Where is the snow in Lesotho?

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by 1NiteOwl, Jul 21, 2007.

  1. 1NiteOwl

    1NiteOwl Office Adventurer

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    I live in South Africa, and started adventure riding in 2003 when I got my then new Africa Twin. It's opened up a whole new world as I have gradually pushed the boundaries further.

    There are two land-locked countries within South Africa: Swaziland in the east where it is bordered by Mozambique on the other side, and Lesotho, which is completely surrounded by South Africa. Lesotho is known as the Mountain Kingdom and the locals say it's just as big as its surrounding neighbour when you fold it flat! It's biggest export product is water.

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    There are many borders posts between South Africa and Lesotho, but the most famous and popular one, particularly among the 4x4 brigade, is Sani Pass in the northeast. A recent announcement by the government that they intend to "open up" access to Lesotho by tarring Sani Pass has resulted in a flurry of petitions by all the die-hard off-roaders who want to keep things dusty and dirty.

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    As you can see from the map, there are lots of mountains here, with lots of passes. Some are tarred, others are dirt. Pretty good biking country, and only about 3 hours away from the industrial heartland of South Africa. Sani Pass rises nearly one kilometre over a twisty route of 8 kilometres on the main climb/ descent. This is the view from about halfway up. There are about 20 hairpin bends up the last and steepest section; no barriers.
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    Last year I did the trip going up Sani Pass, this year it was time to do the down run. I wanted to get snow riding experience (we don't see much of it down here), but missed the snowfall by a week. After a week of weatherwatching it didn’'t look like any more snow was going to fall, so the next step was ensuring that there would at least be some left on the ground. This is what I managed to find from the Lesotho weather bureau:


    Not very clear, but what the heck. I hit the road after supper and got to the Meiringskloof nature reserve northeast of Lesotho just after midnight. All the chalets were taken, but there was lots of camping space available. No prizes for guessing why. Here is the route (the grey outline at the bottom is Lesotho):


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    I had breakfast with the rising sun whilst trying to get some heat into my clothes and the moisture off the tent liner.

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    As you can see the scenery is quite beautiful, with lots of sandstone formations eroded by wind and weather. Some houses in the area are built using sawn up blocks of sandstone.

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    Lots of people seem to have died here...

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    ... but we are welcome in the kingdom!

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    The initial transition is quite gradual- the elevation about 5000-6000 ft AMSL- while the big mountains creep closer.

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    As you can see, there is definitely some snow in them thar hills, and it is soon in plain sight. Note the power lines strung up the mountain along the road in the distance.

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    From 7000 ft there is plenty of snow on all the south-facing slopes. The air temperature is "fresh". On the way to Moteng Pass the road winds past Afri Ski, a resort for well-off South Africans who are too poor to get to Switzerland. The conical hat on the signpost is a national symbol for the Basotho people (inhabitants of Lesotho) who weave them from grass. It is known as a mokorotlo, and also holds pride of place on the national flag.

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    When it doesn't snow, compressors are used to create snowflakes from water pumped out of dams adjacent to the ski slope. This allows the operation to offer skiing for nearly 4 months in the year.

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    The melting of the snow, caused by the heat reflected off the tar, creates some interesting patterns alongside the road.

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    At Mokothlong the tar ends, and soon the road is slushy with molten snow. Things are getting interesting.
    #1
  2. GB

    GB . Administrator

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    Snow in Lesotho? :huh
    Nice pics and report!! :thumb
    #2
  3. duckbill

    duckbill Been here awhile

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    Thank you for this report on looking for snow in Lesotho. I can look out the window now and wish there was no snow. I am not a big fan of snow because where I live we loose about four months a year use of our motorbikes. Your excellent report makes it quite clear of the many differances world wide. Thank you for sharing and if I could, I would send you all the snow you could possibly want.:D
    Cheers, Bill.
    #3
  4. durandal

    durandal Been here awhile

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    Thanks for the ride report.

    Is there more? I certainly hope so!

    I am constantly amazed at how different parts of the Earth can somehow lok so similar, and so different.

    Cheers,

    d.
    #4
  5. kejago

    kejago Kev. Haute Savoie, France

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    I missed this one the 1st time round... nice pics!
    #5
  6. bongodave

    bongodave Intellectual

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    When I was a kid, I had a world map in my room. I spent hours looking at it and wondering what all those places were like.
    Lesotho was fascinating, since it was a country within a country, and also because I knew nothing about it! Thanks for the glimpse!

    Someday, I'll have the scratch for a trip to Africa. Believe it!
    #6
  7. riderbob

    riderbob Been here awhile

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    Another one for the piccies.

    How far is Lesotho from Jo'burg (in time)? I will be in Jo'burg in Feb for a week or so.

    Cheers, :thumb
    #7
  8. 1NiteOwl

    1NiteOwl Office Adventurer

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    The lowest point of the route (see elevation map) skirts the Sengu river in an almost Alpine setting. The Drakensberg mountains on the left form the border with South Africa.

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    From Mokholong follows a serious climb of 1000 metres over the next 25 km (see graph at end of report). Of course, the interesting parts are always on dirt.

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    Looking ahead at the interesting parts, where the snow lies.

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    It didn't take long before this road gave a quick warning not to mess with it as I ripped around a corner where a car approached from the shady side. A quick dab at the brakes resulted in a very close slide past the side of the car instead of a slowdown- frozen mud!

    Local cars are not very common in Lesotho- most people ride everywhere on Basutu ponies or donkeys. Some even carry pillions! It's a tough country to make a living in, and the life expectancy is only around 45.

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    Due to the cold climate, most locals wrap blankets around them like cloaks, and wear balaclavas instead of the traditional mokorotlos. Gumboots are worn all-year round for both warmth and to cross the many rivers and soggy patches of terrain.

    From the top of my route, the view is quite spectacular.

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    Around Mohlesi Pass it's slush!

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    At the top it's one big snowfield with tufts of heather sticking out. Not something South Africans are very used to.

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    Near Sani Top, it's nearly 10 000 ft AMSL.

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    Here, people manage to eke out a living with no electricity and very little natural fuel (wood). Even their water supply is frozen over. Note the huts in the middle distance- not much smoke to be seen.

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    The bike slides to a muddy stop at the border post by a quarter to four. The last section of 44 km to Sani Pass has taken an hour an a half, mainly due to the photo-stops. No time to visit the "highest pub in Africa" now, been there and done that.

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    I quickly get my passport stamped and roar off for the South African border 8 km away along lengthening shadows- and hit the deck within a kilometre of the border post: ice! Because this part of the road gets little sun it freezes over early in the afternoon till late in the mornings.

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    At the ice curtain one turn further it's a repeat performance as the rear end passes the front down the slope. Pulling the front brake has the inevitable result of losing it completely within meters of a waiting 4x4, whose cozied occupants are sampling the frozen mass of ice in the corner- note the shorts!
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    The cold from the frozen deck and lack of sunlight is tangible. Luckily no damage, but it's like a skating rink here, despite a whole lot of sand having been put down to aid traction. The only way to manage the descent is to cut the engine and use the clutch to ease down the slope whilst keeping both feet down. Very gingerly. Some people in a truck offer to follow me, should I need help. They also slide, but in this situation 4 wheels is good, two wheels bad!
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    Three turns like this and it's all over, with traction improving rapidly. It's possible to crank it down the hill, dodging potholes, erosion trenches and rocks. Nothing too difficult on a bike, but slow going for the 4x4s. Oh, and did I mention the mini-bus taxis with off-road tyres coming uphill?!

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    Soon enough, the white border post sign appears in view, but what’'s this, they’'ve locked the gate and its not even five yet! (Answer: they close at four).

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    Judging by the condition of both gate and fence lots of people sneak through the border gate and fence. I mentally sort through my toolkit for a suitable spanner to loosen the gates whilst waiting for the trucks that were following me, when I realise that I can slide underneath the gates without loosening anything.

    A bit of cajoling and one of the border police leaves his cozy office fireplace on my behalf, to drive all of 100 yards (!) to open the gate for me. Another stamp and we're on our way in a hurry to Nottingham Road, 120 km away, while there's still some light (not much). Lots of road works on the first 10 km from Himeville, where the road is being widened for the promised tarring of Sani Pass.

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    It's dark by the time I refuel in Mooi River and then it's the home run on the N3 highway; no point in going on the alternative routes with 430 km still to go. Fuel consumption takes a dive as the kilometres are lapped up over the frosty landscape. Two coffee and fuel stops later had me home at midnight from a 1200 km round trip.

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    The elevation map above shows the section of the trip from the entry (Fouriesburg) to the exit (Sani Pass) of Lesotho. The latter section has a drop of 1km over 9 km of twisty road from the peak at 10 770 ft.​
    #8
  9. bike fx

    bike fx Adventurer

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    Thanks for the great report. I would love to ride in RSA/Lesotho one day.
    #9
  10. Sucks2drive

    Sucks2drive Banned

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    looked really good, and some great pics, bet you never thought you would wish for heated hand-grips in Lesotho though?

    Martyn
    #10
  11. Carnivore

    Carnivore Adventurer

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    Hullo Owl,

    do you know when this tarring process is due to take place? I have not "done" Sani yet... I must before it's too late!

    Nice report, thank you.
    #11
  12. 1NiteOwl

    1NiteOwl Office Adventurer

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    Duckbill/ Martynbiker: I am sure that snow and riding in it (or avoiding it) is quite common in the northern part of the US and northern Europe. For us in sunny South Africa it's quite a novelty, however, and Lesotho is the nearest place to get some experience of riding in these conditions. This year, we had a pretty cold winter and most of the trip was at sub-zero temperatures. Heated grips would've been cozy, but layering of the clothes (including gloves) worked well enough.

    Riderbob: there are good surfaced roads from Johannesburg all the way to Lesotho. The nearest town is Fouriesburg, about 340 km from Johannesburg. At the legal speed limit (120 km/h) this can be covered in less than three and a half hours, including a fuel/coffee stop. It's worthwhile trawling through the Golden Gate national park while you are in the area, however, as the sandstone formations are quite spectacular. PM me if you would like more details.

    Carnivore: The entire resurfacing project up Sani Pass is planned in three phases and scheduled for completion in 2009 (you may guess the month, nobody's committing to a date). The first phase of 14 km from the Himeville road to Good Hope is in progress. The second phase is the next 11 km to the present SA Border Post, which will be moved to Good Hope. The last 8 km is Sani Pass itself, which will undoubtedly be the most difficult. R25M of the R160M for the project has been budgeted for this financial year, so presumably the bulk will need to be spent after March 2008. My bet would be that the Pass itself will still be unspoilt in 2008.
    #12
  13. Duscherck

    Duscherck Vufera Era

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    Amazing Lesotho with snow :vardy
    Thanks for report :ricky
    #13
  14. Carnivore

    Carnivore Adventurer

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    Thanks NiteOwl, for the information, and also foe a VERY nice report. I can "feel" the adventure beginning in my core.... you did a good job of stirring it up!

    I think I want to go up Sani, and then work my way west and south to Ramabanta, Matsieng and the Maseru area. So far, i haven't found a route that far south, but a colleague has raced in the area quite a bit, aso i will plan it with his input.

    Kind regards to u and Mrs Owl!
    #14
  15. Carnivore

    Carnivore Adventurer

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    1NiteOwl... a quick Q... is that a GPSIII+ or a V...?
    My good friend gave me a GPSIII+ and I am scrounging for tips and methods of making maps with sufficient detail to do the job, but still within the 1.44Mb limit.

    Ciao

    RG
    #15
  16. KHVol

    KHVol Long timer

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    Tks for the ride report 1NiteOwl..hope you will do more
    #16
  17. pikipiki

    pikipiki next!

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    Kenya
    Got to do the trip some day, or at least visit the Kingdom. Thanks for peek into that country. Seems like an interesting place to visit.
    #17