Saturday, April 27, 2013

On The Sani Pass!

April 8-11thth, 2013

To try and use up some of my well-earned vacation days (seriously I have enough to take vacation for month), I planned a trip into South Africa with a few of my PCV friends.

It was so Amazing!!  I spent the first 3.5 days on the Sani Pass, in the Drakensburg area of the Kwazulu-Natal region, which is the southeastern part of South Africa; from the bottom of Swaziland to the bottom of Lesotho.

At this point there were three of us and like the public transportation rock stars that we are, we made it from the center of Swaziland to the Sani Pass in one day.  It took a total of 5 different transportation changeovers, and we were in transit from 6am to 7:30pm, but we made it, cutting our costs by several hundred rand because we took public rather then a backpacker’s bus.

We stayed at the Sani Pass Backpacker’s Lodge, which I give a 5 star rating, because it is the best backpackers I have ever stayed at!  Best staff, best view, and best shower and all for the same price as most of the questionable backpackers out there.  They have free milk from the diary cow that is milked daily, guided tours into Lesotho, unguided day hikes, a warm fireplace, 2 fully stocked kitchens, drinkable tap water that is the freshest I’ve ever tasted, and they make your bed everyday, adding extra blankets when the nights get colder.  It doesn’t sound like much, but when I am used to paying the same price at most backpackers and getting very basic accomadations, musty bedding, a cold shower, and a kitchen you’d rather not cook in, it felt like the Sani Pass Lodge was a high class hotel.

Day one on the Pass, we took ourselves on a 4-5 hour day hike, which took us 8 hours.  We weren’t slow, we just got caught up in the views, and a very fun cave we had to walk through.  It is so beautiful in this region.  Mountains in every direction you look.  On our hike they just engulfed us from all sides.  We ate lunch by a blue lagoon, but I didn’t swim as it was very cold water.  Then we found the waterfall, which required us to stand on the very edge of a cliff to look down on it.  Very scary, very awesome!  The hike became more adventurous and less fun after the waterfall.  Two wrong trail turns (let led us on some very narrow paths along a steep mountain before we realized we needed to turn back to get to the real trail) and three awful walks through the cold river later we finished the hike.

Pool along the hike
The very clear spring water
Day Two we took a guided day trip into Lesotho.  The Sani Pass into Lesotho is crazy scary and can only be done by a 4x4 vehicle.  A heavy fog descended on the Pass during the night so I couldn’t really get the whole effect of the dirt roat, but it included 14 switchbacks to get up into Lesotho.  Some requiring a three-point turn they are so narrow.  Once up, we decided that it was too foggy and cold to do the scheduled hike up the Hodgeson’s peak (the highest point in SA), so we went further into Lesotho and did a hike just up one of the mountains.  It was so cool, but so cold.  I was unprepared for winter like temperatures and was freezing.  We were hiking over 3,000 meters so altitude made it hard to function, but we finally made it to the top just as it started to snow.  Well it wasn’t really snow yet, more like ice chunks and it was super windy so were actually just getting pelted in the face with pea size hail (not fun).  But the view was great.  We could see the tallest point in Lesotho, and the mountains that stretch forever with the sun peaking through and highlighting further away ridges.  We had lunch briefly as to not let our body temps drop and then headed back down.  We met some shepherds along the way.  This area of Lesotho is very unpopulated; only the Shepherds that bring their flocks of sheep and goats up during the summer to graze.  They build little stone huts and carry everything on horseback.  Aside from them there is a tiny village of a few women we brew beer and make bread to sell to the shepherds.  There are no schools, no stores, no clinics, nothing but views and a sheep-shearing shack. 

up in the mountains

A shepherd
 We headed to the village after the hike and watched them sheer the angora goats.  This wool gets exported out everywhere and ironically gets sold back to the shepherds in the form of blankets.  Then we visited with one of the women in the village and she made us some bread.  They use cow dung as a fire source and cook inside their stone and cow dung huts.  The huts have no windows to try and preserve the heat during the winter.  The lady we visited runs the village pub.  She sells homebrewed maize/sorghum beer and bread and plays a radio that is powered by a solar panel. 

We soon left her because it started to actually snow and we needed to make time for one last stop before heading down.  The last stop being the one and only real pub up here.  In fact it is the highest pub in Africa, and they make a deliciously warm mulled wine that was wonderful to drink after a day in the snow.  The ground was completely white now and I was so happy.  It felt like home, breathing in the cold air.  We descended the pass back into South Africa slowly, now we had the extra challenge of doing the pass in winter conditions, but we made it no problems.  We spent the evening eating our poor PCV meal of beans and rice by the fire, defrosting before heating up hot water bottles to snuggle with in bed.

We slept-in our last morning there, it was too cold to leave the comforts of our warm beds.  The fog had lifted and the sun was out again, but it was still frosty out.  We had the lodge to ourselves, which was nice compared to the night before.  The lodge was packed when we got back from our trip into Lesotho with a new wave of backpackers.  It was overwhelming, so many people wanting to chat, I’m no longer used to that.  We enjoyed a makeshift rice porridge breakfast by the fire and then set out for transport back to Durban.  Despite the 2 hours we had to wait in a khumbi for it to fill up, we made it to Durban by dusk.  

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