Birthday at 10,000 feet (Sani Pass)

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I decided that the only way I could top last year’s birthday on a deserted Caribbean island in Belize and 2012’s in Bangkok was to top it in altitude in Lesotho!


 

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Lori has a gift for arranging memorable birthdays. I think it helps a bit that we’ve already been finding ourselves in awesome places around my birthday the last three years, so she has had a lot to work with but certainly doesn’t squander any opportunities.

This year, we woke up early and climbed in a 4×4 Land Rover Defender, the quintessential African Safari rig, and spent the day off the tarmac and high up in the mountains straddling two countries.

The day began in South Africa at Sani Lodge at just over 5,000 feet, climbed to 9,400 feet at the Lesotho border, adding another 1,200 feet to the highest point where we stopped for lunch and a view.

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The “Twelve Apostles,” also the subject of the previous photo, are a distinctive feature to Sani Pass.

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I did a somewhat similar trip in 2005 with my sister, but from Amphitheatre Backpackers in the Northern Drakensberg. We took a 4×4 vehicle up and over a rarely used mountain border crossing into Lesotho, but that’s where the similarities end. Either day trip has its advantages, but today, this trip was perfect. We spent the day being driven around in a Defender by a very knowledgeable guide from the area, spotting unique birds, taking in the amazing scenery, visiting a local trading post and, most importantly, having a beer at the highest pub in Africa!

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In addition to a number of different birds, our guide, Stewart, spotted a variety of other wildlife, including these baboons across the gorge — there are about half a dozen in this picture that could easily be mistaken for rocks. Can you find them all?

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We had noticed on our hike the previous day that hillsides appeared to change color dramatically (along what appeared to be an artificial line) from bright yellow to bright green. Here, the contrast is even more stark as changes from one side of the river to other. Apparently, landowners (and government officials) are obliged to conduct controlled burns on their land at regular intervals. This minimizes the threat of uncontrolled wildfires and causes the soil to become more fertile. The deep green side is a result of a recent controlled burn, while the yellow side has not been burned in some time.

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Stewart said that if any of us could spot and show him a leopard, that he would buy us as many beers as we want — in his decade of leading tours in the area (and many more decades living here), he hadn’t spotted a leopard, himself…but there is evidence to indicate they do still inhabit this area. A good indication is the scat left behind by leopards. Upon inspection, Stewart determined that this was not leopard scat, but perhaps something else of intrigue.

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The South Africa border post is not at the actual border at the summit of the pass, but many miles beforehand near the bottom of the valley. Apparently, the South African government officials didn’t want to have to drive to the top of the Pass every day. After heading up there ourselves, we didn’t blame them.

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Heading up the road to the Pass, we look back to take in the valley and surroundings. Not even half way up yet and it seems we are already on top of the world.

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The winding road up to the pass, famous for its hairpin turns, steep inclines, and regular vehicle accidents, has undergone major improvements in the past nine months, and is still being improved as of September 2014. At some point in the not too distant future, this whole thing will be paved and much of the adventure of the trip will be history. For people like us (and tour guides like Stewart), that’s disappointing news — but quite good news for the locals who have to make the journey regularly.

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Safely at the top, we peer down to the valley below and the wild, winding mess that constitutes the last mile of the pass road to the border.

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The Lesotho border post is a modest facility sitting on a barren, windswept plateau.

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The Lesotho flag here has certainly seen better days.

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The road may be much improved, but is still not to be taken lightly. These are the remains of a minibus taxi which, just recently, missed one of the hairpin turns and plunged over the edge, landing on the hairpin turn below. Thankfully, it was only carrying a few passengers, none of which were fatally injured.

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Not much on the top…but a few scattered settlements, more like trading posts. The population in these parts of Lesotho swells considerably during the warmer months when shepherds relocate to the area for the season.

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Perhaps most interesting about this particular corner of Lesotho weren’t necessarily the shepherd’s huts or the trading posts, but all of the large-scale road construction driven primarily by he Chinese. The Chinese are in the process of improving the highway here, widening it to four lanes and eventually laying tarmac. What the Chinese want with the region is anybody’s guess at this point. Deeper into the interior, there is a small ski resort, but our guide doesn’t seem to think the Chinese are interested in investing in ski slopes. Some sort of mineral extraction would be the most logical reason, the details of which remain somewhat of a mystery. Nonetheless, the Chinese have a contract to improve this road to nowhere, and they are moving ahead, full bore, doing what the Chinese seem to specialize in in Africa these days: blowing up hilltops and making a lot of noise.

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Along the way, Stewart pointed out a number of Ice Rats, the most common animal you’re bound to see in these parts, only surpassed perhaps by goats and sheep, depending on the season.

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At one point, we pull over to take in the view of the “Giant’s Cup,” a mammoth formation characterized by the long slope connecting two of the highest Drakensberg peaks. The highest peak in South Africa (and second highest in Africa) is not far from where we are now.

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Onward and upward to our lunch spot! But not after passing through this gauntlet of roadwork.

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We leave the Land Rover and follow our guide of a hill. The air is noticeably thinner, and the landscape is stark and strangely beautiful — like being on another planet.

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We reach our lunch stop, which happens to coincide with the highest elevation of the day: 10,691 feet (or 3,258 meters). By the way, a really handy app for measuring these things is the aptly named app, “My Altitude,” which, among other features, will allow you to take pictures with the your GPS coordinates, altitude, and date/time embedded. I definitely don’t use this enough.

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We felt very fortunate to have such a small group that day — only four (two Germans and us) and our guide. We passed many vehicles on the way up who had many people crammed into various sizes of 4x4s. We felt so distinguished in our Land Rover and with so much room to spread out.

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On our way back to the border, we stopped by a trading post settlement to visit a woman who sells a variety of items, including some handicrafts made by community members. The community is made up entirely of women, all of whom spend weeks, or months, manning these posts, isolated from the rest of their families. This woman has just returned from visiting her children who live a few hours away to attend school. She gets to see her children about once every few weeks. The night’s can get bitterly cold and business can be incredibly slow at times. The women use dried sheep dung (pictured above) to cook and to warm their rondavels with.

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One woman in the settlement speaks English very well, and most of the tour guides choose to take their groups to her, as none of the other women speak English well (though most understand much). Our guide, being from the area, is able to speak a common local dialect, and thus elects to take us to another woman who guides don’t visit (due to her lack of English skills). We didn’t know this at first, and the meeting seemed initially strained. But once we learned that she did indeed understand (and speak a little English), and that our guide was trying to do something different and give someone else business who might not otherwise have received it, it made the visit seem less superficial. Also, it helps that our guide pre-arranged some sort of payment for her time, her fresh bread, etc. so that the atmosphere is much more comfortable and we don’t feel obliged to buy anything (or give her anything, etc.). She is happy to have us, it seems, and we’re happy to be invited into her home and sample some of her delicious homemade bread and homemade traditional beer.

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Each shop generally sells something different, but their stock is always changing. They indicate what they are selling on any particular day based on the color of the flag they hoist outside of their shop. Depending on the color, a flag may indicate bread, beer or other goods. The main clientele for these shops are nomadic herders (men) or, men traveling back and forth from jobs in South Africa, and lately, workers working on the roads.

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A lonely outhouse sits against a backdrop of a very ambitious and completely unnecessary Chinese bridge span. Stewarts says he’s never seen the water in the river below come within several feet of jumping its banks, but the Chinese insisted on a massive concrete bridge, 30 feet above the river, just ’cause they can…I guess.

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And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! A beer at the Highest Pub in Africa! Lori and I elected to have the Lesotho beer (Maluti), as it only seemed fitting.

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After our beers on high, we loaded up the vehicle one more time, and began the slow and arduous process of making our way back down the mountain. Despite the improvements, the gravel remains very loose and the road is very steep. You take one of these corners just a little too fast and you end up like the minibus taxi earlier in the post. Our guide, however, was an incredibly capable (and cautious) driver and we felt extremely safe at all times. I would highly recommend booking through Sani Lodge and asking for Stewart.

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When we got back, we capped off a near-perfect day with a bottle of Nederburg wine. I used to joke with Lori back in the U.S. about Nederburg, because it was the one bottle of wine I could buy in my town in Mozambique when I was a Peace Corps volunteer (the rest came in a box and bordered on the disgusting). I recall the Nederburg being quite good, but never thought of it as an exceptional wine. But in South Africa, apparently it is regarded with some level of esteem, perhaps largely due to the fact that it sponsors one of SA’s most popular television shows: Top Chef South Africa. We actually tried to find the winery on our Winelands wine tour day — had directions and GPS coordinates and everything, asked around town when we couldn’t find it — but still, never found it. Irrespective of all of this, their Baronne is quite good, and a great cap to a great day.

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Stunning Malealea
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