Hiking the Sani Pass into Lesotho

  • Miles travelled: 6941
  • Highlight: The breathtaking views at the top
  • Lowlight: A very strange night in the Sani Mountain Lodge
  • Hours spent hiding from the waiters: Six

After we left the Transkei (driving through Mthatha is not particularly fun) and entered KwaZulu-Natal, the roads seemed to become instantly quieter and the scenery greener and more remote. The scenery now resembled the rugged Scottish Highlands and we drove for miles without seeing any houses or people.

Another long day of driving and some serious miles covered, but we made it to Khotso Backpackers in the Drakensberg Gardens just in time to fuel up with a hearty veg curry ahead of our hike up the Sani Pass the next day. We’d heard from lots of people how beautiful the Drakensberg mountains are and they’d earned themselves almost mythical status with us as the furthest point of our South African road trip. The stories weren’t exaggerated – it’s absolutely stunning here. Rolling green hills, dramatic mountain backdrops and vast lakes. Everywhere else we’ve been has been affected by the nationwide water crisis. It’s obviously still a problem here, but it’s clear they’ve been getting a hell of a lot more rain than elsewhere in the country.

Our plan was to make our own way up the Sani Pass, stay the night at Sani Top and then hike back down the next day. After hearing about our plans, Alexis, Khotso’s manager, told us about a local girl who had started running cultural tours into Lesotho with an overnight stop in her village. He was looking to set up a round-trip tour package with her and, as we were planning something similar ourselves, we agreed to be his guinea pigs.

Another bright and early start the next morning. Alexis gave us a ride in the back of his bakkie (throwback to childhood memories in the back of my Grandpa’s bakkie for me!) to the bottom of the Sani Pass to make our ascent.

The Sani Pass is the only road into Lesotho from Kwazulu-Natal. It’s one of the most dangerous roads in South Africa to drive and only accessible if you have your own 4X4 or pay for one of the expensive tours to the top. The Granny-mobile’s got us a long way on this trip and we have a lot of faith in it but we weren’t quite prepared to back it for this one. Since the budget wouldn’t cover a tour either, we decided we might as well hike it.

We’d expected lots of people to go for the cheap and safer option of hiking but, apparently, we were the only people brave (stupid?) enough to try it that day. Beautiful views but a very tough hike, especially given how many cars pass you along the way, shout a few words of encouragement and appear as little pin pricks climbing the final few metres to the top at least half an hour later. Although, to be honest, watching the 4x4s and motorbikes trying to get up the steep gravel roads with a hundred metres sheer drop on one side, I was perfectly happy on my own two feet.

Two and a half long, hot and dusty hours of relentless climbing later, we’d managed to ascend the 1000m+ to make it to the top.
We hadn’t been able to book a room at the only accommodation at the top, Sani Mountain Lodge, so the hike had also been haunted by the prospect of having to trek it all the way back down again if they were full up. Luckily, they had room for us and we settled down for a well-deserved plate of that famous traditional Lesotho dish, spag bol, and some rooibos tea in the highest pub in Africa (we had some more hiking planned for the afternoon so sadly the beer had to wait).
Sani Top is a very strange place and it was surreal having our passports stamped at the laidback border crossing into Lesotho. Most people just drive up to the top for a beer at the pub in the Mountain Lodge so the official at the border was casually stamping people in and out at the same time if they promised him they weren’t planning to head further into Lesotho.

Other than the border crossing, there are a few little makeshift craft stores, a tiny little village occupied mainly by people working at the border or in the pub and miles and miles of flat cliff top. Although the pub had been totally full of tour groups having lunch, when we went for a short afternoon hike along the escarpment we didn’t see another person the whole way. It was slightly unnerving hiking around by ourselves in the Martian landscape up there – especially given the place is so flat you can walk for miles and still somehow see the pub growing smaller and smaller in the distance.

After our afternoon stroll, we headed back for our hotly anticipated beer and found the tour groups gone, leaving us the only two people in the place. The waiters kept giving us strange looks and seemed to be expecting us to leave at any moment but we were well and truly done for the day and, since there’s nothing else to do up there, we settled in for an afternoon of cards and beer.

The place grew even more eerie when we finally had enough of the waiters’ stares and went to check out our room. We were staying in one of the backpacker’s rooms separate to the main lodge, which itself is actually quite an upmarket place. This meant we were hidden away about a 500m walk through the village in a separate building. The room itself was fine, although very rustic, but the building was furnished like something out of the 1900s and the rooms all had little windows or peepholes making them visible from the main corridor. This wouldn’t have been a problem by itself, but it was just so eerily deserted, with no signs of life, staff or other guests, that it felt we were either at the start of a low budget horror film, or walking through some kind of museum showing how people used to live. It didn’t help that it was getting dark and there was no electricity in the place yet.

We dumped our stuff, grabbed our torches and quickly scooted back to the safety and warmth of the main lodge where we found a handful more people had arrived for the evening.

Things perked up a little from here. Given there were no other options around, we’d signed ourselves up for the lodge dinner which was well beyond our budget. As it was the only option, we’d assumed it was just the cost of getting the stuff up the mountain that was making it expensive. Turns out, the backpackers’ dinner option is the same as the fancy lodge option so we’d inadvertently signed ourselves up for a luxurious three course dinner – homemade soup, the biggest fillet steaks I’ve ever seen, malva pudding and a nice bottle of red.

Delicious food but surreal to go from staying in backpacking accommodation for the last couple of weeks and making do with the cheapest food we can find to sharing a romantic candlelit dinner in quite possibly one of the weirdest places we’ve ever been. Plus there was only one other table in the place so we were back to avoiding the waiters’ stares all evening.

The next morning, after a good night’s sleep in the museum, we headed out for an early morning hike up Hodgson’s Peak, a 3,300m summit not too far from Sani Top. The place was still deserted but slightly less creepy in the daylight and we enjoyed a beautiful hike along Giants Cup and over the Hole in the Mountain. Incredible views of the valley over the sheer cliff drops and another four hours of hiking without seeing anyone but a lonely shepherd.

It’s been quite tough hiking in the altitude here after two weeks of fuelling our bodies with beer and biltong. Our legs are fine, but we keep having to stop every few minutes to let our racing hearts catch up with us and I had a wobbly moment at the top of Hodgson’s Peak. Good practice for Nepal but if this is how thin the air is at 3,300m then I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like at 5000m!

We’re now back in the Mountain Lodge, hiding from the waiters again, and waiting for Mapaseka to pick us up for our night in Lesotho.

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