The invitation to hike to the top of Sani Pass came two months ahead of the planned expedition. Far enough ahead to say “yes, sure” — and forget about it.
The reminder comes with two short weeks to go.
Then the comments start to fly. “Seriously? You’re going to hike up? No! You sure you’re fit enough?”
The avid hiker who extended the invitation starts issuing lists. I must take winter gloves. (In the summertime?) And a warm coat. (In the summertime?) And no, I shouldn’t hike in sandals. And rather cross-trail trainers than running shoes. (Running shoes were fine.)
I didn’t need to carry water, just a water bottle, which I could fill from pristine hike-side mountain streams. (True.)
Oh, and I must take a passport. Now that seems really weird. Intriguingly weird.
But hey, nobody said anything about our destination being “the highest pub in Africa”. Those of us who were not regular Berg hikers (several in our group) had to get all the way to the top to discover this, which I reckon could be incentive for many folks to throw caution, and any reservations about fitness, down the nearest abyss or crevasse and set off.
So now, you are alerted…
We left on a Friday afternoon and drove from Durban to Underberg – about three hours. The Spar there, our meeting place, is well stocked for those who don’t feel like lugging their provisions (and nibbles for the hike for those who want them) all the way from home base.
We stayed over in a couple of houses someone in our group had access to and set off earlyish on Saturday for Sani. In several cars.
The plan was to drive in convoy and leave the vehicles at the South African border post, where our hike would start.
A single four-wheel-drive double-cab would lug our overnight stuff – plus, it turned out, ferry almost half our party who succumbed, at different points, to over-exertion – to the top.
Overnight accommodation had been booked at Sani Top Chalet, site of the highest pub in Africa, strolling distance from where we would have our passports stamped at the Lesotho border post, high on top of the pass.
The car plan was not a good one. The road to the South African border post is hectic. Strewn with boulders and seriously rutted. Vehicles with high ground clearance will make it. Two of our cars had to turn back. The Sani Pass Hotel charged R60 each for overnight parking. Unexpected, but cheaper than a new set of wheels.
Finally assembled, organised, day-packed and ready with passports stamped, we set off on foot as a group. Within a few metres you have an option. Stomp through a water hazard that submerges the road. Or stop, remove your shoes and socks, then start again, dry footed.
Beyond that, it’s uphill almost every step of the way for close on three-and-a-half hours. There’s just one more water hazard but — at least on our weekend – a few protruding rocks creating stepping stones for a dry crossing.
And so you head up. Plodding, puffing, panting, sweating – taking in the spectacle of the Twelve Apostles and the verdant mountain landscape that pitches and tumbles into the distance where it is not cut by jagged rocky cliffs. Both the rock faces and many of the steep slopes are dotted with cascading waterfalls, some of which apparently turn to ice in winter. Which sounds excruciatingly chilly. One might sweat more in the summertime but oh, the glorious sensation of bracing mountain water cooling your radiating head when you fill your cap from the stream and jam it back on.
If you’re going to drive, you need a 4x4 – and preferably one with extra traction for the gruesome ruts and hairpin bends that tax both the valiant few tramping up and the steady trickle of tour and private vehicles that grind their way to the summit, mostly for a look-see before the arduous trip back down. At one point I trudged past the same Land Rover twice as it struggled to gain a grip on the steep rock-strewn track.
You know you’re in Lesotho as soon as you get to the Sani plateau and see locals, both on foot and on horseback, dressed in their distinctive blankets. Flocks of sheep and wandering goats, wearing brass bell necklaces that momentarily make me think I’ve magically morphed to Switzerland, wander and graze. Both the sheep and the goats are apparently brought to the highlands in the summertime by shepherds – the only humans to traverse vast areas of this African wilderness – who herd them back down to the lowlands when the chill of autumn sets in.
On an 11km drive further into Lesotho to the peak of Black Mountain Pass before our morning descent, we see many sheep, more goats, lazing lizards, here and there a dwelling and more mountains. Little else. Apparently there are moves to tar the road to Sani. To me this is scenery you want to hike. The arduous journey makes for an adventure. No doubt a tarred road would be useful for locals living at the top of the pass. The trade-off, I’d guess, could be tourism.
Back at Sani Top Chalet, after a hot shower followed by an exploratory wander over lichen-covered rocks through lush alpine foliage to various viewing sites along this roof of Africa plateau with its panoramic valley views – as a symphonic salvo of thunder cracks threaten a lot more than the few drops of rain we get — the cosy lounge and a beer at the highest pub in Africa beckon. Our host at Sani Top Chalet is Roger Aldous, brother of Jonathan (and brother-in-law of Sylvia) Aldous, the usual team who run the lodge and who are on holiday.
The accommodation is clean, comfy and perfectly adequate. And no, I did not need winter gloves. But I did say yes to a night-time fire in the pot-bellied stove in our stone and thatch rondavel because nights, at 2 873m elevation, are cool to chill even in the summertime.
The lodge, which has a backpacker section, was full for the night with folks who had mostly travelled up in vehicles, including off-road motorcycles. South Africans were outnumbered by an international mix from Japan, France and Germany. And from the US, a group in training for a trek to Everest Base Camp – an eight- to 10-day trudge. They had driven part-way then hiked to Thabana Ntlenyana (and back), the highest point in Africa south of Kilimanjaro and roughly 36km (return) from our lodge.
Dinner at 7.30pm was a rib-sticking feast of wholesome food. Someone said “boarding school fare”. As a boarding school survivor, my comment was “better-than-we-got boarding school fare”. Roast chicken, butternut, spuds, a mild beef curry and more. A celery soup (some thought pea); apple crumble with custard.
Moments before I left Durban with the many jibber-jabber comments about the climb ringing in my ears, plus my mental jibber-jabber concerns about fitness, I posted a status message on Facebook: “Wish me luck. Off to hike up Sani Pass – and definitely not at my fittest.” I returned to a delightful slew of messages of support, commiseration and advice, the vibes of which I am sure propelled me as I climbed.
California travel writer buddy Susan Alcorn, an avid hiker, wrote (she must have checked on Google): “I guess you will see the skeletal remains of the vehicles that could not make it. Just take it one step at a time – you’ll do fine!”
She was right. I did. Getting up and getting down. Would I do it again? Ask me in a couple of months – and if there’s a couple of month’s lead time, no doubt I’d say yes, now that I know my final destination is Africa’s highest pub. - Sunday Tribune
l Visit the Sani Top Chalet site at www.sanitopchalet.co.za/ or phone them at 033 702 1158 or e-mail [email protected]