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Lesotho & the Sani Pass: A 4-Wheel-Drive Adventure to the Kingdom in the Sky

Posted by on Jan 24, 2014 | 0 comments

Lesotho & the Sani Pass: A 4-Wheel-Drive Adventure to the Kingdom in the Sky

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It’s the world’s highest-altitude nation where even the “lowlands” sit at a dizzying 4,500ft above sea level earning it the nickname, the Kingdom in the Sky. Though Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa, its defensible position in the mountains and a determined people kept it independent through the decades of apartheid.

While tiny Lesotho is one of Africa’s poorest nations, this alpine mountain kingdom just might be one of the continent’s most underrated travel destinations.

Easily accessible from Durban or Johannesburg (as long as you have a 4×4, that is), Lesotho’s highest peak tops 11,400 feet, the highest in all of Southern Africa (topped on the continent only by Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro).

I didn’t have much planned for my two nights in Durban before the Mozambique cruise but the one thing I was dying to do was visit Lesotho and the Drakensberg Mountains via the legendary Sani Pass. While spending the night in Lesotho was recommended due to the travel distance from Durban, day trips were available if you were willing to start early as the roundtrip drive takes about 12 hours.

I only had one full day to go but unfortunately it was a Sunday when no regularly scheduled trips were available. So, in the end I had to stomach the cost of a private trip (which meant paying for 2 people) if I wanted to go. I just hoped it would be worth it.

Sani Pass Lesotho Drakensberg Mountains
My goal for the day – the Sani Pass to Lesotho

I arranged my trip through a company called Street Scene Durban and my guide, Rudi Botha, was a former ranger at Kruger National Park and had made the trip through the Sani Pass more than 2,000 times so I figured I was in pretty good hands.

Rudi showed up at the hotel to pick me up right on time at 6am and told me the drive to our first stop, the quaint town of Underberg at the base of the Sani Pass, would take about 2 ½ hours. It was easy driving – all highway – and as we climbed from sea level in Durban higher into the mountains we went through two layers of clouds and visibility was near zero at times.

I was thankful Rudi knew these roads so well but I wondered if I’d be able to see anything at all by the time we reached the Sani Pass. If not, this was going to be a very expensive day of driving through clouds.

Drive from Durban to Lesotho
Visibility on the drive from Durban

When we arrived in Underberg we stopped at the bed & breakfast owned by Rudi’s in-laws for a restroom break and to stretch our legs before continuing on. Once outside of Underberg, the paved roads quickly ended and the real climbing began. It was time for Rudi’s workhorse 4×4 to start earning its keep.

Sani Pass Drakensberg Mountains Lesotho
Stopping to enjoy the views

Luckily, just as we entered the pass, it seemed we’d finally risen above the top layer of clouds and the sun was shining for the first time all day. And it was utterly fabulous. Lush, green mountains surrounded us, so immaculate they looked like perfectly manicured lawns. Rudi made a number of stops for photos at the most scenic spots and proved quite adept at shooting with my Nikon DSLR (not his first time taking photos of his guests, obviously).

Entering Lesotho

After an hour or so of driving, we reached the South African border crossing and I presented my passport. Once across the border, we had about another hour of driving (in sort of a no-man’s land) before reaching the top of the Sani Pass where the Lesotho border checkpoint was located.

Sani Pass Lesotho Drakensberg Mountains
A beer at the highest pub in Africa

We were officially stamped into Lesotho at the tiny border checkpoint and headed next door to the Sani Top Chalet for lunch at the highest pub in Africa (because, as Rudi pointed out, there’s no pub at the top of Kilimanjaro). The views over the winding pass we’d just driven up were spectacular and the sun continued to shine making me feel extremely fortunate with how the weather turned out.

A Lesotho Village Visit

After lunch and a refreshing Lesotho beer (for me, not Rudi, you have to have a drink at the highest pub in Africa, right?) we got back on the dirt road and drove deeper into Lesotho. We were headed to a traditional rural Basotho village where Rudi would introduce me to two of his friends who lived there.

Citizens of Lesotho are known as the Basotho people. The Basotho have remained remarkably free of conflict throughout history and are known for warmly welcoming visitors.

We arrived in the tiny village and I was introduced to Matitso who welcomed us into her hut. Once inside, Rudi explained a little about the Basotho way of life and how their huts are constructed. He also mentioned that the family’s youngest child (of 5 children) had just gone off to school.

In Lesotho, to attend school the children have to leave their village and only return home on holidays and school breaks. When Rudi asked about the youngest child, Matitso was barely able to conceal the emotion on her face…no doubt a child leaving home for the first time transcends all cultural borders.

Lesotho Village
Matitso baking bread in her home

Rudi quickly changed the subject to the cutout in the center of the hut’s floor where a giant stone pot was heating over coals. Matitso was baking an enormous loaf of bread and was kind enough to share some with us, it was incredibly delicious. She then asked Rudi if it was ok to bring in some of her crafts to show me and he nodded.

I was excited to see what she had since I was hoping to buy something to remember my trip to Lesotho. She had lots of things from jewelry to woven hats but my favorite were the little hand-made dolls wearing the traditional Basotho blanket so I bought one for my niece.

Matitso and her family had visited Rudi and his family in Durban and vice versa and they were getting ready to go to Durban again the next week so Rudi could help them shop for a 4WD truck. They’d been saving up money for years and this would be the first vehicle in their entire village. Rudi had brought along a car sales magazine with tons of different trucks and prices and Matitso and her husband flipped through every page with obvious delight.

Heading Back Down the Pass

After our visit it was time to start making our way back down the Sani Pass, we had a long drive ahead to Durban. The drive down is a bit scarier than going up since you’re constantly aware of the steep drop-offs around every bend. But you still can’t beat the incredible views of the Drakensberg Mountains. The entire drive down was filled with stunning vistas over the mountains as the clouds continued to remain at bay.

As much as I loved the drive down, I’ve never been so happy to see a paved road again as we approached Underberg. After 6 hours of jaw-rattling, rock-strewn dirt roads you would be, too. And Rudi’s 4×4 was definitely built more for mountain survival than comfort.

Sani Pass Lesotho Drakensberg Mountains
Starting the drive back down

Once back on the paved road we again passed through several layers of cloud cover as we descended back to sea level in Durban. The weather in Durban was overcast and rainy when we arrived back at the Hilton and I couldn’t believe my good fortune with the sunny skies in the Sani Pass. We’d gone from sea level to over 11,000ft and back in a single day and it was every bit the adventure I’d hoped it would be.

It was absolutely worth the price of the private trip and I can’t think of a better way to have spent my brief stay in Durban.

Next up…I’ll be boarding the MSC Opera bound for Mozambique!

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