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Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ride the Tail of the Dragon - a practice run

The period between 16th and 25th December is a fantastic time to get on the bike and ride another route of our beautiful countryside. Why stay in the city during this crazy time? Madness and chaos in the malls. Shopping and crowds. Xmas specials. Tills ringing, outdated Xmas music. Commercial insanity. Time to try and keep it real.
Seven lads (ok codgers) from East London did exactly that and left East London in mid December for Lesotho. The plan was to ride up Sani Pass, through northern Lesotho to Clarens and back via the western side of Lesotho. But plans don’t always work out as planned. Six made it to the top of Sani and then plans changed.
Doug (KTM 990), Charl (KTM950), Pat (BMW 1100GS), Graeme (BMW 1200GS), Petrus (Kawasaki 650KLR), Kevin (Kawasaki 650KLR) and Alan (Honda Transalp 650) made up the posse.
Newly tarred, wider N2 out of East London was a pleasure to ride. Coming down Kei cuttings was a challenge with a Transkei cowboy in a BMW Z3 trying to keep up and tailgate me. Lost him on the second bend. He was a fool playing games like this.  Billboards warn that speed kills. Driving like an idiot and overtaking on blind corners and over solid barrier lines is the primary cause of accidents among these cowboys. Billboards warning about reckless overtaking should be erected to educate the cowboys.
First stop was Kei Bridge for a cup of coffee. A necessary caffeine boost for concentrating on these Transkei roads, with erratic drivers and strays animals concentration levels must be lifted to 110%. While sipping our coffee, a fellow in a Golf stopped next to us and was gob-smacked by the bikes next to him. He seemed to like the BMW’s and KTM’s. Makukhanye saw the light and asked if he could place his daughter Nombeko on the seat of Doug’s KTM for a photo.  Makukhanye chose the KTM for the photo because of the respect he had for the orange machine. Then it was son, then son and daughter and then father Makukhanye. Great photo to show Granny Nonyameko who despite living in rural Tsolo will recognize the endurance of the KTM.

Butterworth was a seething mix of humanity and vehicles and it was a quick ride to Idutywa. We had to stop and photograph Doug as he proudly posed next to his Umtiza sign. Doug and Alan run the Umtiza farmers co-ops in this area and know these little towns inside out. Turn left at Idutywa and onto the road to Engobo. This was a road in good condition and was a pleasure to ride. Before Engobo we came across a hut that can only be described as eccentric.

 Engobo was our petrol stop. I had a young non law abiding citizen of Engobo walk up to me and offer me the local mountain cabbage, which I politely declined. Ten seconds later, two uniformed policemen walk up to me and ask me where I’m going. I explain I’m off to Lesotho and before they can ask another question I ask them how the crime is here. It is bad they say. I agree seeing I was offered dagga under their noses.
Off towards Umtata on a rather narrow tar road with trucks and buses but before Umtata we turn left towards Ugie. In Scotland the name Ugie is pronounced as "Oogie". The name comes from the word "oorie" or "ougie" from the Vikings of Iceland and means to get cold, literally "to shiver of the cold". Early Scottish missionary William Murray named this area Ugie. It can drizzle here for 14 days non-stop. Typical Scottish weather.
Ahead and above of us looms the edge of the escarpment and a newly built mountain pass, the Ugie – Langeni link road. A pass that is biking bliss measuring 17 kilometres.   It has been hailed as the country’s most unique road and experts who worked on the Ugie-Langeni project agree that there is nothing that compares to it in South Africa.

“The terrain is extremely mountainous and at one stage the road drops from a high point on the escarpment from 1500 metres above sea level to just 700 metres over a seven kilometre stretch,” says Simon Mqamelo, a director for HHO Africa Infrastructure Engineers. As a result of the steepness of the descent, concrete has been used in place of tar for the seven kilometre section. Not only is it more durable and longer wearing, but it’s also safer, causing more friction against vehicle tyres.   We stopped on the bridge as a truck came down the pass and the smell of burning brake pads said it all. Coming down a gradient of 12% tends to do this! That is a 1:8 gradient!

“At one section we’ve built a bridge right over the forest,” said Mqamelo. “It’s some 250 metres long and the tallest pier stands 45 metres high. All the piers were built by hand as regulations stipulated we were not to take machinery into the forests.” Pat, who is an engineer, pointed out that the design and construction team were also faced with the challenge of preserving indigenous forests, some boasting yellow wood trees up to a 1000 years old.

An interesting article related to this project comes from the Daily Dispatch of 6 October 1997: A new pulp mill that will produce between 400,000 and 500,000 metric tonnes a year, largely for export, is being planned for the Umtata-Kokstad-Ugie triangle. According to Enoch Gogongwana, provincial MEC for Economic Affairs, Environment and Tourism, such project would create 600 direct and 1000 indirect jobs. The total investment would involve some 1.5 billion Rands.
The above implies a cost of 937,000 rands per job -direct and indirect- created. By comparison, a non forestry-related community project put together at Mkambati, will provide 138 jobs at a cost of 6000 rands per job, and all enterprises (more than 10) participating in the project will be owned and run by the community, with the result that the money will stay in the community.
The government is spending money on these roads of the former Transkei and the following information comes from the State of the Province Address by Eastern Cape Premier Mbulelo Sogoni (13/02/2009): At the core of government's approach to stimulating the economy are the continued efforts to link investment in infrastructure with economic development. It is in this context that we must view provincial government's multi-billion rand programme of upgrading provincial roads during this term. Amongst others, key road infrastructure programmes that have been completed include the Mount Fletcher-Maclear road, at a cost of R411 million; the Idutywa-Engcobo road at a cost of R378 million; the road from the N2 to Kei Mouth at R221 million; the Graaff-Reinet-Jansenville Road at a cost of R26 million; the Ugie-Langeni link road, costing R500 million; the road from King William's Town to Alice, costing R200 million; the road from Sterkspruit to Tele Bridge, at a cost of R132 million; the Cala-Lady Frere road, costing R381 million; and the Mthatha to Qokolweni road, costing R138 million.
R500 million for this road to shorten the distance from Ugie to Umtata from 200 km to 85 km.  There are sections of the N2 that are far busier that should have received priority before this project. There were hardly any cars on this very expensive road! Eish!Methinks the real reason was political. The ANC wanted to get Umtata from the UDM. Spending this huge amount of money with the promise of jobs eventually won them the constituancy of Umtata. But all these jobs?? Where are they?
We rolled into Maclear at lunch time in the heat of the afternoon and as the Royal Hotel was no more, we stopped at a take away in the main road where toasted sarmies and cheese burgers were consumed along with ice cold beverages. A Xhosa lady, Cebisa, who was sitting next to me, asked where we headed for. When I told her Lesotho, she found it very amusing that we leaving the families behind. “Oh, you are getting away from it all!” Yes, we were. Mountain air beats shopping mall air hands down was my advice to her.

The Maclear – Mount Fletcher road at R411 million is also a great road to ride, until you get to Mount Fletcher. I was astounded to see new corrugated iron toilets here. Where was the ANCYL? Did they know about this or where they not prepared to stir with the ANC? Maybe these toilets rust in the Cape Town sea air and that is why they protest about these toilets down in the Cape and not up in Mount Fletcher.

My biggest problem with Mount Fletcher is the people that reside here. On my last trip I had stones thrown at me. I kept a wary eye open for any possible stone heading in my direction. A young lad with a catapult tried to use me for target practice. I made a sharp u-turn chased him across a soccer field and into a nearby village shouting obscenities at the top of my voice. Village life came to a stand-still as this noisy mechanical beast with a swearing mad man woke every living soul. With wild gesticulations, showing a clenched fist in this case, I think they realized I was not showing the universal symbol for solidarity or defiance, but that I was the ‘moer in’ with the youngster that had just broken the four minute mile without any training. I left it for the village elders to sort out after they got the message that he was shooting stones at bikers. Imagine if the ‘Hells Angels’ cruised through there in the future. All kinds of hell come to mind.
On the way back, there was another incident in this entertainment starved armpit of a town. It was raining lightly and a group of about six Xhosa maidens were walking alongside the road under umbrellas, when one of them suddenly bent down and threw something at me as I approached. As I spun into a serious u-turn they all took off screaming in to the nearby mielie field. This extremely dangerous practice of stoning bikers is a pet hate of mine and in future I will be armed with a large caliber catapult to dish out some highway justice.
A couple of hours later and we were in Matatiele, a town famous for its marshes and wetlands and the resulting wild birds. Matatiele means “the wild ducks have flown”. With a colourful history of smuggling and gun running, Matatiele is an excellent base from which to explore the southern Drakensberg passes of Ongeluksnek, Quacha’s Nek and Ramatseliso’s Gate. Quachas Nek is unique as one finds one of the only spots, if not the only spot, in the whole of Africa, where California's.
Alan’s Honda was not running smoothly so a stop at the local Midas for some bike muti was called for before we headed on the last stretch to Himeville. Dirt road between Matatiele and Swartberg was lapped up by Redwood trees grow. Right next to the main road of the small town. This area is an adventure biker’s paradise – go to Sehlabathebe National Park or follow the Senqu River to Tele Bridge. You will not be disappointed at the spectacular vistas along these roads Doug who seriously suffers from “too much tar” disease. Only curable by riding dirt road. Pat’s pannier came adrift on this road and running repairs were made. By 4pm we were sitting on the front porch of the Himeville Arms enjoying a couple of ice cold glasses of the finest draught found on the KZN – Lesotho border.

Underberg lies before Himeville and it is rather strange that two towns of this size lie only five kilometers apart. There are various versions to the history of these two picturesque towns, but the most popular is that Underberg grew around a store that was opened to serve the first settler farms in the frontier times of 1886. Although the town was well established, the government decided it wasn’t suitable to be the district centre because it was privately owned and was overlooked by a hill – making it defenceless if attacked.
So Himeville was chosen and was granted a magistrate in 1902. Rivalry arose between the two villages, aggravated five years later when a railway was built that ended at Underberg, not reaching Himeville.
A row of oak trees next to the road connecting the two towns is what eventually healed the rift. The trees were planted by locals when residents Kenneth and Mona Lund offered to give one to anyone willing to plant one. Rivalries were soon forgotten.
Sitting on a bench drinking a cold beer after a hard days riding must rate as one of life’s more pleasant moments. The challenge of Sani Pass lay ahead tomorrow and we all chatted about how to ride up the pass.

Two years prior, Doug and I had ridden up on Honda Transalps and they suffered from a dramatic loss of power up on the higher altitudes which coincided with the last steep switchbacks. The only way up was flat out – open the throttle and gun it, balls to the wall. Taking the 180 degree turns at high speed on a marble surface with a steep drop off is nerve racking if you are doing for the first time. Some of our lads went to sleep with a slightly worried look on their faces.

Next morning we were up early and heading up the Mkhomazana valley that leads to Sani Pass. Work on the bottom section is under way and there are a few sections with some seriously slippery gravel which was a good warm up for what was to come. The road was in worse condition than two years ago but made for nice off road riding. Half way up and Alan’s bike would go no further. This was Doug’s bike from two years ago and probably realised what was coming. Like an obstinate donkey it just sat there and refused to go any further. Doug stripped the bike and before he stripped his “moer” suggested that Alan return to Himeville so a mechanic could sort out the problem. In the meantime we all headed up to Sani Top.

The switchbacks were a piece of cake on the KTM and everyone made it up without mishap. Petrus enjoyed it so much he rode up and down four times that morning! Kevin was blown away by the scenery of the entire trip and could not believe that this was virtually on his doorstep. Graeme who originally grew up down the road in Pietermaritzburg was also amazed by the stunning scenery.

Toasted sarmies and coffee for breakfast and it was back down to find out what the prognosis was regarding Alan’s bike.

News was not good and it looked like we would not be going to Clarens that day. Main aim of riding up Sani Pass had been achieved by six of us and it was decided to ride the Drakensberg Gardens area and then head to Maclear for the night. Drakensberg Gardens area lies along the Umzimkulu River Valley and while very pretty and tranquil; the road was a brilliant with its sharp curves and ever changing scenery. It felt like riding through parts of Europe.
The dash back to Maclear was interesting as three separate thunderstorms threatened to drench us. Kevin, Doug and I were out in front and we attempted to outrun the first storm. A couple of big raindrops hit us for about five kilometres and then we were out from under the big black cloud and back into the sunshine. After a few minutes we were dry again. We waited for the others and found out that they had stopped to put on wet weather gear and got caught in a hail storm.
Near Mount Fletcher a weird cloud formation started to appear out of a thundercloud. It looked like a tornado that was trying to come down from the cloud.

 A couple of days later and a tornado hit Idutywa causing havoc destroying buildings and cars. We outran that second storm, back into the sunshine and as we came into Maclear a third thunderstorm was brewing. We booked into Declans B and B and headed for the town’s only steakhouse, the Butchers Block. The owner was kind enough to come fetch us in his bakkie. Small town hospitality – you cannot beat it. Imagine asking the owner of your local Spur to come fetch you. He’ll tell you to get knotted. Great meal and cold beers equaled tired eyes and it was not long that the pillow took a serious pounding.
The following morning was misty and also started to drizzle. We looked at heading over Naude’s Nek and the Bastervoet Pass but some of the bikes tyres were not for off road as we discovered coming down Sani Pass. With no grip in the wet it would be a mission so we headed on to Elliott and down Satan’s Nek towards Engobo and back to East London.
Back a day early and mission partly accomplished. Back to the jingle bell madness of the city, but a fantastic trip which forged new friendships and strengthened old ones. We rode the tail of the Dragon and will return in the future to ride the Dragon Mountains of Lesotho. Clarens and Oxbow will have to wait as Africa beckons Doug and I.


Anonymous said...

Awesopme Charl thanks soo much for sharing, my hubby off to Isle of Mann TT soon. Looks amazing !!!!!!! Your trip is inspiring

Lucas said...

Very witty, i especially enjoyed the parts about the stone throwing, thought it was hilarious.. good luck for the trip