Bumpy, white-knuckle ride up Sani Pass

2012-06-12 00:00

THE sticker on the vehicle door read: “Get in. Sit down. Hold on. Shut up.” It was after Whisky Bend but before “Oh my God Corner” (see box) that it became clear just how well that sticker described our experience of what our driver called “African massage” because of the state of the so-called “road”.

Our family of four was securely seat belted into a 4x4 vehicle with four other adults bumping and jolting up Sani Pass. Watching the way the experienced driver, Wilson Duma, coaxed and coddled the vehicle upwards as tenderly as a nursing mother made me more than grateful that we hadn’t tried to do the trip ourselves in a hired vehicle. What passes for the road up Sani Pass is at best a mountain track and at worst an expanse of rock-fall rubble interspersed with pot holes and dongas to add some excitement.

Duma explained that the road had been damaged in a sudden and severe storm in March and “we are still waiting for it to be fixed”. In testament to his claim, we passed a lonely looking grader marooned forlornly at the side of the track. “The man sent to fix the road said he needed an excavator, a grader wasn’t enough,” Duma explained. “He went down to fetch one but he has never come back.” Sensible man, I thought, Trying to fix this road single-handedly would have taken him the rest of his life. They need to send in the Army Engineers’ Corps.

Despite the adrenaline-raising nature of the drive, a trip up Sani Pass makes for a worthwhile and enjoyable holiday adventure. An experienced 4x4 driver could do it in his or her own vehicle or a hired one, but we opted to go with one of the several tour operators based in Underberg. The round trip takes the best part of a day, depending on how long you spend exploring at the top. Some tours go into the interior to Mokhotlong, while others visit a local Basotho village and stop for lunch at the highest pub in Africa at the Sani Top Chalet which serves legendary gluhwein and welcome hot chocolate.

Highlights of the trip were the scenery going up the pass and at the top, and our driver, Duma. Many people are drawn to the glory and grandeur of the Drakensberg, which seem to pull them back again and again. I felt humbled by the thought that this awesome natural heritage site is only a few hours’ drive away and guilty that we visit so seldom.

I loved the Lesotho landscape at the top of the pass, which is bleakly beautiful in a bare, wind-swept kind of way, and was awed by the Basotho people living there. Duma explained that many families had already left with their flocks to winter in the interior, but some hardy families stay all year to serve the needs of shepherds and passing travellers. They journey into Lesotho or down into South Africa to buy goods to sell and have developed a system of coloured flags to advertise their wares to passers-by: white for bread and beer, red for meat, green for fruit and vegetables and yellow for home-made wine, often made of water and bread. We visited a homestead where we sat in the smoky but surprisingly warm interior and tasted freshly baked bread.

Because wood is scarce, people dry the scrubby bushes that grow commonly and use them to start a fire, and then use dried cow dung as fuel. Every homestead we passed duly had a stock of cow pats drying in stacks on top of walls or in neat rows outside a hut. Homes are built of thick layers of stone covered in dagga (mud and cow dung) for walls with compacted stone and dagga-covered floors. People build a fire in the centre of the floor thus heating the whole room as its warmth spreads through the stone floor — an indigenous form of under-floor heating. To keep in the warmth, there are neither windows nor chimney and all homes face north to harness the sunlight and avoid the malicious east-west winds.

As a good tour guide should be, Duma was a treasure trove of information and anecdotes. As we passed a rangers’ station, he showed us a solitary blue chair stationed some distance away from the settlement, in the middle of proverbial nowhere. This is the “cellphone chair” where the rangers have to go to get a cellphone signal.

The rule of the pass road is that descending traffic gives way to ascending traffic as it’s easier to reverse and not stall going down than up. He told tales of frightening encounters with bulging taxis on their way to Lesotho stuffed with people and goods, and eight-ton trucks laden with wool careening crazily down to Underberg. None of these vehicles have 4x4 capacity, causing him to click his tongue in horrified disbelief.

On the way up our party drew in its corporate breath as we safely negotiated the ice on the road at Ice Corner where the sun never reaches, so the ice never melts. We held our breath again coming down when we had to reverse to allow a Lesotho-bound taxi to pass on a narrow bend. We breathed a grateful sigh in unison when we crunched off the end of the dirt and reached the start of the tar road back to Underberg. Duma said his family back in Mooi River prays for him every time they know he is taking a group up the pass. I now know something of how they feel.

THOSE HAIR PIN BENDS

 

Whisky Bend — you need some courage.

Oh my God Corner — that’s how bad it looks.

Ice Corner — slippery and scary.

Grace Corner — only by God’s grace will you survive it.

Devil’s Elbow — requires at least a three-point turn.

Suicide Bend — need I say more?

SANI PASS: THE NUMBERS

 

Height: 2 873 metres.

Distance: 42 kilometres from Underberg, 14 km of tar, the rest rubble or dirt.

Where to stay: many B&Bs in Underberg and Himeville.

Must have: passports, warm clothing, 4x4 vehicle.

How to get there: Sani Pass Tours, Thaba Tours, Major Adventures Tour Company or hire a 4x4.

Sani Top Chalet: best book lunch in advance: safarinow.com

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