I had just woken up, next to a river at 2750m on the Drakensburg plateau in Lesotho. I had spent the last few days climbing up Leslies pass to the highest point in South Africa, Mafadi (3450m). The first thing I noticed that morning was that my face was feeling tight and a bit sore. Despite it being quite overcast and applying factor 50 sun cream, I needed to apply it more frequently as the sweat must have been diluting it. There had been no rain during the night so my tent was dry for once and it was looking fine where I was but the surrounding peaks were in the clouds. No one had noticed or bothered me during the night and I hadn’t heard any of the dogs barking or tribesmen shouting to one another using the echo of the valley as I had done the previous evening.
My plan was a long day which would position me nicely to climb the highest point in Lesotho the following day. I had on my phone a GPX map of a full Drakensburg traverse, While planning my route at home, I had highlighted several ways and options which could make my route more direct and shorter by heading up and over a few hills. I continued meandering along the flat terrain following and crisscrossing the riverbed when there were steeper. It seemed to take quite a while to make any noticeable progress as the plateau was so vast. I passed a few tribesmen who asked me for either sweets, smokes or money. I didn’t mind giving a few sweets away as I still had a surplus.
After a few hours, I reached the point that I had identified as the option for a shortcut. Unfortunately, there were quite steep cliffs which forced me to walk a bit further than I wanted along the top before seeing a potential way down. A dog outside a hut that I hadn’t spotted started barking as I descended but I quickly headed down into the steep-sided valley refilling my water bottle in the river before heading up the other side towards an abandoned stone-walled building. After heading in a straight line uphill I met up with a trail that contoured around the side of the hill handily crossing several steep watercourses without me having any difficulty negotiating them or needing to descend. I could see on the map that there were several huts dotted around so it must be a popular valley, The trail passed nearby most of them and the obligatory dogs barked as I approached until being out of sight. There were a lot of animal desire trails heading in all directions but I was able to utilise the ones heading up the valley to my advantage.
Upon reached the top of the valley, I turned to the right, Dogs suddenly started barking after I stood back up from I filling up my water bottle in a stream. The water was a yellow peaty colour and tasted funky but it was much needed. A man came out from his hut and up towards me, I stopped and we sat down and shared a packet of sweets while trying to converse and talk about my climb and the area without speaking one another’s language. I continued uphill, powering on at a good pace. Soon contouring then ascending gradually to maintain height. After following the hill around to the left I noticed a family of locals sitting down together, I headed towards their direction to say hello as I passed, I put my bag down and handed out sweets. I put 6 in my hand and offered them around the group, rubbing my belly when the first picked the best one. I left the family and continued uphill, I soon reached the highest point of my shortcut which topped out at 3205m, I took a few photos and videos and headed downhill until I rejoined the traverse GPX route which followed the river once more.
I passed several huts along with many tribesmen on horseback roaming the hills herding their animals. It was a long walk, but I had no choice or time to stop so I continued forging on. After a few hours, I could finally see over the last valley and river to where I had aimed to camp but I could also see two huts higher up close to where I intended to camp. I started descending by using a faint trail that headed towards a hut on my side of the river surrounded by steep cliffs. A dog spotted me and started barking. I deviated to the left of the hut as much as possible and searched for an alternative way done, I ended up heading several hundred meters to the left where I was able to head steeply down to the river.
There was no obvious way to cross due to the recent heavy rainfall. I walked to the right along the river under the cliffs and found the most optimal place to cross. It was getting late and I had no urge to get soaking wet so played it safe, I had planned on continuing for 30 minutes getting as far uphill as possible making it a bit easier for my ascent tomorrow. I had noticed an ideal spot while descending about 200 meters past the river on the other side. I decided that I would spend some time using large boulders to throw into the river making it passable. Around 20 large boulders later I had crossed the river, I topped up all of my bottles and platypus and headed to the spot I had seen. It needed a little landscaping to clear roots but was ideally way from any huts and ideally tucked away on higher ground than the river. I sat and waited for around 20 minutes until it had started to get dark, I heard a few dogs in the distance but nothing nearby. I had a drink and erected the tent, It was the flattest spot I had pitched so far. It got dark pretty quickly from that point and I could also feel the temperature dropping too. It was just as well I had brought my good sleeping bag with me, I woke up several times throughout the night tucking my head further inside.
My alarm went off at 04:00 the next morning as it was going to be yet another tough day. The aim would be to climb to the highest point in Lesotho and then head down all the way to Sani pass before it closed at 16:00. I had some food and got out my tent just as the sun was rising over the mountains on the horizon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was cold, freezing cold in fact. The tent had a layer of ice all over it that I had to brush off before shaking and laying over bushes to try and let it drip dry for 15 minutes in the warming sun. With all my gear and still wet tent packed away in my bag, I continued on uphill towards the two huts I had the previous day. Dogs started barking as I approached and I could see the trail I was following would head straight through not only this hut but also the second, brilliant. A man appeared at the door and shouted and waved his hands at the dogs that calmed them down, I said hi and gave him a single small sweet from a multipack rather than a whole chocolate bar as I had given quite a few away and risked running out. I continued onwards and saw a man who was already cooking something at the hut further up. He looked busy so we just waved to one another and I continued uphill heading slightly to the left.
As I climbed higher the views became fantastic in all directions, I headed up a steep rocky section and I wound around the far side of a small subsidiary hill until reaching a saddle where my trail contoured to the left. There were five or six animal trails all leading around the hill at varying heights so I chose to stick to the higher one to maintain altitude and conserve energy. The valley became narrower and before long I could see where I needed to head. I pushed on while eating sweets and chocolates along the way. It wasn’t steep, but a constant steady climb that soon led me to the top of the valley where my route turned to the left. There was a steep deep watercourse on my left-hand side that I followed uphill through grass and bushes. Further on up just before I would be heading away from the stream I filled up my water bottles and Platypus from a waterfall before pushing on.
A few hundred meters above me to the right I could see a local tribesman walking in a similar direction, He stopped and sat down so I veered off my route slightly to say hello and sit next to him along with the bonus of taking my bag off for a bit. He didn’t speak any English, so I had a drink and of course, offered him some sweets, He looked at my bag curiously, So I handed it to him to lift up, He put it on his shoulder, shook his head and laughed before joking about helping me to carry the bag uphill. We soon continued together as I had assumed he was also heading to the top of the hill. It certainly helped to have someone alongside me as it was hot and very tempting to take it easy and have a few extra rest tops but we pushed on. I was surprised when he signalled that he was going to head to the right below the top, we shook hands and I continued. It was now only 80m ascent to the top of this hill so it had certainly been a help.
From the top, I got my first view of Thabana Ntlenyana (3482m), the highest point in Lesotho. It didn’t look too far or difficult so I continued marching on. It felt like time was on my side for once and I upped the pace as the sooner I reached the Sani Pass the better the chance of a lift down I had instead of a 25km unnecessary walk to the campsite. The trail descended slightly and there was quite a lot of burnt area of grass that I had seen a few times throughout this trip. I soon reached a saddle and knew I was one final push away from the summit of Lesotho. It was quite rocky and I had to meander around boulders but I was heading at a nice angle uphill crossing over and sometimes using the animal tracks before having a burst of pace heading directly uphill. A few water breaks later I could see the final 20 metres ascent up to the rocky summit. I had made it! The sun was shining, it was hot and the views were panoramic. There were a few summit cairns and two tribesmen accompanied by their dogs at the top who came over to sniff my bag as I unclipped it and lowered it to the floor. I took all the usual videos and summit selfies before turning all of my focus to getting down to the pass in good time.
I passed a group of South African tourists on the descent who were heading towards the high point and wanted several photos with me. Compared to the previous four days the going was relatively easy to descend and I was making good time. This feeling though was soon dampened when looking at my route on the map and seeing that I had to climb 140m back up to 3240m and over another hill. I descended to the Sehong Hong river and applied more sun cream along with refilling my water bottles as it was just past midday, the sky was totally blue and the sun was by now scorchingly hot. I crossed the river and pressed on, I could see where I needed to head so I just headed to the top in a straight line instead of walking the additional few hundred meters along the trail. It felt good to reach the top as it was now all downhill to the road that leads to the top of the Sani Pass.
I descended the other side and followed a watercourse down before following the path of the meandering Dinakeng river towards the road. I saw a car way off in the distance, It looked and actually was miles and miles away but all I needed to do was get there for the chance of a lift down. The descent on the last steeper grassy and rocky section had caused rubbing on my boots and I could feel a few sore points on my feet. There was a jeep track I followed along in the flat sandy terrain, It was scorchingly hot and I was sweating profusely, I refilled my water bottle in a shallow puddle made from the jeep tracks in a lul. It was quite murky and after a few swigs, you soon realise you’re not quite as thirsty as you thought lol! I didn’t want to head along the track to the road because Sani Pass is to the left and if I couldn’t get a lift I needed to walk so no need heading further away. I turned to the left noticing a valley in between but continued hoping it headed down to a stream for better water. There was a church with a large cross the other side of the road in the distance so I headed straight for that. Twenty metres before meeting the road there was indeed a watercourse but it was easy enough to cross and there was trickling water. I emptied my dirty water and refilled, to be fair it was still murky but as it was running water it was certainly more palatable.
I climbed up a bank by a small bridge and onto the road. A few women in the church across the road looked as they were hanging out washing. I looked down the road but no cars, I sat on the bridge to relax for a bit, It was 5km to the top of the pass but all cars would come this way so no point walking for the sake of it. The first car zoomed past as I waved, The second was full but I stepped into the road and signalled at the third who stopped. The driver got out and opening the boot for my bag, fantastic! I jumped in and we set off towards the South African/Lesotho border at Sani Pass. There was a passenger in the front, I said hi to both and said thank you. They turned the loud music down and offered me a beer, they both had one in the cup holder, Different. The passenger handed me a badge and it turned out they were passport control officers heading to the border.
When we arrived they wanted a few pictures together, I’m not sure why as I’m pretty sure I stank and looked worse for wear. I asked if it was better before or after the borer to try and get a lift. They both insisted after so I said bye and crossed the border, I thought it might be interesting as I had no stamp in my passport or evidence of me entering Lesotho as I had entered the country after climbing up Leslies pass in South Africa. They just looked for an empty page in my passport, stamped it and handed it back.. easy. I changed my shirt and sprayed deodorant while sitting on a concrete block just after the border. I crossed the road and waved at a minibus, the driver got out but said he wasn’t allowed as they had seen how many passengers he had at the border. I said no one will know if I get on a bit further down out of sight. He got back in and pulled off, I jogged for a minute behind him downhill but he didn’t stop and continued down the steep rocky road.. Bastard!
I walked back uphill and onto a flatter section, Another vehicle came down, It was a posh white Kia. I waved for a lift but it slowly drove past, I thought great but the car suddenly came to a halt so I walked down to them. The driver got out and I asked if it would be ok to get a lift down Sani Pass. I couldn’t believe it when he said yeah no problem, so I put my bag in the boot and we set off. He was South African along with his Austrian wife. They offered me some jelly beans that were yummy and we started winding our way down the crazy Sani pass. We had a good chat, they told me about life in SA and that they had been burgled several times at gunpoint and the man had also been shot and severely injured on a separate occasion. By his own admission, he was lucky to be here. He had a good sense of humour which made the 1hr+ drive pass quickly. The views were stunning but road/track condition poor but makes for an interesting drive that’s for sure. We then reached the SA border post where I assumed they would be a bit more thorough, his wife popped to the bathroom but he just gave both passports at the desk and just gave them back, I had mine just opened to a blank page and stamped, they seem very relaxed in this part of the world.
We continued into SA where the road condition improved straight away, they were widening the road at the time (Dec 2019) with plenty of road works ongoing. I was dropped off right outside the Sani Lodge backpackers lodge, A great result and I really couldn’t have planned it any better. I said a massive thank you and headed into the campsite. It was a bit of a surreal transition as people were sunbathing and relaxing on the grass and by the on-site swimming pool. It was a bit different compared to my last few days. I headed around the side to the reception and booked a pitch for the night. The owner looked at me a little disconcerted as I had put my battered water bottle on the table as I had got out my wallet to pay. I’m not sure if it was the condition of the bottle or its contents that concerned her more? She said she was also born in England after reading the form I had filled in and we spoke about Suffolk where she grew up for a while before showing me around the site.
I decided to set up the tent in a quieter area of the campsite to relax for the evening. I spoke to the man on the next pitch who had climbed a few mountains and we spoke about our travels. My tent was looking quite traumatised, It really didn’t enjoy being left in the bag for quite a while after being in sand/dust at 5200m in Peru a few years ago. A new tent is now certainly required but in fairness, it had done ok on this trip. I had also spoken to the owner about reserving the NUD express shuttle for 07:30 the following morning. She came to my tent that afternoon and said it was reserved, I told her about my experience with them a few days before while in Durban.
The following morning I woke early after a late-night watching quite a few videos on my phone. The NUD express turned up 15 minutes late but I was finally on my way back to Durban. I didn’t mention to the driver who I was as I had recognised it was Alex who was driving the guy who I had messaged on Whatsapp 6 days prior. We made good time and after 2hrs 30 mins he dropped me at the Royal Hotel in Durban. I headed into the reception sat down and booked a room for the night as I was a day earlier than planned, I said to them I had left a bag there and could I merge them together and then leave my big bag there in the storage room as they said it was too early to check-in to which they agreed. I had a well-earned Maccies and walked around town before finally checking into my room with all of my gear back together. I had more issues with the door, not opening, but mostly spent the time relaxing and watched the Wolves game before heading to the airport a few days later. I arrived at the airport to the news my flight had been delayed by 3 hours so I asked at check-in if it would be possible to put me on their earlier flight which they did. Therefore I landed in Johannesburg earlier than planned.
The next flight was important as I had used a few tricks to book it. After waiting the few additional hours to check-in, The staff arrived accompanied by additional security and a computer on a metal box called eagle eye. The staff started checking through everyone’s itineraries and documents in detail. I thought this will be interesting as I have a particular set of flights on the rest of my itinerary that lowers the price of my ticket considerably. After a discussion with a complete idiot on the “eagle eye” mobile metal unit who didn’t seem to understand basic flight structures, it resulted in the manager being called over. I explained the rest of my trip to her as I had a safeguard workaround I had put into my itinerary just in case any complications arose. The manager looked at the woman explaining that my ticket was fine and said sorry for the confusion and I could continue. Fantastic!
Another successful country high points trip. Up to 80/100 climbed.