Climbing to the sky

On April 28 we left The Bend at 9:30 and headed south on the Lower Loteni road. Soon we reached dirt and drove a bumpy, windy road for 60 km through remote farm country to the Sani Pass turnoff. At the end of the road we passed a sign informing travelers that it was illegal to proceed without four wheel drive. Not a problem for us in the Defender 110. The track was rutted and steep in places with a water crossing but Jenna, being a seasoned hand at the wheel of a Land Rover, had no difficulty.

None shall pass...without 4-wheel drive.

At the South African border post we switched drivers and I shifted into low range, knowing what was ahead. On my last visit to Sani Pass I had been a passenger and was now looking forward to driving the route. The road climbed steeply up to the head of a valley. Above us to the right were the cliffs known as the 12 Apostles. The road was narrow, only a car's width for much of the way, with nothing between the edge and a long drop off. This being midweek we saw little traffic and crept slowly up in low range, second gear. After twisting through some sharp switchbacks near the top we cleared the climb and checked in at the Lesotho border. Outside lay a wrecked vehicle that had driven off the road and rolled a long way down the mountain, sobering evidence of the consequences of misjudgment.

Looking up towards Sani Pass:  8 km of hairpin bends, loose rocks, and sheer drops.

One of the wider stretches of road on the way up Sani Pass.

Looking back down the final few turns.

The hazards of Sani.

Moments later we pulled into Sani Top Lodge and another driver informed me of a leak under our Rover. Sure enough, it was dripping water.  We let the engine cool while we sat on the deck above a cliff and watched other vehicles top out.  After a lovely walk along the 12 Apostles with Jenna I had a look at the engine with Brett Hoy, the lodge manager who owned a Discovery TD5 so knew the ins and outs. With the help of cold Maluti beer and headlamps we found the leak: a coolant hose had developed a 1cm split under the clamp. We sliced off the end of the hose, reconnected it, and reassembled everything. Field repair complete, Jenna and I retired to the toasty lodge.

At an elevation of 2,874 metres, Sani Pass claims to be the highest pub in Africa.  Buildings are heated by coal stoves.  Outside a chill wind blew beneath piercing stars but in the bar the heat was sweltering.  We got to know our fellow travelers and kept glancing in the direction of the dining room until staff announced that dinner was served.  For being so high and remote the meal was varied and delicious with a buffet of several meats, vegetables, grains, and malva pudding for dessert.

Our rondavel was toasty and we fell asleep by the light of glowing coal embers as the wind whipped outside.  In the morning clear skies greeted us and a hiking group that had arrived late last night joined the motorized patrons at breakfast.  A test drive showed that the hose repair was working so Jenna and I began the slow descent down the pass.  We were sad to leave, Lesotho was such a beautiful and peaceful place, even though we had only ventured a few hundred metres into the country.

Some adventure bikers made quick work of the climb.

Partway back down we met some of the hikers and gave them a lift in Rizzo's Rover Taxi.  The four guys were support crew for the guided clients, who had bailed after 9 days on the trail with knee issues.  The clients were catching a ride out but there was no room for the support team so we piled them all in back.  Two we took with us all the way to Pietermaritaburg- Luan, an aspiring hiking guide and Mlai, a freelance guide.

Luan, Mlai, and porters were grateful for the lift back down the pass.  The Rover Taxi rides again.

We rendezvoused with Kenneth in Hillcrest and took the Defender into the shop for a new set of tyres before returning to the placid, tree-lined slopes of Essenwood.  We sat outside and shared pizza, excitement mounting as we looked ahead to our Tembe outing.  Neither Jenna nor I slept well that night at the B &B, eagerly anticipating the next adventure. 

Nothing like some 10-ply military tyres for a smooth ride.