Tag: Africa

:: the great pan ::

Imagine looking out at something so immense and featureless that your brain literally just stops comprehending the visual clues being sent to it. That is what it is like to stand on the edge of Etosha Pan in northern Namibia on a bright, sunny day with nothing but blue sky and clouds above and kilometre after kilometre of parched earth below.

Located within Etosha National Park, the salt pan is nearly 5,000 square kilometres and stretches 130 km from east to west. Nothing lives out in the hypersaline environment except some rare micro-organisms. It is just a huge swathe of earth that leaves one thinking of getting back in the car and drinking a lot of water.

However to stand on it and feel the heat radiating up off the ground is to realise how vulnerable we humans really can be. Then to see a small group of boks out on the pan, in the middle of the noonday sun, you realise the lengths some animals go to survive. Better to be hot on the open expanse of the salt pan than to be a lion’s dinner!

Etosha is one of Africa’s great wildlife parks, yet it exists in one of Africa’s most inhospitable climates. Driving from the south, there is nothing but scrubland for hundreds of kilometres, with huge farms trying to feed sheep and cattle on the short grasses and brush that grow intermittently in the rocky soil. Once inside the park the terrain seems to get even more arid and rocky, as if the salt pan is exerting its influence via osmosis or gravitational pull. The brush gets more sparse and vicious, with thorns and jagged edges sticking out in all directions. The effects of the excess salt blowing off the pan parches the land and temperatures rise without mercy.

In this ridiculously harsh land life proliferates. Large herds of zebra, gemsbok and wildebeest wander the open plains and towering elephants move from water hole to water hole, knocking over the thorny trees. Prides of lions saunter around and birds flit here and there eating the insects that follow all these huge mammals.

Visiting Etosha in the beginning of the summer months was both good and bad. It entailed long hot days driving over the parched roads or sitting in the stifling heat by a water hole hoping to see an animal or two, or two hundred wander past. But the benefit of all the heat was that water was at a premium, so animals tend to congregate near the water holes. That is the theory at least.

In reality, there is so much land here and so many water holes that you have two options; either drive from hole to hole trying to see what you can see or just sit and wait at a water hole for hours, knowing eventually something will come by for a drink. Besides it being over 40 degrees in the sun, and not being able to get out of the car, we just don’t sit still for long periods of time well, so off across the huge of the expanse of the park we went!

We have no regrets with our choice as the landscape was truly stunning – the emptiness stretching off into the far distance, with dots of wildlife here and there. We had some great animal experiences, from the two huge bull elephants walking right behind our car to the family of mongooses sprawled out in the shade by the side of the road. We watched giraffe graze from trees and zebra frolic by water holes.

And then there were the predators. The first evening we came across a spotted hyena lounging on the road as we headed back to camp. With the sun setting behind him as he laid there lazily waking up, we sat and watched him, not more than five meters away. Being rather mesmerised by him, we at first failed to notice his two partners in crime, who were also getting ready for their nocturnal escapades. We would see these three hyenas the next morning, and evening, always in the same spot – a well placed culvert under the road.

The hyenas were great to see, but it was two lion sightings that really were special. One morning on our way across an open plain we suddenly saw a pride of lions ambling towards the road. We stopped and waited and watched as 11 lionesses and young male lions, covered in blood from their night’s kill, casually walked in front of our car. These animals are truly majestic, even just walking their power and athleticism is clearly evident.

Of course, they are also ridiculously lazy. Late in the afternoon we came across three lionesses crashed out in the shade of a small thorn tree. They couldn’t have been more than a meter or two from the road and they only occasionally moved to keep in the shade or to lethargically pick up their heads for a quick look around. They knew we were there and couldn’t have cared less. They are in charge in Etosha, and they know it!

Etosha was filled with surprises, from hidden little water holes, to the behaviour of boks out on the salt pan, but the biggest surprise were the huge storms that rolled across the landscape late one afternoon. With the fading light slanting across the huge, dark clouds it was very easy to see the rainfalls in the distance. Dozens of kilometres away, these storms were clearly visible across the barren emptiness of the great pan, bringing life saving water to the mass of animals that call this ancient corner of Africa home.

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:: the middle of nowhere ::

For three days we didn’t exist within any country. We physically inhabited a place and continuously wandered back and forth across the old border between South Africa and Botswana, but technically we were outside the bounds of any nation.

Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was created in 2000 as Southern Africa’s first Peace Park.  The Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana were merged together and the international boundary torn down. Since then, nine other parks have been established in Southern Africa, including the Maloti-Drakensberg Park on the eastern side of Lesotho.

Kgalagadi means place of thirst in the local San language and a more apt name could not have been thought up! There are few words to explain how hot it was there, and our visit wasn’t even in the height of the summer months. Day time temperatures were in the low 40s, Celsius, and that was in the shade. All animals, and intelligent humans, would stay in the shade for most of the long sunshine hours. The shade available would sometimes only be big enough for one animal, so you would see a lone wildebeest or kudu standing on its own under a small tree.

As usual for safaris or game parks, animals were most active early mornings and evenings. We were rewarded our very first evening with a lovely encounter with a pride of 10 or so lions, including some little cubs. They were still largely being lazy under the trees, but the young ones were up and play fighting and jumping on their moms and aunts! The male lion meanwhile was twenty meters away, under his own tree, peacefully asleep.

One of the great things about Kgalagadi is that some of the campsites are unfenced. This is only on the Botswana side of the park, but it was too great of an opportunity to pass up for us. We stayed in the Rooiputs Camp, about 30km from the southern park border, and felt very removed from civilisation. There were six sites here, each with a concrete pad and a wood shelter for setting up your tent.

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The purpose of the constructed shelter was to protect the site from the harsh sun and provide a place to be off the sand and away from scorpions and snakes. The first element worked pretty well, but the second didn’t work as well as we discovered a squashed scorpion under our tent when we packed up the last morning. It had obviously made its way under the tent during the day while we were gone and then got flattened by us that night when we went in.  Needless to say the ants were happy so there were some winners.

The pride of lions we had seen the first night are apparently well known to hang out at Rooiputs, but we didn’t see them. We did see several live scorpions and the tracks of some seriously large millipedes, as well as hyena tracks the second morning. Unfortunately we didn’t have any other nocturnal visitors, at least none that woke us up!

Our days at Kgalagadi were spent slowly picking our way across the parched sand and dirt tracks of the park. There are two main routes up the two dry river beds of either the Nossob or Auob Rivers. Neither river has permanently flowed in more than 40 years and only fill up after unusually heavy periods of rain. Time in the park is mostly spent driving up parched rivers scanning the variety of red dunes, tan dirt and scrub bushes for animals.

As befitting a park that was initially set up to protect them, there were lots of gemsbok, or oryx depending on your naming proclivities. There were also large herds of springbok, lots of wildebeest, kudu and black-backed jackals and a rather skittish spotted hyena.

On our last day we saw lots of giraffes near a popular waterhole which was magical.

Our first early morning out we were treated to a brief but lovely backlit sighting of a Cape Fox mom and a couple of pups.

What we really wanted to see however were cheetahs. Kgalagadi is well known cheetah territory, but sadly the best we could do was a rather long distance view through binoculars of two cheetahs laying on top of a dune, doing nothing. This is a normal occurrence for cheetahs, as they are largely regarded as the laziest of the big cats, which is saying something considering how much lions sleep!

Though we left without the cheetah experience we craved, the park was magical in its remoteness, dryness and some special experiences. We even got to feel rain on our faces and watch huge lightning storms far in the distance from our campfire – two things not at all common in this remarkably dry corner of southern Africa for most of the year.

:: to the blooms ::

Driving a two lane strip of tar due west and dead straight for twenty kilometres can be seen as monotonous. A slight curve and then another fifteen or twenty more kilometres of straight road, this is more or less what you face from Bloemfontein to Springbok, South Africa.  There we found ourselves, covering a thousand kilometres of arid, windswept landscape, on our way to see some flowers.

We are not known to be great botanists, yet the idea of seeing regularly arid desert landscapes covered in vibrant oranges, pinks and yellows seemed too unique an opportunity to pass up. During August and September each year, the early spring rains bring hundreds of different types of flowers out from Southern Namibia to the Cape of Good Hope. Some are so specialised they only grow in fields or hillsides around specific towns or nature reserves. Even without a botany degree, the small variations in petals, stems and other floral accoutrement are known to be stunning.

Though there are stretches of the road so straight that you need not have to steer for fifteen minutes with a good wheel alignment, the drive across from Lesotho isn’t as boring as some would have you believe.  Along the way you come across some real surprises, especially the Green Kalahari. This thin strip of land that straddles the Orange River produces enough water that large scale grape production is possible.

The grape vines are impressive to behold as they cling to the rocky soil with just a thin hose providing the irrigation lifeline necessary for their survival. These vines produce wonderful harvests of grapes each year, some which are transformed into a lovely Orange River wine, while others are sold straight off the vine as fruit, or dried and packaged as raisins.

Another surprise awaits along the way at Augrabies Falls. The Orange River gets squeezed through a narrow fissure in sheer cliffs before tumbling 56 metres into the gorge below. From there, the river that starts its journey in the far north of Lesotho as the Senqu, then forms the border between South Africa and Namibia as it makes the last couple of hundred kilometres trek across the southern reaches of the Kalahari Desert. Besides the falls themselves, which are breathtaking, this little undiscovered National Park has great hiking and game watching opportunities. We didn’t have the time to properly explore, but something tells us a couple of days would be needed to do this little gem justice.

As night closed in around us, a thunderstorm chased us down the last desolate stretch of road. The phrase ‘pitch black’ surely must have been created to explain what the night is like out in this unpopulated corner of South Africa. There were no lights. None. In any direction for the one hundred kilometres from the park to Pofadder, our stop for the night. Even when we reached town there were barely any lights.

This small town named with the Afrikaans word for Puff Adder, the venomous snake, sits in its own world. We didn’t spend long enough there to know if it is a happy or sad place, but it is a place that offered us a comfortable sanctuary from the long road. It was a place to park up, have a meal and sleep before heading back into the great empty corner once more towards the land of the desert flowers.

:: an evening of music ::

Maseru is a wonderful place, but it is largely bereft of unique dining, music or theatrical pursuits. Every so often however there is an event thrown together that brings us culturally starved individuals out of the woodwork! Last night Alliance Francaise Maseru put on an event that crossed several genres and more than ticked the box for uniqueness.

Two french musical groups came to Maseru, but they couldn’t be further apart in style. The first group, Akale Wube, is a Parisian band who plays Ethiopian music with jazzy undertones. The sound is a wonderful mixture of percussion, horns and guitars and offers a perfect background soundtrack for sitting in a cafe garden talking to friends. Luckily, that was exactly the atmosphere!

With the red and green stage lights casting haunting shadows on the leafless trees and various tables crowded around outdoor heaters, it was not a normal venue for a musical concert in the plummeting temperatures of nearly winter Lesotho, but it was magical. The colder temperatures didn’t prevent a large number of Basotho and expats from attending and enjoying the wonderful music. Of course the exquisite homemade Ethiopian food on offer helped chase away a good amount of the chill in the air.

A while later we were treated to a complete change of pace with the second group.  On came four French lads who created the most amazing sounds, all from their mouths/throats. Under Kontrol are a beat box group, meaning they use no instruments to perform. It is simply the four of them ‘playing’ drums, trumpet, guitar and turn tables all from their mouths. They sing as well, frequently in different voices, all of which leads to a fabulous smorgasbord of sounds and energy.

They started with a mix of blues, jazz and hip hop sounds, before moving through the gears to really show off their talent. The switches in their vocal ‘instruments’, intensity and tone were quick and fierce, but always completely controlled. They had people up and dancing, tapping their feet and bobbing along to songs none of us knew. They finished it all up with individual free-styling. If I hadn’t been right there seeing it, I could never have believed that one person could make so many different sounds at the same time.  If you’ve never seen this kind of thing before, have a listen to this and remember that there are no instruments being used!

It was a great evening and very well organised, perfect for a unique experience shared with good friends. We only wish there were more opportunities like this sometimes!

:: the gateway ::

The sign in front of you shows a hippo grazing under a crescent moon and three stars. Beware Hippos at Night, it reads. Nothing makes you feel more welcome than to know that the mammal responsible for more human fatalities on the continent of Africa than any other roams freely on the streets of the town you have chosen to stay in!

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Though the hippos of St Lucia are moderately tame, they are still very large and skittish animals, and extremely aggressive when agitated. The idea of encountering one on the suburban streets in the dark as they graze on the grass is not to be taken lightly, but it is a very unique and memorable experience. Though we weren’t lucky enough to encounter them, we did hear that they had been engaged in a territorial battle just a few streets over from where we were wandering.

St Lucia is the gateway town to iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This thin strip of coastline and wetlands is home to close to 800 hippos as well as Nile crocodiles, rhino, leopard, water buffalo, zebra, nyala, warthog and numerous other land based species. The ecosystem is a mixture of the world’s highest vegetated sand dunes, marshy estuaries and open plains. Off the coast are excellent snorkelling and diving waters on the migratory path of humpback whales and whale sharks, while the beaches are known nesting grounds for loggerhead and green turtles.

iSimangaliso must be the only place on the globe where the oldest land mammal (the rhinoceros) and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal (the elephant) share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish (the coelacanth) and the world’s biggest marine mammal (the whale) Nelson Mandela

 

There are two main ways to experience this area – either in your car or on the water. Driving up from St Lucia to Cape Vidal will take you right through the heart of the park. The key is to take every little turn-off loop from the main road which will take you past watering holes filled with hippos, up into the forested dunes and right to the edge of the inland estuary.

We were both extremely keen to see hippos so the signs everywhere warning visitors of them crossing the road made us even more excited. The idea of seeing something so large both on land and in the water was overly enticing and so we were thrilled when our first turn-off loop led us to a small pond filled with eight to ten hippos floating in the water!

At first all we could see were a couple of sets of eyes, some ears flapping away flies and the occasional snout. Before too long there were a couple of younger hippos play fighting, displaying their enormous mouths and sharp teeth. As the sun grew stronger the family of hippos made their way into the muddy shallows and spent hours basking in the warmth of the sun, laying so still they could have easily been mistaken for huge grey rocks.

One of the best ways to truly feel a connection to the hippos and get up close and personal with them is to kayak out on the estuary. St Lucia Kayaks will take you out for a few hours to look for hippos, crocs, birds and even sharks! Unlike the wildlife boat cruises, you have to do all the work, but it is something special to come across hippos in the water and to be at their level!

Within ten minutes of launching we spotted half a dozen hippos relaxing in the shallow waters. Much like the other ones, we could just see eyes, ears and snouts, but this time it was from fifty meters away across water. It was thrilling to momentarily be in the same water with these giants, steadily getting closer as the current pushed the kayaks towards the shore. Further up river we were treated to sightings of Egyptian geese, a kingfisher, herons and even a shark ever so briefly. As the temperatures of the water dropped headed into winter, the crocodiles were unfortunately well out of sight in the reeds trying to stay warm.

This little corner of KwaZulu Natal province is really quite special. Driving yourself up the coast and having close encounters with so many different animals is not necessarily unique in Africa, but the variety you can see here is special.

After a couple of hours watching hippo, and having up close encounters with a water buffalo, kudu and warthog, we popped out onto the huge expanse of sand at the top of Cape Vidal. There the warm waters of the Indian Ocean washed up onto smooth white expansive beaches nestled right up against the vegetated dunes.

It was the perfect place to poke around on the exposed rocks as the tide receded, looking for interesting crabs, mussels and other animals left in the rock pools. The waters were inviting, but as we looked north up the coast past the weekend tourists, we could see the desolate expanse of beach and knew we could wait for a more special swimming opportunities.

Exploring the park’s natural beauty, spotting wildlife in the wetlands and enjoying the warm humid air was a perfect way to spend a day in this hidden gem in the corner of South Africa.

:: a forgotten kingdom no longer ::

Lesotho’s cultural imprint is extremely limited in the wider world.  Some people might have heard of this small landlocked country, but they couldn’t tell you much about it from a cultural perspective.  There is no mention of the Basotho and their blankets or the Sesotho language, nor the prominence of horses in this mountainous and rural country. Even in southern Africa people tend not to know much about Lesotho, only that it is cold and remote.

Perhaps a big reason for this ignorance comes from a dearth of cultural references about Lesotho.  There are no TV shows or movies that showcase Lesotho, while the music and arts scenes are locally limited.  With a large and culturally dynamic neighbour like South Africa influencing Basotho, it is not hard to see how Lesotho can be left in the shade.

A new award winning film, however, made by an American filmmaker, is offering people the chance to explore Lesotho through the movie screen.  The Forgotten Kingdom is filmed in Sesotho, shot almost entirely in Lesotho and features many Basotho as actors.  It is the first feature film ever to be shot in Lesotho and offers a visual labor of love about this phenomenal and overlooked country.

Last night we had the chance to see the movie at an outdoor screening in Morija.  The film producers have been touring Lesotho putting on free community screenings in key locations, especially ones they filmed parts of the movie in.  So, with our picnic blanket and bag of popcorn in hand, we joined approximately 300 other people to watch a movie projected onto an outdoor pop-up screen, surrounded by flashes of lightning as a storm threatened.

This was a fantastic way to experience the movie as most of the audience was Basotho and they vocalized their emotions at key moments of the film. Sitting outside in the countryside that was so viscerally displayed on screen only heightened our enjoyment of this cinematic novelty. 

The story is universal, with a troubled youth trying to find his way in a life torn between the traditions of his parents and the reality of his life in South Africa. When his father dies, he embarks on a journey back to Lesotho to bury him. There he reconnects with the life he had left behind as a child and takes a journey to rediscover his roots. 

It is a lovely little movie that holds extra meaning to those of us who have spent time in this magical country. It is soon to be released in the Maseru cinema as well as in South Africa.  We hope that it will also have the chance to appear in the US or Europe, but hopefully at least a netflix or YouTube version will become available. 

If you can find it near you, we highly recommend it, as it will show you a place that you cannot hope to understand any other way – unless you come to visit us!

Watch the trailer and get hooked:

 

Another little plug for this film is it was supported and partially funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, so U.S. Embassy Maseru has been involved in many aspects of production and screening of this beautiful film.

:: epic remoteness ::

Ten hours of two lane roads navigating the lowlands and snaking up into the mountains.  Ten hours of traversing rivers, rural villages and alpine meadows.  Ten hours of avoiding rock falls, random car sized potholes and speed bumps.  Ten hours of bouncing along dirt roads for kilometre after kilometre of awe-inspiring beauty.  Ten hours after our departure from Maseru, we finally arrived in Sehlabathebe National Park

Nestled amongst the soaring peaks of the Maloti Mountains and staring out over the abyss of the Drakensberg Escarpment, Sehlabathebe was the first National Park in Lesotho.  Like most things in Lesotho, it isn’t terribly far as the crow flies, maybe 300 kilometres, but it feels like it’s on the far side of the world.  That feeling is amplified by the fact that there are almost no settlements near the park and so once inside the park’s boundaries, you have a better chance of seeing jackals than humans. 

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Once past the small guard house and soon to be opened new lodge, there are literally no structures within the park with the exception of a few ruined shepherd shelters and a rather bizarre house.  In the 1970’s, the then Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan decided he needed a hunting lodge, so he had a rather suburban looking house built in the middle of what is now Sehlabathebe.

I am not sure if there were a lot of animals there to hunt or whether it was more of a convenient place to hole up at times.  Regardless, the house has been operated as a rental property over the past few years by the Lesotho Tourism Board.  Two months ago, however, they closed it for an undisclosed duration, but you are still allowed to camp on the grounds.

We, and our friends Stacy and Cale, set up camp right next to a little babbling brook that flowed out of the once well stocked pond.  Much to Cale’s chagrin, there were no fish in this little pond, but there is apparently a beaver.  With a few trees offering a shady canopy and an unbroken expanse of grassland stretching out for a couple of kilometres, it was the perfect place to sit down and enjoy a beer while the braai got started. 

There is nothing to do in Sehlabathebe and that is the pure allure of the place.  You sleep late, have a lazy breakfast and then wander off in one direction or the other looking vaguely for animals, flowers or just a good view.  With this as our mantra, we walked out towards a waterfall, the location of which was described by the park ranger as being ‘towards the frog mountain and then head to your right.’  Admittedly the frog mountain was quite clear.  It was the head to the right that lead to some discussion and random wanderings, especially as from the top of the frog we could not see anything remotely close to a waterfall. 

IMG_0287001One of the unique features of the landscape of Lesotho is that it hides amazing natural wonders.  This is true across the country – Maletsunyane Falls near Semonkong just appear from nowhere.  So we wandered along a twisty stream, cutting through the high grasses and across the rock strewn waterway in search of this waterfall.  Then all of the sudden, it was there, practically at our feet.  The path ran alongside of the falls and lead down to the lovely pool below.  Though lovely to look at, it was icy cold even in the height of summer.  That didn’t stop us from taking a chilly but refreshing swim!

Cale decided not to join us in the water as he continued his unfortunately futile search for fish in the many streams that carve their way through the grasslands.  He did provide me a nice little fly fishing lesson however, so I now understand the basics of casting, even if that lesson did lead to two lost lures and a snapped line, sorry Cale!

The hike back from the falls turned into a marathon trek up and over a couple of mountains.  It was completely unnecessary as we could have followed the same stream back past the frog and towards the camp, but it being early in the day and we being young and adventurous, we decided to hike straight up!  

Like so many random decisions made on the fly, this one proved advantageous as we were rewarded with amazing 360 degree views and even found a couple of abandoned shepherd shelters that had been built into the rock faces.  We were exhausted by the end, but that just made dinner over an open fire taste all the better!

Stacy is a professional botanist and therefore was in heaven all weekend.  Sehlabathebe is covered in numerous flower species that are extremely rare to find in the wild and so invariably we would find Stacy kneeling down in the grass examining a small orchid or similarly delicate flower.  It was infectious to be around someone who was so knowledgable and enthusiastic.  With our limited knowledge and attention to flowers, it was incredible to see the many different petal, stem and seed structures through Stacy’s triple magnifier.

The real find of the weekend was going to be spotting an extremely rare lily that was apparently growing in some of the rock pools near the camp.  We set off up onto the plateau in search of them, but aside from some other new flowers we were unfortunately unable to locate the lilies.  The journey was good fun nonetheless as we skirted the rock pools – some no larger than a puddle and others that could be safely classed as ponds in their own right. 

On the far side of the pools were a series of rock outcroppings twisted into many elaborate forms by the wind and rain that lashes the Drakensberg Escarpment.  Some have formed perfect arches that frame the famous Three Bushmen peaks.  These peaks cast an imposing watch over the whole area and could be an entire photographic collection as the sunlight hits them throughout the day and clouds roll across their faces.  We weren’t able to climb them this time but when we go back that is going to be day one!

The weekend went entirely too quickly and soon we embarked on the long drive once more.  We attempted to cut across country on the new tar road to Semonkong, but were thwarted by construction works.  So, once more around the lowlands we went.  The Semonkong road would have been fantastically beautiful, but the drive around the perimeter of Lesotho is a treat, even if you did it just three days prior! 

Thanks to Stacy and Cale for all the good times, good food and good company – it was a fantastic weekend!

A few more snapshots of our adventures in Sehlabathebe…

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Here’s what some of our journey was like, though this was one of the best patches of road quality

:: 1500 hashes ::

How many Sundays do you wake up early to go for a hike? Once a month? Once a year? Never?! For thirty years people in Maseru have gotten up, driven out to the countryside and then walked around following clumps of shredded paper. Why? Who knows, but to celebrate the 1500th run of the Maseru Hash House Harriers, we organised a Hash to Qiloane Falls.

We visited Qiloane with a group back in November, but this time it was an 80 strong group that traipsed over the hills and into the river to reach the falls. The water was lower this time, which was good for the collected masses, and we brought beer, also good for the collected masses! It wasn’t a normal hash as the route was not dotted and there were no false trails, but it was a challenging hike. The true blue hashers were decked out in the special 1500th edition t-shirt, designed by Cora herself! They feature a lovely representation of the Hash, with adults, kids and dogs all walking amongst mountains to the falls.

The reward at the end of the hike down was sun-drenched rocks, swimming under the falls and lots of hashers enjoying the special day out. People hung about, swam, slept, drank, ate and generally enjoyed a place not regularly visited. The return journey is always harder, but the whole day out was a wonderful celebration of the essence of the Hash in Maseru – getting out into the beautiful Lesotho countryside and exploring what nature has to offer!

 

:: in the clouds ::

The clouds rolled slowly up and over the edge of the sheer cliff face, forming the illusion of a tablecloth draped snugly to the rock.  The valley 500 meters below was nothing more than a memory and the idea of driving the dirt and gravel switchbacks that passed down through it was not one that any sane person would relish.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

The top of Sani Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sitting nearly 2900 meters above sea level right on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment, this road pass is one of Southern Africa’s rites of passage for adventurous souls.  

The road climbs over 1300 meters in only 10km with the last kilometre being nothing but ridiculously sharp switchbacks up a nearly sheer wall of rock.  It is the only road pass between South Africa and Lesotho for hundreds of kilometres between the far southwest and northeast of Lesotho.  Nearly half of the circular border of Lesotho has no road passage to South Africa, except Sani.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaOn a clear day the Drakensberg mountain range can be seen from the city of Durban about 90km away.  On a cloudy, fog filled day, the mountains can’t be seen from 90 meters away!  Thrown up millions of years ago, this terribly imposing mountain range stands guard between the coastal plains of South Africa and the rugged interior of Lesotho.

A group of us set off from Maseru early on a Friday and nine hours, 300km and lots of bumpy roads later, we arrived at the top of Sani Pass.  The road from Mokhotlong to Sani alone is only about 50km, but it takes about two hours on the unfinished dirt roads.  The views along the way are breathtaking, as you snake along river valleys and up through mountains, including Thabana Ntlenyana, the highest peak south of Mt Kilimanjaro on the African continent.

The top of Sani is covered by huge expanses of pasture land cut by small streams formed from run off of the mountains that tower ever higher.  Right on the edge is Sani Mountain Lodge where you can sit on an outdoor deck and look straight down the dirt track that vaguely doubles as a vehicle road.  Sitting in what is claimed to be the highest pub in Africa, you can’t help but marvel at the spectacular views of mountains all around and the huge drop off right in front of you.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South Africa

We decided to camp as our dog Mosa wasn’t allowed in the chalets.  We, along with our friend Heather, set up our tents in the middle of a field with the doors facing away from the little village looking out over the pasture and towards the mountains.  At first it was perfectly sunny and clear, but by the time we got back to the tents after dinner clouds had started rolling in.  As we zipped ourselves into the tent, we couldn’t even see the car five metres away.  The cloud swept in thick and low and stayed there throughout the night.

Sani Pass, Lesotho and South AfricaThe morning brought clear sunshine and an amazing sunrise over the clouds down below in the valley.  The soft morning light played against the towering cliff face and we witnessed our first proper sunrise on the African continent.  It was quiet, majestic and awe-inspiring to stand high above the clouds and watch the sun break through and bring warmth to a new day.

Our hike towards Thabana Ntlenyana, the ‘beautiful little mountain’, took us deeper into the mountains away from the cliff edge.  

The rest of our group made it up to the top, but unfortunately five month old Mosa was not strong enough yet to undergo an eight hour hike up more than 600 meters of climbing.  On our way back to camp the clouds started rolling in fast as we approached the edge.  

A barren landscape with far more sheep and cows than people, it took on a haunted spectral quality when the clouds started rolling in.  When the sun was out though, the green fields and blue sky were about as vibrant as you could imagine.  A schizophrenic landscape filled with malice, it is still amazingly beautiful.

We sat on the balcony completely shrouded in cloud and then retired to our tent, where we watched the clouds roll across and then dissipate just as quickly, only to return again within five minutes. It was a surreal experience to watch such variable weather.

After a lovely couple of days, we then made our way down the pass.  It is slightly harrowing, but completely reasonable in dry, clear conditions.  Everywhere you look there is something more amazing to see – sheer cliff walls rising hundreds of meters above you, waterfalls crashing down off the rock faces and even a troop of baboons wandering through the brush.  We took our time and admired the scenery, content to feel overwhelmed by the power, glory and majesty of nature.

Here are few more captures from our spectacular trip to Sani Pass… Thanks to David, Brian, Heather, Bettina and Emma for a wonderful weekend exploring with good friends!

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:: reservoir in the sky ::

As the rain hammered down, we slowly picked our way through the twists and turns of the ribbon of asphalt winding its way up the mountainside. Regular flashes of lightning illuminated the towering peaks across the valley and cracks of thunder were so close the car shook. With the scenery thoroughly hidden by the elements our focus was on the road up and over the Mafika Lisiu Pass.

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At 3090 metres, the pass is the third highest road pass in Lesotho and not a road to be taken lightly. In just 30km the road goes up over 1400 metres! Leaving the hot lowlands behind, you quickly reach cooler high alpine pastures on the other side of the pass.

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The tarred road to Katse was built as part of the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and provided a key route between the dam and some of the outlet tunnels in South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an amazing feat of engineering, shifting copious amounts of water from the drenched highlands of Lesotho to the parched areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.

The dam wall stands 185 meters high and 710 meters wide at its top and is the second largest dam in Africa. Nestled within the mountainsides of the central Maloti range, it is very difficult to see the dam until you are almost right upon it, making the expanse of concrete all the more impressive. It took 22,000 people approximately six years and 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete to create this massive engineering feat.

The surroundings of the dam are startlingly beautiful, with the 50km reservoir following the twisting confines of the mountains that rise majestically above the water. Sitting well above the edge of the cliffs, it was fabulous to see the sheer scale of the place and lay back to watch the shifting clouds and fading light.

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We stayed in a small house built originally for the dam workers, but now tied to the lodge that overlooks the dam. From the terrace of the lodge you can sit, have a drink and admire the cross section of man made and natural beauty. Though we had a less open view from the house, we could still see the water and mountains from our back garden, perfect for relaxing breakfasts.

One morning we went for a hike and wandered along the Malibamatso River, below the dam. Following the lovely lazy river to the sound of birds and crickets made us feel miles away.  We only passed six or eight people, a surprisingly low number for Lesotho where, even in the most remote places, you almost always come across a surprising number of people wandering up and down the various hillsides.

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The walk itself had a little of everything – some rolling fields, rocky flood plains, small copses of trees and a little rock scrambling. If we had been inclined we could have gone for a swim, but we left that for our return trip to Maseru where we found a nice little place to swim in the reservoir itself. There we were joined by two boys who had been fishing nearby. One actually joined us in the water, while the other just smiled and laughed at us from shore. Mosa came in as well for one of her first proper swims ever, which I think really amused the boys!

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From there it was back over the Mafika Lisiu pass, this time in the clear sunshine.  We took advantage of the better weather and stopped at Bokong Nature Reserve. This small reserve offers fantastic views out over the Maloti Mountains as well as the opportunity to discover ice rats – a small rodent species endemic to Lesotho.

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The visitor centre is perched precariously over a 100 meter drop into the river valley below, but offers views of a waterfall and the river that take your breath away. A quick 30 minute hike takes you to the top of the waterfall and a perfect picnic spot along the babbling stream. Thankfully the hike is over relatively flat ground, as the 3000 metre altitude really kicks in, even for us who are used to mile high Maseru.

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Headed back to Maseru a while later, the good weather gave way to an amazing landscape with soaring mountains and waterfalls crashing down the sheer cliff faces. It was well worth going back the way we came, though the road was almost more scary in the daylight than in the pouring rain!

A few more snapshots of our weekend away…

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