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The legendary Sani Pass, South Africa's highest mountain pass...with the much more important: South Africa's highest pub :) Taking Sani Pass Tour's Sani Pass day tour, we left at 9:00 from an office in Underberg, and set off to journey, and be guided up, and down the fabled Sani Pass.
Not surprising there were no hiccups; the vehicle was a closed Land Cruiser 2011 (was assured, and indeed it did look like a new truck, all with fancy stickers on it....it was missing a roof rack...no that I'm any person that has techy knowledge of any vehicles...in the least), and quite comfortably made it up the pass, and all the little 4x4 show off spots.
There were quite a few viewpoints we stopped at, and just as well, if only to stretch the legs - no 4x4 vehicle is designed for luxury travel, and the Sani Pass is...the biggest question you can possibly ask your truck on a day to day basis.
By 12 we had finally passed the hairpins bends, all aptly named in suit of their individual dreads; reverse bend, icy corner are just two I care to remember. The border post was a breeze, as we had already done the paperwork in the office beforehand. There was however the issue of the 1 Ukranian on the same trip who needed a visa to get through - no problem; a little money greasing palms sorted that out (I'm still left a little uneasy about that whole matter, but was assured that it was a daily occurrence. In which case I definitely considered myself to be in the wrong industry, which is on the whole quite an honest affair.
We next went to a living Basothu village, and visited one of the old ladies making bread in her rondawel. Now being South African, I'm very familiar with the scenario, but the foreigners weren't. I could tell they appreciated the reality of living in Lesotho - it's helluva hard!
Then the Africa's highest pub: beautiful pub! Beautiful view (even in the clouds)! The beer is great, regardless of what it is (I never saw the wisdom of being picky about what beer to drink in Africa), and the food is reminiscent of what you had the first time you made anything...and it's not cheap - the dude up there on the mountain has a monopoly, and consequently can charge 'whatever'....having said that; getting supplies up the mountain must be an absolute nightmare.
The trip down the mountain was a quiet affair, everyone too tired, exhausted, and lost in their own thoughts to really make any social inputs.
And so by 16:00 we were back at the office, safe and sound. Armed to the teeth with photos, thoughts on the history, the cultures, and the idyllic beautiful, and romantic hardships involved with the Sani Pass.
Written May 14, 2012
Address: Underberg, Sani Pass
Phone: 033 7011 064
Khotso Horse Trails, led by the fearless, and legendary Steve Black, has a pretty monopoly on all the horse trailing around this area. It's Khotso's horses, and Khotso's guides that take all people's from the different resorts on their little horsey treks. The best value is to go straight to Khotso, and get the really experienced guides take you on a 1, 2, or 3 hour ride. They also have 3 to 5 day rides that go deep into Lesotho - I haven't been on one of those, but knowing Lesotho to b the Kingdom in the Sky, it must b an absolutely epic adventure (although I do harbour a healthy respect for too much time spent in the saddle....it can only hurt. A normal 3 hour ride usually leaves my bottom in a retarded state of being).
Written May 14, 2012
Address: Underberg, Drakenberg Gardens road
Phone: 033 7011 502
The bird life of the Southern Drakensberg is wonderful, and an interesting combination of the grassland and mountain species with water birds thrown in for good measure around the streams and dams.
The water birds in particular were special, and from the stoep of our cabin at Lake Naverone, we were treated to the spectacle of a resident giant kingfisher plunging like a jet propelled dagger into the water and several species of heron stealthily stalking their prey in the shallows.
However, the high point for us was seeing this pair of crowned cranes striding majestically through the grass just off the Drakensberg Gardens road as we were bidding a reluctant farewell to this very special part of the world. None of us had ever seen these spectacular birds outside zoos or wildlife parks, so seeing them in the wild was a very special experience.
Updated Feb 13, 2012
Over the years, there has been a lot of dam construction in the Drakensberg, some to provide water supply for agriculture, and some for tourism/recreational purposes.
The resort that we stayed at - Lake Naverone - is a trout farm that was established in 1947, and over more than half a century has become part of the landscape. In addition to the obvious opportunity to fly fish, we particularly liked the fact that each cottage had a rowing boat provided free of charge - all we had to do was to collect the oars which are kept at reception as a safety precaution.
There are other water activities in the surrounding area: the tourist literature mentioned that it was possible to go river rafting on the Umzimkhulu River, which can be organised either through your hotel or via one of the tour operators in Underberg.
Updated Feb 12, 2012
One of the nicest ways to explore the Drakensberg is on horseback, and most resorts will have their own stable which caters for all levels of competence, from absolute beginners to expert riders. There are usually ponies for the children (who are taken out for short periods and lead by a groom unless they are already competent riders) and horses for the adults: most stables prefer to keep horses and ponies separate for outrides as this is much easier and safer to manage.
Don't worry about saving if you're an adult and want to ride but have never previously ventured on a horse - these resorts are used to such situations, so if this has always been a sneaking ambition of yours, then this is the time to give it a go.
Unlike neighbouring Lesotho (where pony trekking is very popular), there is a far greater emphasis on the safety aspect, so all stables will expect you to wear a riding hat, which can be borrowed at no additional cost. Closed shoes are usually a prerequisite and you'd be wise to wear long trousers to prevent chafing and long sleeves and sunscreen to avoid sunburn on longer rides.
Updated Feb 12, 2012
This gentleman rejoices in the splendidly Dickensian name of Punch Trollip and he is the owner of the Underberg cheesery, which is located on the River Glen farm about 5km outside of town.
Punch and his wife (somewhat disappointingly called Karin - I had of course been hoping for a Judy) have a herd of Jersey dairy cattle whose milk they use to make an excellent range of cheeses as well as yoghurts.
The cheesery is open for free tastings - see the website below for details on opening times. You can also buy their cheese in the local supermarkets, although that seems a disappointing tame option when for very little additional effort you could visit to sample and purchase the cheese more cheaply at its point of origin.
I was particularly impressed with their Hot Mexican cheese (brilliant in a toasted sandwich) and, ever one for a catchy brand name, I was much taken with their ParmeSani! (If you find this pun puzzling, then a quick look at the map will confirm that that Underberg is close to the base of the iconic Sani Pass).
Eccentric? Well, be sure to read the sign on the photo attached, and even if that doesn't convince you, then the entrance flanked by pot plants in a collection of old wellington boots probably will!
Updated Jan 17, 2012
Underberg is the main centre for tour operators servicing the Southern Drakensberg, and there are many service providers to choose from, including the crowd pictured above (whose services, I must add, I have never used, and can therefore not vouch for).
Visitors are spoiled for choice in terms of the activities on offer in the surrounding region, from water sports to mountain biking, hiking, horse trekking and exploring Bushman paintings, so it's really a matter of reviewing the options and deciding what tickles your fancy. Personally I was tempted by the prospect of a half day historical tour of the Drakensberg Gardens valley and the river rafting, but sadly our schedule would not allow ... something to look forward to next time!
Unsurprisingly, perhaps the most popular offerings are the range of guided tours up the Sani Pass, which will appeal to those who either don't have transport suitable to attempt this trip and/or don't feel confident enough to tackle this challenging section of road.
Updated Jan 17, 2012
Underberg is the regional service centre for the Southern Drakensberg, and is an excellent place to stock up and reprovision if you're passing through this region.
There are a couple of large and surprisingly well stocked supermarkets - the Spar pictured above, and the OK on the road in from Himeville - each of which provides 'one stop shopping' that is likely to meet pretty well all of your catering needs. This is useful as there is a wealth of high quality self catering accommodation in the surrounding area, so if you're travelling on a budget, holidaying with children and/or want some independence from hotels and restaurants, this provides a very cost effective option.
There is also a pharmacy, petrol (gas) station, hardware store, garage and a wheel balancing/alignment station as well as restaurants/fast food outlets and banking facilities, so in one fell swoop, you should be set up for the next leg of your trip!
Updated Jan 17, 2012
The Sani Pass is the only way to cross the Drakensberg escarpment on Lesotho's eastern border with South Africa (which, interestingly enough, totally surrounds it) - thus, it is an international border, and you require a passport to cross from one to other. If you want to be pedantic, the pass itself is technically 'no man's land', as the Lesotho border is at the top of the pass, and the South African border is at the bottom, with an intervening distance of 9km. This is reputed to be the longest distance between corresponding border posts on an international border in the world, although I am open to correction on this point.
Looking at the photo, I'm sure that you will agree that it would be a shame to drive all the way up this, only to be refused admission, so make sure that you have checked that you have a (valid) passport with you before you set out, lest you have to drive back to collect it!
It's worth noting that as Lesotho and South Africa are part of a common customs area, you are not required to present any ownership documentation for your vehicle.
Updated Jan 17, 2012