Text & photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
“Hold on tight! It is going to be very bumpy,” the seriousness resonates in Christeen Grant’s voice, experienced mountain guide passionate about the Drakensberg. The engine of the iconic Land Rover Defender roars while the suspensions of the sturdy 4×4 are motioning like an accordion. If we found Christeen’s words “It is going to be a little bit bumpy!” quite entertaining two years ago when she drove us down one of world’s most dangerous tracks, today is a different story. The Sani Pass connecting South Africa and Lesotho through the Drakensberg Mountains is in a rough state, and we are holding on tight to make it up this stunning pass once more in order to explore the remote country of Lesotho more in-depth.
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The Sani Pass is one of the most challenging 4×4 passes of South Africa. Once created as a bridal path to safely guide people up and down the 450 million-year-old basalt cliff face towering South Africa’s velvet green Maloti Mountains, the pass was converted into a gravel road in the mid 1950’s. A massive project to tar the road started a few years ago to improve access to the Eastern part of Lesotho. Ever since road constructions at the bottom of the pass began, road maintenance budgets disappeared. The result? The pass has never been in such a poor condition, making it very dangerous: rock slides on the dirt road, full sections washed away by heavy rainfall, massive potholes and cracks… Navigating around them are the order of the day. From an engineering standpoint, tarring this pass is a massive challenge, and maintaining the road once tarred will not be effortless either. In the meantime, guides and drivers give it their all to bring their vehicles up and down safely, amongst which our brave guide Christeen. An adventure it is!
We give Christeen a loud round of applause when we reach the top of the Sani Pass after the most exhilarating and shaky 25 kilometres ever. The views are literally breath-taking, as we enter the Kingdom of the Sky at an altitude of 2,876 meters above sea level! We get our passports stamped, and drive into Lesotho that feels like a different world compared to South Africa.
Friendly Basotho shepherds wave at us in their unmistakable outfit: their bodies wrapped in woollen blankets, their heads covered with dark bonnets, and the fashionable white rubber boots for the teenagers with swag – and who can afford it. Most of them are on foot, a few ride donkeys with a whip in one hand and the reins in the other, and the luckiest proudly mount a short and strong Basotho horse, all herding sheep along the mountain slopes. After following the zigzagging road on which we seem to be the only car, our Land Rover takes a turn along a small path to nr. 10 Riverside, where we will spend the next two nights with the Nkune family.
‘Me Malerato welcomes us in her late father’s home. The beloved Ntate Thabiso Nkune was the first man in the Eastern Highlands rural Lesotho to open his traditional home to visitors from abroad in order to share his Basotho culture proudly. After his passing, his daughter and his wife have continued his passion and expanded his business. From the isolated home situated between the hardly used road and the river, ‘Me walks us to the neighbouring village of Makhapung where a large group of women welcomes us with joyful singing and dancing. The weather has changed and when it starts pouring outside, we seek comfort under the thatched roof of the traditional circular rondavel made of rocks, plastered and insulated with cow dung on both the outside and inside. Inside, the women show us various instruments: one resembles a large wooden needle and is used to install and maintain thatched roofs; another is used to draw patterns in the wall when it has been freshly plastered; a critical tool is the large grinding stone to make flour. It is not a fun job, and the women sing to give the pace while we take turns to grind the grains so that fresh bread can be baked for the morning.
The day ends early as only a small solar panel powers a dim light-bulb in our rondavel back at nr. 10 Riverside. Night falls quickly. A hearty home-cooked dinner composed of samp, beetroot, chicken and some sort of kale-like green vegetable makes everyone content before calling it a night.
Before the first sun rays touch the roof of our accommodation, we are woken up by a large rooster. When I get outside, the morning air is cold and the sun rises slowly behind the summits and bathes the green mountains in a warm colour. Smoke slowly rises above the rondavels in the village while the mouth-watering smell of the freshly baked bread fills the air. Kids in uniforms run down the steep grassy and rocky slopes towards the empty road that they follow to walk to school. A few shepherds walk between villages. Despite the newly tarred road, walking or riding a horse directly over the mountains is the way to go in this part of Lesotho. We get on a horse ourselves and ride along the scenic Sehonghong River before gaining some altitude. We overlook the villages where the circular rondavels are spread out on the green carpet covering never ending slopes. On most rooftops, small solar panels shine in the sun probably recharging a cell phone. In every yard, a small rectangular structure with a tin roof reveals the location of the dry toilets. As we cross path, shepherds wearing large hats greet us, and further on women walk carrying large bags of corn on their heads. In the distance, men use oxen to plough the steep fields.
It has been rough for the Basotho people for the past four years as Lesotho has suffered from droughts in these highlands. Climate change has delayed the first rains, making it too tight for locals to plant and harvest before the winter frost that comes early at these high altitudes. With no food to feed the animals, the land is overgrazed, speeding up erosion and limiting the amount of grazing land for the year after. Consequences of this vicious circle are devastating for these subsistence farmers: people produce their own bread, vegetables, meat, and beer. Bartering is very common: a flag is hoisted by the family’s rondavel when a product is available to fellow villagers: white for the local beer, red for meat, green for vegetables… With no proper income buying food is hardly an option, even if eco-tourism provides revenue to a few families. As guests we are really well taken care of. To complement the locally-grown ingredients, a few purchases were made in the nearby town of Mokhotlong, a rough 20 kilometres away.
Mokhotlong is where a few supermarkets and healthcare facilities are located. However, most villages have their own traditional healer that the Basotho people consult in case of illnesses. Chosen by the ancestors, traditional healers are very well respected, and our host ‘Me could arrange for us to meet the traditional healer of Makhapung. We enter the sacred rondavel that is only used for consultations. Animal skins, roots, and freshly picked herbs plant the decor. On the wall hangs a clerical outfit: on Sundays this traditional healer leaves her jackal skin hat behind to lead church, further down the trail. Before she performs a dance to connect herself to the ancestors, she lights a handful of fragrant branches in an incense burning ritual to awaken the spirits. Her daughter who is a traditional healer in another village, helps her today by beating a large drum. The old woman starts moving to the rhythm. Beer bottle caps tied around her ankles rattle against each other echoing the drum. She blows a whistle and chants: the consultation is about to start. She receives us, one by one, with ‘Me translating her words… A sunset walk through the village and a taste of the local fermented beer allow us to reflect on her shaking revelations…
After dinner, Christeen drives us in the Land Rover to meet ‘Me Mampine. This brave and dedicated woman has manned a shepherd’s school for over 11 years. Most of the boys, aged from 8 to 18, have been orphaned, are poor, and do not go to school. They make a small living by taking care of the herds of other men who often take advantage of them because of their lack of education. To help these youngsters, ‘Me Mampine volunteers six evenings a week, teaching them how to read, write, and calculate, as well as ploughing and planting skills so that they can become self-sustainable when they start a family. She could use some cash to feed her own children who are at home with her husband – a brave man too, accepting that his wife goes against the pre-set rules for women. Instead, she helps the shepherds design and produce some handicrafts that they sell to support the school. She re-invests everything to get them teaching material. The boys realise how lucky they are, and they come from far up in the mountains to attend ‘Me Mampine’s classes. As we buy some crafts, proud smiles appear on the shy faces of the shepherds, curious to see whose handicraft was the most successful. Off we go: it is time for us to let ‘Me Mampine teach.
Outside, the Milky Way brightens up the pitch-dark night. A few more headlights can be seen in the close distance as a handful of more boys are rushing to ‘Me Mampine’s school. We breathe the chill mountain air reflecting on this inspiring and humbling encounter before we step back into the Land Rover and head into the darkness. Compared to the local primary school where kids in uniform are packed in a classroom where they have a hard time getting attention from not-so-motivated teachers, ‘Me Mampine is really giving these teenagers a chance, despite the little resources she has access to.
Time feels different in Lesotho. It is already the last morning… After bathing in the cold river to freshen up, it is time to head back to South Africa. Christeen is impatient to leave: she is keeping an eye on the clouds that are forming in the distance: hoping that the Sani Pass has stayed dry, now it is all a matter of reaching it before the clouds do so.
After saying good bye to our hosts, we embark the Land Rover. Driving away, the barren landscapes of the Kingdom in the Sky pass by. Life in Lesotho can be rough with droughts, overgrazed fields, and a social system that fails to take care of the hundreds of thousands of Basotho orphans – a consequence of HIV AIDS. Still, it is a peaceful environment far from the frivolities of the western-way of living. Christeen tells us about a Masotho civil engineer who emigrated to South Africa. After a few successful years, he came back to his home country to live a simpler life in his rondavel and herding his sheep. There is definitely something very special about Lesotho that can only be grasped a little bit by the lucky and in-depth traveller who makes it to this kingdom of the sky!
To live this experience, refer to Drakensberg Adventures which is second to none and the pioneer in developing ethical tourism in Lesotho. This local tour operator is an acclaimed award-winning company in sustainable tourism involving and giving back to local communities.
Want to read more about Lesotho and find out about another green way of exploring it? Check out this great article.
This article was published in Beyond Boundaries, the e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure: