Braving torturous mountain passes in a 4×4 to visit the icy land of wooly goats, Cathy Hofmeyr and the Spiderman Safari found themselves negotiating a passage through time in Lesotho – Kingdom of the Sky
“Lesotho is not for sissies (girls)” is chalked up in the bar at Sani Top Chalet, the highest pub in Africa. Up here at 2 870-odd metres, the air is thin, the wind sharp enough to pierce Polartec and freezing is a euphemism for what happens when the sun goes down.
Yet the dwellers of this mountainous world wear only blankets, with little more than a T-shirt underneath. The Kingdom of Lesotho is like a cake, placed atop a table of sandstone by a giant hand. It was iced around 150-million years ago by a molten mass of igneous matter which congealed into a thick layer of volcanic basalt on top. Over the eons, rain, wind, snow and ice eroded this 1500- metre thick layer into the fantastical mountainscape known as ‘the roof of Africa’. Only its eastern side remained as a crumbling, yet impenetrable wall of basalt that begins at The Sentinel and finally collapses in a mountainous heap 250 kilometres further south at Sehlabathebe.
There are only two ways to penetrate the wall: a good pair of hiking boots, or a 4×4 up the Sani Pass. We opted for Sani. Ridge after symmetrical ridge, all cloaked in the green-brown of faded autumn velvet, fell away below as we twisted up towards the only gap in the giant fortifications. One last, labouring switchback and suddenly we emerged into an undulating, hilly landscape of stone huts and woolly goats. The drama of our ascent was out of sight – until we relaxed with the first beer on the deck at Sani Top Chalet. Sani Top was full for the night, so we settled down in front of a life-saving fire in Yates Old Store, now a comfortable backpackers’ lodge.
Next morning we took the high road through what travel writer TV Bulpin calls “the abandoned toy room of an untidy nursery of giants.” To drive this route from Sani to Butha-Buthe is to travel backwards 150 years. Shepherds still inhabit lonely stone huts and blanketed horsemen and boys on donkeys were our only fellow road users. At one point, when the GPS read 3 285 metres, a line of ragged porters carrying huge sacks appeared from nowhere and headed off, apparently towards nowhere else.
We spent the day driving along nerve-racking cliff edges, plunging into river valleys only to rise breathlessly up to above 3 000 metres again. Finally we crested the Moteng Pass that whisked us from the top of the Malutis to the foot in only nine twisting kilometres. Moteng is tar, which is possibly why Sani gets all the limelight. In its gravel heyday, this pass would have knocked the socks off Sani, Swartberg and Die Hel, we decided. A dramatic end to what Bulpin regards as “one of the most spectacular road journeys in Africa.” En route to Royal Natal National Park, we stopped at Golden Gate for a night and stayed for three, camped under a towering wall of Clarens sandstone that mushroomed over us, yellowed autumn leaves crunching like potato crisps underfoot. The Drakensberg Amphitheatre is surely one of the most photographed landscapes in South Africa.
We added our fair share. Unfortunately, Mahai camp is tucked behind a ridge which robs campers of the High Berg views. So we bought a hiking map and drooled over routes that led to Mud Slide, Sentinel, and Basuto Gate – but with two young kids, our ramblings were severely limited. Our stay co-incided with a long weekend and, by Friday night, every site was occupied and every open space was a raucous game of cricket, soccer or rugby. We barely saw the kids from breakfast to supper – parental heaven in the Little Berg. In one corner was a laager of NW cars; in another, an extended family from Durban with gazebos dispensing chapatis and curry. In front of us was a tented town complete with kitaar en konsertina.
Mahai that weekend was not a place for purists or nature lovers, but it buzzed with such multi-cultural delight that I even caught myself foot-tapping along to the strains of the concertina. At the peak of festivities, just when the braai fires were reaching boerie time, down came the rain. Soon our breath made little clouds of steam in the icy air. It was a naughty night for camping. The morning sun made little difference to hands cupped around steaming coffee cups. Frost feathered the fallen leaves, windscreens were iced up. We packed hurriedly for the warmth of tropical Maputaland. Glancing back at the High Berg, we saw that those untidy giants had spilled a light dusting of icing sugar over their cake.
Ivory 4×4 Hire thank Getaway Magazine and Cathy Hofmeyr for this fantastic article in a 4×4 trip to Lesotho.