Conquer Sani Pass - April Fool's Ride 2017

Adventure Defined: Taking inappropriate equipment into out-of-the-way places

Penned by: Nigel Hallowes (with input from fellow riders)

No good story ever started with "Here, hold my salad and watch this"..... This adventure neither.

Message from Matt, “Nige, are you and Nita keen to join Renee and myself for a trip to Sani Pass?"

Without hesitation, "Sure bud. Name the date and we are there".

"First weekend in April during Renee’s birthday."

"Fantastic Bro", I say, after getting the confirmation from Nita. "Oh Nige, forgot to tell you, we are going to do it on the bikes!"

There was a brief pause as I sipped on my Jack Daniels. "Ok cool, if you are leading we are game".

And so the craziest idea I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with, was born. It would be prudent at this stage to point out that this all happened while sitting drinking Jack at PHAT’s, our local watering hole, which is co-owned by Duncan. Once the date had been set it came up in every conversation during our regular Saturday afternoon water hole sessions and this is where Duncan's participation came into it. It’s hard to explain but Duncan is a BMW rider. If it wasn't for the fact that he is such a cool guy, we would probably never have been friends. The Harley /BMW war has been going for as long as the bikes have, but he was so keen and his hints were so strong that we could not say no. Anyhow, glad we are, he did join us on what turned out to be the most Awesome Adventure ever.

Let me introduce the team. 47 year old Mathew Comins, fondly known as OX. This is not because of his lithe athletic frame (like his friend Gavin hinted at - this will become clearer later). 6ft 6 Matt - Accountant by profession, but defiantly not by nature, on a HD Ultra with stage 4 conversion. His wife Renee, 46 years and 364 days, a school teacher who is strong and rides her HD Softail Deluxe better than most men. At 42, Duncan Elvey, Pub and Restaurateur on a 1200 home build, nothing BMW about it other than a silly badge. Myself Nigel, Security man with a Road Glide Special and my resident photographer and craziest chick on the planet, who I happen also to be married to, Nita Hallowes, as my pillion.

The plan?

  • Friday, 31 March - Nelspruit to Himeville.
  • Saturday, 1 April – an early start up the pass, through Lesotho, then on to Clarens.
  • Sunday, 2 April - Clarens to Nelspruit.

On paper it was easy. 1600km round trip. This is easy stuff for hard-core bikers like us.

It turns out the reality was far removed from the dreams of theory. For those of you who don't know, Sani Pass is a mountain pass linking South Africa to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. It is only 7km long! But it climbs just over 1000 meters in those 7km. It is notoriously dangerous and only wide enough for one vehicle. Whether going up or down, there are very few overtaking places. It is littered with rocks and gravel, as loose as a Brakpan stripper.

At this stage, I knew that OCD Matt would have the logistics of fuel stops and overnight accommodation sorted. Nita and I, are not big into details, so I started to look into the actual ascent and what it would take for us to do it. I had done this pass in 1987 and although the memories are a little hazy, there was enough in the box to tell me that this was not a good idea and totally stank of "Midlife Crisis" but we were committed, and now there was no backing out. HD riders never quit.....apparently!

So the advice I found on the net is as follows: "If attempting to ascend Sani Pass on a motorcycle you should make sure of the following:

  1. Your bike must be powerful enough
  2. It must be very manoeuvrable
  3. Good set of off road tires
  4. Long travel suspension
  5. Must be light
  6. Must have great ground clearance.

Well we had number 1 sorted! 1 to 6 odds are better than the lottery so we were going. H-D riders never give up.....apparently!

It’s difficult to explain just how the tension built up the closer we got to take off. Nita started counting Smarties from 100 (eat one every day - feed the last 30 to the dogs as they get a little skanky).

Departure Day

Before we knew it, departure day was upon us. We took off from Nelspruit on the Friday just after 6h30. We rode in perfect weather. Literally not a cloud in the sky for most of the trip. We refuelled every 200km or so. Had some breakfast in Ermelo and got to Himeville at about 15h00. 780km mostly on B roads - just cruising. It was really nice riding and gave us a lot of time to think about tomorrows adventure which was not necessarily a good thing. And adding to this, Ox puts his bike down at the first bit of dirt going into the hotel parking lot. This was for me a wakeup call and by the look on his face the reality of the challenge was coming to bear. Although I made jokes and laughed a lot, I was getting very nervous.

We have a swim, some drinks and a great supper. It was an early night for all. Not sure why, as I don't think any of us slept. I was doing weight calculations in my head all night. Bike 340kgs, Nigel 135kgs, Nita 70kgs, 20lts of fuel and some kit another 25 to 30kg. It was on the wrong side of half a ton and we were going to attempt to get up a mountain pass without a road. It was borderline suicidal. Very little sleep was had and by the looks on our team mates faces that was the standard.

06h30 we departed the Himeville Arms. Beautiful morning with the sun just poking its head over the mountains. 6 degrees and we were all dressed in leathers. We took off down the road towards the border. Beautiful road winding though the fields. It was idyllic, AC/DC Highway to Hell was at top volume (little did I know that this was so apt). We were all daydreaming a little, till frantic waving by Matt, who was on point, followed by emergency breaking all round, when the tar comes to an abrupt end......and the adventure begins.

Other than the sheer weight of the bikes and their lack of off road abilities, and of course the possibility of serious injury or death, is the fact that we could seriously damage the bike. HD riders seldom venture into territory that could make their bike dirty – never mind damage it! HD riders never give up.....apparently! That in itself is not too much of a problem, if you have a backup plan. We did not have one. Our plan was to ride up the mountain and get home without incident. The rocks and potholes in the road was what caught me by surprise. I don't quite know what I was imagining, but I expected it to be a little smoother. The first small hill, and I stalled the bike, causing me to slide back with both feet down, hence no ability to hit the back break, and front wheel in full slide.

When I got to a stop without dropping it, the relief was nauseating. Without missing a beat I restarted and pulled away choosing a different line. It became the battle of the obstacles. Each one presenting a different challenge. The bike was taking a hammering and by the time we got to the border I was exhausted. What we were attempting was seriously dangerous. HD riders never give up.....apparently!

After some discussion we decided to let down the tyre pressure a bit. This turned out to be my saving grace. While lying on the ground I noticed just how close my oil cooler was to the ground. For the rest of the trip, my focus was choosing a line to protect the oil cooler at any cost. If that got a hole, I was buggered. The Softail had the cooler above the bottom of the frame and the Ultra had a cover, which got temporarily lost in the ascent. Duncan's main challenge was a very light back end and the turning circle of a Land Rover Defender. None of us were prepared or kitted out for what was to come.

We stamped our passports, took a few photos and with slaps on the back and a smile from the bemused boarder guard we took off. Duncan on point, Renee, myself and Matt bringing up sweep. We travelled over two obstacles slowly and carefully and were smiling when we hit the first "river of rocks". Renee was a little ahead and bam, she goes down. Our first power lift of the morning was required. Turns out that the steering had hit a rock, her jacket zip, which was loosened to let in a little air, got caught and she was unable to correct. This was a lesson learned and everyone was doing the check on the jackets and clothing to make sure we didn't repeat the mistake. It was 10 degrees with a freezing wind, and the sweat was dripping down my back.

We picked her bike up, did a check, no damage (unbelievable) and she was back on in a flash. No hesitation! She will be able to tell you what was going through her mind, but it was clear that she had gone to Ace Rider in the eyes of all of the team.

Matt and I looked at each other, "Do we turn back bud? This is only going to get harder bro....” "Let's get to the view point" says Matt. "Maybe we can send Duncan up ahead to see what the obstacles are like compared to this, then we make a call".

Obstacle after obstacle we went. Slowly but surely climbing, corner after corner, the road getting progressively steeper as we went. Each obstacle challengingly worse than the one before. But we all seemed to get into a rhythm. The section up to the viewing point had just been graded and that seemed to peak the spirits of everyone, at least for a little bit anyway. Once again relief, pictures, high fives and screams diverted attention from the challenge ahead as we relived what we had just accomplished. It was crazy.

The view point provided a brilliant view of the road already travelled, but unfortunately also provided a very clear view of what still had to be done. We were less than 3km from the top, and had to climb 800 meters. This was nuts. The gravity of our predicament was as clear as the blue sky above us. We could not go back. None of us, with maybe the exception of Duncan (and even that was doubtful due to no ABS), was going to make it back the way we had come. There was just no way...... HD riders never give up.....apparently! So we convinced ourselves that it would be fine, and that we need to keep going.

After catching our breath and taking a swig from Nita's LA vodka flask, we started off again. I am not sure how to put it into words. I don't know if, in my 47 years, that I have ever done something as physically demanding as this. By the time I got to the second of seven switchbacks I was light headed and out of breath. Renee got stuck in the corner and with a brief apology I went past, slipping and sliding, and spinning and winding my way up what felt and looked like a vertical cliff. The Harley keeping the momentum and the pipes roaring with approval, as we ascended corner after corner each section harder than the last, steeper, with more rocks. On the 4th switchback I find enough flat-ish terrain to stop. I pull in, drop the stand and switch off. Nita is off in a flash filming the team below. Renee, two switchbacks below us, getting her breath. She starts to move. I am fight nausea, gulping lung-fills, trying to stop the incessant shaking.

Matt and Duncan are out of sight. There is no going back. Got to get to the top. Then we can walk back and help if needed. Renee makes the next two switchbacks and gets to us. I move the bike into position. Last three to go. Nita jumps on. We bid Renee farewell as she catches her breath and we take off. Roaring up the hill, take the turn, the rocks are everywhere. They say we should chose a line! I say, impossible! The line chooses you. It balls to the wall. The Glide’s back end is all over the place but we are creeping up. The next right hander and the ground is hard. We surge forward and up through the last turn....suddenly there is a river of rocks again. I can see the board that says "Sani Border 300 Meters. The hotel deck on the right is full of people watching this spectacle. There is no line! No stopping! No 2nd guessing! I open the throttle and roar over the rocks as I feel Nita holding on for dear life. And then, just like that, we are there.

It's done, we made it. The tears roll down my cheeks as I sit there and take it all in.

Nita doesn't waste a second. Off the bike and getting ready with the camera as we hear the Softail come roaring around the corner and over the last river of rocks. Renee all smiles. She turns her bike off. An eerie silence falls. We notice a group of people standing on the balcony of the hotel. They are all cheering us on. We wait what seemed forever before we hear Matt’s Ultra, then see him crest the last corner! One hand in the air closely followed by Duncan.

The relief was incredible. Even today as I write this, I cannot believe what we have accomplished. We took a pile of photos and messed about, stamped passports and road tax into Lesotho, heading for the lodge and a well-deserved breakfast and beer…Not that we could eat much at all.

I think the highlight for me, was upon arriving at the lodge to find a litter of at least 10 GS riders all looking at us shaking their heads. The leader of the pack comes up and shakes my hand. He says, "Yesterday, we were high fiving each other for our amazing achievement of getting up the pass. Here you guys come roaring up on Harleys. I think we need to go back to riding school!

We had breakfast and beer and even a tequila. We were all shattered. The story should end here … but it doesn't.

We still had to get to Clarens which was 260 odd kilometres away. Normally that's not too much of a challenge. This time, I think it took us almost 5 hours. The roads through the mountain kingdom range from breathtakingly beautiful with some of the best scenery we have ever seen, to coming around a corner on a hairpin bend to find the road missing. But we all rode with smiles on our faces. Stopped off at Ox Bow Lodge for a drink and got to the Caledonspoort border all in one piece. Lunch was had at a small place called Die Plaastoep in Fouriesburg. All that was left for the day was the last 40km or so to Clarens.

When we pulled into Clarens, in true Matt style, we decided to refuel for the next morning before checking in to the hotel. Some dude in funny clothes, with a BMW badge walks up to us and shakes our hand and says, "Bro, are you the crazies that just came up Sani on Harleys? I have to shake your hands. You guys are legends!" Seems the story of our adventure had reached Clarens before we did.

We booked into our hotel and had a quick shower. The will-power to avoid even a short lie- down for fear of never waking up, again mirrored the will-power to get up the pass. We headed off to the Clarens brewery where we all met up again. We were joined by Gavin, one of the very fit-looking group of 2000 cyclists who were in Clarens for some or other MTB race. He also happened to be an old school friend of Renee’s. He had helped Matt with much of the details about the pass which was invaluable. He proceeded to tell us about his lifestyle change to bicycle and losing weight and how much better he felt. His wife was at home in Natal. I was looking around the table at everyone politely listening to him as we waffled down copious quantities of very good ice cold Blond Craft beer and dreamt of supper to come.

I knew then that our little team would never make that lifestyle choice. After what we had just done? Nothing was going to make us any happier than we were right there, right then.

Matt had booked us into Clementine's restaurant where we celebrated Renee's birthday for the next day. The food was exquisite and the wine was perfect. The company as always just perfect. We ended it with Brandy and Coffee at the bar and were all in bed before 9.

The last day was about 560km. It was a perfect morning out of Clarence. The sun was shining and the bikes were growling. It was time to reflect on yesterday's activities. It struck me as we roared through Bethlehem, Three not so wise men and no virgins on our steeds, that it was probably faith alone that got us to the top. So, with the exception of a little mist through to Standerton, the sun was shining, and the birds were singing, and the Harleys were roaring. And yes, Duncan’s bike roars too.

With a small pit stop at the Billiard Room in Chrissiesmeer because we had to, we then headed home.

I’m not sure if this captures the spirit of this adventure. People will look at this and think...hmmm well done...but unless you have been up Sani, the shear enormity of the challenge that you have to overcome, will not be evident. I want to thank Duncan, for your endless smiles and jokes and support. I know without you as part of the team, we might just not have made it. Matt and Renee, who are Harley to the bone, you typify what the brand stands for, and the bond of friendship it created for myself and Nita. Lastly I want to thank my gorgeous, sexy, crazy, one- in-a-lifetime wife, whose balls are bigger than mine, and whose spirit of adventure is unwavering.

To you four I say again.....BRING IT ON! There is nothing that I will not attempt to do with you all.

Think about it, we could all be thin, driving Mini Cooper Cross, and riding bicycles! But who the hell wants to do that when you can be us.

Submitted by: Nigel Hallowes & fellow riders
April Fools 2017

More Information