Up Sani Pass without a paddle

It seemed a simple-enough plan: climb the Sani Pass in a 4×4, sleep at the top, motor across Lesotho, avoiding the tar, and spend a second night in Nazareth on the western side. But the kingdom in the sky had other plans.

The road from Himeville to the mountains is under repair, the pass is to be tarred from bottom to top, and the upward climb is open only to 4×4 vehicles (although the Basotho border guards tend to let most vehicles make the descent). The reason for the rules was clear enough as we scrambled over the loose boulders and through tortuous sharp turns. There’s very little room for error.

A convoy of empty 4x4s passed us at one of the wider sections, pursued by an outlandish yellow high-rise Unimog full of tourists. The road is busy and the ascent is slow and surprisingly hard but it’s all made worthwhile by the breathtaking views that open up below as one climbs higher and higher into the ‘Berg.

Our final assault was blocked by a grader. Its unfortunate driver had lost control, slewed across the boulders and become wedged. He had run away, leaving his vehicle to fend for itself, but we managed to climb around it, luckier than the previous day’s unfortunate visitors, whose vehicles had been marooned at the top.

A padded jacket and trousers topped by a balaclava greeted us at the top. “Welcome to the Mountain Kingdom, Mr Christopher!” said a woolly voice inside, once the gloved arm of the jacket below had got hold of my passport. “How long would you like to stay?”

I asked for three days and he told me he was giving me eight. It would be enough, I agreed. Entering Lesotho through a rusty five-bar gate, we turned right and scraped our roadless way to the best views from the edge of the ridge a kilometre further on. A Lammergeier circled overhead, sending the ice rats scurrying for shelter. Herdsmen strolled along the cliff-edge, dogs at their heels and eyes peeled for any wandering sheep. There was absolute silence.

The Sani Top Chalet is perched on the border looking back down the pass. On the instructions of laconic owner Jonathan Aldous, we pitched a tent wherever we liked and reluctantly agreed with him when he told us we wouldn’t be wanting any dinner. Fortunately more clients would turn up later, three intrepid travellers in a Kenyan Ford Laser, and allow us to backtrack on that decision.

Sani Top is justifiably famous, in true Alpine tradition, for its gluhwein so we tackled a couple of glasses on the deck as the sun went down behind the mountain and then tucked into a superb dinner of sweet-potato soup, roast chicken and a good stodgy pudding in the restaurant.

After coffee, we all peeled off to our chalets, bunks and campbeds. Everyone arrives with the intention of partying into the night, Jonathan told us, but the warmth of the fire inside, the cold outside and the altitude always take their toll. It’s called Sani-midnight, 9pm in Africa’s highest pub.

The night was cold, probably freezing, in the depths of winter it can drop to minus 16C, but a slap-up breakfast at 7.30 the next morning thawed us out and saw us on our way deeper into the mountains on our mission to reach Nazareth.

Lesotho is the world’s only independent state lying entirely above 1000m and 80% of the country is higher than 1800m. It truly is travelling on the roof of Africa. Long, winding passes zig-zag over black and green mountains. Here, a perfect dry-stone-walled sheep pen; there, a blanket-clad shepherd with an almost Maasai inscrutability stands in silhouette against the sky.

Bubbling streams and flooding rivers pour down the mountainsides. The slopes are filled with terraced crops, donkeys carry bulky loads of herbal plants down to the valley villages and horsemen cajole market-bound cattle. The sound of the lekolulu, a flute played by herdboys, occasionally breaks sweetly on the air. The scene could have been lifted from a game of Age of Empires.

We met very few vehicles on our journey but those we did meet had South African plates and decidedly miserable-looking occupants. We held up a hand in greeting, just smile and wave, boys, smile and wave, we thought, but it was not returned.

An easy and uplifting journey brought us to Mokhotlong, where we branched left towards the Senqu River which eventually flows into South Africa and becomes the Orange. Reaching it at Taung, halfway to Maseru, we were faced with something of an obstacle: the river was vastly in flood and flowing like lava, a metre deep, over the road. Perhaps this was why the drivers going the other way had looked so dejected.

With us on the eastern bank stood a couple of bakkies, their occupants, a police vehicle and a number of cattle with their herders. On the far bank, a good distance away, stood a similar klomp of bemused-looking folk. We established that they had waited three days thus far but they were confident that the river would be passable in three hours.

I wasn’t so sure, and when one of the cowherds confidently told me that my bakkie would be able to cross the submerged causeway, I suggested he try to drive his cattle across first. If he succeeded, I would give it a go.

Within seconds, despite its shelter from the flow by two huge bulls and a cow, a calf had washed into the river and away. It would eventually land safely some considerable distance downstream, luckily, or I think the cowherd might have charged me for it. He conceded that I might be right.

So we headed south instead, along the river and then up and over undulating mountains. Occasionally we passed a yellow police vehicle or a truck laden with bags of mealies. Everyone we passed, unlike our own countrymen, waved and smiled. It was hardly surprising: we were covered in mud from bonnet to canopy and from head to toe. This was a main road but so heavy had been the rain that all the streams had turned into mighty rivers. We had to rebuild the rocky fords as we went.

It was so much more worthwhile than struggling around a 4×4 course, the same enjoyment with the added pleasure of being alone in the mountains and the reassurance that we were actually going somewhere. If it hadn’t been for the children yelling “Sweets!” around every corner, we could have believed that no outsider had ever been here before.

It took nearly nine hours to crawl 70km through ditches and dongas to the Sehlabathebe National Park, the driver carefully guided by the passenger through the badly eroded sections of a road that made Sani Pass look like a highway. Our route-finding was largely guesswork based on taking the road most travelled and the fact that the best way out usually represented a climb, if there was one, rather than a descent.

We spent our last night in Sehlabathebe, a magnificently remote and rugged spot where the Lammergeier circles without the distraction of yellow Unimogs. Complete isolation enveloped us.

A pilgrimage to Nazareth could never have been this uplifting. We were on top of the world.