27 bends and a climb of 1400 metres took us to perhaps the most uniquely located pub we have ever visited; its claim to fame – highest pub in Africa
Narrow roads, hairpin bends, long drops and passport control are the varied range of features you will encounter on the 4x4 trip up the Sani Pass into Lesotho, our destination and home of the 'Highest pub in Africa'. This country, landlocked by South Africa, makes claim to the title ‘highest country in the world’ by virtue of holding the record for the world’s highest minimum elevation.
A perilous climb!
The Kingdom of Lesotho has a population of only two million, nearly a third of who are infected with HIV or AIDS, leading to a high level of poverty and many children orphaned across the country. This ‘Mountain Kingdom’ can be accessed by road on only a small number of passes, with the Sani Pass being home to bends with nicknames such as “Ice Corner", "Big Wind Corner" and "Suicide Bend”!
Thankfully, we were driven along one of the most thrilling (if not scary) roads I have ever experienced by a knowledgeable guide who took the bends in his stride, casually telling us as we passed by small car sized boulders "That wasn’t there last week!” More reassuringly, he also pointed out waterfalls tucked away between rocks as well as local flora including the pineapple flower, ubiquitous protea, and ‘old wood’ tree which has a rather unique fragrance of old socks!
We passed through South African border control relatively early in the climb, yet due to the nature of the road, the Lesotho border is not passed for a few kilometres further up, giving a reality to the notion of ‘no man’s land’. Before the ‘road’ was built, the pass was frequented by traders using mules and ponies to transport their goods. As the road winds its way up, the view below only increases your understanding of what a feat this must have been, and makes you thankful for the manoeuvrability of the 4x4 being so skilfully managed.
Mother of Peace
The top of the pass is 2873m and on the day we visited, above the level of the clouds. Our first stop was to a Basotho village where we visited our first ‘pub’ in Lesotho – the house of Makhotso.
Her name means ‘Mother of Peace’ in the local Sesotho language and, although married with children, lives on her own during term time whilst the children attend school 35km away. Once we were accepted in to her home and had greeted her with “dumela me” (hello) and the traditional 3-part handshake (representing peace, rain and prosperity), we were able to find out more about how she earns her living.
There is a white flag flown outside her rondavel home which indicates she makes and sells beer (a green flag would indicate vegetables, red – meat). The landscape in this part of Lesotho is barren with no trees; therefore the traditional houses are built from stone clad with dried cow dung, a surprisingly strong structure which does a good job of protecting against the harsh weather. The simplicity of this way of life is interspersed with surprisingly ‘modern’ ideas such as under-floor heating: In Makhotso’s house, the floor was built on rocks, with the largest in the middle placed directly under the fire. The heat from the fire transfers to the surrounding rocks and heats the whole hut!
The smoky interior was dark with simple furnishings and, most importantly for Makhotso, the containers and equipment needed to make beer. We of course sampled her wares and found it to be sweet with a strange dry aftertaste, not unpleasant, but also not one we would want to drink a lot of. After communicating “ke a leboha” (thank you), we left Makhotso and headed toward Black Mountain for possibly the highest picnic I have had at 3240m.
The highest pub in Africa
Passing by mohair and angora goats and sheep; shepherds, in their contrasting mixture of modern wellington boots and traditional thick blankets; traditional shepherd’s huts and other small communities of this mountainous country, we made our way back to the Sani Pass.
Before we began the descent, we stopped off for a drink in the Sani Top Chalet (www.sanitopchalet.co.za ) – the highest pub in Africa at 2874 metres above sea level. If you are under any doubt of this claim, the beautifully carved wooden sign taking pride of place over the bar will soon dispel those thoughts.
The chalet is in an exclusive position overlooking the winding pass below and on a clear day, the views must be stunning. Sadly, for us, by the time we arrived, the cloud and mist had closed in and instead of a cold beer outside looking down the pass; we opted for a welcome hot chocolate in the warm and cosy inside of the bar.
The mist blew over the ground as we descended in to the cloud on our way back down the pass. Each bend took us lower and remarkably after a short time, we were out of the cloud and bright sunshine covered the valley below. The sky was clear, the Drakensberg Mountains surrounded us and the Sani River ran down through the valley. A few hundred metres of road separated such contrasts in weather and landscape and made it almost seem unbelievable that above us lay a whole other country.
As mentioned, Lesotho is landlocked by South Africa. The closest International airports are Durban, SA (around 80km SE) and Johannesburg, SA (around 500km N). There is an airport in the Northern part of Lesotho in the capital Maseru and internal flights from most South African airports are available. For visiting the Sani Pass, getting to Durban, then Pietermaritzburg is probably the best option.
Our visit to Lesotho started at around 1500m at the Sani Lodge – a backpackers well known for its amazing chocolate cake; if you stay here, it is obligatory to sample it (and well worth it too!). Our trip in to Lesotho was part of the Essential Drakensberg tour organised by Sani Lodge. This includes food, lodgings, the Sani Pass tour and ‘In the Footsteps of Bushmen’ tour all for ZAR1470 pp (adult), ZAR975 (children under 10).
It is also possible to stay at the Sani Top Chalet where they have a range of backpackers’ accommodation and private rooms with en-suite facilities. (Rooms from ZAR185 pp, private rooms from ZAR600 pp)