BMW R 1250 GS Triple Black – Riding to Katse Dam

Katse Dam in full flood.

On 19 January the Vaal Dam reached 108% capacity. I rode to the dam wall to marvel at the majesty and power of thousands of tons of water hurtling through the sluice gates into the thrashing cauldron at the foot of the dam wall. I wasn’t alone in my fascination for this spectacle. It seemed as if half the population of Gauteng had undertaken the pilgrimage to Deneysville to witness the usually placid Vaal River in full flood.

When I read that Katse Dam was overflowing for the first time in more than a decade I was determined to ride to Lesotho to witness the rare sight of thousands of cubic metres of water spilling over the 185 metres high dam wall into the abyss below. My plans for the ride came together very quickly. BMW Motorrad offered me their BMW R 1250 GS Triple Black for a week. My son in law Jesse was in Joburg for the weekend and was keen to ride my BMW R 1250 GS Adventure. We went for COVID-19 tests and both tested negative. There was little rain forecast for the weekend, the stars were aligned and on Friday night I slept fitfully as I dreamed of the adventures that lay ahead.

Katse Dam.

We rode at 07:00 on a perfect 18°C morning. There was a gentle breeze at our backs as we followed the N3 south at a sedate pace before leaving the freeway on the far side of Heidelberg and spanking the R23 to Balfour. The R51 from Balfour to Grootvlei and the silos at Leeuspruit has always been a dodgy road. It was never designed to carry heavy vehicles but every day convoys of 50-ton coal trucks travel that road to feed the fiery maw of the Grootvlei power station. And of course, clever truckers who want to dodge the R189 toll fee at De Hoek toll plaza also use this route. After the bountiful rains, the road was in the worst condition I have ever experienced. In the 20 kilometres from Balfour to Leeuspruit, we had to dodge hundreds of vicious potholes every one of which was a lurking menace waiting to send us to ICU.

That will kill you. Brutal potholes on the road between Balfour and Grootvlei.

We stopped to take photos of a particularly egregious pothole and stared in amazement as an imbecile weaved past in a car transporter carrying ten brand new cars worth at least R6 Million. Well done chap. You risked millions to save R189. Moron!! Here endeth the rant!
From Leeuspruit we rode at speed to Villiers and then followed the R103 to Cornelia and Warden. In thirty years I’ve never seen a speed trap on that road and we soon settled into distance demolition mode at 160 to 180km/h.

In Warden we crossed the N3 and rode the R714 and R57 to Afrikaskop, Kestell and Phuthaditjhaba. The Free State was just beautiful after the best rainy season in years. Lush foliage mielies stood two metres tall and the countryside was a palette of subtle greens, fern and forest, jade and emerald, lime and chartreuse. It was a feast for the eyes and a tonic for the urban soul. Before leaving home I compiled a list of songs with the word “black” in the title to sing while riding the Triple Black.

Maloti mountain majesty on the road from Phuthaditjhaba to Golden Gate.

This was my list:

  • Black Magic Woman – Santana
  • Black Betty Bamalam – Ram Jam
  • Paint it Black – Rolling Stones
  • Black Water – Doobie Brothers
  • Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress – The Hollies
  • Black Night – Deep Purple
  • Black Velvet – Alannah Myles
  • Blackbird – The Beatles

I rode along in great spirits bellowing in my helmet, blessing the day and the freedom of the road.

Golden Gate National Park was as magnificent as always and to add to the splendour there was water everywhere, seeping from the sandstone cliffs and streaming down the massive golden buttresses. In Clarens, we nodded to each other to acknowledge that we were about to unleash the hounds of hell over the next 35km on the thrilling dash to Fouriesburg. That road is one of the best in the country, an intoxicating mix of high-speed corners and flatstick straights across an eastern Free State landscape that rolls and billows like a shaken out blanket settling onto a bed.

Die Brandwag. The most notable sandstone formation in Golden Gate National Park

Ahead there was a staggered formation of a dozen Harleys on a scenic cruise. The devil made us do it. We blitzed them at well over 200km/h and were gone. It was 11:00 and we had ridden 410km when we stopped in Fouriesburg. We filled up so we wouldn’t need to find fuel in Lesotho then rode 10km from Fouriesburg to the Caledonspoort border.

The border crossing was swift and painless. We were the only travellers and were served by friendly and efficient officials on both sides of the Caledon River. On the Lesotho side, we were given an excellent large scale map of the country which made it sort of palatable to pay the 70 Maloti, that’s the currency of Lesotho, toll fee. By 11:30 we were loose on the land, relishing the prospect of riding at serious altitude. Before leaving home I made the wise decision to fit my GPS to the Triple Black. Let’s just say that there aren’t that many road signs in Lesotho and I think we would almost certainly have got lost without GPS. I entered Pitseng as our destination. We followed the A1 to Botha-Bothe and Hlotse and then turned southeast on the A8/A25 towards Pitseng and the lofty bulwarks of the Maloti mountains which loomed ever larger on the horizon.

Lesotho currency is the Maloti which has the same value as the Rand.

The last time I rode to Katse was ages ago in 2009 which meant that my impressions of Lesotho were all brand new. The A1 was a hectic mess on Saturday morning. The road markings have faded to nothing and therefore blokes drive all over the road to avoid potholes and pedestrians and the myriad cattle and donkeys which infest the road. Every village looked like a scrapyard with the carcasses of wrecked vehicles littering the roadsides. And everywhere we rode we were greeted by smiling faces and friendly waves. Lesotho could easily be the tenth province of South Africa but it’s a completely different atmosphere and vibe.

Lesotho time warp. In 2022 we still saw dozens of animal-drawn transports.

We stopped at the buckled and bent boom that controls access to Mafika Lisiu Pass. Frankly, I don’t understand why there’s a boom there unless it’s to provide sheltered employment to the fellow who mans it. We bought Cokes and dried peaches from the ladies in their roadside stalls and while we ate and drank we eyed the road that snakes up the ramparts of the Maloti mountains. The road to the summit was built in the 1990s to enable access to the Katse Dam construction site. Thanks to routine maintenance the road is in excellent condition.

Friendly locals sell dried peaches and energy drinks to give you more speed in the corners.

We howled up the steep gradients and rode our tits off through dozens of challenging corners, fast sweepers, flowing zigzags, 180-degree switchbacks and diminishing radius hairpins. The BMWs were in their element and delivered powerful performance and precise, predictable handling. We stopped halfway up the pass where a small waterfall ran down to the road. The rocks were covered in lichen and moss and the water was nectar. While we were filling our water bottles we suddenly realised we were not alone. On the other side of the road, a young man was staring at us. He was almost invisible sitting in the long grass with his four dogs. We waved to him and, not unexpectedly, he mimed that he was hungry. Jess gave him some dried peaches and I gave him 10 Maloti and then we were on our way. To this day I still wonder where he slept that night and whether he and his dogs had anything to eat.

We filled our bottles with delicious, chilled mountain water.

When we stopped at the viewpoint at the 3090 metre summit we were grinning like demented chimpanzees. Of course, the first thing we did was to examine the tyres. On both rear tyres, there wasn’t even a millimetre of chicken strip. The view down the valley to the lowlands was otherworldly, a scene from a fantasy novel, with serried ranks of mountains in shades of blue and grey marching to the far horizon where earth and sky merged in an indistinct blur.

Breathtaking view to the west. Of course, any viewpoint is a great place to dump your litter. Drives me insane.

From the summit, we rode more glorious winding tar to Lejone on the upper reaches of the Katse Dam. The scenery and the road were simply spectacular. Precipitous mountainsides towered above deep mysterious valleys and often there were glimpses of the waters of the dam where the road ran along a crest. The road descended and soon we were riding along the banks of the dam past the intake tower and onto the bridge that crosses the dam at Ha Lejone. The intake tower is the point from which the waters of Katse Dam enter the 82 kilometre long tunnel which eventually debouches into the Ash River 9 kilometres north of Clarens.

Near Ha Lejone this high altitude bridge crosses the dam. In the background is the intake tower where water from Katse begins its journey and eventually reaches the Vaal Dam.

What we hadn’t expected was that the Laitsoka Pass between the Ha Lejone bridge and the dam wall would be undergoing routine maintenance. In many places, the tar had been scarified and we rode on ambivalent surfaces of loose gravel and hard-packed dirt. To the south, an epic storm was brewing with alarming speed. Within a few minutes, the mountains were wreathed in seething clouds riven by incandescent lightning strikes with curtains of rain sluicing down. The first fat drops pelted us and I realised that we might be in for a very tricky ride on the return journey. Fortunately, the rain held off and ten minutes later we stopped the bikes near the Lesotho Highlands Water Project offices to take photos of a sight I had never seen before and expect never to see again.

A mighty cascade rushed through the ten apertures in the wall filling the air with spray and sound. For many minutes we stood agog and in silence as we imprinted the image in our minds. We rode onto the dam wall and stopped halfway to witness the deluge at close quarters. I’ve never had a head for heights and it was a visceral shock to stand on the wall, peer into the void and feel the tug of the vortex 185 metres below.

Katse Dam in full flood. The first, and probably the last, time I will see that awe-inspiring spectacle.

It was 14:30 and time to ride back to Fouriesburg where we would sleep that night. There had been some rain on Laitsoka Pass so we took it easy. Soon we were out of the construction zone, running at speed and with absolute confidence because we knew there were no lurking hazards. There’s an old truism, “You haven’t really ridden a road unless you’ve ridden it in both directions.” On the ride back to Pitseng we rode like men possessed revelling in the capability and precision of the big Beemers as we blasted down the mountains. It was a fantastic ride and when we stopped to catch our breath Jess said “That was the best tar riding I have ever done.” He was right. The road to Katse and back is glorious, a test for rider and machine in a landscape of mesmerising beauty.

At 3090 metres the summit of Mafika Lisiu is 214 metres higher than Sani Pass.

In warm late afternoon sunshine, we cruised the A1 on the way back to the border. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the balmy weather. There were dozens of groups of local folk dressed in their finest clothes strolling the boulevards. It was a lovely peaceful scene and, as we had come to expect, we were greeted with smiles and waves. Stone-throwing used to be a very real issue in Lesotho but in 340km and 6 hours, we never experienced a single incident except for one clever clown just as we approached the border. This little bliksem, maybe ten years old, was walking towards us and suddenly bent down, picked up a stone and threw it at me. He missed. I slammed on the brakes, did a swift U-turn and chased him. He’d made a big mistake because there were palisade fences on both sides of the road and he was trapped. He was running as fast as he could, his face a rictus of terror as he realised the Beemer was on top of him. The palisade ended and he bolted up a dirt road and into the veld squealing and defecating like a piglet. I skeem he’ll think twice before he picks up another stone.

The return border crossing was a drive through formality. Ten minutes later Jess and I settled into Di Plaasstoep in Fouriesburg, a most convivial boozer, and chucked the first golden throat charmers of the day down our gullets. We had enjoyed an exceptional 750km incident-free day in the saddle. Everything had gone to plan and on schedule and we had seen Katse Dam in flood. Mission accomplished! That evening we ate lamb cutlets for dinner at the Fouriesburg Country Inn and by 21:00 we were fast asleep.

On Saturday night we slept in Fouriesburg. Di Plaasstoep is a convivial joint to chuck a golden throat charmer down your gullet after a good day in the saddle.

On Sunday morning we ate breakfast and rode at 07:30 on the dot. There aren’t many better ways to start the day than the 35km pipe opener from Fouriesburg to Clarens. From Clarens, we rode to Bethlehem with a brief stop at the Ash River Outfall for photos. Whenever I ride through Bethlehem I’m reminded of the question: Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem of Judea and not in Bethlehem in the Free State? Answer: No virgins and no wise men. Haha. On the eastern side of Bethlehem, we followed the R26 to Reitz and then the R57 past the astonishing greenery of Liebenbergsvlei to Petrus Steyn and Heilbron.

Sunday morning at the Ash River outfall between Clarens and Bethlehem. The concrete ring is the diameter of the tunnel that runs from the Katse intake tower to the Ash River.

The roads were in perfect condition and for much of the ride, we set cruise control at 160km/h and rode next to each other enjoying the ineffable companionship that only long-distance bikers can know. On the northern side of Heilbron, there was a slight incident. Out of nowhere, an impala ram leapt into the road. We were hard on the clamps and I’m pretty sure Jess wiped its nose and I wiped its arse before we passed the stupid beast and it bounded into the veld. Now we were riding through an abundant agricultural landscape of two-metre tall xanthic sunflowers that stretched to the horizon in every direction. We stopped for the last photos of the weekend, revelling in the loveliness of this fair land. It was an amazing climax to a splendid ride. An hour later we rode through my gate at 11:00 with 350km on the trip meters.

Great swathes of xanthic sunflowers on the road from Heilbron to Sasolburg were a delight to the eyes.

That was a great ride. If you’ve not ridden to Katse add it to your bucket list immediately. Even if the dam isn’t overflowing the ride up the mountain and the scenery will make the trip worthwhile. I know we did the ride from Joburg to Fouriesburg to Katse to Fouriesburg in one day but it’s a better plan to ride to Fouriesburg on Friday and then to spend the entire Saturday in Lesotho.

The R 1250 GS Triple Black is the most stylish motorcycle in the GS family. Top of the range, beautifully engineered and deserves a special place in your motorcycle collection.

The two BMWs were the ideal bikes for the ride. My R 1250 GS Adventure is the seventh GS I’ve owned so I freely acknowledge I’m biased. The Triple Black is the swankiest GS I’ve ever ridden. It is the quintessential, versatile motorcycle. It’s an excellent urban combat vehicle, a long-distance runner, a high-speed tourer, a gateway to adventure and its devilish good looks are guaranteed to pull chicks.

BMW R 1250 GS Adventure

For more information on the bike that we tested in this article, click on the links below…

2021

BMW R 1250 GS

Pricing From R314,200 (RRP)


Brand: BMW Motorrad
I started riding in 1970 when I was a schoolboy. The first motorcycle I owned was a brand new 1972 Yamaha RD350 which cost R989.00 from Jack’s Motors in Main Street. Since then I have owned and loved dozens of bikes. My passion is long-distance riding either with a tight group of good mates or ace pilot. In 1996 I sent an unsolicited article to Bike SA magazine. Simon Fourie published the story and that was the start of a 25-year relationship with Bark Essay. In those 25 years, I rode more than a million kilometres on more than 500 different motorcycles. Biking has enriched my life. I have made many lifelong friends and ridden amazing roads to remote destinations. That’s what life’s about and that’s why we ride.