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The highest pub in Africa
On our way back from Lesotho our guide wants to show us the highest pub in Africa
At the top of the Sani Pass is the Sani Top Lodge, where you'll find the Highest Pub in Africa at 2874m (9429’). It's also a good place to relax after the long climb
One of South Africa's best kept secret places, Sani Top Chalet is a small rustic establishment that boasts the highest pub in Africa at 2874m above sea level.
It is located high on the Drakensberg escarpment on the border between South Africa and Lesotho.Related to:
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See one of the roundavels house inside
As part of the tour, we were able to take a small glimpse of a family home inside a traditional Lesotho round house with a thatched roof called a mokhoro. These round houses, also known as a rondavel in Afrikaans
See that round loaf of bread inside that giant pot. Possibly one of the best I’ve had in a long time! I’m not even a big fan of bread but it was so delicious warm, fresh, soft and buttery
The ingredient list is limited to flour, water, salt and yeast. She has no scale, yet each segment is wonderfully uniform in shape and size. She regulates the heat by the quantity of coals beneath and on its lid. As you can see, the crust is a lovely brown; neither underbaked or scorched.
The crumb was moist and soft straight out of the dough. I think that the flour used was mostly white, although some flecks of bran were visible. The flavor was exactly what you want from breadRelated to:
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Watch during Sheep shearing
The shepherd boys in the mountain of Lesotho are one of the few unreached people groups in South Africa
We visited a sheep shearing station during this trip. All the shearing is done by hand with a very sharp pair of scissors the sheep have learned not to move.
Farmers in the remote mountain villages of Lesotho rely for their survival on income from the wool and mohair of their sheep and goats.
Many of them travel long distances to have their animals sheared often risking the health of their livestock and reducing the quality of the wool and mohair.Related to:
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The remote village
The village has stone rondavels are the homes in most villages, especially rural areas. Some have doors others do not. Open fires on the dirt floor are used for cooking.
Our tour guide telling us about the flags in the villages. The white flag indicates that bread and beer (a sorghum-based beer) are available for purchase
A green flag would indicate vegetables and a red flag would indicate meat for sale
You might think from looking at the hut that the kitchen facilities are far too limited to support a bakery/brewery operation. The kitchen is a battered wooden table against the wall opposite the door. It holds a few bowls, some enameled metal drinking cups, and not much else.
There are a couple of larger plastic containers to the right of the table; that's the brewery. The oven is a Dutch oven that rests on the hearthstone in the center of the hut. The bedroom is a single bed against the wall to the right of the door; the living room is a stone bench built against the wall to the left of the door. There are no interior walls. Nor are there windows. The local thinking is that windows make the hut harder to heat. Smoke from the fire escapes through the doorway, if the door is open, or through the thatched roof.Related to:
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Preservation of wonder
From the beginning of the trip till the end it was all mountain we've seen, if you have all the time to see beautiful mountains, the mountain should be very impressive.
After a long bumpy journey were glad arrive at the village and the weather were not so good. As this small land lies in the high mountain the temperatures are cold and windy
Lesotho is the only country in the world that lies entirely above 1,000 meters. It is even completely above 1400 meters. But once you are at the top you only have the mountains around you. Incredibly beautiful!!!Related to:
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Excellent birding for high altitude species
Lesotho offers excellent bird watching and allows you relatively easy access to high altitude species that you wouldn't necessarily be able to spot elsewhere.
My husband's family were stationed in Lesotho for a few years in the late 1970s, and my father-in-law (an avid twitcher and bird photographer) entertained himself on weekends by compiling a field guide to the birds of Lesotho, which includes the names of each species in seven languages. As far as we can determine, this is still the definitive work on Lesotho's bird life.
Lesotho's birds have had to adapt to a high altitude environment in which there is relatively little food available, so you don't see either the abundance of species or the sheer numbers of birds that you'd encounter in a more hospitable environment. Many of the species are cryptic because Lesotho offers relatively little in the way of vegetation to provide refuge for birds, and there are a range of grassland species such as larks and cisticolas which less-than-compulsive birders would place into the category of LBJs (little brown jobbies).
First prize in Lesotho is a sighting of the lammergeier - also known as the bearded vulture - which is the largest and most dramatic bird found in the Kingdom. The name is derived from the perception that the bird is a 'lamb thief', and this unfortunate (and incorrect) assumption has lead to eradication programmes in the past, particularly on the South African side of the Drakensberg. In fact lammergeiers are vultures, and would thus much rather feed on carrion rather than on live meat - we saw a lammergeier soaring just past Letšeng diamond mine (where they apparently congregate around the rubbish dump), but unfortunately it was too high to get a decent photo.
Another distinctive species that you might encounter is the bald headed ibis which, like all ibises, have the characteristic curved bill. They are easily distinguished by their bald crimson heads and the livid coloured skin stretched tight over their skulls looks almost painful. Unfortunately their numbers have plummeted in recent years, but we saw several in the area north of Thaba Bosiu, where they were working over newly ploughed fields for tasty grubs and insects (again, too far away to photograph well).
Our last visit was in January - high summer - when the red hot pokers were in full bloom. These attract the malachite sunbirds (who occupy the same ecological niche as hummingbirds) who come in to feed on the nectar. Their irridescent plumage makes them particularly photogenic, and their frenetic darting between blooms is mesmerising. This is a relaxing activity that I would highly recommend whilst sitting outside at the Sani Top chalets, fortified by a cold Maluti!
Celebrate with a beer in Africa's highest pub!
At 2874m, the bar at the Sani Top chalets lay claim to being the highest pub in Africa - or just under 9,500 feet in old money. At this altitude, you'd be entitled to expect the beer to be cold and the view to be spectacular ... and you'd be right on both counts!
Many people decide to drive up the Sani Pass on a day trip to enjoy a hearty lunch and a drink or two to celebrate their achievement: if so, be sure to bring your passport, as the chalets are in Lesotho and you won't be let through the border without one. You don't need to stay in the chalets to be able to access the bar, but to do so gives you the obvious advantage of not having to drive down the Sani Pass afterwards (a sobering prospect if ever there was one)!
Technically Sani Top is indeed the highest pub open to the public in Africa. However, for fear of being pedantic, the highest bar in Africa is actually located a few hours drive to the west at Letseng le Terai diamond mine on the road to Buthe Buthe, which is approximately 3,100m above sea level. However, being a diamond mine, security is obviously a major consideration, and the mine is not accessible to the general public. So you can have your celebratory drink at Sani Top secure in the knowledge that the height of your current barstool cannot be topped!
Go on the piste at Afriski!
When in comes to word association, the concepts of 'Africa' and 'skiing' would seem to be mutually incompatible ... until you stumble over the Afriski resort in northern Lesotho.
Lesotho is certainly high enough and cold enough in winter to sustain snow - the problem is that snowfall isn't reliable because the winds bringing in moist air from the Indian Ocean to the east are forced to rise up over the Drakensberg escarpment, and, in the process, tend to drop their rain on the KwaZulu Natal side. Thus, there is a 'rain shadow' effect further to the west in Lesotho.
The Afriski resort is located at 3,000m altitude on the Mahlasela Pass. It has insured against a shortage of snowfall by installing snow machines (which use water from the ponds in the base of the valley). Nobody is claiming that this is a skiing experience to compete with the famous alpine resorts of Europe or North America, but apparently it's great fun with exuberant apres ski activities, and in the absence of alternatives in the region (now that Tiffendell in the Eastern Cape has closed down), it does a very brisk trade.
The road from the South African border to Afriski is tarred all the way, and should be passable in all weather for those whose vehicles have reasonable clearance. Just be aware that in order to get to Afriski, it's necessary to negotiate the Moteng Pass, which can be slow going.
Textbook onion skin weathering on Thaba Bosiu
Let's face it, textbook onion skin weathering probably isn't big in your life, but read on, as if you decide to visit Thaba Bosui, it may provide a very useful way of saving face ...
As you probably know, I am a lapsed geologist, and I have never quite managed to leave my geological roots behind me. Onion skin weathering is a phenomenon where the rock is broken down by exposure to the elements, which are particularly harsh in Lesotho. Repeated fluctation between extremes of temperature - ranging from snow and ice in winter to harsh sun in summer - over the aeons causes the various minerals which make up the rock to expand and contract at different rates, which ultimately breaks down the internal structure of the rock. This causes thin layers of rock to peel off like onion skins ... hence the term 'onion skin weathering'.
So how could this help you save face? Well, if you decide to tackle the rather stiff hike up Thaba Bosiu and aren't as fit as you could be, then you can probably wangle an extra rest en route by exclaiming in a loud voice, "Wow, just look at that textbook onion skin weathering!" and then peering intently at the rock and feigning intense interest whilst trying to catch your breath. Great chutzpah is of course required to pull it off convincingly, but for those of us of Irish heritage, well, that's second nature!
The ice rats are way cuter than they sound!
The prospect of meeting an ice rat probably doesn't sound particularly attractive to the average traveller, but once you've made the acquaintance of these delightful little critters, you may well wish to revise your opinion!
African ice rats - technically known as Sloggett's ice rat - are common in the mountains of Lesotho, and live between the rocks. They are about the size of a small European rat, but are distinguished by their shaggy coats and short, short tails. Unlike other rats, their snouts are rounded rather than pointy, which make them look more like voles or gerbils, and the overall effect is rather cuddly and endearing.
You may see ice rats scuttling between boulders as you drive through the mountains, but your best chance of getting a good look at them is probably at Sani Top chalets, where they live in the rocks under the main hotel building and are relatively habituated to humans.
Lesotho's streams and dams offer excellent fishing
One of Lesotho's great attractions is the opportunity to pursue outdoors activities in a relatively unspoilt environment.
The same advantage was apparent to the first white setllers, who had to be of the "huntin', shootin', fishin'" mould to survive somewhere so remote and cut off from centres of civilisation. Unfortunately Lesotho's terrain and climate is too extreme to support much in the way of large game - eland were not considered particularly good sport - so the delights were largely restricted to shooting small game (partridge and francolin) and fishing.
Lesotho's rivers already hosted native species such as yellowfish (also known as 'scalies', which sound like a mildly contagious skin condition), but these were not considered sufficiently 'sporting' by the new arrivals. One of the most formidable pioneers of remote eastern Lesotho, Major Harry Smith, therefore took it upon himself to introduce brown trout from the Giant's Castle nature reserve in adjoining Natal in 1935.
Trout may be considered sporting fish for the angler, but there is nothing sporting about the way that these invasive aliens outcompete native species who are not used to vying with such voracious competition for limited natural resources. Lesotho's fast flowing streams and crystal clear waters were very much to the liking of the trout, but as in so many places elsewhere, the introduction of trout has lead to the devastation of the natural aquatic ecosystem.
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Conquer the knee trembling Sani Pass!
As ever, I have left writing the more complex tip on a destination until last because it's difficult to know where to start.
Well, let me begin by saying that I have drawn much of the content for this tip from the excellent book, "The Saga of the Sani Pass on Mokhotlong" by Michael Clark, which I bought in nearby Himeville (where Peter is heavily involved with the Himeville Museum).
The Drakensberg is a formidable mountain range, whose buttresses rise up almost vertically from the surrounding landscape and it was a source of immense frustration to the first white settlers that they could find no way to conquer this barrier.
The route which was to become the Sani Pass (and roughly follows the course of the Mkomazana River) was undoubtedly known to the San (Bushmen) who were the original inhabitants of this area. The first recorded use of the route was by retreating AmaHlubi tribe in the 1870s, when they retreated from British troops who were trying to impose taxation on the native population, who understandably took badly to this suggestion and rose up in revolt.
The strategic importance of the pass as a way of facilitating easier access to remote eastern Lesotho had long been recognised, but even so, it took decades for this to become a reality.
I was flabbergasted to learn that the first form of transport up the pass were pack trains of women who was used to transport, among other things, a disassembled wagon for use on the relatively flat land at Sani Top! The bridle path was formalised in 1916 and the 'pack women' were phased out in favour of donkey or horse trains: in autumn, after the shearing season was complete, anything up to 2,000 pack animals would use the trail each day. However, the terrain was so appalling that the animals often lost their footing and fell to their deaths: a situation that was exacerbated by the Basotho practice of roping the pack animals head-to-tail so that a single person could lead a large number of animals.
The pass was first negotiated by a vehicle in 1948 when Godfrey Edmond painstakingly nursed a Jeep up the trail, and the first 'ordinary' vehicle to conquer the pass was VW Beetle driven by Leicester Symons in 1956. It's worth seeking out Michael Clark's book just for the hair raising photos taken over this period of vehicles whose wheels are clinging to the edge of the track and reversing repeatedly to edge around particularly tight corners.
The road was progressively improved from that point onwards, with the steeper sections and more torturous corners having been re engineered, which involves extensive realignment and blasting. However, today the Sani Pass is still a daunting prospect and not one to be taken lightly. The route from the Sani Pass Hotel outside Himeville to the Sani Top chalets is over 22km long and involves an elevation difference of over 1,300m. The names of the landmarks along the road echo the challenges en route: Big Wind Corner, Suicide Bend, Blind Man's Corner, Ice Corner and my personal favourite, Haemorrhoid Hill (whose derivation I do not even want to contemplate)!
There is an excellent viewpoint at 2,482m -which is about 4km from Sani Top - which commands a spectacular view down the valley and is a good point to stop to slow your racing pulse and/or prepare yourself for the final ascent (depending on whcih way you're driving the pass).
There is fierce debate on whether it is better to drive the pass going up or coming down, and the time of year that it's best to do this in. For what it's worth, we did it in midsummer (January) and the conditions were absolutely perfect, both for driving and for appreciating the stunning scenery: however, bear in mind that this is also the rainy season, and driving such a dangerous road after - or, worse still - during a thunderstorm is a daunting prospect. Conditions are drier in winter, but then you need to take into consideration a different range of hazards, including icy conditions, high winds and snow. I think that if I had my pick, then I'd probably recommend the period around Easter, when the rains are coming to an end, but the landscape is still lush and the mountainsides have that peculiar velvety appearance so characteristic of the Drakensberg.
As to whether to drive up or down the pass (assuming that you're travelling to/from Lesotho)? Well, a cynic would observe that it's really a matter of whether you have greater faith in your brakes or your clutch! We drove down the pass - which meant that we could fully appreciate the jawdropping vistas - but from a safety point of view, you probably have greater control if you drive up. And of course there are the day trippers who drive up and down in a single day, in which case, be sure to go easy on your celebratory drinks in the highest pub in Africa!
A couple of final pointers: vehicles driving up have right of way over traffic coming down. Also just be warned that drivers who are inexperienced on steep mountain roads will be tempted to sit on the clutch on the way up, and the day before we drove the pass, some tourists had burned out the clutch of their Daihatsu hire car. Just who you call to assist you under these circumstances - given than you're travelling through the widest no man's land in the world (and thus, are technically not in any country) - is an interesting point! Also check your hire car insurance carefully as it is recommended by most authorities - including the Automobile Association - that you need four wheel drive (4WD) for the pass, so trying to drive this in a 2WD may negate your insurance cover.
What do you do if you don't have a car? Well, the pass is negotiable by motorbike and even by mountain bike (for the masochistic), and it can also be walked, in which case I'd recommend that you get a lift to the South African border post, as it's too far to trek up and down the pass and make it to/from the nearest hotel/cam ground on the South African side in a day. There are also a number of tour operators in Underberg who run day trips (and longer) up the pass into Lesotho if you're not confident of your own driving or just want to admire the view!
And whatever you do, remember that this in an international border, so don't forget your passport - it's a long way back!
Quite simply one of my best travel experiences ever - and one that I am particularly proud that we undertook in a three generational convoy whose members ranged in age between 5 and 77!
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Slog your way up the breathtaking Moteng Pass
The Moteng pass is one of Lesotho's prettiest and most accessible mountain passes, and although there are higher, at 2,820m (about 9,250 feet) above sea level, it's not to be sneezed at!
The pass snakes up into the Maluti mountains from Butha Buthe, and is on the most heavily trafficked route to Sani Top (admittedly a relative term). The road is excellently constructed with a well maintained tar surface, and is passable to ordinary vehicles as well as those with 4 wheel drive. It's not a difficult drive, but it is a slow one, as the pass is a series of switchbacks, and can be particularly time consuming if you get stuck behind one of the trucks travelling to the diamond mines.
From a geological point of view, the pass is interesting, as it walks you up through the geological profile, from the honey coloured Clarens sandstone outside Butha Buthe (with its characteristic overhangs) into the volcanic basalt which forms the high Maluti mountains.
If you feel the urge to press on and scale the highest mountain pass in Southern Africa, keep driving east until you reach the Tlaeeng Pass, which is a breathtaking 3,275m metres (about 10,750 feet) above sea level. However, be warned that at the time of writing (February 2012), the section of road around Letšeng mine was extremely poor, so allow yourself sufficient time to negotiate this section (over which we averaged only 20kph).
Is this the widest No Man's Land in the world?
Maybe I've lived and worked in the developing world for too long, but I don't like border posts one little bit. My experience is that they are ominous places peopled by bad tempered officials with inferiority complexes who are eager to work out their despotic tendencies on hapless tourists ... but in the case of the Sani pass border between Lesotho and South Africa, I'll make a notable exception!
The Sani Pass border post is unique in so many ways that it can hardly fail to be endearing. To start with, it is staggeringly picturesque, and it's almost impossible to be negative about somewhere that's just so beautiful. And then of course there's the fear factor and the quavering knowledge that the only way to pass between the two border posts is to conquer a pass that inspires trepidation in even the most ardent offroader.
And finally, there are the completely trivial considerations ... which of course are precisely the ones that appeal to people like me! At conventional borders, the immigration posts are separated by a 'no man's land' of a few metres over which the border officials can eyeball each other with varying degrees of hostility depending on the warmth of neighbourly relations. However, at Sani Pass, there simply isn't enough flat land to allow for such a construction ... and so the Lesotho border post is perched at the top of the pass, 7km distance (and at 1400m elevation difference) from the South African border post at the foot of the pass! This is reputed to be the widest 'no man's land' in the world and the sensation of passing through a corridor that doesn't technically belong to any country is a heady one.
Oh yes, and just to completely buck the trend, I should mention that the border officials were very nice indeed ...
Experience sunrise from the Roof of Africa!
When you travel, there are certain hardships that you need to impose on yourself in order to experience the iconic, and this is certainly the case when it comes to resurrecting your carcass at 04:30 to witness sunrise from the Roof of Africa!
Fortunately in midsummer, the temperature was positively balmy - about 7ªC - and as there was little chance of encountering anyone else at that hour, I was able to slip on my shoes, nip out of the chalet in my pyjamas, take my photos and slip back under the covers within five minutes: in the sub zero temperatures of winter, it would be a different matter altogether, but then the trade off is that you wouldn't have to get up as early!
What is the cheat's way of experiencing this? Well, the shower in our bathroom had a window looking out over the escarpment, so having sleepily asked me on my return whether it was worth seeing, my husband (anything but a morning person) stumbled blearily into the shower, peeked out the window, agreed that it was indeed spectacular and shuffled back into bed ... gathering of the photographic evidence had, of course, had already been subcontracted!
An obliging spouse (who's also a morning person) can sometimes be a wonderful asset!
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