South Africa and Lesotho

I was only in Cape Town for a couple of days when my parents flew over from UK to spend the week with me. They brought me loads of supplies including some new luggage, parts for the bike and stuff to better streamline my kit for the road ahead. They even brought me some of my clothes, so that we could dine out without me looking like a haggered rider who had just crossed a continent.

We all stayed together at Barry and Mina’s Jambo guesthouse. Over the couple of weeks I was there, me and Barry talked loads about our trips through Africa. Barry’s trip in the seventies in a Volkswagon combi camper van makes my trip seen like child’s play. If I thought the infrastructure was crap on my way down, its was completely none existent during his trip. He though that all the videos and photos I showed him of what I thought were bad roads where actually very good roads. He really needs to write a book of his journey some day, I for one would love to read it.

One experience that I was very happy to share with my folks, was the hospitality of strangers, and on the day that they arrived we were invited for a braai by Rejean’s hosts in the very classy Camp’s Bay. Later, we got to go for a braai with people I had met in Namibia. Pieter and Delina got along great with my folks and I went to stay with them for a few days after my parents had left. Pieter is an engineer who works in Nigeria, and I was able to fix loads of things on the bike in his home workshop. I learned lots of things from him too, from the correct way to use an easy-out screw extractor, to how to pack clothes in the most space-saving way (roll them up and stuff them into every nook and cranny!)

I had done lots of maintenance by the time I left Cape Town. The bike had new brake discs, pads and brake fluid, a re-upholstered seat, working heated grips (thanks Oxford products!) new spark plug, new hand guard fixings and I replaced numerous bolts that had fallen out along the way. My parents had brought me new waterproof luggage (sorry JJ, you wouldn’t want those panniers back believe me!) and a warmer sleeping bag (it is winter here!). I even got some maintenance done to myself as 6 months of fine African dining resulted in me having to have an emergency root canal operation done. I’m lucky it hadn’t been needed earlier.

Of the many people I met in Cape Town, almost every bloke wanted to give me information on what were the best routes to ride and by the time I left Cape Town I had acquired the definitive biker’s ‘Garden Route’ from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth taking in as many scenic mountain passes and valleys as I could. There is so much for tourists to do in South Africa, but as ever, I’m all about riding the bike so I bypassed most of the costal towns in favour of zig-zagging back and forth through mountains.

The weather had been a mixed bag while my folks were in town and had cleared up for a few days, but on the day I rode out, all of Cape Town and the surrounding area was covered in low-lying cloud reminiscent of the UK. This turned into an amazing photo opportunity when I rose out of the clouds to ride the Du Toitskloof pass from Paarl to Worcester.

After Worcester and Robertson, I picked up the famous R62, which is named as South Africa’s premier biking road, like Route 66 in the states if you will.

I stopped at Ronny’s Sex Shop for a beer. Its not actually a sex shop but his mates wrote the ‘sex’ on it for a laugh and it has become a bit of an icon on the road ever since. I stayed the night at a hot springs nearby and the next day I set off to Outshorn to see the Cango Caves and ride the stunningly beautiful Swartsburg Pass.

On the other side of the Swartsburg pass, it had been recommended that I ride into ‘the Hell’ (Gamkaskloof), a village in a mountain area so remote that the local residents were famous for interbreeding. Before anyone asks, No I didn’t go there to spice up the gene-pool, but the road there is an amazing twisty dirt road that had me in heaven rather than hell.

Nobody lives there now, and I camped the night in the valley. In the morning it took me an hour to get the bike started, and only after a change of spark plug and much arsing around. My bike has been being an arse to start as the weather has gotten cooler, and as I struggled to get it going in a place where I hadn’t seen another soul except for Baboons, I started to think that I really need to fix this soon. Here are some vids of the ‘Ride out of Hell’.

From the Hell I went to Prince Albert, a pretty little village that has nothing whatsoever to do with genital piercing, and then I rode though Meiringspoort, the fast twisty road that passed through the same mountain range.

I decided to go back to the coast to chill for the weekend, and I headed back to Outshorn and then south through Robertson’s pass to Mossel bay where my weekend was anything but chilled-out as I met so many fun people that I pretty much spent 72 hours either drunk or asleep. I’m blaming the dungeon, you all know who you are!

Me and my wounded liver escaped Mossel bay and I went east to George and rode the Montague Pass before staying in Wilderness. The next day I went to Kynsna, were I was lucky to be given free Thai food at a restaurant and then I rode the Prince Alfred’s pass to Uniondale and then on to Willowmore and the start of the Baviaanskloof.

The Baviaanskloof is a national park located in a 200 km-long valley with gravel roads, tall mountain passes and loads of river crossings. It had been recommended to me by loads of people and I met a large group of riders on the Swartzberg pass who said that it was a must to ride through there. I entered the valley on the good quality gravel roads and spent the night in a caravan at a guest farm where I did my first braai by myself. I had another sober night (still recovering from Mossel bay!) but I had a good laugh chatting to the owner and another farmer who were getting drunk in the bar.

The next day I stopped to check out Bo kloof, an amazingly narrow gorge in a mountain, before riding into the national park bit of the valley. The gravel roads were rocky, fairly easy to ride, but they passed through the river at numerous places. Sometimes the cold water was quite deep and freezing cold.

After 2-3 hours of intense off-road concentration, I was knackered when I came out the other side of the park and I went to find a place to stay. I chanced across the Geelkrans campsite, where you can camp right next to a sun-lit cliff with a river at the bottom. I’m really liking staying at guest farms. You get to meet locals and they are usually very helpful and welcoming. The proprietors of Geelkrans gave me all I needed to to do a quality braai and let me make use of their workshop the next day to change my wheel bearings which I had realised were the cause of a clicking noise I’d been hearing since Mossel bay.

It took me ages to get the bike started again in the morning cold. I really need to sort it out before I go to Lesotho. I went to Port Elizabeth to stay with Kenny and Jenny who I had met at a braai in Cape Town. While enjoying their excellent hospitality I tried to fix my engine troubles by cleaning the carburetor and air filter and by checking the valve clearances, but it didn’t make a difference. Kenny and Jenny also took me to the Addo Elephant park to see some wildlife. There are many wildlife parks in South Africa, but as I found out, those that have free-roaming lions don’t allow motorbikers to roam around too! My animal recognition skills need a lot of work though, I was convinced that a bush pig (kind of warthog) i saw was a lion!

From Port Elizabeth, I spent a few days riding north-east along the inland gravel roads of the Eastern Cape. I passed through Somerset East, staying at the excellent Die Kaia guest farm then I camped in Hogsback, Rhodes and Maclear. On thing that I noticed about these rural places was the absence of the huge security measures that you see in places around Cape Town. There were always large townships nearby, but I was told that there was pretty much no crime. Its the same as I had seen further north in Africa and indeed elsewhere in the world. Cities attract criminals but in the middle of nowhere you are generally safe. From Maclear, I had debated going to Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, to sample the curries and to try to get assistance with my cold starting problems. However, I was only a couple of hours away from Underberg and the start of the Sani Pass, the famous mountain pass that goes through the Drakensberg in to Lesotho that I had been hearing so much about. It was a risk riding up there as I still hadn’t solved the cold starting problem. I had got the bike started three times in cool conditions but at the top it would be sub-zero. Common sense suggested I should wait, but excitement told me to go on so I turned towards the pass.

Lesotho (pronounced le-su-tu) is a separate country that is completely land-locked by South Africa. The Sani Pass is the most reliable route into Lesotho through the Drakensberg. Kenny showed me a book about the pass and it is famous for rapidly changing weather conditions (including snow) and for vehicles falling off its steep hairpin turns. My friend Martin in Johannesburg even said to me “they might be putting tar on it so you had better hurry up!”. The pass is the no-mans land between Lesotho and South Africa and after had I passed through the South African border control I was riding on a dirt road with big rocks all over the place. In some places they were quite bad and the bike was jumping around madly but as with most things off-road, the momentum kept me going in a straight line. About half way up I stopped to chat to some bikers, one of which had the same bike as me. Its a real popular road for bikers and the guys had just come for the day to ride it. They were on their way back down the pass and they offered me a beer. Its a good job that I didn’t accept because after I’d passed through some of the steeper switchbacks, including the ice corner, I took a switchback too tight and too slow and I dropped the bike.

I took the luggage off and as I moved the bike out of the way, I was startled to see that the bolt that holds on the top yoke/triple clamp was missing. In my flustered state I couldn’t work out how my forks were still attached to the bike. I later worked it out but for the rest of the journey I was convinced that they could fall off at any minute. The steep uneven surface was really a pain and the bike fell over again on its sidestand when I was loading the bags back on. I picked it up again, loaded it up and tried to continue but without any momentum I couldn’t keep it in a straight line over the rocks and it was only seconds before I fell off it again. I decided to ride it unloaded for about 10 meters until I could find a safer place to start off from then walked back to fetch the luggage. I finished the the last 3-4 hairpins and rode the rocky road to the Lesotho border. I was completely buzzing with adrenaline by the time I got off the bike as you can see by this video.

I was really happy to have ridden the Sani Pass, like a lot of roads in Africa, I think that I had built it up in my head to be a real challenge. It wasn’t easy, but what I lack in off road skill I make up for with an ability to pick it up solo in dodgy conditions.

The Lesotho border at the top was quite a pleasant affair, and I was given two weeks without any hassle or fuss. As I got back to the bike I noticed that the pass was now inside a cloud.

The isn’t a great deal at the top of the pass, just the border control hut and the Sani Top Lodge and I decided to stay there the night. I was still wired with adrenaline when I arrived in the bar which is supposed to be the highest pub in Africa, but I calmed down after a few guinesses and had a laugh chatting to the manager, John. It was freezing by the time I went to sleep and my tent was covered in ice, but I really wanted to camp out to see how good my new camping kit was. I must have slept okay, because I remembered having some crazy dreams, but there was definitely a point at around 5 in the morning when I felt cold and I couldn’t get back to sleep. It cant have been less than minus 5 degrees. I dunno, I’m starting to think that sleeping bag manufacturers are exaggerating a bit about how warm their products are.

The next day I was apprehensive about continuing further into Lesotho. The bike wouldn’t start (surprise surprise) and I was still concerned about my forks falling off as I had heard that the road from the pass to the nearest town, Mokhotlong was in even worse condition than the pass itself.

On the plus side, the roads after Mokhotlong were supposed to be sealed so I would only need to push on for another 50 km or so of bad terrain. The alternative was to go back down the pass, which although fun it would have meant missing loads of fantastic Lesotho countryside. I was helped by Ross, the Sani Top handy man, who knows a fair bit about bikes and tried to find a replacement bolt for me. The forks were being held in place by the triple clamps and by the bearing preload nut so they should be okay if I took it easy and tried to avoid hitting any big rocks. The bike had been refusing to start on the button for ages and the battery was starting to die when we got it started by turning it over a few times with the kick then using the electric start. Not sure why this worked but it has proved to be the best way to start the bike in the cold ever since.

I left for Mokhotlong. The road was as bad as I had been told, but without any tight bends it was easy to keep the speed up and avoid the rocks. At Mokhotlong, I decided that I would ride to Semonkong, where it is possible to abseil 200 metres down a waterfall. I refueled and doubled back a few kilometres so that I could ride to Thaba Tseka, a town in the middle of the country. The dirt road was another rocky, corrigated bastard of a piste and it took me 3 hours to do about 70 km, but the scenery was fantastic. I met a couple of Americans along the way who are walking from Cape Town to Cairo. The best of luck to them with their journey, they were certainly enjoying walking in Lesotho.

The sun was fading as I approached Thaba Tseka and I was wondering about where I would stay the night. Lesotho is very like the African countries that I had passed through in the north. Everybody was very friendly and most of the local people live a traditional life raising cattle and living in little round huts with thatched roofs. I really wanted to just stop at any village and ask if was okay to set up my tent there. It had been ages since I’d done this as South Africa and Namibia are very set up for tourism with loads of campsites and backpackers (and of course there is a security issue in South Africa). Problem was that I still wasn’t sure that I would be able to start the bike in the cold morning so I carried on to the town and found a very cheap guest house that turned out to be a good experience in itself. The place had a trailer that had been converted into rooms that were just big enough to get a bed in. The guests were mostly from the capitol, Maseru, and were staying there while working away. I got to chat to them over dinner and breakfast and learn about life in Lesotho. Everyone was very excited that the local elections had just taken place and that they were going to have a new coalition government.

The road out of Thaba Tseka was initially poor but then turned into a good condition sealed road that wound it’s way through many mountain passes including the ‘God help me’ pass and the ‘Bushman’s pass’ (‘God help me’? ‘The Hell’? who comes up with these names? bloody drama queens!). At times the bike was struggling with the altitude a little and could only manage 40 kmh going up hills. This didn’t bother me though as the scenery was awesome and I was stopping every ten minutes to take it all in. The road decended into the ‘lowlands’ (Lesotho is all above 1000 m above sea level) and I turned south at the town of Roma to head to Semonkong. Arriving at Semonkong, I went straight to have a look at the beautiful Maletsunyane waterfall then I went to sign up to abseil down it at the Semonkong Lodge. I had expected a day of training but I was immediately sent off to abseil down a smaller cliff for practice. The instructors were all great and after the practice I had no worries at all about doing the real thing the next day. There were two lads from Bristol there too and later we went and had some beers in a little bar in what counts for Semonkong town. It was a novelty being in the company of black Africans again after over a month of being on the mostly white tourist route. Through several games of pool (I lost them all), a couple of powercuts and a drunk police sergeant trying to get booze out of me, I’d had a lot to drink and it was a chore wandering back to the Lodge in the complete darkness. It was even more of a chore getting out of my tent early in the morning to go and do the abseil.

The abseil was fantastic, and I’m glad that I made the journey to do it. The climb out of the valley after the abseil was the real challenge and I was completely knackered when I got back to the lodge so I spent the rest of the day relaxing and planning my next move. I decided on riding back to Thaba Tseka so that I could ride north past the Katse dam and back into South Africa and head towards Johannesburg. I thought that I would make the effort to camp out in a village and meet some locals as it was an experience that I had come to miss, but when I got to the Katse dam I was immediately directed to a camp site that faced the dam. There was a security guard there all night and I shared my camp meal and chatted about life in Lesotho with him instead. The dam was constructed as part of a program to provide water to South Africa and generate electricity for Lesotho and in the morning I was taken inside the dam as part of a tour run by the government.

After Katse I rode tarred roads (some of which were recently built as part of the dam project) all the way to the border with South Africa. The towns in the lowlands look much different than the highlands with a higher population and less people living a traditional agricultural life. I passed through the border and went to stay the night in the beautiful small town of Clarens, that is full of artists and people getting away from the big cities for the weekend. The next day I left Clarens and rode the 3 hours into Johannesburg where the African leg of my adventure comes to an end.

6 thoughts on “South Africa and Lesotho

  1. so amazing the photos and the roads, sorry to hear of bike troubles, missing bolts sounds scary and the starting problems must be a worry in the middle of nowhere!!! may have kacked me pants on that one. have to say lesotho and namibia have been brilliant to view and what i thought your trip would be about, really inspiring for the armchair travellor, can imagine south america is going to be full of the same generous and warm people your journey has exposed in africa. stay safe and keep blogging.

  2. Bravo pour ce périple africain avec beaucoup de courage malgré tes problèmes avec ta moto.
    Nous pensons bien à toi.
    Jean-pierre, laetitia et Manali (nous nous étions rencontrer au Togo puis au benin à grand popo)
    Nous allons continuer à te suivre andrew et merci pour ces photos et tes films.
    plein de belles pensées qui t’accompagnent

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