carve downhill while carrying all you need to spend days far away from the madding crowd.
There are essentially four main areas of packing that require careful thought: sleeping, cooking, clothing and bike maintenance. What follows is my completely subjective overview of what is needed for a multi-day bikepacking trip into the mountains.
For shelter and sleeping, my preference is a Gortex bivy bag that provides the two essentials of being breathable and waterproof. Inside of this I have a very light half-length down sleeping bag; a down jacket for the upper half; a silk liner to keep the down clean; and an inflatable ThermaRest sleeping mat. I also carry a very lightweight groundsheet.
If you are the eating sort, the next big decision: do you carry cooking gear or not? Iced coffee is great on a hot afternoon at the mall but loses its appeal early in the morning on a freezing mountain top. So a stove is a must-have for me. My preference is a ‘Zen stove’ made from recycled beer cans and a windshield/stand made from bicycle spokes and a large tin can. This all packs up into an aluminum pot. A wide-mouth flask for hot coffee and slow cooking completes the kitchen.
As long as you stay away from clean people, clothing can be kept to a minimum. Thermal underwear for sleeping and in case of cold weather; a lightweight waterproof layer; a spare pair of cycling shorts and a buff are essential. Gloves and knee warmers along with trousers and a shirt for going out in public will depend on the weather or people you expect to encounter. A down jacket (my other half of the sleeping bag) is vital for cold mornings and evenings. I prefer a long-sleeved riding shirt and my cycling shoes are comfortable for walking and wearing around camp.
For bike maintenance your normal toolkit including a multi-tool, chain breaker, puncture kit, spare tube etc. is a good start. If you are running tubeless then take patches to repair sidewall cuts and a small bottle of Stan’s sealant or similar. I carry a spare tyre too. Again for the tubeless brigade, make sure you have a couple of bombs – trying to seat a tubeless tyre with a hand pump is life changing in a very negative way.
Now the million dollar question: How to carry all of this gear? Bikepacking is based on soft frame packs. For the best sense of what this means Google “Revelate Designs” or “Porcelain Rocket Bags”. This is beautiful gear but it costs a lot of money. My option was to crib the designs and then negotiate access to my wife’s sewing skills. The essentials of a bikepacking system are a large saddle bag, a frame bag (in the main triangle of the frame) and a handlebar roll. Soft connections between your bike and your kit work better as hard racks tend to break, come loose and limit your riding style. To this I add a 25-litre backpack for a water bag, light but bulky gear and some food. Beware, do not make the backpack too heavy. After a day of riding, the saddle will conspire with the backpack to make life very painful!
Depending on your trip and your own balance between light on the trail and comfortable in camp, you will take less or more than I have outlined above.
BACKPACK – Windproof riding jacket, Waterproof jacket and longs, Tissues, Mesh bag with meds/first-aid bandage, antiseptic wipes, band-aids, imodium, Down Jacket, 375ml meths as fuel (or 750ml on bike for longer trips), Torch, Pocket knife, Mini cable lock, Tyre sealant, H2O bladder (2litre), Additional food (some in frame bag)
HANDLEBAR ROLL – ¾ sleeping bag, Thermarest, Bivy bag, Silk liner, Groundsheet
SEAT BAG – Cycling shorts, Thermal underwear, Spare socks, Medium pac towel, Zen stove, Aluminum pot, Cup for stove, Water purification tabs/ iodine and vitamin C, Shop rag, Toiletries in mesh bag, Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap
FRAME – Pump, Tools (multi-tool, chain tool, presta -to-schrader adapter, zip-ties, bombs, puncture kit), Spares (1 tube, quick link), Flask (will use for cooking)
FRAME BAG – Food, Spoon, Energy Bars, Phone
WORN – Cycling pants, Cycling shirt, Helmet, Eyewear, Socks, Cycling shoes, Gloves, Buff
Mike Ward has hiked in the South American Andes, Himalayas of Nepal, European Alps and extensively in southern Africa. He has climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kenya, the Matterhorn and numerous peaks in the Drakensburg including Devil’s Tooth, the Column and the Western Injasuthi Triplet. Mike is now combining his knowledge of mountains with his passion for mountain biking. Because eventually, everyone graduates to mountain biking…
Surviving Sani Pass
By Tim Whitfield
If you are planning to do a mountain biking trip to Lesotho, it is worth remembering the tiny enclave’s nickname of The Mountain Kingdom. As much as it may seem there is a perfect synergy between The Mountain Kingdom and mountain biking, when you visit Lesotho on a bike you need to be aware you WILL spend a large portion of your ride either going up or down a mountain – and some (make that plenty) of those mountains are very steep.
Another fact about Lesotho worth mentioning is that with a lowest point of about 1 400m above sea level, Lesotho is simply the highest country in the world – and with that high altitude comes a lack of oxygen, an element that is fairly important when doing any strenuous exercise (like going up mountains on a mountain bike).
And finally, before loading your bikes for the trip, it is also worth noting that access to The Mountain Kingdom is limited to a few entry points, and most of those involve some sort of (very steep) mountain pass, of which Sani Pass is one of the better known (and steepest) ways to gain admission.
Had I taken note of this quick three-part lesson outlined above before travelling there (or even just typed “Lesotho” into Google), I may not have been quite so quick to agree to a three-day trip to the world’s highest country with Detour Trails, a Durban-based company that specialises in running mountain biking expeditions in various locations within Southern Africa.
To be fair to Rohan Surridge, owner of Detour Trails, he was tasked by our group of mountain bike racing fanatics to put together a training camp. We were a bunch of experienced riders in various stages of preparation for some of South Africa’s toughest mountain bike races, including the Cape Epic, Sani2C and JoBerg2C. For our purposes, this trip into Lesotho was meant to be, and was, a boot camp and his planning was perfect for what we wanted.
Normally Rohan specialises in putting together more leisurely trips into various locations all over Southern Africa, and the rides he normally leads into Lesotho will rarely be as tough as our expedition – and usually much more focussed on fun rather than fitness. While we wanted to spend three days working as hard as possible to simulate the rigours of stage racing, he usually plans routes with less distance, less climbs, more rests, more food stops and usually more end-of-day alcohol consumption.
The key to a successful mountain biking trip is matching the route to the skill and fitness level of the riders and in our case this trip proved to be a perfect marriage – even if on this particular honeymoon it was not quite as much of a holiday as us newly weds probably hoped for (this was also not helped by some testosterone- and ego-fuelled racing from a few of us).
Our ride started with a climb up Sani Pass that turned out to be something of a bitter highlight as it quickly had all riders in the group aware that we were in for a tough three days. After climbing 1 300m in just 22km (including 1 000m ascent in the final eight kilometres) the road levelled out … briefly. The climb up Sani Pass is without doubt the toughest part of the trip to Lesotho and the road is in places only negotiable by animal (as in horse, donkey or humans walking) or dedicated off-road vehicles (4×4, off-road motorcycles, quad bikes or mountain bikes).
The road is steep, rocky and in places washed away to the point where I was happy not to be trying to pick my way to the top with anything bigger than a bicycle. Our ever-present support vehicle stopped to hand out refreshments, which provided the excuse to stop and enjoy the spectacular view half way up the pass. From that point to the top, the vehicle was significantly slower than the faster cyclists as we all gingerly picked our way to the top on what can optimistically be described as a rocky road.
Once at the top of the Pass, most people stop for refreshments at the highest pub in Africa at Sani Mountain Lodge (formerly Sani Top Chalet). The food, drink and view are well worth the stop but it is also a good chance to allow heart rates to subside – whether you arrive via 4×4 or mountain bike.
We pushed on with another big climb over Black Mountain (a mere 350m climbing in four kilometres) before the day’s highlight for our now-tired legs: a 23km non-stop freewheel down the back of Black Mountain. Although not technically challenging, the 1 000m descent over about 30km on a reasonably well-maintained district road was pure enjoyment and a fun way to forget the first two big climbs.
A quick gourmet picnic was followed by some pure mountain biking on a variety of jeep track, cattle paths, district roads and unique Lesotho trails, until we reached Molumong, our base for two nights at a rustic but comfortable lodge. All the food supplied and prepared by Detour Trails was supplemented by some liquid refreshment from the nearby shebeen.
The second day was part exploring and part training as we got to see parts of the enclave that are probably hardly ever seen by anybody other than the residents of the remote villages and a few mountain bikers Rohan takes into the area.
There were certainly no roads to some of the tiny villages we encountered and access is strictly by paths – to the point that some of the high-tech mountain bikes could easily have been the first wheeled modes of transport ever to visit, other than maybe a few donkey carts. And in places where there were roads, they were often so eroded that even the best 4×4 skills would not have made them navigable by car, making the area a mountain biking heaven.
As per his boot-camp brief, Rohan managed to adjust his normal routes to make sure there was no shortage of climbs, but he also included some fun bits to make sure it was not all work and no play.
The final day was a repeat of day one in reverse – which meant an enjoyable final 35kms descent down Black Mountain and Sani Pass, but that climb up the back of the former obviously produced a little more sweat than the corresponding descent on day one (and of course when you get a bunch of testosterone-fuelled mountain bikers, there I no such thing as a gentle climb to the top, and so the race was on – again).
While the final steep descents look like a load of fun on the profile, they are not without their own stresses and needed a surprising level of technical skills in places with rocky, rutted roads making sure concentration levels never waivered. The steep drops at the side of the road also make sure the penalty for too much speed in some turns was severe and the ride down both Black Mountain and Sani Pass ended with over-heated brakes, sore forearms and a desire for some flat roads; or even climbing to rest!
We covered about 220km over the three days with a total elevation gain of over 7 000m which means we comfortably ended up climbing more than Africa’s highest peak in the three days.
The final word on this particular trip however has to come after all the events the group were training for have all been completed. For me personally, as I struggled up some brutal climbs deep into the sixth and seventh days of the Epic, I kept thinking back to Sani Pass and nothing seemed quite as daunting. Maybe it is just as well I only read up on Lesotho after I had returned!
The backwards and forwards of Sani Pass
My earliest memory of the Sani Pass is a bizarre story I once heard told when I was living in Underberg near the base of the Pass. As a child at the time I never appreciated the feat, but after spending hours struggling up the tight switchbacks on a full suspension 29er mountain bike, the seeming impossibility of it makes me wonder if it is a “rural” myth – but, as an anecdote from the pre-breathalyser days, when-men-were-real-men and drunken revelry was the highlight of many a country-town’s entertainment, there may just be some truth in it.
The story claims a drunken bet after a long night in a rural pub ended with a man of dubious character (he was evidently adept at supplementing his income by using the Pass to get various items of contraband in and out of Lesotho) driving his Land Rover up Sani Pass and back down again. Nothing unusual about that, except he performed the feat at night … after a heavy bout of drinking … and negotiated the entire journey in reverse.
His journey would have started with a gentle undulating 20-kilometre drive from Underberg to the base of the Pass. From there he would have reversed up the Sani Pass proper: a tight, twisty 22km climb with just over 1 300m of ascent. Within that, the real test is the final 10kms where the smuggler would have had to negotiate 1 000m of climbing while edging his vehicle through a final section of tight switchbacks which will test most people’s ability to do three-point turns when sober, never mind backwards.
Sani Pass was originally opened as a bridal path in 1913 and the first vehicle to reach the top was a war-surplus Jeep driven by ex-Spitfire pilot Godfrey Edmonds in 1948. It needed a small army of labourers armed with ropes as well as assorted blocks and tackle to manhandle the vehicle up the path in a “drive” that took about six hours – longer than it took me to get my 29er up the rocky road!
About seven years later the path was upgraded to a road of sorts and the Pass became a regular route for freight vehicles to get supplies into Lesotho, and in recent years it has become as much a tourist attraction as a transport route.
It is a popular recreational route for 4×4 enthusiasts, quad bikers, tourists and of course a few mountain bikers hoping to test their climbing abilities while a variety of 4×4 tour operators take visitors to the highest pub in Africa, the Sani Mountain Lodge.
The governments of Lesotho and South Africa recently signed an agreement to tar the Pass, but objections, mostly from tour operators, meant the project has been delayed and in July it was announced that the rugged pass will rather be gravelled. For mountain bikers this will mean the climb may now be turned into little more than a very steep and testing district road, but at least the roadies will not be able to race up in an effort to improve Strava scores on their skinny tyres. The nature of Sani Pass will surely change, albeit not as much as was expected with the adventure aspect lost to a degree – unless of course you want to try riding it in reverse!
For more on DeTour Trails, visit www.detourtrails.co.za
Tim Whitfield was Group Sports Editor for Independent Newspapers South Africa. He turned 50 in 2013 and managed to ride both ABSA Cape Epic and Old Mutual joBerg2c as a present to himself. He was going to try and ride the Bridge Cape Pioneer Trek too, but ran out of brownie points for 2013…
TREAD Magazine is sold throughout South Africa and can be found in: Spar, CNA, Exclusive Books, Discerning bike shops and on Zinio
*Originally published in TREAD Issue 26, 2013 – All rights reserved