SANI TO CLARENS
SA'S GREATEST CYCLING ADVENTURE?
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.”