SANI TO CLARENS

SA'S GREAT­EST CY­CLING AD­VEN­TURE?

Bicycling (South Africa) - - Front Page - WORDS & PIC­TURES BY BRUCE HUGHES

26% gra­di­ents, wild thun­der­storms, and 800km in five days... sounds like the per­fect South African bike-pack­ing ad­ven­ture!

We live in Pi­eter­mar­itzburg. A week­end away in Clarens was on the cards; and be­cause the trav­el­ling bit can put a damper on an oth­er­wise well-planned trip, we de­cided to spice up that as­pect of the hol­i­day by tak­ing the road less trav­elled – driv­ing via the A1, through Le­sotho. For the re­turn leg, I was of­fered the old man’s newly ac­quired BMW GS800 ad­ven­ture rig.

The ac­cepted route home is via Har­ri­smith and the N3; but vivid mem­o­ries of hav­ing my con­fi­dence pum­melled by the Le­sotho low­lands the last time I rode a mo­tor­bike spurred my de­ci­sion to avoid any ob­sta­cle that might un­seat me at speed. In­stead, I chose to hug the quiet north­ern and cen­tral Drak­ens­berg district roads back to Mar­itzburg.

And the trip was a con­tin­ual as­sault on all my in­grained cy­cling senses. Al­most the en­tire drive up and ride home, I re­peated this mantra: “I must come back and do this on a bi­cy­cle.”

As­cend­ing from Mar­itzburg, the route pushes through the pic­turesque hills of the Mid­lands, via the highly un­der­rated Lower Lotheni Road, to Sani Pass. From the top of that leg­endary climb, the 210km stretch of the A1 to Butha Buthe has now been tarred.

Not with­stand­ing the al­most 7 000m of as­cent – most of it at least 2 800m above sea level – this rib­bon of road strewn over the ru­ral Maloti moun­tains is pure cy­cling nir­vana, to ri­val the most fa­mous alpine routes. Once it’s been con­quered (and a de­gree of sen­si­bil­ity has been re­stored), the route turns north and east past sand­stone columns to touristy Clarens; and then bears south, de­scend­ing through ma­jes­tic Golden Gate High­lands Na­tional Park and around Sterk­fontein Dam, be­fore plung­ing off the es­carp­ment at Olivier­shoek and back into the green foothills of the Drak­ens­berg, to roller­coast its way home.

For some years I’d dwelt on the idea of a South African bike-pack­ing mini-epic. In this route, I’d fi­nally found what I’d been look­ing for – an ex­em­plar of the kind of po­ten­tial for free, cross-dis­ci­pline ad­ven­ture that South­ern Africa has in its pub­lic road net­work.

And with the de­vel­op­ment of the gravel bike, I now had the per­fect tool for the job.

So I sug­gested to Wil­lie ‘Big Blade’ Brink that it was fi­nally time to make amends for the Great Western Cape Bike-Pack­ing Fail­ure of 2010 (which is a tale for an­other day). In my imag­i­na­tion, I had al­ready con­cocted sto­ries filled with sun­shine, ban­ter and glory. And that’s the idea I sold to him – an ode to bike-pack­ing in South Africa, a homage to the gravel bike, and an op­por­tu­nity to fi­nally put to bed the de­mons of the past.

And for the most part, that’s what it was…

“This rib­bon of road strewn over the ru­ral Maloti moun­tains is pure cy­cling nir­vana, to ri­val the most fa­mous alpine routes.”

Aside from mi­nor re­gret about de­ci­sions – firstly, the de­ci­sion to re­tain the 42/42 granny gear that came with our gravel steeds; and se­condly, the de­ci­sion to dress like the hip­ster-gyp­sies we thought we were – days 1, 3, 4 and 5 were ev­ery­thing I’d hoped the jour­ney would be.

Though the ‘warm-up’ ride from Pi­eter­mar­itzburg to Sani Pass on Day 1 well and truly cooked our legs, I will not soon for­get the sim­ple joy of shar­ing with Wil­lie a ve­hi­cle-less Lower Lotheni Road, with views of the Mid­lands be­hind us and the cen­tral Drak­ens­berg lined out in front of us like the bar­rier of spears it is so of­ten called. Nei­ther will I for­get the re­lief we felt af­ter loot­ing Himeville’s only petrol sta­tion of its en­tire stash of wa­ter, or the sub­se­quent re-en­er­gised ride un­der the light of the stars to our ac­com­mo­da­tion at Sani Pass Back­pack­ers.

The de­scent out of the Maloti to Clarens on Day 3 was sur­real in its bril­liance. The 7.9km and al­most 1 000m in al­ti­tude loss of Moteng Pass blasted us out of the High­lands at un­be­liev­able speed. And when we looked back up the Moteng val­ley, through the groves of poplar trees to the dis­tant ra­dio mast mark­ing the top of the pass, it was with a dis­tinct feel­ing of loss; the loss of some­thing in­cred­i­bly raw and pure.

For­tu­nately, on the knife edge be­tween Le­sotho and South Africa there’s JenLee’s Coun­try Bistro, an oa­sis (filled to the brim with ice-cold Coke and R40 mince vetkoek) in which we could pass an af­ter­noon, re­flect­ing upon the priv­i­lege of very briefly pass­ing through the heart of cy­cling Shangri-La.

Day 4, from Clarens to Cham­pagne Val­ley, had the feel of a tran­si­tion day. I think both of us were still dwelling on the high ranges and beau­ti­ful curves of the Maloti moun­tains.

But the de­scent through Golden Gate Na­tional Park – its wind-blasted sand­stone peaks ab­sorb­ing the early morn­ing light – was enough to pull us back into the here­and-now, in time to revel in the farm roads cir­cling the south side of Phuta­ditjhaba to Sterk­fontein Dam.

The run into Bergville on the R74 was the only un­pleas­ant piece of rid­ing of the whole trip, busy as it was with Her­itage Week­end traf­fic. But it was a price worth pay­ing; for at Bergville, we peeled right onto the quiet back road run­ning to Cathkin Park. The harsh glare of a hot day slowly di­min­ished to the soft glow of evening light, warm­ing the Am­phithe­atre and Cathkin Peak as we passed by, in a sub­dued drone of end-of-ride ban­ter and crunch­ing gravel.

Though the fi­nal day was by no means a cruise home for cham­pagne and high-fives. There is work to be done from Cathkin back to the Lower Lotheni Road. But it is work gladly un­der­taken, as the route bi­fur­cates the plan­ta­tions be­low Gi­ants Cas­tle be­fore pass­ing the myr­iad dairy pas­tures of the Kam­berg and Not­ting­ham Road ar­eas.

It’s a truly in­cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tion of gravel and tar, climb and de­scent. The gen­tle rolling hills of the Mid­lands, and the hard­pack gravel roads, seem al­most hand­crafted for gravel bikes. Af­ter a few days of dou­ble-digit-gra­di­ent climbs and rocky farm tracks, the fi­nal 80 kilo­me­tres from Lotheni are pure speed-in­duced gravel race­track, and we couldn’t help but throw the last of our re­serves into the wind – a fit­ting end to a glo­ri­ous trip.

You may at this point have no­ticed that there’s a dis­tinct hole in this nar­ra­tive; a siz­able ‘but…’ hang­ing over my lyri­cal wax­a­tions about our jour­ney through gravel par­adise.

You are not wrong.

“The de­scent out of the Maloti to Clarens on Day 3 was sur­real in its bril­liance.”

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