Driving up Sani Pass into a gun fight

Sani Pass, Lesotho

Gunshots ricocheted across the valley, a fading echo racing up towards the icy Sani Pass ahead. The following silence was eerie, punctuated only by shards of snow breaking away from the mountains and plummeting into the ravine. Even the birds had stopped singing.

Driving up Sani Pass in Lesotho
Driving up Sani Pass

Anton slammed the brakes of our 4×4 and we skidded to a halt on the gravelled track. Our muscular, heavily tattooed guide sat calmly, his anxiety betrayed only by white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. The only movement came from his gold earring which continued to sway long after the vehicle had stopped. With his tough guy demeanour I was thankful he was on our side. In the back Hubbie eagerly kept his eyes peeled for bandits whilst I silently grasped his hand, staring out towards the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Who were those guys?

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
Looking back down Sani Pass from the 12 Apostles in Lesotho

Another shot rang out, the noise deafening in the silent wilderness of the no-man’s land between South Africa and Lesotho. Was driving up the Sani Pass really such a good idea? I began to sink lower in my seat, numbly contemplating our escape routes. There were none, unless you counted a sheer vertical cliff or plunging gorge, which I didn’t. Clearly I would have to take my chances with the foot-well. Anton clearly had similar thoughts and after securing two wide-eyed nods from his passengers, he cautiously edged the jeep forwards around the corner.

What do you think? I’ll bet it’s just one guy!

A pick-up truck stood abandoned across the track, doors flung wide and engine still running. Its occupants were fleeing, taking their chances with the terrain rather than the man training his pistol at a prone figure lying in the dirt.

A couple of bemused goats looked on.

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
After hearing the gunshots we came across a lone policeman

The man on the ground began sobbing. The man with the gun, who we now recognised as a policeman, kicked him for good measure and then seemed unsure of how to proceed. Hubbie attempted to take surreptitious photographs, whilst I contemplated how many spare pairs of underwear I’d packed that morning.

I glared at Hubbie out of the corner of my eye. The next time I say “let’s go someplace like Bolivia”, let’s GO someplace like Bolivia!

Telling us to stay put, Anton cautiously jumped down from the vehicle and spoke to the policeman, casually rolling a cigarette with a nonchalance I could only admire. I nervously scanned the bushes, terrified the others would return, guns blazing, to rescue their comrade. Frustrated by our continued ignorance, Hubbie slipped out to join the men, my desperate pleas falling on deaf ears. As usual. After revealing that he works in law enforcement back home in England, instant friendships were formed and a search of the truck ensued. Certainly his biggest ever drug smuggling haul, and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds had it reached Europe as intended.

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
Hubbie and Anton to the rescue on Sani Pass

The guy on the ground shifted and was promptly sat upon by Anton. Apparently the policeman had forgotten his handcuffs. I found I had sympathy for the offender, despite the seriousness of the crime. He had been the driver which meant not only a slower decampment from the vehicle, but also very little financial benefit from the venture due to his meagre role. He was probably just trying to feed his family. However, as Anton explained, drugs are a huge problem in South Africa so the police must be firm. And it appeared indeed they were.

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
Looking back down Sani Pass into no mans land

Eventually backup arrived in the form of several policemen, who had all remembered their handcuffs. After handshakes all round, and a final scout of the bushes for the other miscreants who were by now long gone, we finally continued driving up Sani Pass, the sheer rocky drops paling in significance after what had just happened. The men swapped cop stories for the rest of the journey, whilst I quietly considered the fate of the sobbing man. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for someone who had just thrown away years of his life for the sake of a few hot dinners.

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
The view across the valley from the 12 Apostles in Lesotho

Driving up Sani Pass

At an elevation of 2876 m, the Sani Pass is a dramatic series of hairpin bends, with plunging drops and stunning scenery all the way to the top. It’s also known as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and with mud, snow and ice possible all year round, driving up Sani Pass can only be attempted in a 4×4, with a competent driver. Accidents happen all the time, and we didn’t plan on becoming a statistic. So we hired Anton.

Driving up Sani Pass Lesotho
Crossing rivers on the way up Sani Pass

Sani Pass, which is also known as the Roof of Africa, is the only road into the independent mountain kingdom of Lesotho from Kwazulu-Natal. The pass stretches for 9 km between the border posts of South Africa and Lesotho, effectively a no-man’s land, and the scene of our unexpected drugs bust.

Driving Sani Pass in Lesotho
Approaching the top of Sani Pass

Driving up Sani Pass is the only time I’ve been told to take my seatbelt off! Anton advised it would only hinder us if the vehicle plunged off the cliff and we needed to exit quickly. Yikes!

Luckily we made it to Sani Top in one piece, albeit slightly shaken (in body and in mind!), and finally got down to a bit of Sani Pass driving ourselves. We were going quad biking!

The border post at Sani Top in Lesotho
The border post at Sani Top in Lesotho

Quad biking at the top of Sani Pass

Despite it being the middle of summer, it was pretty cold and icy up in Lesotho, with patches of snow still lying on the ground, and even a couple of snowmen to greet us at the top. So we borrowed some thick over jackets before heading off on our quad bikes into the unknown.

Snowman at Sani Top, Sani Pass, Lesotho
Being greeted by a snowman at Sani Top

There were no trails or tracks, it was just us and the icy tufts of grass skidding beneath the wheels.

Driving up Sani Pass, Lesotho
The plateau at Sani Top

Anton threw in a few stream crossings for good measure, and I was quietly smug that it was Hubbie who got stuck in the middle of one, rather than me.

Quad biking Sani Pass Lesotho
Quad biking in Lesotho

We drove along the top of the 12 Apostles (it’s not just Cape Town who has them!), and for the first time actually saw where we’d driven up the Sani Pass the day before.

Driving up the Sani Pass in Lesotho
Taking a break from quad biking up the 12 Apostles

Anton took us to visit some families in the Basotho village, and we enjoyed chatting with a delightfully friendly and vivacious lady who gave us bread and tea, and convinced us that wearing one of the locally hats would be a good look.

Quad biking in the Basotho village at Sani Pass, Lesotho
Meeting the locals in the basotho village at Sani Top
Quad biking in the Basotho village at Sani Pass, Lesotho
Visiting the locals (and trying on the hats!)

Staying at the highest pub in Africa

We stayed at Sani Top Chalet (now Sani Mountain Lodge, and under new ownership since our visit), and had been booked into one of the cute little rondavels (traditional circular huts), but ended up in what can only be described as a goat shed. Apparently they’d had a tour group booking and despite our reservation preceding that of the new guests, we were relegated to a tin hut in the Basotho village 15 minutes walk away.

Sani Top Chalet, now Sani Mountain Lodge, Lesotho
Sani Top Chalet (now Sani Mountain Lodge)

Rather disappointed but up for an adventure, we made our way to the village, and spend the night shivering in 8 layers of clothing, with only a candle for light, or warmth.

Basotho village, Sani Pass, Lesotho
Approaching the basotho village
Sani Pass, Lesotho
Our only light at night!

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Driving up Sani Pass in Lesotho

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  1. says: Els

    Oh dear, help! It makes a good story afterwards, but I imagine you must have been absolutely terrified! I would probably have had the same reaction as you did: blame hubbie cause it’s his fault we ended up here 🙂 The pass looks lovely though!

    1. says: Heather Cole

      Completely terrified! But I still dine out on the story years later 🙂 (and it’s generally hubbie’s fault when we get into our pickles, of course!)

  2. says: Tim

    That is one amazing road through the mountains and what a place to get caught running drugs…or for that matter have a bullet or two go whizzing by. I have had a couple of encounters like this over the years and it always amazes me how casual the local authorities are. All in a days work I guess.

    1. says: Heather Cole

      We always compare local authorities to those of our home countries don’t we, but I do begin to feel maybe we’re the exception to the rule, rather than the other way around.

  3. says: jennifer

    What a completely insane experience, and what an even more insane background to have for this experience! Like this is the last story I expected to see coupled with these amazing pictures. I also laughed at you insisting that you go to Bolivia.

    1. says: Heather Cole

      It was insane, but insane is good! The Bolivia reference was from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (scary the parallel with our lives there!), but I’d love to go there someday 🙂