Visiting the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho via the Sani Pass

Today began at the palatial Fairmont Zimbali Resort outside of Durban.  It really doesn’t get much better then the Fairmont Zimbali – it is most certainly “Style Hi”.  Even though the day was beginning in South Africa, today would be spent in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (pronounced locally as  le-soo-too) just a few hours away from Durban.  Lesotho is a mountain kingdom perched above the Drakensberg Mountains and completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa.  Looking at the map of South Africa Lesotho’s existence seems like a puzzle but apparently during tribal times Shaka Zulu was never able to capture the kingdom due to its elevated position and insane terrain so it never became part of his domain and thus never became part of the white man’s conquests.  As such, the kingdom has been it’s own independent kingdom while South Africa has grown and changed literally surrounding it.

Beautiful view of the Sani Pass and Drakensberg Mountains from the top of the Sani Pass

Beautiful view of the Sani Pass and Drakensberg Mountains from the top of the Sani Pass

It took us two and a half hours to drive from Zimbali up the R617 to Underberg at the foot of the Drakensberg Mountains World Heritage Site. The folks from Thaba Tours would be providing the four-wheel-drive transport necessary to traverse the treacherous Sani Pass.  From this part of South Africa, the Sani Pass is the only way to reach Lesotho.  From Underberg we continued to Himeville and then into the Sani Pass approach where the unsealed roads began.

The Sani Pass border crossing to get from Lesotho back into South Africa doesn't really have so much security...

The Sani Pass border crossing to get from Lesotho back into South Africa doesn’t really have so much security…

It took us nearly an hour and a half to conquer the pass from this point. We zig zagged through the mountains getting higher and higher as the roads got worse and worse.  Our guide would point out where we were going. It was where the two highest points in the range seemed to meet each other.  It seemed pretty impossible we’d be able to drive there but we kept getting closer and closer zig zagging on unpaved, rock filled roads  as our destination became slowly closer.

Posing at the summit of the Sani Pass - finally in Lesotho

Posing at the summit of the Sani Pass – finally in Lesotho

We finally arrived at the South African border post and had our passports stamped. For the next 8km we would be in no-mans-land – the gap between the two nations of South Africa and Lesotho. We continued on horrid roads getting higher and higher finally reaching the last sprint up the mountain. This was just switchback after switchback zigging and zagging until we reached the summit. In the distance we could see buildings – the first signs of human life since we left the South African border post. We finally reached the top and arrived at the Lesotho Sani Pass border post. We were now 2,873m in elevation or roughly 8,600 feet – well over a mile above sea level where I started my day.

Basotho hut in Lesotho - pretty sweet, huh?

Basotho hut in Lesotho – pretty sweet, huh?

We climbed out of the truck to get our passports stamped. I noticed as I leaned into the immigration office window with my passport that the office was being heated with a wood fire – not electricity.  It was hard not to noticed the stark difference between the border posts themselves.  In South Africa they had a nice brick building with bathrooms for all to use and a huge sign with the SA flag welcoming people to South Africa.  On the Lesotho side the building didn’t even have electricity and “Welcome to Lesotho” was written on the outside wall in black paint by hand.   Our next stop was Basotho Mountain Village.  A real Lesotho village just a few kilometers away from the Pass.

Basotho woman in Lesotho cooking bread over the fire

Basotho woman in Lesotho cooking bread over the fire

Upon arrival at Basotho I was immediately uncomfortable. This wasn’t a tourist destination, it was a real mountain village. And a very poor one at that. People were riding horses and wearing blankets and living in huts. This was the real deal. We parked among no other cars and walked to a small round hut where we were invited inside and sat down.

Me and my Basotho friend in her hut in Lesotho

Me and my Basotho friend in her hut in Lesotho

Our guide acted as an interpreter for the lady of the house whom did not speak English, only Sotho. Our guide told us all about Sotho culture and about the woman whose house we were visiting. He showed us how to greet her in her language. The woman – I believe her name was something like Belita – showed us some things she had made. In the center of the hut was a smoldering sort of fire. It wasn’t burning really but you could smell it and feel the heat.  Belita shared with us delicious homemade bread she was baking under the fire as well as some homemade Sotho beer that we passed around.  Everythig was so fresh and we felt so welcomed by her.

Dave overlooking the Sani Pass in South Africa from the Sani Top Chalet in Lesotho

Dave overlooking the Sani Pass in South Africa from the Sani Top Chalet in Lesotho

We stayed for awhile chatting with our host via our interpreter and just enjoying this surprisingly comfortable feeling in such a sparse and remote place.  I liked it a lot and despite my feeling instantly uncomfortable upon arrival, that was mostly due to the desire to not disrespect anything or anyone. Once I got over that, it was easy to feel at home.

Having a drink at the Sani Top Chalet - the highest pub in Africa

Having a drink at the Sani Top Chalet – the highest pub in Africa

Back near the border we parked and headed into the Sani Top Chalet. This is a restaurant and pub – the highest pub in Africa at, again, roughly 8,600 feet.  After lunch and some photos it was time to clear Lesotho immigration again and head back down the pass. We didn’t even have to get out of the car this time, our driver just took our passports in for us. They’re pretty laid back here.   My Sani Pass and Lesotho experience may now be over but I really got a lot out of it and in just a couple more hours we were back at the coast of the Indian Ocean in Durban.

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