Half in South Africa, half in Lesotho, Tyson Jopson cobbled together a route that shows off a secret side of the Drakensberg. Join him here, riding a streak of mountain passes many haven’t heard of.
Distance, duration and riding pace
You’ll cover less than 500 km in the three days of riding, but it’s almost all gravel, with some serious mountain passes thrown in. Prepare to be on the road for a good portion of each day; except for Day 1, which you can do in about three or four hours. Your riding time will also depend heavily on conditions, particularly on the high-altitude passes in the Eastern Cape Highlands and especially Ongeluksnek Pass.
Any hint of rain can double or even triple the time it takes you to ride some of the passes – never mind the time spent on your poephol if you get it wrong. (Using my Tracks4Africa route logs I’ve worked the total distance out at exactly 445km, but it will vary, depending on how you ride the rough stuff.)
Speaking of rain…
This part is important. This is not an easy route, to begin with. And while I personally enjoy sliding around in the mud (maybe because I ate so much of it as a child), when it’s even a little wet this route is a whole different story and I don’t want you to go careening off a hillside. So, firstly I’d recommend doing this route in the dry only, unless you’ve got a good deal of proper offroad/enduro riding experience and a bike you’re comfortable dropping once or twice.
I did the South African passes on my Kawasaki KLR 650 as part of the Ben10 Challenge (check out the Ben10 Challenge on Facebook). The bits in Lesotho I’ve done on a combination of adventure bikes and 4x4s during my years of travelling for Getaway magazine. Regretfully, while I’ve been up and down Ongeluksnek Pass a few times, it’s never been on an adventure bike. In the dry it’s a manageable descent. If it’s wet, the descent is a lot more dangerous and the ascent is often impossible.
So, the reason I’ve put together this route going in a clockwise direction is this: If there is a little bit of unexpected rain, you can still make the decision to do it, because the two trickiest passes (Ongeluksnek Pass and Volunteershoek Pass) are both descents only. This means you will get down them, either on your wheels or on your ass. OK, so that’s out of the way. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Why this route?
The Eastern Cape has the best mountain passes in the country for adventure bikers. You could easily spend a week riding them and still not have time to do them all. On an adventure bike you’ll also see parts of it that not many other people have. But I also love Lesotho for riding. It’s a little more wild west and you get a true sense of freedom and isolation. It’s not very well signposted, which makes it somewhat daunting for riders. But if you have a GPS and a good attitude it’s magic. I also wanted to create a route that includes Ongeluksnek Pass (for me it’s miles better than Sani Pass) and one night somewhere really rustic. So, what you end up with is a rough-and-tumble sandwich – two nights of good accommodation on either end of an epic riding trip, with an ultra-local Basotho accommodation experience in the middle.
How the route runs
The route starts and ends in Rhodes, so you can lighten your load a little by leaving unnecessary items and a clean change of clothes at the place you’ll be staying at when you arrive back (details for my recommended spot – Walkerbouts Inn – below). It’s doable with a fully packed bike, but its easier and more fun if you carry less.
Navigating the South African side is fairly straightforward. Lesotho is not signposted that well, so I’ve added GPS coordinates to the day-by-day directions for the important points to turn. You’re also not going to be able to use Google maps for this one, so I’ve taken a screenshot of the route on Garmin’s Basecamp. I had a GPX file too, but the dog ate it.
Day One: Rhodes to Tiffindell
This is an easy day. Take Naude’s Nek from Rhodes in the Eastern Cape up to Tenahead Lodge and Spa and then tackle the TTT (Tenahead – Tiffindell Traverse), which tracks the high-altitude border and provides epic views of the Southern Drakensberg. Allow about three to four hours for this ride – it’s only 65km but the Traverse could take you a little longer than expected. There are also some gates to open and close. It’ll also give you some time to have lunch at Tenahead Lodge. If you’re feeling brave, there’s an out and back (or rather, up and down) bonus ride you can do at Tiffindell…
Bonus Pass – Ben MacDhui
This is ‘technically’ the highest pass in the country. It’s higher than Sani Pass, but because it’s an out and back route some folk don’t count it. All in all it’s a round trip of less than 10km from Tiffindell to the top and back, but it’s proper off-roading and even the switchbacks to get the start of the single-track ascent can be tricky. If you’ve arrived at Tiffindell with some spare time, take your luggage off and give it a go. If you don’t make it the whole way, just park your bike and walk the rest. The view from the top is definitely worth it!
Day Two: Tiffindell to Ha Liphapang
From Tiffindell take the Volunteershoek Pass to Wartrail and then Lundean’s Nek to the village of Upper Telle. From Upper Telle, take the gravel road along the Telle River to the Telle Bridge border post. The turn-off to Ha Liphapang (S30° 17.375’, E27° 51.035’) is an easy hour’s ride on tar from the border post and the gravel road to the campsite is nothing short of spectacular, passing villages with white flags waving in the breeze (they indicate where you can buy local beer) before descending to the camp on the banks of the Merataleng River. The entire ride from Tiffindell should take about five hours and at the end of it, it’s more than likely it will be just you, the gurgling river and hunched Drakensberg valleys.
Day Three: Ha Liphapang to Rhodes
Take the same gravel route back to the tar A4 and head up to Mount Moorosi. Shortly after, there’s a gravel turn-off (S30° 15.213’, E27° 52.962’) that takes you up Devil’s Staircase Pass (on many maps this pass is marked incorrectly as being on the tar A4, which runs parallel to this road). The Staircase is more bark than bite and its peaks and troughs evoke more of a sense of wonder than anxiety as you track the Quthing River (there are two low-level bridges where it crosses) east to Lake Letsie. Keep an eye out for the junction (S30° 18.223’, E28° 7.904) that takes you right and through a gate (S30 18.293, E28 7.983) towards the lake, which opens out in front of you in dramatic fashion. Here, wild horses mingle with livestock on open plains in a scene that looks like a domesticated Serengeti.
After Lake Letsie, Ongeluksnek Pass begins in earnest. At the top of the escarpment the gravel descent unravels towards the South Africa border post. It’s incredibly steep and there are lots of loose rocks, so take it easy on the way down (remember: low gear, rear brake!). Take the gravel track to Ongeluksnek Main Camp, and just behind it there’s a junction (S30° 19.745’, E28° 21.987’). Turn right here and continue on gravel towards Mount Fletcher. This is a poor road with lots of corrugations and hard stones. Keep left at the next junction (S30° 23.175’, E28° 23.130’), which takes you to the tar R56 past Mount Fletcher. On the other side of the Luzi River, there’s a secret gravel track (S30° 45.715’, E28° 31.384’) to Elandshoogte that’s well worth taking – it’s a beautiful way to get back to Rhodes via the impressive Pitseng Pass and Naude’s Nek.
What kind of bike?
As I mentioned I did the toughest parts of this route on my KLR650. It was nice and light and I wasn’t too worried about dropping it. It’s definitely doable on a bigger adventure bike, but you’ll just have to work a bit harder on the technical stuff. There’s also a decent chance you’ll tip over once or twice on the slow stuff, especially on the ruts at the bottom of Ongeluksnek Pass. I wouldn’t recommend riding this route with a pillion, they’ll be walking a lot.
Points of interest along the way
Here’s a list of highlights (and accommodation) in the order that you’ll reach them:
1. Walkerbouts Inn, Rhodes. Spend your first and last night here. It’s got a lekker old-world charm, awesome pizzas and a cosy bar. You’ll also be able to get any info on route conditions from the owner, Dave Walker, who always has his ear to the ground. From R765 pp DB&B. Tel: 045 974 9290.
2. Tenahead Mountain Lodge. This awesome stone lodge up in the mountains has an à la carte menu from 12:00 to 14:30 (burgers from R85) so try line it up for lunch. If you’re too early (or too late), grab a coffee and a rusk (R20). Tel: 045 971 8901.
3. Tiffindell Ski Resort. There’s a great variety of accommodation option here, including large, comfortable Mountain Suites with brilliant views over the Eastern Cape. Accommodation may be scarce during ski season (1 June to 31 August), but you won’t be riding this route during that time anyway, unless you’re a mad person. Chalets from R395 pp sharing. Tel: 011 781 2620.
4. Ha Liphapang Camp, Lesotho. This magic spot for the truly adventurous only. It’s just a handful of Basotho huts and a ‘campsite’ on the Merataleng River but it’s pure isolated bliss. Facilities are basic – there is an ablution block with hot water from a donkey boiler and there’s a tiny shop and shebeen set on the hillside above the campsite. They’re not always open though so to be safe pack some rations for the night. There’s also great fishing but you’ll need your own gear (anyone ride with fishing gear?) From R170 for a hut (sleeps two) and R100 for a campsite. It’s run by a family member of one of the local chiefs. The phone number doesn’t always work so it’s best to start trying to book your huts a few days in advance. Tel: +266 5840 7186.
5. Rhodes River Park. This is a cool little spot to end your ride. There’s also fuel next door if things are looking a little tight. Look for the house with the two green gables. Tel: 045 971 9003.
Gear and equipment
You’ll need offroad-capable tyres: 80/20 at the very least but 60/40 is better. Don’t forget your passport! You’ll also need some food, a sleeping bag and something warm to sleep in for the night in the huts at Ha Liphapang (although they will give you some Basotho blankets if you ask). A GPS, first-aid kit, tyre levers and general repair kit are essential. Leave the panniers in Rhodes, if you can, and just take a soft luggage roll and backpack. If you do need to take panniers, soft ones are best.
Fill up in Barkly East or Lady Grey to arrive in Rhodes with as much fuel as possible. There are no fuel stations in town, but you might be able to get a few litres from Sean de Wet (look out for the house with the green gables next to the River Park) if it’s an emergency. Use as a last resort only. Your next fuel stop will be on Day 2, in Lesotho (fuel is cheaper here) at either Quthing, Fort Harley or Mount Moorosi, depending on your range. You can also fill up in Mount Fletcher back in SA on the third day.
Any dangers along the route?
Yes, as I’ve mentioned there are quite a few. Firstly, heavy rain, snow and ice might make some of the passes completely impassable, so I’d advise doing this one in the shoulder months (see ‘General advice about the route’ below). You’ll encounter lots of sheep and herdboys on the passes, as well as quite a few sections with small loose rocks. Keep to the inside of the tracks on the descents.
You may get stopped by police in Lesotho. They’re generally friendly and just want to have a chat. They do have one very sneaky trick though – they stand quite a few metres behind the temporary ‘Stop’ sign. You have to stop at the sign (behind the line, if there is one) and then wait for them to wave you through one at a time. If you ride up to the policeman without being individually pointed at and called, you will get a fine. This can get even trickier on bikes, because you’ll likely park side-by-side at the stop sign, not know who he’s waving at. Make sure everyone in your group is aware of this beforehand, so that only one person rides through each time this happens.
General advice about the route
This is a seasonal route. In the winter there could be ice and snow and in the summer there will be rain. The best time to ride it is between March and May and September and October. This is not a walk in the park. Have a nice honest talk with yourself about your skill level and readiness to test it. Once you’ve managed those expectations you’ll have the time of your life.
The two trickiest sections are Volunteershoek Pass and Ongeluksnek Pass – they’re both steep 4×4-track descents and you need to have your wits about you. Remember: look ahead, low gear, use your rear brake and don’t tense up. There are deep ruts at the bottom of Ongeluksnek that have caught many a good rider out. Sometimes they’re overgrown too, so you won’t see them.
Besides those two passes, and to smaller degree the Tiffindell Tenahead Traverse, the rest of the gravel on route is relatively easy. The road from Wartrail to Telle Bridge is slow-going, but it’s good tar from Telle to the Ha Liphapang turn-off. The gravel road to Ha Liphapang, as well as the one to Lake Letsie, are generally good; however, there are a few small concrete bridges to cross. These are continually being washed away and rebuilt. This is generally only a problem in the rainy season, but always ask ahead about their condition when booking your accommodation at Ha Liphapang. The gravel to Mount Fletcher is corrugated, the tar R56 is sound and the Elandshoogte gravel road is also in decent nick.
Doctors or hospitals in the area
In Lesotho the nearest hospital is in Mohale’s Hoek. In South Africa, it’s Barkly East, but your best bet is to call Tiffindell Ski Resort if it’s an emergency. They’re best positioned to let medical services know exactly where you are.
Tyson Jopson is an acclaimed South African photojournalist based in Stuttgart, Germany. You can see his Instagram posts here.