It feels really odd to start a new day after spending a night in which you definitely thought that your time to leave this world has finally come. But the dazzling sunrise seen from the bottom of Sani pass motivated me to move forward without looking back to that moment of horror I had just gone through.
After the loud sound of the departure stamp thumping against the table shook me out of my daze at the South African border post, I only had 8 km ahead of me across no man’s land to reach the Lesotho border post, lying up there at the top of the pass. However, those 8 km would not be like any other ones, but those of the famous Sani Pass, one of the most rigorous passes that I would have to get across until now.
The punishment begins as soon as you leave the South African border post, when the “road” is actually no more than an endless, winding rocky bed, climbing without mercy over one of the slopes of the Drakensberg Range. I stay on the bicycle most of the time during the first 2 km, but moving at a miserable 3 km/h, pedaling becomes rather an exercise in acrobatics to keep me from falling than an actual sports activity; Therefore, walking and pushing, although harder, I find it to be way more convenient. The truth is that there is no point in rushing, since the higher I climb the more dazzling the views are.
Once above 2000 meters of altitude, the streams of water result of the very same storm that the night before had almost taken my life, start descending right on the road turning it into an actual river. I have to try to avoid getting my feet wet since the higher I go the faster the temperature plummets. Even in the middle of summer, my feet would freeze completely once the clouds of a new storm arrive to cover the sky once again by the time I reach Lesotho.
Now, what smoothes out the harshness of this pass is that I am never alone. Sani Pass is so popular due to its beauty that lots of tourists come here on 4x4's to experience the roughness of this thin bed of rocks that seeps through a narrow slot of the mountain range. Every 4x4 loaded with tourists, mainly from Europe, stops so people can take pictures of me and ask me what the hell I'm doing there with a bicycle. Because if there is something that becomes clear to them, it is that it is not easy for me when they see me sinking on the rocks as I push the bicycle a few miserable meters uphill. But as always, it is the very South Africans who come in their own 4x4 to enjoy the adventure of this road, those who bring me the most joy. Marsel and his wife stop to chat with me with total fascination, and as I tell them about my journey, Amy opens the trunk to prepare me 3 huge sandwiches of ham, cheese, and mayonnaise, accompanied by a nice cold fruit juice. The warmth of these people never ceases to overwhelm me. I never want to leave South Africa!
With a full stomach by mid-morning already, I continue the ascent and a couple of kilometers further up the road, Igmar and his girlfriend stop. They also stop to talk to me. Igmar, a South African guy with an admirable mood, looks at me unbelievingly and exclaims in astonishment: "Nico! I take off my hat before you, but I'm not just saying it ... look!" He exclaims, "I TAKE OFF ......MY HAT! " (and he literally takes off his hat and makes me laugh my ass off). Before he leaves, he says: "When you get up there, I'll wait for you at the pub (pub ?? - I think-) and I'll buy you a cold beer." I tell him it'd better be a Coke because I do not drink alcohol, to which he responds, "If you were not doing what you're doing, I would have lost all my respect" - and burst out in laughter as he climbs back inside his Ford Ranger to continue on his way.
Soon after, Chantelle and his family, who are all on holidays, stop, offer me, even more, food and they tell me that they will anxiously wait for me at the pub (again, the pub? a pub? WTF). So I continue pushing uphill, filled with energy thanks to these incredible people that continue to stop to cheer me up and encourage me while they see me struggling madly between the rocks. But I take all the time in the world and make as many pauses to rest and enjoy the unbelievable beauty of the landscape.
Everything goes perfectly until I reach 2250 m of altitude, at a point called "hill of the hemorrhoids" ( Go figure why) but since that is a problem that I suffer at least once every year since I'm 17, I prefer not to think about it too much. Right there, the Sani pass becomes brutal, almost a spiral staircase made of loose stones. The slope is so steep in the corners that I can hardly push the bike uphill without the pressure itself sliding me back down to the point where I gave the first push. The weather begins to deteriorate at a creepy speed, the sky is covered in black, I still have some 5 bends left of this stairway to hell and suddenly, the fear of the night before sets in again. "Another deadly thunderstorm coming", I think to myself, but the faster I need to go, the less I am able to do it. I beg that the rain stays away or that at least the bolts of lightning from the previous night do not happen again.
I reach 2462 m high pushing hard. By now, I can barely feel my legs and my shoulders are hurting badly from the physical effort, most of which goes in vain due to the constant sliding on the loose stones. At that point, I find myself at the curve happily named: "Suicide bend", because such is the steepness and the very high danger of its location that it constantly leads to fatal accidents. While this is a major danger for a vehicle rather than for a bicycle, it is not at all pleasant to be on a curve nicknamed by that name. By 2 pm, I still have three more bends to go, I'm completely worn out, turned to dust, the rain is about to unleash at any time and it's already very cold. But at that moment, from the famous, self-proclaimed, highest in Africa"pub", that I can already catch sight of at the top, I can hear a choir in the distance, as if it were the fans in a football stadium. They go: "NICO! NICO! NICO! NICO!". All those who had passed me before: Igmar, Chantelle, and others, encouraging me from the high up as soon as they saw me. What a wonderful thing! They make me so happy. That's exactly what I needed. I then activated my internal 4x4 and with tractor force, and I finally reached the Lesotho border post at 2874 m, after 8km and 6 hours uphill to get there.
When I arrived at the pub, everyone was already waiting for me. Igmar passes the menu to me and says, "There you go, you ask for what you want, you have to eat, it's on me. And do not worry about camping, you need to rest and treat yourself a hot bath, you stay here tonight, I already paid for your room, you rest here now and tomorrow you continue. " This South African hospitality that never ceases to leave me speechless, fills my heart!
While I wait ravenous for the food and they continue to get drunk with joy, they go out to see my bike and play a championship to see who can lift it and hold it for more than 3 seconds in the air. Everyone loses, I am fully loaded with food for one week, the bike weighs around 80 kg, but they have a great laugh at it. These are moments of pure joy and fun.
I spent a beautiful night, under a safe roof thanks to Igmar's hospitality, when a new thunderstorm hits the peaks of Lesotho, but this time I get to look at it tucked warmly inside a comfortable bed after taking a comforting hot bath. Almost like watching it on TV. The next day I wake up before dawn, right on time to go and catch the sunrise. At almost 3000 m, at the top of the Drakensberg range, I am above the clouds, a beautiful sensation that I experienced for the first time 15 years ago in the Peruvian Andes on the way to Machu Picchu. There, from high up above, I sit to contemplate this priceless view in front and mine, and right before me, this legendary, indomitable pass that I have just conquered. I reflect on all of what has happened before in order to get here. I look at the horizon, I sigh, and it becomes clear to me that my time did not have to arrive the night of the storm. I feel now utterly fulfilled for having been able to conquer this pass.
And I'm glad I did it because the plans to pave it are on the way and are imminent now. With the asphalt, you will lose at least half of its magic. Although its beauty will always be there, because the place is certainly dazzling and among the most beautiful I have experienced in all Africa so far, that rugged, coarse quality of it, that wild touch given by the need to struggle in between the stones, climbing those infernal bends for hours, will not be there more anymore. This pass will still be great, but it will be just another steep sealed pass, like so many others in the world.
Sani Pass might as well be called: Insanity Pass. Right there, twisting and turning like a snake resting high up on the narrow slope that opens between the towering vertical walls of the incredible Drakensberg Range. It is a picture-perfect view depicting the dreams and nightmares of every adventure cycling traveler. But above all, it is the most intense and even distressing gateway to one of the most beautiful kingdoms in the world, the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.