Every now and then, someone gets the bright idea to ride up Sani Pass. In fact there is even an event now, The Sani Transfrontier Epic, which means more than a few people think it’s worth doing. Those more than a few people include Dave Drummond and Kathryn Fourie.
The snaking brown road that switches back and forth up a section of no-mans land between the South African and Lesotho border posts leads traveller’s 905 metres in ascent. If you start from Sani Lodge Backpackers it’s an additional 402m, which means you climb 1 307m up into the sky.
I’d been up the pass twice in 4x4s, so when my mate Dave started saying he needed to train on loose downhills in preparation for the Mega Avalanche in Reunion at the end of November, the seed for a little adventure was planted. When the email started pinging between inboxes, I immediately said I was keen.
There is another reason I was so keen, aside from adventure. My brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in July. He was 32, on diagnosis, healthy, muscly and full of life. I’ve been struggling with the whole situation since then, and I have taken to enjoying hard and painful things to sort of process stuff. Particularly riding up hills. I told Dave I was in, and soon enough the date for our epic climb was upon us.
8:01: We’ve left the Sani Lodge backpackers, about 30 minutes later than we should have. No sweat, we aren’t in a rush. Dave is very excited about the day ahead, and so am I. We cruise gently along the tar road, and the grey skies from the early morning are beginning to burn-off.
8:41: 8.88km in, and we’ve been riding for about 30 minutes. Still on the tar, but we’ve seen a view of our objective. It really doesn’t look that far away, and I am convinced the sections between the switchbacks are not very steep. I try to ignore the fact that my arse is sore already, and I may have been in Granny Gear for the last 3kms. The view, however, is gorgeous.
9:03: We’ve been crunching along the dirt road for sometime now, and we’re slowly climbing up and up through the rounded green foothills. My arse has begun to numb out, so I am thinking less about my bottom and more about the burn in my calves. Dave seems to have the ability to ride fast, breath deeply and talk as though it’s completely natural to do all those things at the same time. My answers are becoming more grunty.
9:14: I am quite sure my friend at work who said ‘Ja, it’s a quick 15km or so to the border’ must have been smoking something really good either when she rode it, or when she told me it was quick. Either way I wish I had some of whatever she had.
9:30: We’ve reached the border post! I am thrilled! 15.5km in to our ride and we did that in an hour and a half. Not bad for a couple of Down Hillers, who never pedal. We feel quite chuffed and a bit showey offey, as our passports are stamped by one reaaaally bored looking official. Ja, ja, big deal; two more crazy idiots pedalling up the big hill. Woohoo.
9:45: Heavy breathing, I sound like an emphysema patient. I instantly don’t feel showey offey anymore. Passed by a taxi coming down the hill, happy people, good tunes too. We get a thumbs up from a blonde backpacker, who I guess is Norwegian. Dave mutters something about following the taxi…
10:11: 17.65km in. Cheese and Raaice man. That was the hardest thing I have pedalled up ever, period. (Haemorrhoid Hill) Wait, that means we’ve only gone 2km since the border. That cannot be right? Dave says something about altitude, but I can’t even speak. Dave graciously stops for us to look at where he thinks people ice climb in the winter. My eyes are drawn to the top of the pass, which now looks decades away. Oh jeez. This is going to take me a long time.
10:13: Dave points out that the clouds drifting not so far away look like little dragons twisting in the sky. I spend at least thirty seconds ripping him off about being so poetic, and he says he has simply been reading too much Game of Thrones.
10:16: We establish that neither of us wants to be a Lannister or a Stark. Dave points out all the Starks are basically dead anyway, and in the end we settle that we’d rather belong to some outlawed band of people in the forests. Your chances of survival seem better that way. “You know nothing Jon Snow!” I yell, and we pedal on.
10:23: God, it really is steep and far away! This thing is stuffing huge! And we’re getting passed by lots of cars.
10:30: 18.63km – 3km in, I am walking. The crunch-crunch of my Shimano AM45s on the gravel is a stinging reminder that I am not on my bike anymore. Lame. I feel defeated. But it’s like my stupid thighs won’t do what my brain is telling them to do. I think a lot about my brother, and what he is trying to tell his body to do. I wish he was with me doing this; he would have some cool heavy metal song to yell and would tell me to harden the hell up.
10:32: Dave enforces a food and water break, and we eat the roast butternut and feta sandwiches, which have become a Kath staple for riding events. Some nice men in a Honda stop near us and express that they think we are mad with big smiles on their faces. It makes me feel better and we lock and load, back on the bikes.
10:45: We ride onto Suicide Corner and stop to take in the view for a second. I am imagining what my hair would look like if I was Daenerys Targaryen, and puzzling over whether she could ride a bicycle – but why would she need to if she has three whole dragons?
10:46: A Land Rover pulls up and a Ginger man with an awful Movember moustache jumps out and says hello to us. Every single person in the Land Rover gets out and lights up a cigarette. I swear I hear my lungs screaming like they’re in a bad horror movie.
10:47: Ginger Movember then tells us that he was here when Greg Minnaar rode down Sani Pass on his KTM Downhill Bike which weighed 27kgs, and he reached a speed of 137km an hour, and it took him 9 minutes and some change border to border. There is so much wrong with that story that we can’t bring ourselves to even comment, and we move on. The top is still so bloody far away.
11:00: We reach the first switch back (Hairpins Base), and I have already been pushing for a while. Pushing no longer seems like a fail, it seems like a primary survival option. Dave has told me the entire plot of Game of Thrones that isn’t covered in the TV series, and then imitates Dory the fish from Finding Nemo “Just keep swimmin’, just keep swimming’”. We take some happy snaps (and I swear to never ride up Sani Pass with a DSLR and two lenses on my back again), and we’re off.
11:01: I think I pedalled 20m, and then pushed 80m.
11:02: Singing “All by myself” by Celine Dion in my head. Goddamnit.
11:10: The view is insane, and I am so proud of Dave for being so friggin’ fit. His lanky legs keep him rolling from switch back to switch back and he doesn’t push even once. My thighs feel like they have been injected with lots of water, and are useless balloons.
11:45: Dave is still powering, and were close to top. Dave shouts, “We’re so far up we’ve left the planet”. I think we left the planet when he first sent that email suggesting this idea.
12:00: I push up a rubbly bit, and the pub at the top of Sani Pass is in plain view now. The road ahead is steep but well graded so I hop back on. Eish, my legs do not want to co-operate but as I am thinking I honestly don’t care if a whole pub full of people see me give up and push again, I hear a chorus of voices behind me and the noise of cheering. I am puzzled but I see it’s the group of American pre-med students who were also staying at our back packers, they hang out the windows and yell “Don’t give up! WOO HOO!”
12:01: I can do it! I can do it!
12:03: Why is there a group of lycra clad men all mounted on bikes standing right at the top of the pass looking as fresh as daisies?
12:04: I greet the group of 20 or so riders, who all rode up merrily this morning and were now ready for their descent. Oh. You. Are. Effing. Kidding. Me. Ha ha ha! I actually start hysterically laughing at how completely not special Dave and I are, and we get a high five pic surrounded by some of the riders. Wait, maybe we are special: special like if you are the first two getting voted off Survivor and you were only on the island for one day.
12:07: Screw you Celine Dion, get out get out get out!
12:30: 26km later and we are stamped into Lesotho, and seated on the deck at the pub. Dave orders us each a Coke and a Maluti 660ml. We’re sharing a table with a group of people from Durban who make comments about the shepherds playing music for tips nearby. “Do you think they’ve ever seen the sea?” “Maybe we should come back here with Coke bottles filled with sea sand and sea water!” It’s hard not to worry sometimes about our education system, but at the same time the Durbanites gave them R50 and wanted to show them the sea – it’s kind of sweet really.
12:45: I’ve brought paper, an envelope and a pen to write a letter to my brother I will never give him. I sit at the table with my green windcheater on and write on the small blocks of paper. I don’t reread them, and an extremely unpretty amount of snot trickles from my nose. I start to laugh a little at how First Ascent did not have goodbye letters in mind when they designed this jacket, and I rub my nose on my shoulder and sleeve.
13:00: Dave has done very well to ignore his sobbing friend, and politely clears up our stuff and marches me off to go and post my letter somewhere on the hillside.
13:03: Immediately realise that the beer has gone straight to my non-functional thighs. What a weird sensation!
13:10: Pedal across the clumpy grass and rocks to a big cairn with white painted stones. Dave and I pull up rocks, and I bury my letter in a damp dark hole. We cover it up again and I feel a lot better. The weird stuff we do to make sense of the world.
13:20: Dave throws something he’s carried up the pass off the cliff, to settle some of his own demons. It’s a big day for symbolism, and why the hell not. We got up Sani Pass!
13:25: Beer was a bad idea. I get my wheels caught up on a rock and a clump of grass and I literally fall off my bike while it’s standing still. In front of the restaurant, and the Durbanites.
13:26: Ride away as fast as possible giggling maniacally.
13:30: Suit up Dave, we’re going down!
13:31: Dave is killing it, and I am getting smacked in the back of my head with my backpack! Bloody hell!!
13:40: Quick picture taking stop…adrenalin is going through the roof. Eek.
13:50: Whizzing down the loose gravel road, I crap myself every time I reach speeds where I can imagine my skin disintegrating if I fall off. It is bumpy and unpredictable and my eyes are feeling rather large in my skull. We stop to take it all in at Suicide Corner for a while.
14:08: Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! This is insane!! It’s takes all my concentration to stay upright but jirre it’s amazeballs of fun!
14:15: We come screeching into the Border Post. Dave does a huge back wheel skid up to a load of Land Rover inhabitants who all applaud him and laugh. Show off. Actually I am just jealous I didn’t think of doing that.
14:20: We’re cruising the dirt roads back to Sani Lodge Backpackers, with a head wind in our faces but we’re so happy. Even this section is fun as we pop and jump and skid and screech like kids in a playground for the next 20 minutes.
14:41: Need a pee, duck down a drainage ditch. Pee on my shoe, and sink my other shoe ankle deep in mud. All by myyyysellllllffff!
15:20: Back on the tar, and we both admit it feels good to not be bouncing anymore. We find it funny how everyone hoots hello to us but no one offers us a lift.
16:00: Roll back into Sani Lodge, 51km on Dave’s GPS. Weird sense of relief but also disappointment that it’s finished. Okay, it’s definitely more relief!
16:08: We mix a very odd tasting recovery drink that I think people were giving away for free at some provincial race. We gulp it down because we know that after we smash that, it’s a free for all on the five quarts in the fridge.
16:15: Beer o’clock. We sit on the porch and stare up at the mountains side by side, two really good buddies who rode up a couple of mountains that day. We agree, Sani Pass was the easiest one to be sure.
* Written in memory of my beautiful, strong brother Tristan who passed away a week after our Sani Ride.