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How to pass South Africa's Sani Pass

4 April 2021

South Africa has hundreds of mountain passes.  The ultimate queen, the hardest, steepest, most unforgettable, and mother of all those mountain passes, is Sani Pass. Scaling it on a motorcycle is held in high regard within the South African motorcycle community. 

Sani pass

Sani Pass is located right at the border of South Africa and Lesotho. The initial road was a bridle path that was created in the 1930s. Around 1950 the first motor vehicle negotiated the mountain track. The pass is not only challenging because of its summit at 2876 meters altitude, but also for her steep climbs. You start on a tarred road in the small town of Underberg from where you have to climb 1300 vertical meters to the top of the pass. Riding the pass starts relatively easy until you arrive at the final section. There you find 11 switchbacks with gradients up to 25% !! It is a true challenge for every adventure motorcycle rider. 

Road condition

As with many mountain roads, the actual condition of the road can differ from season to season, or even from day to day, making the climb more or less challenging. I navigated the Sani Pass after several weeks of heavy rains. The road had turned into a washed-out terrain with deep ruts from the fast-flowing water streams. Large boulders and many loose rocks covered the track. The road was absolutely not in the best condition when I rode it, probably in the worst. 

Honda CRF250L - the perfect bike

People did not expect me to make it to the top. Savannah, my Honda CRF250L, weighs less than 150 kilograms and has only 22 horsepower. But, with her large suspension travel, she is very nimble and easy to steer over big rocks. And because she is so light, the 22 horsepower is enough to make it up the steepest parts of the pass. I don’t know how it would have been if I had fully loaded her with my luggage, but it would have been harder for sure. 

On my way up, I wondered if I would have been able to ride Basanti, Dhanno, or Ronin up these steep switchbacks. The Himalayans Basanti and Dhanno have 2.5 horsepower more but are about 30% heavier in weight than Savannah. I doubt the bikes would have carried me up the steepest sections. My Honda CB500x Ronin has double the horsepower of Savannah, but only a 17-inch front wheel. That would have been a disaster trying to get her over the big boulders. Ronin also has little ground clearance, so I would have likely beached myself on top of some of the rocks. 

Little and light Savannah was, I think, the best motorcycle for this challenge. She even did the climb without any suspension upgrades, just with stock parts! 

Turn around at the top right away 

Descending a steep mountain with loose rocks is technically very different from ascending one. You need to control your speed much more. Gravity will pull your bike down faster and faster. Heavy braking is not the answer on those loose rocks. It can cause you to slide off the mountain, losing all control over your bike. 

When I reached the top, I immediately turned around and started riding back down. I would have loved to go on a hike there, take a break with some food, and enjoy the view. But, the highest pub of Africa - which is located right at the top - was closed, and so was the border with Lesotho. It was also very windy and cold at the mountain top. Not an attractive place to hang around for a while. Especially not because I was very sweaty from all the hard work I had to do to get to the top. I noticed, I started to cool down very quickly. 

But the main reason for me to turn around right away, was a valuable lesson that Peter from Oryx Adventures in Oman had taught me. “Never stop or take a break just before a difficult section”. Adventure riding is not just about technical skills but it is a mental game too. When you allow yourself to get scared before it gets tough, that is when you will make mistakes. I had just ridden up the pass, so I knew the difficult terrain I was facing on the way down. In order not to let anxiety and fear take over, I had to immediately push through and start the descend. After I completed the 11 switchbacks, I knew the hardest part was over. I could relax, take a break and take some photos with the bike.

Pushing your physical and mental limits 

Riding the Sani Pass will push both your physical and mental limits as an adventure motorcycle rider. Once you realize that the terrain is so steep that stopping or pausing will get you into big trouble, you are confronted with two inner voices. One tells you softly that you can do it and what you need to do to get up or down there. The other one screams that you need to stop right now and is making your whole being tremble in fear. My way of dealing with this is to talk out loud to myself.  In the episode Attempting Sani Pass, you hear me talking constantly: “keep going, keep going, don’t stop, don’t stop.”

I had little to no time to scan the terrain and find the best line to ride on those climbs, I had to put all my trust in the bike and my own skills. Keeping the throttle fully open when you have no idea if the road still exists around the corner, is mentally very tough. Standing on the foot pegs and finding the right balance to ride at the edge of a cliff, the only place where the track is passable, is physically very hard. 

And don’t forget that you ride at a high altitude with a lower percentage of oxygen in the air. It will pose another physical challenge to you. At 2876 meters altitude, the oxygen level in the atmosphere is almost 30% lower than compared to sea level. It will make your breathing go faster, as you are trying to get enough oxygen into your bloodstream to support your physical exercise. 

I was very glad that I had done intense physical training in the months before riding up Sani Pass. If I hadn’t done that, I would have had to stop on the switchbacks to catch my breath. Trying to gain momentum again after a stop, without wheel spin over the loose rocks would have been very difficult and above all, dangerous. 

Challenge succeeded

Conquering Sani Pass on a motorcycle is not about the scenery, even though it is a truly stunning place. It is about something else. It is an experience of a lifetime, a test of skill, grit, and determination. You need strength and fearlessness. That is why I consider climbing the Sani Pass as one of my most treasured accomplishments as an adventure motorcyclist and I will forever look back at it with a shudder of excitement and fear. 

Comments
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In the months since your ascent of Sani Pass I've thought about that ride almost daily. The grit and determination evident in the video and especially the 360 experience is so inspiring and so very admirable. You are a hero and champion of not only adventure riding but as an explorer. This was underscored in the Kalahari Rallye! You inspire me to chase my dreams and find adventure in everything I do.

RickFlowe  | 

Thank you for your kind words and good luck with chasing your own dreams!

Noraly  | 

You did this amazing pass just the other day. This morning the entire at the top place is covered in snow. Looks like a fairyland.....

Johann Cloete  | 

Your Sani Pass ride is what got me hooked....well done and lots of respect. But now that you have crossed over into Namibia you do realise that you can't be nearly done with South Africa. There is so much still to see. We really hope to see you back here again one day.

Safe travels
Johann Cloete

Johann Cloete  | 

As you know mountains are the great leveler, no matter if you walk/climb or ride. There is no guarantee that you'll make the summit and I've been humbled more than once by circumstances which kept me from summiting. This account makes for inspiring reading (and especially viewing too) for its gives the honest feelings of being confronted with the climb, but its more, for it reflects your bravery and your willpower which characterises each and every adventure you find yourself in!

CJS  | 

Wow! It was amazing just watching you! Great tips and tricks, thank you so much for sharing! I saw from the picture here that you didn’t lower bike (I saw the fork) so how did you manage to put your feet down? Do you have some tips because it is a really tall and it becomes more challenging driving it offroad..

Acv  | 

The lessons you learned from Peter and your different skilled courses you took in the Netherlands certainly paid off. That was one hairy ride. Hats off on an excellent ride and video!

Debbie R.  | 

What a blessing Basanti was delayed on the way to Oman. The rides with Peter, and lessons, were some of your best videos Noraly.

Mike - P.  | 
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