Lesotho
    
More information below video.
    
 
 
AFRICA!   Lesotho
A day trip to Sani Pass, Lesotho turns into a lifetime memory.
 

June 23

It was warm beneath the pile of blankets but our noses were cold. There was reluctance to step out into the cold, but we had an exciting day ahead and were anxious to be on the move.

Arrangements had been made with Kingdom in the Sky Adventures to supply guides and 4x4s for a trek via the Sani Pass into the Kingdom of Lesotho.

The Kingdom of Lesotho is a landlocked country completely surrounded by the country of South Africa. Because of it’s lofty elevations, majestic mountainous beauty and serene simplicity it is often called the "Mountain Kingdom" or "Kingdom in the Sky". It’s lowlands are still 1500-1600 metres above sea level while it’s highlands vary from 2700 to 3400 metres above sea level.

It is in these highlands near the Drakensberg Mountains where two of the largest rivers in Southern Africa, the Orange (Senque) and Tugela and tributaries of the Caledon, have their source.

The majority of households subsist on farming. Lesotho’s economy is based on exports of gem diamonds and water sold to South Africa, manufacturing (Levi Jeans has a factory there), agriculture, livestock and to some extent earnings of labourers employed in South Africa (primarily miners).

Our guides, Rudi and Steve, were waiting in front of the Himeville Arms with two enclosed 4x4s and right away their humorous bantering made us believe this was going to be a special day with lots of laughter. There were six in our vehicle and seven in the other including two tourists from South Africa. We headed off to tackle the Sani Pass.

The Sani Pass connects KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa) and Lesotho and is the only access point, by vehicle, on the eastern side of Lesotho. It is a notoriously dangerous road requiring 4x4s and above average driving skills (hence our experienced guides). It is the highest mountain road in Southern Africa and boasts at its summit the highest pub in Southern Africa. The border crossings close before dark and often times close due to poor winter weather conditions. We were in luck, today’s weather looked positive.

We paused at an old trading post called "Good Hope Stores" near the base of the climb. In pack mule days this was an active place. After 1955 when the road was improved and opened to vehicles, the settlement’s importance declined and it was left to the locals whose traditional way of heating and cooking is using an open fire on the floor in the centre of their homes. As these buildings were partially constructed of wood - not the traditional round huts with mud walls - most burnt down so little is left of the once thriving trading post.

As we bumped and bounced along, Steve reminded us we were still on the "easy part". At one point we stopped, stretched our legs and did a 360º survey. The scenery was spectacular. It was a side trip the two of us wanted to take and we were prepared to do it on our own. Others on the G.A.P tour had asked what it was like and wondered if they should come with us. We didn’t know and we didn’t want to "convince" anyone, not knowing if they might see it as a waste of time and money. As we looked up, down and across the valley before us, we knew they too were happy to be here.

Rudi told us a bit about the surrounding rock formations and the road’s history. He was passionately angry when he told us there are plans to "improve" the road with a hard smooth surface.

At 1845 metres above sea level we made it around Blind Man’s Corner ... we had over a kilometre to climb in elevation before reaching the top ... and a whole lot more in road distance.

At 1968 metres above sea level we reached the South Africa Border crossing; Lesotho’s border crossing is at the top of Sani Pass.

 

"Now things get a little more interesting," said Steve with a smirk and a sweep of his hand through his curly auburn hair.

Ahead were "Haemorrhoid Hill", "Suicide Bend", "Hairpins’ Base" and others. At 2405 metres we stopped at a viewpoint which helped us appreciate the valley’s formation and enjoy the spectacular views.

 
 

"Okay now we start climbing," said Steve surveying the rough, and oh so narrow, road snaking up the side of the mountain with hairpin turns and up to 30º grades, icy rocks on one side and on the other nothing ... no road guards ... just air. On "Ice Corner" dripping water ran across the chiselled road and froze like a tilted ice rink ... frightening.

 

Rudi, driving the lead 4x4 didn’t make it around "Reverse Corner" ... he backed up with a jolt ... small rocks scattered and tumbled over the edge. The faces inside his vehicle turned white. Steve laughed. We didn’t see the humour ... we were next. "He always does that," said Steve casually. "Like I said, he’s the second best driver on this route." With that Steve manoeuvre around the tight corner without having to put the car in reverse. We allowed ourselves to breath until the next corner ... "Big Wind Corner". Again we held our breath, hung on and were grateful today’s weather was clear and sunny.

When RAF Spitfire pilot, Godfrey Edmonds, drove the Sani Pass for the first time in the summer of 1948 it took him three hours and thirty-five minutes to reach the South Africa border post and a further two and a quarter hours to reach the top in his Jeep. It would have taken much longer but he had the help of a Basuto labour gang with their ponies, a chain pulley and block, jerry cans of gas and lots of rope.

We reached the top of Sani Pass ... 2873 metres above sea level. Steve asked us to pass him all our passports and not to take pictures of the border crossing. "When these guys say they don’t like their pictures taken ... they mean it." When Steve returned with our passports we flipped the pages to see the stamp. They had stamped us in ... and out!

 
 
 

Another metre higher and we were at the Sani Top Chalet which boasts the highest pub in Africa ... two "Maluti please" [Lesotho beer]. The hearty soup and bread, served on a deck with a most impressive view, were filling . When we weren’t admiring the view we were watching birds and a little Rock dassie playing amongst the sun warmed rocks.

 

 
 
 
 

We thought we would be heading back down the mountain when we left the Chalet, but instead Steve drove out to a small Basuto village.

At the top of the pass the land before us was a large flat plain rimmed by snow-frosted mountains ... no trees other than a bit of scrub brush.

 People of long ago cut down the trees and the weather stripped most of the topsoil away. Sheep, a local Merino strain, and Angora goats graze on the sparse natural pastures. They play an important role in the economy of the Basuto people providing a source of income through the sales of their wool, mohair, meat or the animals themselves.

 
 
 

There were only about a dozen round huts, called rondavels, making up the village. Steve explained the village swells with more huts during the summer months. During winter, most move their livestock down to the lowlands leaving only a few families to face the hardships that this time of year brings.

 

We went to two huts at the farthest end of the village. Steve stood in front of one hut and explained some Basuto customs and courtesies. Children and neighbours came to watch.

   

"Each family has two huts," Steve explained, "although both sexes may go in and out of both houses; women and young children sleep in one, while men and boys over the age of 10 sleep in the other. This is the woman’s house." Steve turned and pointed towards the single door. It was the only opening in the rounded walls of piled stone and conical shaped thatch roof.

   

"If the thatch above the door has two thick pieces of straw protruding near the corners of the header board, it means no man is allowed to enter. This usually happens with the birth of a baby. Because men work with the animals and animals carry disease, men are not allowed near a baby for three months ... not even the father. At the end of three months, there is a celebration, the two thick pieces of thatch are pushed back into the roof and the baby is placed in the arms of the father for the first time."

Steve shuffled a little and added, "Sometimes the straws are pulled when there is no baby and the women just want to be left alone."

 

He walked to one side of the open doorway. "When you visit a home, instead of knocking, you call out [what sounds like] ‘kho kho". If she is willing to invite you into her home she will call out in Basuto ‘Welcome’ and will add your status. For example, ‘Welcome, married man’ and, added to that, ‘you may enter’. Each person visiting must go through this ritual separately. If a visitor calls ‘Kho kho’ and does not receive an answer, it means the household is not receiving visitors or that specific person."

"When you enter, men sit to the left of the doorway and women on the right. You will find low benches. You should sit as quickly as possible since your head should be lower than the host." With that he called out, "kho kho" and from within a woman’s voice replied with a long sentence in Basuto. Steve entered and greeted her warmly and easily in her own language. One by one we called out "kho kho" and one by one were welcomed into her home.

The lady of the house appeared to be in her late thirties. She wore a brown knee-length skirt over long green pants which were tucked into white rubber boots. A cream coloured turtleneck sweater was worn under a blue fleece which was zipped up the front. She wore a scarf tightly wrapped around her head and over that sat a conical grass hat known as Mokorotlo; a part of Lesotho’s national dress. A silhouette of the hat can be seen on their nation’s flag which was unfurled in 2006 to celebrate 40 years of independence.

 

As Steve instructed, the men sat on a low mud-dung bench attached to the curved wall on the left side of the doorway and the women on a low wooden bench to the right. The lady sat on the edged of a wooden bed frame layered with a number of thin sleeping pads and blankets while Steve took a seat on a wooden bench near the back of the hut in direct line with the door. Our eyes adjusted to the dim light within.

The only additional piece of furniture was a small square wooden table pushed up against the wall, covered with a bright cloth and piled with dishes, containers and a coal oil lamp. Stacked on either side of the table and behind the women’s wooden bench were plastic buckets with lids and large plastic kegs, some sacks and a few cardboard boxes. Below the table were a couple of large metal pots and different sizes of cast iron pots with legs to set over an open fire.

A small fire was burning in the middle of the floor and directly on top of the embers rested a deep cast iron pot with lid. Steve explained that when they construct their rondavel [round hut] they first lay a large flat stone in the centre on which to build their fires. Around the large centre stone they lay smaller stones out to the walls. The whole floor is then covered with a "cement" mixture of cow dung, clay, soil and water which is scrapped to a flat level. While the fire is cooking dinner it is also heating up the centre stone which in turn is heating the other stones below the floor. The sleeping pads are placed on the warm floor at bedtime.

The inside of the rock piled walls is also plastered with layers of dung, clay and dirt. The only items breaking up the expanse of wall were a small framed clock above the table and an animal pelt (not as decoration).

Round huts are preferred because roofs are easier to construct and do not take as much wood. The roof is made from grass layers supported by small cross branches, which are in turn held up by precious wood pole beams. The wood beams in this house came from 60km away. Poles are first cut an arms length longer than needed because dragging them behind a pony will damage that length.

 

There is no hole in the roof. Smoke from the fire finds its way out the door (if it is open) and seeps through the grass roof. Because fuel for the fire is mostly dried cow dung, which has an oily residue, the poles and grass inside get a black shiny coat. Wool garments, of people sitting around the fire, are also permeated with this residue which creates a natural waterproofing (not to mention what might be happening to their lungs). During cold days and nights the door is closed and the occupants lay on or under wool blankets or sheepskins on the floor below the level of the accumulating smoke.

   

The lady removed the lid from the pot on the embers to reveal bread she had just baked. A chunk was broken off and passed around, to Steve first, then the men and then the women. It was light and delicious ... a bread anyone using high-tech ovens would be proud to offer guests.

With encouragement from Steve, the lady brought out and placed on the floor some items for sale. There were a few of the traditional conical hats but most of the items were wool hats and mitts ... very well made and the Merino wool and angora made them soft to the touch.

 

Outside we took photos and, as it is around the world, the children loved to see themselves on the small screen afterwards.

 

The closest school to the Sani Pass is 50 kilometres away. Travelling that distance on a daily basis is not an option, therefore, children who go to school live in dormitories and return home only in summer.

Before pulling away from the village Sherrie ran back from the car and placed a handful of balloons into the lady’s cupped hands. Our last view of the village were of children gathered around her, some already blowing up their round colourful treat.

 
 

We passed a rider on her Basotho pony. These horses are a source of pride in Lesotho and in many areas of the country the horse is the only alternative to travelling on foot over the rugged terrain.

Steve waved to the Customs officers as we drove past the border crossing without stopping and started our trek back down the mountain side. It looked so steep coming up. It looked far steeper going down. "Ice Corner" looked impossible and our fear was real. Not only did we have to traverse the icy slab but had to make a hard right turn around a hairpin curve while realizing a false move would have us slipping over the unguarded edge. Sherrie, sitting in the front seat, put our movie camera on record and closed her eyes.

 
 
 
 

After making it around "Ice Corner", the others twists and turns, even with a little snow and ice, seemed easy to handle in comparison and "Haemorrhoid Hill" marked the end of the tough section.

It had been a great day ... the stunning scenery, the exhilarated heart beats, the Basotho people ... and bonus, another country’s stamp in our passport.

  

  

 

continue to South Africa part 2 page 2 ...

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