Monday, June 28, 2010

Sani Pass

...or, The Road to Sani Pass.

It took us eight hours to travel 303 km.

We traveled across Lesotho's eastern quadrant, from Caledonspoort in the north on the A1, a confident grey line on the map, to the Sani Pass, south, which affords the only road from Lesotho into the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal. We drove up and down mountains too numerous to remember individually, heading for the notorious, dirt, hair-pinned pass that is destined soon for tarring-over. I wanted to see it before this happened, and Sani had been a must do on our list for our roadtrip.

In the day that it took us to traverse the mountain kingdom, I gathered sensory information and memories that still trouble me in ways that I find impossible to describe because I don't understand them well myself.

Lesotho left me bewildered. Left me wanting to explain myself. Left me knocking on a door in the middle of the night, asking to be let in, while the occupants in the rondavel, in the glow of a lantern, attended not to me, but to whatever it was inside, leaving me in the dark.

Nothing I write, and none of my photographs can come close to describing the penetration of this strange trip. It was compelling. And of course, I want to go back.


Early in the morning, at half past six, we ate the potbrood I'd baked on the fire the night before, at green, serene Glen Reenen Rest Camp in the Eastern Free State. We drank coffee. We packed, and we left. We would spend that night at Himeville, in Kwazulu-Natal. With no accommodation booked we hoped to find something at the end of our day.

It was the longest day.

Just into Lesotho, stone fence posts. They were seen quite often on the other side of the Caledon River, too, in the Free State. I wondered how old they were. It was bucolicly pretty and I imagined that in autumn the poplars would drip yellow. It was 8.53 in the morning.

We did not have far to go. We had covered twice the distance before. But that was without the mountains.

Soon, we hit a dirt road that hugged a small river's course as it tumbled from higher ground.

It was green. Falling water everywhere.

As we rose and fell again the vegetation changed abruptly from low shrub to flat alpine.

After some hours we realized just how long it was taking us to cover ground. Low gears up, low gears carefully down, animals and horsemen on the way.

Sheep were being herded on the high slopes, and some had bells, bringing Switzerland to mind in a setting where altitude dictates the way of life.

The hunting dogs we saw following three boys were lean and hungry. The boys regarded us with
a look I can't forget - something between hauteur and disdain, before going down on one knee in the road and slapping the upturned palm of the lower hand with the palm of the other, held high above the head and brought with a smack onto the lower. It was a request for...anything, I guess. We did not stop. I had a horror of being the visiting, sheller-out of gifts.

What should I have done with my horror.

We had two soccer balls. My great idea in Cape Town. It's the World Cup, let's give some kids soccer balls! They'll love them!

We passed a playground outside a school: a rocky field where the tiny uniformed children played, and we slowed down - good soccer ball territory. I bent down to pick up one of the balls at my feet. The kids caught the motion and started to rush. I straightened and said to Vince, I can't do it. And didn't. Feeling a wave of confusion come over me.

We drove on. The kids, who had not seen the ball, yelled derisively. I was almost in tears. Of course I should just have given them the ball and bugger big issues. My conflict of conscience was of a luxury that in itself was messing with my head. What happens if every car that passes through gives gifts to children.

Does it matter?

What Vince told me only days later, was that several of the tiniest boys had dropped their pants and mooned us as we pulled away. It seems so funny now.

So we pulled over on a quiet stretch of road where a stream gurgled in the rocks, and I took out the balls. I placed them carefully beside the road amongst the flowers. A mute offering to whomever might pass. Black and white in the mountains.

Soon after we met a convoy of donkeys ferrying fuel down from the high reaches.

Three old men and two teenage boys on horseback, the donkeys carrying bundles of Helichrysum trilineatum used for fires in a landscape where trees and electricity are rare.

I longed to take real pictures but was too shy, and did not know how to bridge the gulf between us. The Landcruiser seemed so rich and heavy, our journey in summer clothes so frivolous, compared with the business of daily survival, clad in blankets and boots, carrying kieries.

The soccer balls lay about 400m ahead of them. I wonder.

We saw the Letseng Diamond mine.

We saw endless views.

We saw stone kraals. We saw four mounted soldiers carrying bedrolls and rifles which were so old that the wooden stocks had begun to wear away. They looked down at us impassively. My camera lay paralysed.

And always the water, in every cleft.

And then we saw what all travel stories tell you will see on a narrow road. A stalled truck blocking any progress.

It was just after 1pm and a light drizzle had begun to fall. We sat and waited. I nagged Vince to go and see what was the matter. I would have gone, but being a woman didn't seem a selling point in this landscape. Off he trudged, past a crew of roadworkers sheltering from the rain under blankets. A minibus taxi came roaring up from behind, and I leaned on the horn to slow it and it pulled up sharply like a stamping horse.

The truck's clutch was gone, really bad news. We waited for an hour while various people tinkered, and at last it was reversed down enough to allow what passed for traffic to move.

We passed a ski resort in a gravel valley, with abandoned summer lifts.

We had been told that it could snow up here summer or winter. And I think we were in something of a trance, on top of the world. Not a single tree, after the winding valleys. Mats of plants.

And I photographed another poppy, Papaver aculeatum. A rat scurried away as I walked over - I hope he was an endangered ice rat.

We passed stone dwellings in a land of stone and thin soil.

The air was very cool.

We saw no one.

We passed tinkling sheep.

We wondered whether we were in fact on the Sani Pass. The map was vague.

We saw shepherds and their herds in the distance with pack mules in tow, on vast flat meadows and obviously up here for the duration of an entire season, before the earth and its meagre green were buried under snow. We saw 4 x 4 bakkies driven fast by men in overalls and sunglasses carrying wild herd boys in balaklavas and Basotho blankets to grazing stations. Later my father told us that chiefs control the grazing, and that the herders work for them. On an ascent with rock walls on either side of the road I saw four boys lying in the sun on the highest rock, flat in their brown blankets. I lifted my hand in greeting. They stared.

And then the world was flat. We were high, at above 3,000 metres, and in the cloud. It was silent, cold, muffled. It was 3.06 in the afternoon. It was a tundra, a place separate, not part of anything we knew. We could have been anywhere.

We pulled over in the mist to the border post, a hut inside which three young guys in uniform were keeping warm near a glowing coal stove. It was midsummer and it was very cold. I put on my fleece. They were friendly, and listening to music on an incongruous laptop. Sani Top, famous pub, was some hundred metres away, but though we were dying for one we were in no mood for a drink. The endless series of passes had not been Sani. It lay ahead, just behind the checkpoint somewhere in the impenetrable mist.

And then I realized. The pass was not up. It was Down. We were up.

We got back in the car, with me at the wheel, and moved cautiously ahead. Down.

I managed the first hairpin, back wheels sliding, in lowest gear, the differential lock on, all wheels working in full 4 x 4 mode. Then I opened the window. The air in the cabin was blue with my swearing and I thought to clear it out.

In wafted the smell of death. It overwhelmed us.

My olfactory sense overpowered, my eyes felt blind. I could not see the road. Even though our fog lights were on I was very worried that another vehicle would not see us. That did not stop me from handing over the driving to the man. I am very afraid of heights, and my nerve had evaporated.

I got out and walked. I made Vince undo his seatbelt so he could bail if necessary. It seems so silly now. None of the pictures comes close to describing it.

And I found the smell. A very dead horse.

I don't remember those next hairpins, now. The truck seemed to be pointing down at 45' angle. And it slid.

We cleared the mist. And could see right into KwaZulu-Natal.

It felt so good to walk while Vince did the driving.

I got back in. I loved that car. It behaved so well.

And while I write about my own wussiness, bear this in mind: my parents did this same drive from the other side, Up - so ascending, in WINTER. With snow, and ice. And boulders in the road. It beggars belief. And they did have a drink at Sani Top. My mother said she asked for quadruple whiskey.

As it was we slipped and slid, never far, but enough to make holes in the stomach.

So to meet a minibus taxi coming the other way, loaded with people and baggage, on this the only way into Lesotho from KZN, springing up the track, was incredibly humiliating.

From lower down we could look up to see the mountains behind us. They were stupendous, enormous, harsh - a black rampart above the green, and we felt very small.

We started to see fynbos again, proteas, and ericas; and clematis trailed over everything in white froth.

Around here I stopped taking pictures.

We drove down a widening green valley to pastoral Himeville, a colonial little town in the highlands, and stopped at a few places looking for a bed for the night. We settled on the Himeville Arms, a dilapidated, sprawling little hotel on the main road where the carpet in our room had seen better days about two decades before. At R400 per person it seemed steep but we were very tired. Squashed mosquito carcasses decorated the walls of the bedroom and that night Vince sat guard over me as I slept and as fresh squadrons bombed us through the night.

But dinner was good in the 70's era dining room. Hot lamb curry. Vin very ordinaire. We were pooped. We were in love. We were alive. The picture's about as blurry as I felt.

We filled the thirsty diesel tank with gas the next morning. The Zulu pump attendant leaned companionably towards me in the cab of the truck so we could both watch the fuel gauge make its slow climb. His body language was a very small thing, but after the austerity of the people in the Lesotho mountains we had come down to an easy, friendly confidence that was in stark contrast, and made of the small movement a grand gesture.

At the shop nearby the pretty Zulu cashier picked up my firewood bundle and carried it to the car for me as my arms were full of water bottles, and she helped me with a smile. We were even Stevens. Suddenly, on this side of the mountains, we found an unforced familiarity.

What it all means, I cannot say.

We pointed west, towards the tiny village of Rhodes in the Eastern Cape. We anticipated an easy, scenic drive.

I left my beloved Anthropology fleece behind in the wardrobe in the Himeville Arms. I hope someone is enjoying it as much as I did.


  1. I remember reading Vince's description of your hairaising drive over the Sani Pass. I don't think you are a "woess" at all! In fact I think you are very brave. And what's more, you have inspired me to take the plunge and drive our Rav 4 over the Swartberg Pass from Oudtshoorn to Prince Albert (snow and rain permitting)in July which I think looks hairaising enough for 2 middle aged not-very-seasoned travellers.

    I am totally hooked on all 3 of your blogsites.

  2. We spent part of our honeymoon in the Himeville Arms - 19 years ago. We drove UP Sani Pass with a driver from the hotel who does it everyday, and that was scary enough! The interesting thing was we tried to identify the plants and birds along the way, but we only knew the Afrikaans names, the driver only knew the seSotho names and the British couple who joined us for the ride didn't know either!

  3. Fascinating post. Your unease is palpable, and the photos are striking. It's like stories of traveling through remote parts of the Appalachians and seeing inscrutable mountain people... with the added twist of black and white. The gift of the soccer balls left on the side of the road summed it up in such a stark and unsettling visual.

  4. Gripping description of the drive down Sani Pass, and the photographs give a real sense of it. As I doubt I will ever actually make the trip, I so appreciate you sharing your experience. I think I can understand your feelings of unease relative to the people you encountered as well. Very difficult.

    On a much less serious note, can you share your recipe for potbrood sometime? To be made on an electric stove?

  5. Oops, Simba's post was really me.

  6. What a fabulous post - and how interesting that the difference in the people across an invisible border was so noticeable. I don't envy Vince (or your parents!) the Sani Pass drive - I would have been walking with you!!

  7. a wild ride, geographically & socially. a good shake to the senses.

  8. Lyn - thank you! The Swartberg Pass is stunning and quite manageable, though slippery when wet? Will you go to Die Hel? Personally I think the drive to the top of the Hel's hairpins is the best part and sufficient. Once down there it's pretty dreary. Have you seen our posts about it? We stayed at Dennehof after driving through Meiringspoort (beautiful, and friendly mongooses) from Oudtshoorn, then the next day went up S'berg and into Die Hel, and spent another night in Prince Albert.

    Hi Ansie - yes, we also had jeepful of tourists bump right past us! I was very impressed.

    Laurrie - you are right, it is maybe just an isolated mountain person thing. Shades of Cormac McCarthy...Outer Dark.

    Simba and Pam - the bread is there for you on the food blog. Not sure about stove top, as you need heat from above.

    Howzit, Jeanne :-)Yes, we walkers should stick together...

    Donna, exactly, I was quite shook.

  9. Fantastic! As always, your vision is just different enough from mine, and your recollection so much more precise, that they make me relive and re-evaluate it all.

    As we sweat through our nasty New York heat, how I wish we were back there, soccer balls and all...

  10. Reading both blogs, I think I sense small shifts in perception (of some things).Thanks for the ride.
    Potbrod is called "damper" in Australia.We simply knew it as "camp bread" when I was a kid.

  11. Effin gorgeous country.
    Those roads, ha -full of loose stones.
    Makes for excitement;)

  12. ahh_perfect reading for an afternoon off...beautiful marie--what an incredibly well told story-pictures and words--the green of those mountains is just gorgeous. i have a lot of catching up to do i see...

  13. A beautiful drive until you end up rolling over a few times in a Nissan Patrol as we did this past March 7th. Brake failure the supposed cause.
    Numerous injuries but luckily no fatalities as the locals suggested are always the case with vehicle rollovers on the Sani.
    Thaba Tours from Lesotho arranged through Thompsons Africa. Extremely old vehicles and in our case what appeared to be a very incompetent driver.
    Be sure to check the age and condition of any vehicle you may use before travelling as well as the driver's credentials.
    We will forever have the scars and injuries to remind us.

  14. Anonymous - if you read the post you'll notice we drove ourselves. Hope you are feeling better.

  15. My boyfriend and wants us to drive to Sani Pass in December. He is the adventure seeker and I am the cautious one. I'd love to hear your thoughts. How dangerous is it really? What happens when another car comes along?

    1. I would not advise it in winter, because of ice, but my parents have done it then! December is fine - although it's amazing how misty and chilly it can be at the top. I was afraid of the first couple of bends, because I am scared of heights, but in truth there is space to pass. In retrospect would do it again.

      We came to it from the Lesotho side and the long, long, long drive from that end took forever but was absolutely fascinating. ironically we got stuck behind a broken down truck many, many milks before we got to Sani.

    2. Oh. 4 x 4. I'm very glad we had such a good one (Landcruiser)...


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