Weekend Update: Drakensberg, the Sani-Pass, and Lesotho

This past weekend I rented a car and set out on a four-hour trek to “the berg,” determined to see the Sani-Pass and make it into Lesotho.  After a long drive up, passing innumerable hills and valleys, a smattering of villages, and herds of wondering cows and goats, I finally made it to the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and settled in at the Sani-Pass Backpacker’s Lodge.

People in Durban had warned me it would be cold, and I thought they had been mistaken until the sun began to set and the cold sank down from the hills.  I quickly made friends around the lodge’s common room fire with two smiling Germans who were camping on the grounds, and who were eager to pass the time practicing their English before they bundled up to go to bed.  As it turned out, they were heading on the same tour from the lodge the next morning, as was almost everyone staying there.  Eleven of us in all, we divided up into two 4×4’s the next morning and headed towards the Sani-Pass.

The Sani Pass, winding up the mountain into Lesotho

The Sani Pass, winding up the mountain into Lesotho

We had only barely made it past the South African border when the light blue Condor I was in broke an axel, and our driver declared that “Something is simply not right.”  He waved down the other 4×4, a sturdier Land Rover, whose driver confirmed the problem.  I felt a sinking disappointment, thinking we’d be left to hike back down to the lodge and abandon our trip to Lesotho, until the drivers proposed a uniquely African solution – we’d all just get in the remaining functioning 4×4.

Squeezed in to the middle row, I felt much like the young construction workers that pack into the back of pickup trucks and are a frequent site in Durban.  It took nearly two hours to complete the trek up the Sani-Pass into Lesotho, over a dirt road strewn with rocks that offers some 50-odd hairpin curves.  When we finally made it, we passed round shepherd’s huts made of dry rock, mostly abandoned for the winter as the shepherds sought warmer weather in the lowlands.  To my chagrin, we didn’t stop, but drove another hour in our sardine-like conditions to the top of a mountain, where we had a picnic lunch in near-freezing winds and snow.  Lesotho is called “The Kingdom in the Sky” because it is the country with the highest elevation, and the highest lowest point (figure that one out, eh?).  As I huffed and puffed in the decreased atmosphere during a short hike to the peak, I understood the meaning of its motto. The highlight of the stop, aside from the view of mountain peaks as far as the eye can see, was undoubtedly the shepherds we met on the mountain.  Our driver and guide explained that it’s customary to send teenage boys up to the mountains to live on their own, herding sheep, for three or four or sometimes many more years.  They wrap themselves in traditional Basotho blankets to keep warm, but they didn’t seem to truly be doing the trick.

Basotho Shepherd

Basotho Shepherd

On our way back down, we stopped at a small village of five or six rondavel huts, where a Basotho woman showed us her crafts and offered delicious hearth-made bread and slightly less delicious homemade beer.  We spoke with her for awhile, listened to an eclectic band of shepherd-musicians, and headed back down the Sani-Pass.  Of course, not leaving Lesotho until after a pit stop at the highest pub in Africa, where we tried Maluti, the beer made and only available in Lesotho.

Shepherd's Village

Shepherd’s Village

While I laughed and joked with my fellow travelers on the way back to the lodge and around the fire again that night, I couldn’t help thinking about the poverty of Lesotho, quite different from the urban poor I’ve witnessed in Durban.  The people we met on the mountaintop in Lesotho have essentially no money at all.  They live off the land, eating wild cabbage and their livestock, trading wool for milk and other necessities, making homes from rocks and trees and grass.  The sheep they herd are highly prized for their high-quality wool, but our guide explained that money means very little to the Basotho people – what they earn, they spend, and the little they save is spent on educating children during the early years of their life.  They deal instead in sparse cattle and herds of sheep, which they view, I suppose, as their currency.  In the mountains where we were and where the small shepherding villages lie, there is no electricity, no running water, no phone lines.  The landscapes are largely unspoiled, and at night it must be darker than any other place.

The next morning I made the drive back down from the berg, passing all the now-familiar sites in a journey that was no doubt easier on my rented engine.  I stopped at a waterfall and a lion park, and ended up at Moses Mabhida Stadium, built specifically for the 2010 World Cup.  It seems to be one of the few places in South Africa that was built with a very intentional plan – knowing that such stadiums often deteriorate as city fund sinkholes, there are a number of attractions that offer the opportunity to take advantage of the stadium’s structure.  I opted for the 500-step climb up the Y-shaped arch.  When I made it to the top, all of Durban and the surrounding townships sprawled below.  Although the city view made a stark contrast to the mountains I’d looked out over just 24 hours before, it would seem I spent the weekend in the sky.

At the top of Moses Mabhida Stadium

At the top of Moses Mabhida Stadium


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