This past weekend we went to visit Lesotho. There were six of us who took the trip up the Sani Pass into the tiny nation completely surrounded by South Africa - me, Ali, Joseph, Mat, Sabrina and Caroline.
The day before we left I received numerous warnings by my colleagues about the dangers of driving up the Sani Pass. Though nervous, I had full confidence in our driver (Ali) and our vehicle (a Toyota Fortuner). In fact, by law you have to have a 4x4 vehicle in order to attempt the climb up the steep dirt road leading to Lesotho.
As we exited the South African border I realized that this was my first time leaving the country in almost six months.
It took us about 45 minutes to cover the 8 kilometres that led us to the top of the Sani Pass and into Lesotho.
Because of the high altitude, the temperature here was significantly cooler. After we got our passports stamped with our Lesotho stamps (who has a Lesotho stamp in their passport anyway?) we drove the 500m from the border to the highest pub in Africa to have lunch. This was probably the last restaurant/pub/shop that we came in contact with the whole weekend.
After lunch we continued with our onward journey deeper into Lesotho. Though the road became a bit flatter, it remained equally challenging. Driving through the vast lands we only encountered a couple of small villages of maybe thirty huts each. The few people we came across along the way were usually on horseback, dressed in traditional blankets called Basotho blankets and wool hats that covered everything but their eyes. There were no other vehicles on the road.
I held on to the instructions that were to guide us to our lodge, though it seemed that there was no need for instructions as there was one road and one road only. In a place where the easiest measure of distance is time, our only indicator was that we should be looking for a t-junction about an hour after crossing the border into Lesotho. That hour came and went and we were still crawling along the dirt road paved only with boulders and giant potholes, the remnants of heavy rains and erosion. We soon began to refer to this remote and rural mountainous nation as "the land the 20th century forgot."
We reached the St. James Guest Lodge, a stone building located on a hillside overlooking a small village, in the late afternoon. Originally forming part of the St. James Roman Catholic Mission it was recently converted into a guest house. With no electricity, internet signal or cell phone reception, the tranquility of the mountains immediately surrounded us. This would be the perfectly place to relax and learn about the culture, tradition and way of life of the Sotho people.
With the impending sunset the temperature quickly began to cool. As there was no refrigerator or any grocery stores in the area, we had to carefully pre-plan our meals and had brought enough food accordingly. That night we had our dinner by the light of the few gas lamps that were provided for us and by the heat of the fire that was quietly burning in the fireplace.
The next morning we woke up to beautiful clear skies and crisp mountain air.
After breakfast we decided that we would spend the day pony trekking and visiting the nearby village. I was quite disappointed to learn that ponies are not actually the miniature horses with silky long tails I had seen on TV when I was little. Though my "pony" kept on stopping to graze (likely because I had no idea how to control it) this was a fantastic way to see the village and experience the landscape.
In the late afternoon our guide, Elias, took us to visit the nearby village. The tour basically consisted of going to a local shebeen, where some of the local villagers had gathered to socialize. A shebeen is a small hut from which a person sells homebrewed beer. In Lesotho, shebeens are marked by a white flag waving outside their doors.
The shebeen we visited was owned and operated by Grandma. She was responsible for selling and serving the homebrewed beer, which we all took turns tasting. It wasn't that bad.
We spent some time at the shebeen meeting the local people and trying to communicate with them as much as possible. For the most part they were really friendly, though they all wanted to have their picture taken so they could get some money from us.
At the end we decided that we couldn't give some people money as then everyone would ask us for money. Instead, we decided to buy R20 worth of beer from the shebeen, which is the equivalent to $2.50 CAD. With the price of beer at R2.50 per litre, our R20 bought all the beer that Grandma had to offer. The locals were all quite happy.
On our way back home we saw a number of the villagers chewing what looked like sugar cane. We asked Elias whether we would be able to get some. Elias responded that this is not sugar cane but maize (corn) stalks. He told us that the locals use their teeth to completely peel a piece of stalk and chew on its insides. As we were curious to try it, Elias asked one of the villagers to get us some.
As dusk approached and the air began to cool, we decided to drive to the top of the nearest hill to see the sun set behind the mountains. There was something very special, beautiful and almost magical about that moment.
After spending a really fun night by the fire with really good friends and a couple of bottles of wine, it was time to head back to Durban the following morning. It took us a couple of hours to get back to the top of the Sani Pass.
At the top of the Sani Pass we enjoyed some hot drinks and bought some souvenirs before having the Lesotho exit stamps entered into our passports.
The drive down the Sani Pass was even more nerve-wrecking than the way up, though equally impressive. It was time to travel through time back to the future.