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.

Bicycling WOW Rides - - Contents -

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.

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