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