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Published: June 10th 2015
The Twelve Apostles
Mountain Range on the north side of the pass.
Having picked up Yannick in Ladysmith, our travelling party had now increased to three upon leaving Clarens. No, we didn’t pick up a hot female hitchhiker, but we instead picked up Lee from the UK, a fellow solo traveller who was also staying at the Clarens Inn & Backpackers.
Public transport around the Drakensberg is almost non-existent save for the sometimes-ropey long distance taxis which don’t go on a schedule but rather when the minibus is full. The best way to get around – or in and out of the Drakensberg – is by car. Lee didn’t have one – I did. Lee also needed to get towards Cape Town – I was ultimately heading for Durban which is a good place to start a journey to the Mother City.
So again, it was a win-win situation – indeed a win-win-win situation – and the Three Amigos were making their way from Clarens to Underberg.
Lee was good chat and he had a lot of chat – it was a fun ride. It was a real lads drive, full of hilarious lad banter. Annoyingly, we had to take a detour to avoid a long, bumpy gravel road and this meant
Basotho Family & House
A typical rural family and house in the Lesotho Highlands. The landscape up here is quite barren and vast, as you can see in the background.
an extra 90 minutes driving time and arriving in Underberg after dark.
While Yannick ably led me along the Sentinel Hiking Trail, the same could not be said about his directions to Khotso Backpackers, where he had also stayed about a week ago. He did apologise, though, bless the lad.
After driving around aimlessly on a pitch-black highway for a while, Lee talks us into stopping at a pub in Underberg so he could watch the Bath vs Leicester Guinness Premiership Semi Final. It also allowed us to get directions, have a rest, have a beer and have a feed.
We then also had to contend with yet another
two hour power cut – my 4th in 6 nights – and I was getting fed up.
The reason I wasn’t very happy was because the dodgily self-cooked meat I ate the previous night had caught up with me and I was racing for the loo after every meal. I was also feeling tired and achy – a sure sign of food poisoning – and the events of the day had compounded things.
We took the power cut as our sign to leave the pub in Underberg and we
Looking Down The Pass
Looking down the winding road we had just climbed up.
eventually made it to Khotso Backpackers, where I discovered that I had left my electrical adapter in Clarens. This was not a good day. Several trips to the loo during the course of the night ensured that it was a miserable night as well.
So without sleep, without health and without anything to charge my electric devices, I was in a bit of a state the next morning.
I eventually got my shit together and Yannick drove me back to Underberg where I picked up another adapter from the supermarket, before he dropped me off at the offices of Sani Pass Tours, who would be driving me up the Sani Pass and into Lesotho along with others in a tour group. I would be staying overnight in the “Kingdom In The Sky” – so called because the entire country is above 1,000m.
As we drove towards the Sani Pass, I was able to take in the beautiful surrounds of the Southern Drakensberg – it was a beautiful day, which illuminated the autumn countryside scenery.
It was then time to make our ascent up the Sani Pass.
Now, every time I think I have seen the worse road I
The cairn marking the top of one of Hodgson’s Peaks. I think.
have ever seen, I come across one that is even worse. First it was the gravel roads of the battlefields
; then it was the road up to the Sentinel Hiking Trail
; but by far the worst road I have been on is now the Sani Pass. At times we were simply driving over large rocks at a 35° angle – there was no way my lil’ Chevy Spark would ever have made it up. No way in hell. It became clear why only 4x4s were allowed up the pass. Preferably ones with at least half a metre of clearance.
The views on the way up however, are simply stunning.
Once you get to the top, the mountains flatten out into a vast plateau.
Lesotho of course, is its own country and so I had to pass through both South African and Lesotho border controls, which were both pretty straightforward. The Lesotho border office looks pretty ramshackle, much in line with the rest of the country.
Once inside the country, our first stop is at a local village, where our driver gives us the lowdown on this tiny country.
The local people here are the Basotho, who speak Sesotho and were borne out of a collection of tribes who were united under the rule of King
Worn on special occasions by the Basotho.
Moshoeshoe The Great in the early 19th century.
The area on the Sani Pass plateau forms part of what is known as the “highlands” where most of the folk are shepherds. There is no electricity here and the houses are round huts that are almost identical to the Xhosa rondavels
with the key difference being a layer of large stones that are built into the outside walls for extra warmth during Lesotho’s bitterly cold winters.
Some of these huts act as shops selling food – these are indicated by coloured flags on the outside of the hut; red flags indicates a house that sells meat, white flagged houses sell bread, and green flagged houses sell vegetables. Vegetables have to be sourced from the “lowlands” as it is impossible to grow anything in the highlands.
Many local men work in mines in other parts of the country or work in South Africa. The men who do this are usually away from their families for months at a time, which was quite heartbreaking to hear.
There are 1.8 million people in Lesotho, which surprised me as I thought that there would be less given the size of the country.
The local currency
Locals Doing It The Hard Way
A couple of locals show us how it should be done.
is the maloti
which is tied to the South African Rand – however, the rand
is accepted as currency in Lesotho and just as well, as that was all I had to give in terms of a donation to the family who invited me into their home and served me some deliciously warm local bread.
It was then to the Sani Mountain Lodge where the other members of my tour group were to have lunch before being driven back down the pass – but where I was to be staying overnight.
Lunch wasn’t included as part of the tour and accommodation but it was just as well – my stomach wasn’t right so I thought it best not to eat anything and save myself some dough.
As well as visiting a local village, I also wanted to do some hiking and pony trekking.
Pony trekking is especially popular here with tourists – you get to ride on local Basotho ponies which look almost exactly like grey donkeys. I wasn’t able to pony trek that afternoon, so I asked the lodge staff to arrange some pony trekking for the next morning. I then set out on a hike to
Looking up towards my goal.
Hodgson’s Peaks instead.
On my way to the start of the trail, I bumped into a Belgian-Dutch couple called Michael and Karina, who we saw walking up the Sani Pass during our ascent. As it turned out, the walk only took two hours and they were staying at the backpackers a few hundred metres from the lodge. Having paid R2750 for my tour and accommodation, what they did suddenly sounded very cost-effective.
They were both sailors who worked on commercial ships – Michael was a first officer and had ambitions to be a ship captain in the near future. Both were planning to hike a little bit more despite their walk up the Sani Pass, so I decided to accompany them.
As we enjoyed the sweeping views afforded to us over the Sani Pass, I discovered that Michael and Karina were also keen travellers. They spoke highly of Cuba, which I plan to visit next year, and they gave me some advice on where to go and for how long. Their biggest piece of advice was to go to Cuba as soon as possible – before capitalism changes everything.
They weren’t as keen as I was to get to
Michael & Karina
Enjoying the view.
the top of the peaks – and fair enough after walking up the Sani Pass – so I bade them farewell and continued alone.
Some parts of the walk up were pretty vertical and at altitude similar to that on the Sentinel Peak, it was hard going. But I eventually made it.
The view wasn’t too much different to what I had seen before with Michael and Karina – but conquering the peak did provide a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Even more so considering that I had not eaten anything that day. I was however, by the time I got back to the lodge, knackered.
I had paid a premium for this tour and this was reflected in my relatively luxurious accommodation. I had my own rondavel
and it was nice to have my room and ensuite bathroom after weeks of staying in dormitories. For the first time in weeks, I also got to sleep in a double bed.
My room even came with my own ‘fire-man’ who regularly refuelled and tended to my fireplace to ensure it stayed nice and toasty. It was just as well, as the mercury plunged to just above zero in the middle
Living In Luxury
Inside my personal rondavel.
of the night – I was freezing in the morning, after the fire had gone out.
Also included in my premium price was a three-course dinner and a breakfast buffet. Since I had paid for this, I was desperate to be able to eat. Good thing my doctor in New Zealand prescribed me with loperamide
before I left – taking it before each meal allowed my stomach to function as it should and allowed me to eat again.
I am never eating a partially cooked sausage or red lamb ever again.
The next morning, I was ready for my pony trek – only to be told that they couldn’t find any horses and that I would have to wait a little while. No dramas.
Then 10am and then 11am passed and still no word. I was told that they couldn’t find any horses. What the f*ck? I had told them yesterday that I wanted to do a ride.
Finally they came back to me at 11.30am saying that the trek was off, which was pretty disappointing. I was going back down the mountain at about 2pm so I had run out of time.
Basically, there was a communication cock-up
Driving Up The Pass
Our massive 4x4 handled the rocky road easily.
somewhere along the line and the guy that needed to organise the horses wasn’t told he had to organise the horses until it was too late.
“Africa time”, lamented the lodge manager, which basically meant that if you told someone in Africa to do something, they would do it whenever they felt like it. I was going to pay extra for this ride so it didn’t make sense to me – I mean, do you want to earn any money? On the up-side, I had things I needed to do on the internet that I finally got done (read: writing these blog posts).
I got a different driver to the one I got yesterday, to drive me back down the pass, a middle-aged white guy called Roger, who was a good chat. Also, opposed to the people in my tour group the previous day, I actually got a talkative bunch this time around who were my age.
In between the gasps of amazement as we peered out the window at the views down the pass, talk generally centred on bribes and corruption. Particularly humorous was the fact that Lesotho border officers would charge tourists imaginary fees in certain situations.
Perched majestically atop the mountain range.
For example if you needed a visa to enter Lesotho but didn’t have one at the border, rather than giving you a form to fill out and R1000 to pay, the officer would simply ask for R200 to let you in illegally. It was a win-win situation – he would save himself and you the hassle of processing a visa, and you would pay less than you would’ve anyway, which goes into his back pocket. Like you would care anyway.
It brought to mind that phrase that I brought up in my last blog post – that “this is Africa”.
All in all, I was a bit disappointed with my fleeting visit to the Kingdom In The Sky.
I had paid a premium for the tour up here and yes, I did get to stay in relative luxury, but the village visit felt completely contrived and I didn’t get to do the pony trekking. Effectively, all I did was get driven up there, walked around a bit, slept, ate and then came back down again.
I hardly ventured beyond the border and I only stayed one night, so I don’t feel I have really experienced the country at all
How high? Real high.
– it really did feel like nothing more than a box tick.
The problem has always been that it would’ve been expensive and/or time-consuming to traverse the country properly. I would have needed to rent a 4x4 to get up the Sani Pass and through the country and that would have cost me five times as much money than I have paid for my Chevy Spark; public transport would have been a real hassle.
So despite my disappointment in the tour, I don’t regret doing it – with the time and money that I had available, it really was my only option.
I now have a couple of transit days en route to Johannesburg, which is where you will be hearing from me next.
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