Thursday, 10 October 2013

Climbing to the top of Lesotho: The Kingdom in the Sky

Getting to the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho from Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa is no easy matter. It entails a 9 km drive up the infamous unpaved Sani Pass that snakes its rocky, tortuous way up the edge of an escarpment of the Drankensburg Mountains. Once a rough mule trail descending the Eastern Highlands of old Basutoland into Natal and used by drovers conveying wool and mohair on donkeys and mules to be exchanged for blankets, clothing and maize meal, it seems to be on every 4X4 masochist's bucket list. With features such as Suicide Bend, Oh My God Corner and Haemorrhoid Hill you need a strong anal nerve and a 4X4 to even attempt it.

Buckshot rain drummed on our jeep as it lurched forward erratically over deep gullies scoured by floods, through streams and bad potholes, loose rocks churning beneath the wheels. I soon got used to the violent and teeth chattering jolts as the road threw the jeep this way then that. No wonder local people call this getting an 'African massage'! Mud and freezing temperatures made traction tricky on the numerous hairpin bends – at least we couldn’t see the horrendous death trap drop-offs in the mist. A couple of small taxi vans bulging with people hurtled at breakneck sped down the road, one sweeping dangerously round a sharp bend, causing us to stop rather abruptly. Descending traffic have right of way as it’s easier to reverse and not stall going down than up. I prayed we wouldn't meet any on the higher part of the pass...

By now the adrenalin was really flowing and we weren't half way up! Martin, brow furrowed in deep concentration, was gripping the wheel so tightly his knuckles turned white. We both knew that there was nowhere to make a U-turn and the only way was up. Close to the top, several vehicles were abandoned by the side of the road and another was attempting to tow a stranded truck, causing us to lose momentum and to shudder to a halt just before the penultimate hairpin. We could see that the road's surface right on the bend had been almost obliterated by flash flooding leaving a deep gouge which looked almost impossible to cross. We glanced at each other in sheer desperation - the game was up. We'd have to reverse back down the pass. Then the preposterousness of that dawned on us; it might be easier to have a crack at the bend...

The engine roared and belched black fumes as we hurtled forward nearly knocking over an onlooker in our determination to make that bend! We drew a round of applause from those proceeding upwards on foot as somehow, one of our tyres spinning, squealing and burning rubber, just managed to grip the frozen ground enough to provide sufficient traction to bridge the void and propel us forward. Our relief was palpable when the border post and a group of wretched rondavels lining the wet and muddy road finally loomed through the cloud and billowing coal smoke at the very top (2,873m). The freezing wind hit us like a sledge hammer when we left the jeep to get our passports stamped in the tin shack masquerading as a border post, its windows steamy and running with condensation. Duly admitted to Lesotho, and after a celebratory photo with a group of Basotho youths who shared our experience of the pass that day, we quickly made tracks to the famous 'Highest Pub in Africa' at the nearby Sani Pass Mountain Lodge to claim our liquid reward after such an exhilarating ordeal!

The pub with its large coal fire was warm and cosy with excellent views and we greatly enjoyed hanging out here. But the Sani Backpackers, sited some distance way down an unlit track, was a truly sobering experience. The four bed room we had was pretty OK, much like a typical dorm with just the bare essentials. We used our own down sleeping bags which kept us warm. The communal lounge area was also adequate although a bit scruffy and in need of a fresh coat of paint and a good clean. The open coal fire was certainly a great comfort in the bitterly cold weather, because the kitchen and communal dining area, sited in a nearby building where we prepared our own meals, were like an ice box. The biggest horror of all however, was the frigidly cold ablution block: unusable flush toilets and showers you'd not wash your dog in! The Sani Backpackers should only be considered by the truly hardy!

We awoke to a crimson dawn chasing away the stars which seemed huge, strung out across the night sky like crystal apples. The glistening earth steamed as the sun gently released it from night’s icy grasp. Thatched mokhoro (stone huts) emitted clouds of blue smoke as we drove with our Basotho guide to a nearby village to climb Thabane Ntlenyana (3,482m), the highest mountain in Southern Africa. At just over 22 km, it is not a technical climb, traversing treeless Afro-Montane grassland and a few river crossings only tricky in the rainy season, but it is at altitude.

The route traverses a valley for over 4 km before a steep climb up a ridge followed by a descent into another broad valley. A second ridge must be surmounted before the final pull up the shoulder of the mountain with its crown of rocks. This is big sheep country, unfenced under expansive blue skies, domain of jackal buzzards. Basotho shepherds clad in balaclavas, woollen blankets and gumboots greet you warmly in rapid Sesotho, the silence broken only by the clanking of sheep bells.

With winter approaching, there was fresh snow on the higher slopes but the sun was warm on our backs. After 4 hours we attained the summit, buffeted by strong winds. The Zulus call these mountains Quathlamba or ‘The Barrier of Spears’. We understood why as we gazed upon an army of emerald peaks, most over 3,000m, some topped with a pie crust of basaltic rock gleaming with snow. We watched mesmerised as cloud drifted languidly up over the edge of the dramatic Drakensburg Escarpment below, the inky blue ramparts of the mysterious Giant’s Castle floating between earth and sky beyond.

The descent back over the same route took just under 3 hours. You could climb this mountain without a guide, but we hired a lovely local lad named George, who, at 35 euro, was money well spent in such a poor community. We learnt much about Basotho culture from him, although we still can't pronounce the name of the mountain we climbed with him; he almost passed out laughing at our attempts to do so! He introduced us to a local family who had kindly minded our jeep for us and it was fascinating talking to them and learning more about their way of life in this tough highland country. As wood is scarce, people dry the scrubby bushes that grow on the windswept highland and use them to start a fire. Dried cow dung then sustains the fire, and every homestead has a neat stack of pats of cow dung outside. The thatched mokhoro are built of thick layers of stone covered in 'dagga', a mixture of mud and cow dung, which is also used for flooring. To maintain warmth, there are neither windows or a chimney and all homes face north to harness the sunlight and avoid the vicious east-west winds. A fire is built in the centre of the room, and the heat radiating through the floor helps to keep the mokhoro very cosy.

In all, it took us 7.5 hours with around 1.5 hours of stops and we were back in the pub to celebrate over a beer well before sunset. Not bad for a pair of 'golden oldies' according to young George...

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