I actually didn’t want to go all the way to Durban – I wanted to get off at a place called Pietermaritzburg. I heard you could get minibus from there to Underberg, just a few miles from the Sani Pass – the fabled border with Lesotho. By some unholy magic, I woke up at 4.19am – quite amazing luck considering how drunk I was yesterday.
I looked about – we were approaching Pietermaritzburg – ha! Timing or what? Within half an hour, I was at the train station as dawn began to break. Across the road at the all-night convenience stall is where the minibuses left from and I was only waiting for about 30 minutes before the first one arrived and trundled me off to Underberg. Well, I should say towards Underberg as about fifty kilometres away from my goal, he chucked me and the other hapless passengers off the bus – he was going the ‘other way’.
So we waited for a good while, me as impatient as ever (won’t I ever learn?) pacing up and down. Eventually I found myself squeezed into the back of a small van with eight other passengers heading to Underberg. Upon arrival, I sniffed out what I wanted – a big bus with ‘Sani Pass’ written all over it. But it was full – get a tour, the driver suggested. His bus was a tour bus – you go up in the morning, have a look at a typical Lesotho village, grab a bite to eat at the highest pub in Africa and you get back for about 4pm.
Excellent. Just what I was after. I found a tour company and asked if they had any spaces. Indeed they did and within an hour (after some yummy Spar breakfast – there’s always a goddamn Spar), I was in a 4×4 heading up to the Kingdom in the Sky along with a top bloke called Doktor Daniel and his girlfriend, a trauma surgeon and nurse combo from Germany.
Now for a little history lesson about Lesotho, one of the smallest countries in Africa. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, which doesn’t make much sense when you see it on a map, but when you see it in real life you go, “ahh, now I get it – it’s a country in the mountains – like (but substantially bigger than) Andorra”. Apart from Vatican City and San Marino (which are arguably too small to count), I can’t think of another goodly-sized nation that is surrounded by another in such a way. It all came about because of a fruity bit of colonial administration. When Britain decided to pull the old “do you have a flag?” trick on the black and Afrikaans population of South Africa, Lesotho was already a British Protectorate, so I guess we had to go on protecting them (as opposed to our first preference, which would no doubt have been good old-fashioned torment and subjugation).
Oh, and it’s pronounced Lee-Soo-Too, the people are called Basotho (Baa-Soo-Too) and the language is called Sesotho (See-Soo-Too). Now you see soo too.
The track up the mountain was as beautiful as it was perilous. I was glad we were in a 4×4 and our driver seemed to know what he was doing (an ex-policeman, no less). I find it hard to describe in words what it was like to breathe fresh, crisp, cool mountain air; free from petrol-fumes, dust, drains, sewage, litter and the usual crap that Africa throws up at you.
As I drew the sweet clear air into my lungs, I felt like a smoker who had finally kicked the habit – fresh, clean, renewed and ready to take on the world. The landscape was awesome – towering giants of stone, rocks perched on precipices, crystal-clear waterfalls trickling down the mountainside. It made me want to yodel, but that would ruin the tranquilly – oh, the tranquilly! Out of the 4×4; no motors, no engines, no constant vibration: just me and my mountain fortress in the sky.
Doktor Daniel and his girlfriend were wonderful companions on our journey up over the Sani Pass – which is just as well as I had no idea how long it was going to take – it’s only a few kilometres, but it’s uphill all the way, the road isn’t sealed and there are no crash barriers. After a couple hours of switchbacks and inclines that would make your head spin we reached the border, a mere formality, as my crisp new virgin passport enjoyed its first glob of ink – an exit stamp for South Africa. We then headed to a village to check out the mountain lifestyle of the Basotho people.
The huts in which the Basotho (in the village we visited at least) were great – 100% organic, thick, thick mud-brick walls and thatched roofs. They also – cunningly – place a bloody large flattened stone under the dwelling before they start to build, so the fire in the middle of the hut radiates its heat along the floor. As much as I loved the organic architecture, the poverty of the average Basotho was not a joy to behold. With 45% unemployment, many of the men end up working in mines in South Africa – a surefire way to come home HIV positive if ever the was one. Getting to grips with the scale of the HIV epidemic (30% of all adults are infected) here is probably not something that the government here can even contemplate – I certainly can’t. But at least they’re trying.
After our trip to the village, we headed off to what my tum-tum secretly desired – a drink and something to eat. Luckily for us, a mad scouser (YES, WE GET EVERYWHERE!) had set up a pub at the top of the pass – arguably the highest pub in Africa.
There, I met yet another barking mad Englishman, who had left his London home the previous February and decided to cycle to Cape Town. Why the hell not, eh? So that’s exactly what he’s doing – down through Europe, the Middle East, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa to here. There must be something in the water in Britain that makes us all quite delightfully daffy in the head.
After lunch, we began our descent (which I have to admit was hairier than the climb) and soon enough, we were back in merry old Underberg just in time for me to catch the 4pm(ish) minibus to Durban. Happy days.
Doktor Daniel was leaving South Africa the next day, so he loaded me up with all the trauma kit I would ever need (useful if I ever need to sew my arm back on). I did mention he was a doktor didn’t I? Daniel also gave me an unwanted shirt that he had just (accidentally) bought. I love people, I really do.
I haven’t met a single Vogon in days. Life is good.
Once I descended upon Durban, it was my intention to hook up with Jared, the guy from the Intercape bus when I was coming into South Africa last week. Unfortunately he was out of town, so I headed for the Durban Backpackers, stuffed my face full of pizza and had an early night.