The high road
To many a traveller, commuter and motorcyclist, the Long Tom Pass is the entry to the Lowveld. This iconic road is steeped in rich history, and with superb engineering, it is the starting point of an incredibly interesting tour from Mashishing/Lydenburg to Sabie. The extension of this undulating tar serpent is the world-renowned “22”. This is the R536 between Sabie and Hazyview.
To understand riders’ and drivers’ fascination with the curves, twists and turns of this route, I go in search of those in the know. My first ride over Long Tom Pass on a bike had me shaking in my boots by the time I reached Sabie.
Mostly because I did not have the experience or knowledge of taking a motorcycle through the route’s countless twists and turns.
Brian is well known as a leather’s man. He believes in its protection and durability to safeguard one during a fall on tar roads.
“I always wanted to ride a bike, but couldn’t afford it. In 1993 I decided to stop smoking and used the funds to pay for my first motorcycle,” says Brian. Since then he has owned several others including a Ducati, four Aprilias and several BMWs. Because of his racing background he likes riding the fast routes – like the infamous “22”. The R536 is a sports-car driver and speed biker’s dream experience: 76 varying curves in the first 22 kilometres from Sabie to Hazyview.
From easy, gentle curves to the treacherous “Kawasaki Corner”. “It has a few names but generally ‘Kawasaki Corner’ stuck. If you walk off the outside of the turn you will find numerous bike parts among the tall grass and bush,” says Thomas, adventure and road-riding instructor at Sabie Valley Rider Academy.
Yes, you heard me correctly. This stretch of road is so popular that they named several of its winding turns. Thomas names them off by heart. “When riding from Sabie there is ‘Cold Tyre Corner’, then it is ‘The Bowl’. Because the view resembles a salad bowl. After that comes the ‘Bus Stop’. Which is logically so named because of the bus stop on the side of the road,” he says. Other names include “Baboon Ally”, a straight section where these animals are known to cross the road in hasty fashion, and also “The Chicane”.
Speaking of “The Chicane” reminds Brian of an incident where a young rider, dressed in shorts and hiking boots with only a lightweight bike jacket, lost control of his motorcycle. “He survived the fall, but had a very bare and painful butt for a long while. I always tell the guys to wear all their protective gear, all the time. I prefer to wear a full leather suit made for speed bikers.”
Brian suggests that you as a biker must first do a slow ride of the route, to scope out hazards such as rubble, dirt or slippery diesel spills on the road surface. Once you have familiarised yourself with possible dangers, you can attempt the high-speed run.
You can’t only talk of the rigours of the “22” without also looking up and down the Long Tom Pass. I am fortunate to meet the surveyor of the road, Jim Morris. He is an avid biker and used to ride in rallies with Suzuki. Jim is one of the few people I know who has competed in the Roof of Africa in a modified Ford F250 in the 1970s. And yes, he has the photos to prove it. I discover that his knowledge of the road design and construction gives him an added advantage. Jim’s explanation of the process of surveying the road as it is today, fascinates me. The original pass survey included low-altitude aerial photographs and photogrammetry. It was used to draw and determine the contour lines along which the road was to be built.
“Because of this technology we were able to construct every perfect curve, turn and super-elevation of the road,” he says. The set radius turns and well-calculated camber angles make this one of the safest roads in the region. Due to external factors such as heavy trucks and constant traffic on this route, riding becomes a challenge and to some a test in patience.
From a biker’s point of view, it means if you get it right going into the curve, you just need to keep your speed, lean angle constant and relaxed to make it to the exit,” says Jim. The man certainly leads a charmed life. A small fact I have realised on several occasions following Jimbo down the Long Tom Pass, trying my best to keep up with him. The main difference between these two sections of road is there is only one set radius curve among the 76 of the “22” (R536).
Long Tom has spectacular views at designated viewpoints. Early mornings and afternoons can result in dense fog and wet-surface conditions that will have a chilling effect on you as you ride towards the highest point. Be prepared. Wear warm layers under your gear as being cold on a ride will make you tense up and may spoil your experience. As they say in the movies: go forth and conquer! If your fear gets the better of you when tempted by the seductive curves, turns and bends of the tar serpent; remember to smile into your helmet.