BABOON’S PASS, LESOTHO: 14-17 December 2013 – My Memoires
After riding VanZyl’s Pass last year June with a group of stunning riders and back-up crew the thought started to develop to ride the other Mother of Passes in Southern Africa, the Baboon’s in Lesotho.
As I have started riding biking offroad on a BMW 1200GS and had no other frame of reference this bike be my ride. Whether it was done before on a 1200GS I did not know.
Then the planning started and the most difficult was to set a suitable date which was eventually fixed to the long weekend in December. We would usually prefer to take on extreme rides during the cooler winter times but this one is then covered in snow! December is also the top of the rainy season in SA and we held fingers for the rain to give us a window of clear skies.
Johann Strauss - 60 - 1200GSA - My long time riding buddy & VanZyl’s veteran
Eddy Curry - 62 - G450X - VanZyl’s veteran
Alex Currie - 40(?) - G450X - VanZyl’s veteran
Vaughan Wepener- 40(?) - 1200GS - Biker buddy and fellow club member
Nicolle Wepener - 700GS - Vaughan’s better half
Johan Maree 59 - 1200GSA - Just me
Stephan Heyl 40(?) - 1200GSA - Biker buddy and fellow club member
Manus Potgieter 35(?) - KTM990 - Stephan’s long time biker buddy
Willem Nordeje 53 - L Cruiser with Maria and son BP – Tagalong
Trudie Maree - Back-up Isuzu driver and Camp Commandant
Marisabel Staruss - Back-up Isuzu co-driver and Camp Commandant
Hennie Reyneke - The doctor and enjoying the ride
Day -1: (Sat 14 Dec) Travelling to Lesotho
Everybody (except Stephan & Manus) met at our residence at 6AM for coffee & rusks to depart en masse at 6:30. The Isuzu is used as pack donkey too as we all decided to do the camping thing at Ramabanta at R80pppn. Tents, chairs, communal food, drinks, but everything. The two bike trailer (in off-road mode) in tow.
But then Trudie first decided to do an E-toll artwork to the bikes by masking the number plates with mud. On road will be the 4 GSs with the 450’s on Alex’s Navara.
A loud breakie at Maxi’s Kroonvaal was our first major stop to regroup. Passing through Caledon border post went smooth and soon we were amongst the beautiful sandstone mountains of Lesotho.
In SA a lot of hype is made about Golden Gate, maybe because that is all we have. Riding through the mountains of Lesotho shows one much more splendour. If only the roads were more passible for road bikes there will certainly be more influx of riders to experience the natural beauty of that small Maluti Mountain state. People are friendly and helpful and respect the foreigners, well in our case that was…
We arrived at Ramabanta Trading post around 3pm and booked in at reception. As we walked to the camping area we passed some nice looking cottages. Strauss made the remark about upgrading. (We never take any recommendations from him, but that is another long story). Everybody made an about turn and 30 mins later all were nestled in comfy cabins at R250pppn, except the Nordeje family that brought their bush trailer along. In any case they had all the luxury they required there. All the tents and camping stuff were left in the Isuzu that got parked for the weekend.
Riders started removing mirrors and screens from the bikes and Vaughan looked on. He and Nicolle were only planning to ride along and use the day in the pass at leisure at the lodge or visit other scenery in the area.
An hour later Vaughan started talking about riding with us into the pass and turn around when the going gets too tough for him. We all kept quiet as we know him. Don’t pester a thinking man…
Soon after, he agreed to fit the two Mitas tyres to his GS replacing the Anakees. I brought the spare tyres just for in case. That exercise immediately bonded the group as everybody with the second or third cold one in the hand was giving advice and bantering away while Eddy and Strauss showed Vaughan how to do the tyre change. All in front of our cabins on the green lawn. I brought my GSA closer to use the side stand for breaking the bead on the tyres and also use the battery power to inflate the newly fitted tyres.
After that exercise Vaughan mentioned that he will ride the pass with us. Nicolle just rolled her eyes in typical womanly understanding and helplessness.
During dinner time we had the customary safety talk about the next day’s ride and stressed the possibility that we may have to overnight in the pass as we had no idea what was waiting for us. Also emphasised was that nobody will take any irresponsible chances and that all will be riding within their personal abilities. We will take ample rests and always progress in a group. The L Cruiser will tag along with water and the breakie food.
Dinner that evening was curry chicken with rice.
About 9:30PM people started moving to their cabins to rest for the challenging day ahead.
Day 1: (Sun 15 Dec) Taking on the Baboon
One 1200GS, 2x GSA and 2x 450X gathered at the lodge to start the ride.
Me in high expectation
Buddy Eddy with his smooth moustache
The others riding out
At about 07:00 we left the lodge area in a group and followed the tarred road to the turn-off. Spirits were high and suspensions set. Mine was on high mountain/hard. The seat setting was low to allow myself some better footing if required.
The view from the Lodge of the first stage of the pass.
At the first major climb about 300m into the pass Alex experienced trouble with his bike’s idling and low-down torque. Eddy took the bike up the incline and realised it just need a bit more squeeze on the ear. From there Alex was okay and we seldom saw him again. He really enjoyed the ride. As his bike had no side stand and he was shorter than normal on the heels he usually set his bike down against a rock and then walked up an outcrop to wait for us. Damn easy this ride for him while we are working to beat gravity and keep the yaw in motion.
Eddy was all over the show and showing his many years’ experience in moto-cross. Albeit at 62 already he has all his ducks in a row and was playing with the pass.
About 1km in Johann’s GSA gave a puff of blue smoke at a rather difficult rock climbing and he realised the smoke came from the clutch. He immediately decided to give the pass a miss and returned to basecamp, not to become a possible burden to the group later on. I was further up in front and heard of the decision. Quite disappointedly I saw him turning around lower down and heading off all on his own. This pull-out proved to be a blessing later on…
Johann still part of the group
The road conditions.
Me. Is that a wheelie?
To the uninformed the BMW Boxer engine uses a dry clutch system that is prone to smell quite easy. Smelling on this bike does not necessarily mean that it is burning and only warns the rider to be soft on the clutch. Engaging should be quick and rather use the stunning low-down torque of the big engine than the clutch. Even the puff of smoke does not mean the clutch is stuffed. A good clutch can live through plenty puffs as we have proven umpteen times before on adventure rides. Johann was just versigtig in this instance.
Just after Johann’s pull-out another two riders came up the mountain. When they stopped and took off their helmets we recognised them as our missing buddies, Stephan on his GSA and Manus on the KTM 990. Greetings, hugs and well wishes followed and we all pushed on again.
There were no dedicated leader as when one is at speed and riding he may pass a stationary bike just to cover as much ground/rocks until he has to come to a stop again. Sometimes that stop meant a fall. Never at speed but rather lose a footing and putting the bike down softly. My first put down was within the first 2km and I felt rather the moer is as it was because a rock slipped from under the sidestand. OK, I know nobody will believe me…
We put the bikes down plenty times.
Only afterwards when looking through some footage I got cold sweat as to how close we rode to the cliff face. When riding one judges his line further up front and the bike does its own thing underneath. At most places the better line with fewer rocks strewn over the path was away from the mountain side, and closer to the cliff side.
When things go wrong there it will be fatal.
And then it nearly happened.
At the time I was in front and Vaughan followed at a safe distance up a particularly steep incline. I stopped at a spot to catch a breath and was holding the bike up astride, with no stands out. Looking over my shoulder I saw Vaughan approaching. When he saw me stopped also about 5m behind me. At that moment when I was not looking at him I heard a scream and looking back his bike was down and he was gone…
…Over the cliff!
There was no time for me to put out a sidestand and just put down the GSA on its crashbars and ran towards where his bike was. I could hear him swearing – thank God, he is still alive and close by. His first question was:” Is the bike safe? Will it not fall on top of me?” I replied in the negative and then looked over the cliff face. A shrub of about 3m high stopped his fall and he could safely hold on to get some footing. Upon my question if he is alright het answered affirmative and jokingly said he is wearing the correct attire. At that time he did not yet look down the cliff face to realise the luck of the shrub at that specific point.
I held out a hand but he declined and said he first need to catch a breath. After about 5 mins joking and banter, Alex also turned up, he was ready to take my hand and I pulled him to better ground. The others picked up his bike and we all took a breather.
More than 90% of the track surface is strewn with stones & rocks, very seldom smaller that 40mm dia and mostly 100mm dia and larger. During training we were taught how to traverse such tracks but it is much easier to do it over 8m on the training ground than 200m in the mountain. After crossing one is so depleted of strength due to the adrenalin burnt that resting pauses became longer and longer. Water sipping also became more frequent.
Then what happened so often in slow motion on these heavy bikes is when a rock is spinned out from under the rear wheel. You are down in a flash. Then getting up, waiting for buddies to assist in picking up the bike and carry on. We were trained to never (when possible) pick up one’s bike but wait for help. Never waist energy that will be desperately needed further on. Anybody not liking this practice – tough!
My Garmin was always in the tracking mode and I knew exactly how far we went and far we still have to go.
At about 6km to go we started ascending Yeeaah hill. Stupid name when one look up but what a Yeeaah feeling looking down from the summit. At that point the summit proved to be very far in future. The plastics over time have created a track next to the 4x4 path and we tried that. Very difficult as the path followed the contour of the boulder strewn mountain side. Not easy to keep a heavy bike in a track less than 300mm wide through shrub, etc. At one spot we had to cross a erosion ditch about 800mm wide and 500mm deep. With immovable rocks alongside. I realised I could not go through with the panniers in place and asked BP to remove the RH box for the crossing. Could not do it myself as I had to keep the bike up, no footing for sidestand there. Refitting the other side. This was the only occurrence where the panniers hampered me somewhat.
Vaughan through the ditch
But why bloody panniers up a mountain pass? Stupid decision?
Well, not really. There was method in my madness. I knew 3L of water in my camel pack will not be enough for the day, and I had to prepare for a possible night in the mountain, hence extra 5L water in the left and my sleeping bag in the right. The boxes themselves are so light one does not even know of them while riding. But the most important reasoning was to protect my legs during a fall. I would rather replace my panniers (under insurance) than replacing a knee joint with artificial prostheses. At the end of the day I had just one injury that worried me dearly, and that was not because of a fall. But that is a story for much later…
This also the reason why I favour the boxer setup on a bike during adventure riding. It is so easy to drop the bike and have your leg caught up underneath. The boxer usually lands on its pot and your leg is free from injury, well usually.
We all came done often, well Stephan and Manus less than me and Vaughan being younger, fitter and more skilled. But they also came down. At one spot I was in front again and went up on a somewhat easy uphill and waited for the others to catch up. After 15mns resting Vaughan appeared and said Stephan fell but he is OK. Shit happens to everybody, but all OK and spirits still high albeit quite exhausted.
Talking of exhaustion
Eddy says he is resting on his bike while riding. It sounds silly but so true.
When one had to get his bike up a few times and traversed difficult terrain for some time one may be pasted. It sounds not possible as one does not even have any physical exercise, the bike does everything. In fact the concentration of just keeping the bike up and in motion is enough to drain all fitness. If then a piece of path comes up that does not require all that effort one’s fitness is restored magically within minutes.
I was pasted here
With Vaughan’s first fall his tankbag got sheared off and had to store it in the Cruiser along with his water supply. But the Cruiser was following slower and Vaughan’s thirst became audible, in a sort of way. I offered him my slurpie which he declined.
At the 11km mark he did not decline anymore and took a good swig. Buddies look after each other.
I then started to drink Bioplus to replenish some energy. Eat was not possible anymore. Even chewing a winegum became an effort
At the Goliath rock our spirits were still high as we conquered the Yeeaah hill in style. We felt this now the end of the hardship and all earned a nice ride down to the tar road at the end of the pass. But the best (worst?) is still to come.
From the start of the pass to Goliath we travelled 15.6km in 6.5h. Tough but nice going.
From Goliath to where the day ended at the bike parking spot was only 1.9km and took 3h!
The stretch of rocky climb from there to the Goliath steps is not more than 500m. This was our Achilles hill on this ride as we just could not go further due to personal exhaustion. The road ahead was quite challenging as it was strewn with rocks of more than 200dia in size, not closely packed and extremely dangerous for a bike.
Stephan asked me to walk up the hill to see if I can assist Eddy and Alex up front as Alex fell and dislocated his shoulder and could not ride further. I walked 10-15 steps at a time and rested in between. Eventually I found them after not less than 1h after starting, about 300m further on. At that time Manus already pushed his shoulder back in the pot but his arm was still lame and for all practical reasons useless.
I for one was well dehydrated and could not eat anything. Walking up the rocky path earlier I took sandwich from the stock and took one bite. The samy just got thick in my mouth and I could not swallow. Not even with a swig of water I could down it. Hence, I tossed the samy over the cliff. And walked on to meet Alex and Eddy.
I also realised that the team will be staying in the pass for the night. As I knew Alex’s bike was now riderless I decided after consulting with Alex to carry on with his bike out the pass accompanying Eddy on the other 450. The next morning I will ride up the pass with the Isuzu to the guys in the pass assisting in recovering the bikes – my thinking
Alex, I am sorry for your injury but oh so thankful that I could take over your bike, albeit bloody uncomfortable.
I drank my last Bioplus. I knew Eddy was also exhausted, way past tired as his usually neat moustache was deurmekaar.
We rode out the last 2km to where the pass ends and when going over the last summit saw two bakkies about 1km in the distance. I immediately recognised my Isuzu and the Navara. Our camp buddies came to wait for us coming down the summit but alas, only two riders, very tired but oh so relieved. Upon stopping Johann shoved an ice cold Windhoek Light in my hand. Eddy, arriving there 2 minutes earlier already downed his when I arrived. We were too exhausted to speak.
After a while’s rest we took the bikes to the main road and rode to the Lodge, some 27km on. That is where I started detest that little 450. Being set up for a rider not 1.5m tall and me 2m in the socks I could not stand on the bike comfortably. The sitting was not easy as that seat is non-existent. It is like sitting on a planed pole.
At the camp I felt some additional sore in my backside and asked Trudie to investigate. Two nice round carpetburns, one on each buttock! My most serious and painful injury of the whole trip.
What I did not know is that down hill where the others were somebody said the ambient temp that night will be not higher than 6 degrees C. Not a condition any tired body to be trying to recover in. They decided to strip the parked four bikes of all valuables and load the Cruiser with same. Alex and the other Cruiser bodies got in and took the rocky stretch out the pass. They arrived at the camp just a few minutes after us. In the meantime Eddy took the Navara and went back to the summit to collect Stephan, Manus and Vaughan who walked the 3km out to the open. Everybody safely back in camp and gathering for a good steak and salads, well overdue in time.
That evening I could not eat. Just drank energy drinks, one after the other. One hour in the resting the cramps in my thighs started. I had to stand. The moment my legs bend the cramps return. I drank about 1.5L of water before it got better.
That night in bed I woke up with more cramps. Got up and started drinking more water and eventually the cramps got less and I could sleep like a baby until 5AM the next day.
Day 2 & 3: (Mon-Tue) The recovery
The previous evening the recovery was discussed and it progressed as such.
I woke up at 5AM and got dressed for the day. Putting on my rider trousers and t-shirt with tekkies. Went outside to start stripping the Isuzu of the canopy and all other stuff on the laod body. Left only with the auxiliary battery pack, highlift jack, tie-down straps and a second spare wheel. Minutes later Johann emerged and then Eddy. They were to ride with me up the pass to where the bikes were parked. Willem on the other hand, took Stephan and Manus to the top of the pass down to the Goliath steps from where they would walk down the pass to ride their bikes out backtracking to the beginning.
We entered the pass around 07:30
Our progress was smooth up the pass. Eddy in front with me driving and Johann bobbling on the back. He enjoyed the ride as this was his first real experience since his pull-out the previous day. Vaughan and Nicolle had to leave for home as he had to attend an important meeting at work the next day., The Isuzu went up surprisingly well. In fact it should be as the suspension was lifted 60mm and fitted with rear diff-lock. The beefy 3L D-tec engine had no worry to drag the load in mostly 2nd gear low range up the pass.
Every now and then Eddy or me would utter disbelief in us riding that road with bikes as from within the 4x4 it was horrendous.
En route we met up with Stephan and Manus backtracking. Their progress was good as they were rested, well somewhat.
Eddy would for all the money not stay in the 4x4 while we did a rather skewe approach. He even tried to keep the 4x4 upright.
Goliath rock is a definite Kodak moment
We arrived at the bike spot and my GSA was parked at the back being the nearest the Isuzu. We pushed the bike up a small outcrop and reversed the Isuzu closer. During the ride we discussed how to lift a 300kg bike onto the bakkie. With the spare wheel between the flap and ground there was a sort of a ramp for the bike to be pushed over. Tying down was quick and then we started the difficult rocky road up to the Goliath steps. Thrice we had to use the installed Warn winch to retrieve the Isuzu from high rocks on the path.
At one spot we spent more than 45 mins finding a suitable anchor point for the winch cable, until Johann went over the cliff face to secure it to a suitable stable rock.
The Goliath steps asked for special tender loving care as the tyres on the Isuzu are M&S and not really suitable to bite into smooth rock. The winch made easy pie of the ascent and we reached the tar road 8.5h after starting the pass.
We surprised all waiting for us as they were staring at the pass expecting us to similar to what Stephan and Manus did.
The Tuesday morning we hired two locals as Eddy, Alex and Hennie also had to leave from home. They were on the back and Johann had the comfort of the passenger seat for the ride. Not for long though as he had to get out very often to show me the correct line over rocks. But we are now in much better spirit as the bodies started to play with and we knew what to expect.
We even took more Kodak stops!
Vaughan’s bike then lifted in record time
As we tied the bike to the holding down points we saw the threatening clouds and decided to waste no time further. Nature had been good to us this weekend and we did not need to be caught in rain now so close to the end.
Goliath steps were upped in record time
The last 2km we completed with no fuss and reached the tar road in 6h flat. Experience does pay!
Then the clouds opened up on us.
Whatever was held back for us to complete our adventure now came down with the fiercety of an angry mountain god. Even hail to 6mm size. But we were out and en route to the lodge with the last bike recovered.
We parked the Isuzu at the lodge and ran to our cabins where Trudie and Marisabel were stressing in top revs about us being caught in the mountain with rain.
Marisabel’s words said everything:” Ek is so bly om julle te sien ek is nou sommer die moer in!”
Did we enjoy this adventure? YES!
Compliments to each and everybody that partook. We were a bunch of never-enders and I will always think back to the group spirit, long after the memories of the hardship is forgotten. The Nordeje family needs special mention. Willem was there to lend a helping hand, so with BP who took Alex’s bike up to the Goliath step before I took it over. Maria was there with a snack, water, hug and just that motherly support that keeps any man on his path. She even made me a mug of coffee with our brunch stop!
Well, if one has not been on this ride one cannot comment in wisdom. The bikes never failed or missed a beat. In the correct skilled hands they will easily complete the Baboon’s Pass, without any assistance from others. But they will need time and a definite sleep over in the pass.
What a ride! I did complete the pass albeit on another bike but that is enough for me.
Will I do it again? Having done Baboon’s Pass thrice in three consecutive days. No, I have done my part.
It is now up to others to use our experience and complete the challenge that we did not set for ourselves. We just wanted to ride our GSs.