Sani Pass, Lesotho

Sani Pass is a stretch of road on the border of South Africa and Lesotho. The stretch of road between the South African border post and the summit is one of the most treacherous roads I’ve ever come across.

It’s also the road I decided to try my hand at 4-wheel driving for the first time. I figured if I could get a vehicle up that ravine then I could pretty much get a vehicle anywhere.  Thankfully the road was dry and mostly free of oncoming traffic. The only vehicles we saw were Toyota minibuses that had been modified for higher ground clearance and deep wheel tread.  They teetered past us filled with immigrant labourers from Lesotho. A little further on we came to stop as a small herd of sheep.  Basotho shepherds take sheep and goats from the highlands down into the more fertile valleys of KwaZulu Natal on a regular basis.

The higher we went the steeper the road got.  Conversation inside the car dried up pretty quickly but Grant offered advice here and there for how to handle the vehicle in low gear.  I tried to inject some sense of calm into my replies but it must have sounded pretty hollow.  ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ I’d say ‘we lost traction for a bit there’.  Looking back I realise now that the only thing scarier than driving up a cliff face is riding shotgun while someone, who clearly doesn’t know what they’re doing, drives up a cliff face while feigning disinterest.

Towards the end the road turned into a series of short, steep switchbacks with even steeper hairpin turns.  The road was in good condition but our Landcruiser, with four people, two roof tents, a boot full of gas and water and supplies as well as about 80kg of luggage never felt all that nimble on the road surface.  Added to this there was a bunch of construction vehicles scattered across the road just short of the summit that were in the process of removing rubble and widening the drainage channel alongside the cliff.  The lone traffic warden for the road crew held up her sign and indicated that we should stop and wait for the construction vehicles.  Unfortunately I wasn’t at all confident that I could get the vehicle started again on the incline so, without so much as a wave, I drove past her and swerved around the earth-movers and tried not not to look down the escarpment.

Still running on adrenaline we made it up the last section of the pass and onto the plateau. We checked in with the friendly Lesotho border control offices in a shed at the edge of a thoroughly post-apocalyptic looking village comprised of low rock walls and thatched huts guarded by unfriendly dogs.  Much like South Africa the little enclave of Lesotho also deals heavily in contrasts-  beside the tumbledown village, overlooking the pass we’d just come up, was the decidedly up-market Sani Top Chalet.  Given that we had to go down the same road I thought any celebrations would be premature but part of me felt it would be disrespectful not to buy a few beers given that someone had probably risked their life to deliver them to the hotel.  We stayed nearby in a little camp hall and I was woken up before dawn the next day by Grant urging me to join him on an early morning photo escapade.  Tipsy Evening Richard is happy to agree to such things. Hungover Morning Richard is less than thrilled.

Nevertheless, Grant’s enthusiasm won out and we made our way across the plateau to the edge of the escarpment and looked out over the Drakensburg range.  It was breathtaking– although the altitude probably helped in that respect.  From these sorts of vantage points you can see tectonic plates colliding.  As the sun came up, low clouds rolled in and turned the cliff tops into a sort of rugged coastline poking out above a white sea.  A little while later the girls joined us and we wandered east.  We took a few tentative detours down the escarpment to explore little outcrops.  It’s strange how not being able to see the vertical drop makes it seem that much safer.

Returning to our vehicle we calculated what we’d need for the next couple of days and gave the remainder to the family that lived in one of the huts. Nothing makes you more acutely aware of inequality than donating your food to someone else and realising that you’re mostly giving them snacks.  Roughly 40% of Lesotho’s population lives below the international poverty line ($1.25USD per day) which puts the country on par with Somalia and East Timor.

We spent the rest of the morning admiring the view and playing hide and seek with the ice rats that lived in the rocks around the Chalet.  I was more than happy to forego driving duties for the descent but the cloud cover made the journey seem less perilous.  The following morning, as we were leaving KwaZulu Natal, we noticed that the weather had set in overnight and snowed over the pass.  With a wonderful talent for understatement a writer for Maliba Lodge in Lesotho explains;

The Pass is often closed due to weather conditions, especially during winter when an icy layer covering the road can be especially treacherous, evoking feelings of apprehension within drivers.

Seeing snow on Sani Pass evoked feelings of apprehension from us after we’d returned from it.  If it had iced over when we were stuck at the top the feeling would have been much closer to dread.  Still, I would like to return to Lesotho at some stage and find out what the rest of the country is like.  It seems like such an odd situation to have a country landlocked by only one other country still independent but only just scraping by.  Lesotho seems like a throwback to a time when little kingdoms dotted the continents.  One day I’ll find out how they managed to avoid incorporation.