I am off on major adventures to the “Mountain Kingdom” of Lesotho. My African Travel Inc. Zulu driver, Siboni and I roll out of Durban in a comfortable van for the three hour drive to Underberg. The early Afrikaan pioneers called a mountain a berg and a city a burg. Underberg is spelled like a mountain because it lies beneath the Drakensberg Mountains in northern KwaZulu-Natal province.
The Midlands landscape is perfect for grazing & pines.
The leisurely drive through the Midlands is a scenic route through pinelands and along ridges with deep valleys dropping away and as we get closer to Underberg huge swaths of maize turned golden before harvested as dairy herd fodder. This is open rangeland, not too good for farming, but excellent for cattle.
Underberg is certainly a burg in all senses of the word. The sleepy village is agrarian oriented with feed stores and implement dealers lined along the main street. We pulled up to the old historic Underberg Hotel and next door to Major Adventures. Like I said, I am on a major Major Adventure — on a 4x4 trek up Sani Pass. I must show my passport to the Major Adventures representative who stamps some forms I sign. I feel like I am heading into the Far Pavilions of a foreign outpost in a different century.
Hook up your own Major Adventures.
I met up with Rossie, my Toyota 4x4 driver, a former police officer who has been with Major Adventures for eight years. He has made over 800 trips up the hairpin road that separated South Africa from Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom. A pleasant couple from the Netherlands joined our group. Krispin, the other driver, grew up in the area and knew the Sani World Heritage Site as if it were tattooed on his arm.
A passport is required from all travelers who ventured up the nine kilometer Pass; visas may be also required, depending on your nationality. Major Adventures makes the 6-7 hour drive daily through the highest road pass in Africa. Four seasons are often experienced in one day along the 37 hairpin curves, so bring warm clothing, sunscreen, and cameras.
Our Sani donkey, a Toyota 4x4.
On the way out of town we passed a budget backpacker’s lodge; over 60 kilometers of hiking trails start nearby. At the head of the Mkhomazana Valley at the foot of the Drakensbergs, the Sani Pass Hotel is the last outpost for accommodations, rooming about 150 guests. They also arrange horseback riding and mountain biking along a network of trails. The road climbs from 1586 meters ABSL (above sea level) at the Sani Pass Hotel to 2836.5 meters ABSL at Sani Top.
Before the arduous climb we stopped at an old trading post, a pile of roofless and crumbled ruins that bore witness to the hard life of the Eastern Highlands of old Basutoland and Natal. The hardy herdsmen brought wool and mohair down the Pass on donkeys and mules to be exchanged for blankets and clothing and maize meal. The Sothos often raided and rustled the Zulu cattle. During the British colonial period the army chased both the Zulus and the Sothos.back and forth and up and down the Pass. Near a gushing waterfall a Sotho goat herder waves, so the donkey and smuggler trails are still usable. The first vehicles up the pass were Willys Jeeps just after World War II.
Heading up the Sani Pass.
At the South Africa border control station, which is also a police station, we fill out more forms and after a close scrutiny by the guards who matched my face to my passport I get another stamp after Rossie paid the entrance fee, which is included in the tour price. Wire fences wrapped around the compound like a foreboding concentration camp.
South Africa check point.
The entirety of Sani Pass lies in the World Biosphere within South Africa, with the official border between the two countries at the top of the Pass.
Past the razor wire fences the road is now a boulder strewn path with washboards, potholes, dips, washouts, and drop-offs. “Welcome to an African Massage,” joked Rossie. Tires grind on the sharp rocks; the tour operator changes tires every six months. Since 2006 the South African government has been widening and bulldozing the Sani road with the intention of paving it, but the project has bogged down to boondoggle status. Near a bend a roadgrader slowly rusted back to the earth.
About mid-point our two Major Adventures vehicles pulled off to an overlook. Australia Black Wattles grew in the riparian zone along the streambed below. Krispin recounts how the Drakensberg Mountains were uplifted millions of years ago, with the eroded sandstone, limestone, and basalt evident in arched and colorful patterns. Eland are often seen in the Pass during the winter months after the summer grazing has been depleted lower down. We only saw baboons peeking around rocks looking for a handout. Travelers cannot leave or take anything from the Biosphere area. Ancient Bushmen rock art is known to exist in caves pocking the limestone. In the autumn light the vales and gullies were green with pigment rolled over the landscape. A couple of mountain bikers grind past us on their way up.
Rossie scans the Pass for eland.
As we ascended the atmosphere changed to alpine. At the top of the Pass the guards at the non-descript Lesotho border station filled out more forms which we signed, but never read, and my passport is stamped. Upon leaving Lesotho it is stamped again, and then again back in South Africa, four times in one afternoon. Bureaucracy in action!
There is a cluster of Lesotho rock homes near the immigration station and the residents stood outside wrapped in blankets to thwart the wind. There seems not much to do here.
The top of the Pass.
We pit stopped in the Sani Top Chalet nearby for a light lunch of chicken sandwiches and soup, and Maluti Beers paid with Rands.
Rands are legal in the Kingdom, but the Lesotho currency is banned in South Africa. The Loti, denoted by LSL, is the official currency of Lesotho. The Loti (plural "maloti") is subdivided into 100 lisente (singular "sente"). The LSL is pegged to the South African Rand on a 1:1 basis. Coins in circulation include 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, and 500 lisente. Banknotes in circulation include 10, 20, 50, 100, and 200 maloti. The import and export of local and foreign currency is unrestricted.
Maluti is the only legal beer brewed and canned in Lesotho. I find out later there is a range of mountains called Maluti.
Everyone gets their picture snapped at the bar sign to prove they made it to the highest pub in all of Africa. The pub is owned by a South African but under Lesotho law one of the owners has to be from Lesotho, so one of the elders in the area is a shadowy silent shareholder.
Drink Maluti beer at the Highest Pub in Africa.
Sani Top Chalet offers two types of accommodation in the highest hotel in Southern Africa, with four rooms inside the main building and the Mountaineers Backpackers Dorm offering bunks; camping is also allowed in the courtyard.
The vast Lesotho plateau is so high no tree can grow and the wind blew raw constantly, bone cold when it gusted. Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world, but their true wealth could be captured with wind farms.
On the five kilometer route to a living Basotho village herds boys huddled behind lichen encrusted rocks for respite while their horses in the small green meadows lined up, tails to the wind. The Merino sheep are woolen clad and are oblivious to the weather. Rossie pointed out circular rock wall kraals where the sheep and cattle herds are penned at night for protection from the jackals, whose nervous laugh is probably more like a hyperthermia shivering shudder. Lesotho is a rugged and wild country.
Sheep and horses graze in the high Lesotho plateau.
We passed a spartan Catholic church just before the village, where Rossie is well known because he also speaks a little Basotho. We kick up a squawk from the free ranging chickens their feathers pushed back by the wind. Rossie stopped at the doorstep of a rock hut and in Basotho asks to be welcomed in by the matronly owner. She appears and accepts and we file in and sit along a narrow bench.
Hot Sky Rolls.
There is no electricity and the only light in the windowless hut is through the open slat door. The floor is compacted cow dung, but it is very flat and clean, and Rossie explains it never raises any dust. The women lived in the hut with her family of seven, all sleeping in the same bed, probably to stay warm because the nights are bitter and freezing.
She has a little oven heated with cow patties; she lifted the iron lid and then passed around a plate of the hottest and most delicious rolls I have ever tasted. Tuberculosis and AIDS are rampant in the region so I passed on the homemade beer she offered.
Her main source of income was the sales of the artisan items she crafted or weaved out of wool and mohair and other materials. I purchased a beautiful gray dyed Merino cap for 150 Rand, or about $20US that would have sold for many times that in a trendy mall shop. Everyone in our party chose an item for purchase from this humble lady from the Kingdom of the Sky.
Outside I placed my new cap on and my head instantly heated up like the hot rolls; her handiwork was of top quality. I looked around the village; a river ran through it where they wash their clothes, but their drinking water is from a clear and clean spring nearby. Many of the rock rondovals are crumbling and have no roofs. Rossie explained that when a villager dies the roofs are removed so the spirit can escape and the homes are never lived in again.
In The Kingdom of the Sky People.
It doesn’t take a large tear in the clouds for the sun to shine across the beautiful but stark land, and I think that these Sky People are not really missing much with modern conveniences or civilization in general.
The South Africa border station closed at 4 p.m. so Rossie rounded us up for the drive down the Pass. Distance trout ponds glistened like diamonds in the sun as we jounced from the Upperberg to the Underberg on our Major Adventures.
Major Adventures are found in Sani Pass.
African Travel Inc. can arrange all your Sani Pass adventures, including the 4x4 tour portion, meals, entrance fees, transfers, or even overnights in the numerous lodges and hotels in Underberg. Contact them at www.africantravelinc.com or visit your professional travel agent.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.