Walking to Lesotho for a Beer
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
I decided to walk to Lesotho. That hadn't been my plan at the beginning of the day, but I'd had already made the three hour drive from Durban. A faded wooden sign at the South African border crossing on the lower slopes of Sani Pass warned that only four wheel drive vehicles were permitted on the road to the top. The office car that I borrowed wasn't going to cut it. So, if I still wanted to reach the highest pub in Africa, which of course I did, an eight kilometer (five miles) trek up the mountain seemed like my only option.
I parked under one of the only trees that had managed to grow tall in the rocky soil near the border crossing. Then, I grabbed my camera bag and the little bit of water that I had left and started up the dusty road. An amused border guard guessed it that the hike would take me two or three hours. Away I went determined to have a beer in Lesotho. A man's got to have a goal.
The slope was gentle for the most part except for a couple precarious hairpin turns. Vehicles passed occasionally. Each time one rattled by, I decided that my car would not have had a problem. Nevertheless, I did not regret my decision to hike. The air was comfortable and I was enjoying the rugged beauty of the terrain. I was only slightly fearful that an animal might come charging out from behind a rock.
Sani Pass cuts through a large section of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park, a 2,500 square kilometer trans-border protection area that includes the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho. The park, which sits astride the eastern border of the Lesotho enclave was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the exceptional beauty of its basaltic buttresses, sandstone ramparts, sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The area includes an important collection of flora and fauna including endangered species such as the bearded vulture, the Cape vulture, and the Maloti minnow. Notably, the park also contains thousands of images of rock art. The images painted by the San, a hunter-gatherer people who lived in the region for over four millennia, is widely considered the greatest gallery of rock art in the world.
None of that was really known to me at the time. I hadn't done much research. My aim was to cross the border into Lesotho and head for the Sani Pass Chalet, a place that I had heard about on an episode of the travel series Pilot Guides (a.k.a. Globe Trekker). After about two and a half hours of walking, I crested the last ridge 900 meters higher in altitude than where I parked, The sky had become overcast and the air had cooled. To my right was the pub that I had come all this way to visit, but small signs first directed me to the border shack at my left. Beyond the border control, a short distance away stood a grouping of round thatched roof stone huts that I imagined were traditional dwellings of the area.
After a couple quick stamps of my passport from a taciturn border guard, I headed into the Sani Top Chalet and to a table with a view of the pass below. The natural light filtering through the glass provided a cozy atmosphere. I watched the clouds roll in as my beer and a Basotho (Lesotho) lamb stew was delivered to my table.
Before heading back down the pass, I wanted to explore the barren mountain top and maybe let my camera take in the view from a few other points. I also hoped to take a better look at the stone huts. Next to the first hut a boy was kicking a ball between the rocks and around the mudpuddles. As I got closer, he kicked the ball toward me. Before long, I had placed my camera bag on the ground. Other boys joined in. I am not sure what team I was on, but I kicked the ball when it came to me. We ran back and forth, leaping puddles and maneuvering the ball around stones. Our common language was a few high fives and boundless smiles.
For me, time stood still, but I am sure that at least a half hour had passed. The boys continued to play as I waved goodbye and picked up my bag. I did not want to be too late getting back to Durban and the clouds were still threatening to drench my hike. The air cooled more, but was still comfortable. Dust swirled around me as I walked at a relaxed pace down the winding road. Vehicles passed more frequently than during the hike up. One small white 4X4 passed and then stopped about twenty meters ahead of me. The driver poked his head out and asked if I wanted a lift. By my estimate, I only had about 45 minutes more to go and I was enjoying the scenery.
"No thanks. I appreciate it. I'm happy walking," I replied.
He started to pull away and then stopped and asked again, this time telling me that the border closes in 30 minutes. He chuckled when he saw my eyes widen with surprise. Needless to say, I quickly caught up and jumped into the passenger seat.
A few hours later I parked my car back in Durban. Heading to my room, I reflected on my day trip. A delicious bowl of stew and a beer at the highest pub in Africa hadn't truly been my goal. It was an excuse. My goal, as with most of my travels is the joy of visiting a new place, of discovering somewhere for myself. Travel is a chance to test one's limits, laugh at oneself and, if lucky, experience the magic of cross borders encounters with people I would otherwise never meet. This was really why I hiked up Sani pass for a beer; for the chance to see and experience.
Footnote: This trip occurred over twenty years ago. Sani Top Chalet is now called Sani Mountain Lodge. They offer a variety of accommodations including the option of staying in one of the refurbished traditional round huts.