The owner of the car rental company seemed perplexed by our request. He looked at the middle-aged couple standing in front of him and asked again, “Are you sure you mean the SANI Pass?
“Yes”, we told him. “That’s the pass we mean”.
“And you know that you MUST use a four-wheel-drive.”
“Oh yes”, we assured him. “We are well aware that only a four-wheel-drive can get over the pass.”
And when he asked about our driving skills, we tried to look both experienced and confident.
My husband and I were renting a car in order to explore the southern African country of Lesotho where I was working on a nine month UN assignment. Although we would begin the trip in the capital city Maseru, we planned to exit the country, drive around the Drakensburg Mountains and re-enter Lesotho via the Sani Pass. The conversation about renting the car took place across the border from Maseru in the small South African town of Ladybrand where ex-pats like me often shopped on Saturday afternoons. Although the owner continued to be apprehensive, he agreed to the rental and soon we were driving through spectacular mountain scenery on the road that leads to Durban and the Indian Ocean.
The Sani Pass is located in eastern Lesotho and, until the 1950’s, was a trail for pack animals to travel from the mountain plateau to the South African province of Kwa-Zulu Natal. As you approach the pass, you are required to stop at the South African border post before starting the climb. After nine kilometers on a zig zag dirt road of seemingly vertical gradients, surfaces with limited traction, road sides with no protection, and heart-stopping downward views, occasionally of a truck or car that did not make it, you reach the top and the Lesotho border post.
The district of Mokhotlong is remote, treeless, ruggedly mountainous and eerily quiet. It is possible here to feel utterly alone as you sit by a stream, eating your lunch until you realize that you have been joined by two shepherd boys who are waiting patiently for you to share.
As you travel these roads you will meet men on horseback wrapped in the colourful Lesotho blanket and sometimes wearing the iconic hat and if you are lucky you can quietly observe village activities such as the hand-shearing of sheep and goats. For visitors who stay in the district for more than a day or two, the hiking is extraordinary, the bird watching rewarding and the solitude uplifting.
Ponies have been the traditional means of transport in Lesotho for decades. They have been bred for mountainous country and are reputed to be sure-footed, agile and even-tempered. There are many locations and opportunities for tourists to enjoy pony treks that can last anywhere from several hours to four or five days.
As visitors with only a little riding experience, we selected the two hour trek at Malealea where we spent a weekend. We were accompanied on this adventure by friends from South Africa, one of whom had never been on a horse, and most certainly will never get on one again. There is no doubt that the scenery was gorgeous, the horses sure-footed and the guide experienced; however, the trek down pathways which headed directly toward an abyss or inches away from a 500 meter drop was far more terrifying than the Sani Pass.
It has been a few years since our time at Malealea Lodge but we found it a charming place. We stayed in rondavels, took walking tours guided by children who were trained, accredited and paid by the owners and had readings with a ‘Sangoma’, a fortune teller whose reputation had once spread as far away as Johannesburg and Durban.
Lesotho is a country of great natural beauty with gregarious and proud people who have escaped the South African scourge of apartheid only to suffer the scourge of unemployment, poverty and HIV/AIDS. Tourism is an essential component of the Lesotho economy and fortunately there are many reasons for tourists to visit in addition to fabulous scenery and pony trekking, – dinosaur tracks, rock paintings, cave houses, rose bushes and the Katse Dam.
If there is one area in Lesotho that holds a special place in my memory it is Semonkong. This was my second time on a pony in Lesotho and I managed a five hour trek with my American friend, Kim. The setting of the nearby Lebihan Falls is awe-inspiring and if you take the path around the gorge, you’ll have magnificent views of the pools and gullies that surround the waterfall.
But don’t end your trek there. Continue on your journey away from the lodges, other tourists and, eventually, the sound of the falls, and you will find yourself in a vast, silent, empty place of extraordinary beauty and serenity.
By Barbara Reinhardus
Photo credits Barbara and Gerrit Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2011