48. Sani Pass
Is this the toughest gravel climb in the world? Bicycling heads to the foothills of Sani Pass in search of Hors Catégorie inclines, hot coffee and magnificent views. TIB professional cyclist Andrew Hill joins us for an icy climb – and even icier descent.
Forget the billiard-smooth, mythical asphalt of Mont Ventoux or even Alpe d’huez: Sani Pass and its gravel surface is a far tougher exercise. No tarmac here
(for now, at least) – instead, the surface is rough, moon-like in its composition, and treacherous, which means getting to the top is a testing exercise for even the most dextrous of 4x4 vehicles. Linking Mokhotlong, Lesotho with Kwazulu-natal’s Underberg Valley below, it’s widely known as the Roof of Africa.
Thankfully, we have experienced mountain-bike professional and Kwazulunatal local Andrew Hill with us today, to help negotiate the tricky pass as well as to point out the intricacies of the ecosystem it sustains. See, Andrew’s not only a consummate athlete; he’s also an environmental science graduate, so he knows a thing or two about this region’s geographical markers and its vegetation. His intimate knowledge of the area is sure to come in handy a little later.
On a local scale, the vegetation of the Sani Pass is affected by both altitude and aspect (whether it’s north- or south-facing). There are three major vegetation zones as you make your way to the top: the montane zone, the subalpine, and the alpine. The montane zone is dominated by protea savanna grasslands and Leucosidea (ouhoud), specific to the bottom border-post altitude band. But the transition between montane to subalpine sees the introduction of Thermeda grasslands and fynbos, which grows in prominence all the way to the summit at 2 800m. It’s quite incredible, really. But back to the climb…
Those with a propensity for acrophobia should take heed – Sani Pass starts at 1 544m, before rapidly rising 1 332 vertical metres and peaking at 2 876m. The thin air, wildly fluctuating temperatures (the mercury drops into negative digits, regardless of the season)
and untamed nature of the environment all add to its allure and reputation as Africa’s toughest mountain pass.
One of Sani’s many drawcards is undoubtedly the novelty of getting your passport stamped at the border post at the top, leaving South Africa and entering Lesotho. While it’s difficult to establish exactly where the pass starts, in terms of Strava the most popular segment is the 8.2km/911m Hors Catégorie ‘Border post to border post ascent’. It’s a real lung-buster! Those with a penchant for pain can attempt the longer 20.5km ‘Sani Pass full ascent’, which starts just outside Himeville. Andrew boasts a top-10 on this particular segment, by the way…
The pass culminates high up in the clouds. Just as you think the toughest part is over, another bout of suffering is doled out, the dearth of oxygen forcing you to breath deeper and pedal harder. Despite this, it’s difficult to hate it. It hurts, yes; but looking around and taking in the views of the valley below numbs the pain and the suffering to a certain extent.
The nature of the gradient means it’s almost impossible to settle into a rhythm, but modulating your pedal strokes and carefully choosing your lines provides some respite. Then photographer Desmond Louw shouts at us: “Guys – come back down a few hundred metres. I’ve found an incredible spot for some shots.” So we oblige. It’s getting cold now; our cycling computers are displaying a temperature of eight degrees, and we’re not even halfway. Brrrr!
Riding up one of the most iconic climbs in South Africa has to be on the bucket-list of any mountain biker. The climb is unrelenting but amazingly rewarding, from start to finish. – ANDREW HILL.
Looking around, it’s hard not to be mesmerised by the beauty of the Drakensberg, a creation that’s taken millions of years to form. “Its geological composition is relatively simple to understand,” explains Andrew. “The Escarpment and high peaks are the capping atop numerous horizontal layers of the Karoo Supergroup of rocks that cover some two-thirds of South Africa, much like the icing on a tiered wedding cake. The large-grained, yellowish Cave Sandstone
(or Clarens formation) is extremely soft and erosive, particularly around the cliffs that define the Little Berg and the cave formations. The igneous rock layer cake that built up over millions of years began to erode back from the sea, and the remaining edge of the Berg we see is the Sani Pass Escarpment.”
If you’ve ever attempted a long mountain climb, you’ll know the demands are both physical and mental. Those with experience will know not to look up; but being in the presence of such an iconic and omnipotent peak is an eerily beautiful experience – it forces all road users to look up, in appreciation of its sheer magnificence. Speaking of road users, there seems to be a genuine relationship between all who use this road. Hikers, cyclists and taxi drivers (yep, taxis commute up and down Sani – modified vehicles, with raised suspension) share a common plight: after all, traversing its incredibly rugged slopes is an achievement for anyone.
The trickiest part, however, is the switchbacks – there are around 15 of them. Not only is the gradient at its steepest by the time you reach them; you’re also properly fatigued. Not to mention the lack of traction, which makes pedalling an appreciably difficult exercise. But once you’re at the top, your body releases a million endorphins. The feeling of conquering this climb by bicycle is an accomplishment in its own right, and the reward is unforgettable views that stretch as far as the eye can see. Thirsty? You can enjoy a beer or a piping-hot cup of coffee at the Sani Mountain Lodge’s ‘Highest Pub in Africa’ before heading back.
Sani Pass is the ultimate bucket-list ride for any cyclist worth his FTP – now, more than ever before: Environmental Affairs recently approved the tarring of the Pass, so it may not be gravel for much longer.
So what are you waiting for? Just remember to pack an extra jacket for the descent – it’s icy. Trust us.