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Climbing to the top of the Kingdom in the SkyGetting to the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho from Kwa Zulu Natal in South Africa is no easy matter. It entails a 9 km drive up the infamous unpaved Sani Pass that snakes its rocky, tortuous way up the edge of an escarpment of the Drankensburg Mountains. With features such as Suicide Bend and Haemorrhoid Hill you need a strong anal nerve and a 4X4 to even attempt it.
Buckshot rain drummed on our 4X4 as it lurched forward over deep gullies scoured by floods, through streams and bad potholes, loose rocks churning beneath the wheels. Mud and freezing temperatures made traction tricky on the numerous hairpin bends – at least we couldn’t see the horrendous death trap drop-offs in the mist. Martin did well to coax the 4X4 up this brutal pass where several vehicles were abandoned and another towed up the final 2 hairpins. Our relief was palpable when the border post and a group of wretched rondavels finally loomed through the cloud and billowing coal smoke at the top of the pass (2874m). A few beers in the nearby Highest Pub in Africa was just reward!
We awoke in our hut to a crimson dawn chasing away the stars. The glistening earth steamed as the sun gently released it from night’s icy grasp. Thatched mokhoro (stone huts) emitted clouds of blue smoke as we drove with our Basotho guide to a nearby village to climb Thabane Ntlenyana (3482m), the highest mountain in Southern Africa. At just over 22 kms, it is not a technical climb over treeless Afro-Montane grassland and a few river crossings only tricky in the rainy season, but it is at altitude. The route traverses a valley for over 4 kms before a steep climb up a ridge followed by a descent into another broad valley. A second ridge must be surmounted before the final pull up the shoulder of the mountain with its crown of rocks.
This is big sheep country, unfenced under expansive blue skies, domain of jackal buzzards. Basotho shepherds clad in balaclavas, woollen blankets and gumboots greet you warmly in rapid Sesotho, the silence broken only by the clanking of sheep bells. With winter approaching there was fresh snow on the higher slopes but the sun was warm on our backs. After 4 hrs we attained the summit, buffeted by strong winds. The Zulus call these mountains Quathlamba or ‘The Barrier of Spears’. We understood why as we gazed upon an army of emerald peaks, most over 3,000m, some topped with a pie crust of basaltic rock gleaming with snow. We watched mesmerised as cloud drifted languidly up over the edge of the dramatic Drakensburg Escarpment below, the inky blue ramparts of the mysterious Giant’s Castle floating between earth and sky beyond.
The descent took just under 3 hrs. You could climb this mountain without a guide but at 35 euro this was money well spent in such a poor community and we learnt much about Basotho culture. In all it took us 7.5 hours with around 1.5 hours of stops and we were back in the pub to celebrate before sunset.
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