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April 26, 2013 / samwilson60

Roof of Africa

Our next destination was the famous Sani Pass, which we’d been eagerly (if slightly anxiously) anticipating since leaving Cape Hot. We were still quite a way away so thought we’d wild camp en route but, despite spending all morning driving in what felt like circles along tortuous gravel tracks getting away from the Wild Coast, we made excellent progress once back on tar and actually spent the night at the nearest campsite to the base of the pass.

It was a lovely campsite but we were fully focused on what lay ahead. First thing the following morning, we were packed up and raring to go. As the tarmac turned to gravel a kilometre or so down the road, we were like kids in a playground.

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The Tinker Beast did a great job and the pass more than lived up to expectations. We had stunning clear skies and not as sketchy a drive as anticipated. We were glad we’d opted for low range and there was one corner too tight to get round in one go, but we were both relaxed enough to enjoy the drive and the borders (if you can call them that) did nothing to sour our moods. On the way back down we even got the guys on the Lesotho side to change some rand for souvenir maloti – they seemed quite tickled by the idea, which was nice.

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Atop Sani Top, we stayed at the only place in town. It had a great view down over the pass and lots of resident Sloggett’s Ice Rats – apparently a rare find in the Drakensburg but littering Sani Top – not to mention the most picturesque, deserted campsite. Deserted to the point of not knowing what we were looking at. We followed the signs to a big, unfenced field and asked after our allocated ‘pitch 1’. The guy gestured out towards the foothills of the mountains and told us to pick our spot. We were soon hemmed in by a few flocks of sheep and got adopted by a dog, but otherwise we felt like we had the roof of Africa all to ourselves. The evening (and night) was cold, but we had an awesome fire and were wrapped up in all the winter clothes we hadn’t seen since Scandinavia – toasty!

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The following morning was less toasty, but we were determined to make the most of our day in Lesotho. Instead of dragging the Tinker Beast over any more 4×4-only passes, we decided to give ourselves a bit of a workout instead, up to Thabana-Nletyana, the highest peak in southern Africa. For once Lonely Planet got it spot on – “a long and strenuous hike” it was, but we couldn’t justify driving any further into the country and thought it could, in part, make amends for our aborted Mount Cameroon excursion. We took a guide and another tourist we’d coincidentally met at the bottom of the pass the previous day, and the four of us plodded up and down various hills from 2,876m to 3497m. By 3,000m we started to realise what we’d taken on. The locals had kept telling us how far it was (30km round trip) and we’d talked about the altitude, but neither of us had expected to have quite such a hard time on only the first real climb. Although our guide looked as though he was out for a Sunday stroll, he was actually cracking quite a pace, regardless of the incline. This reassured us but didn’t explain away the chronic shortness of breath. We, too, walk at a reasonable pace, up and down, but we’d never done so at much over 2,000m. After a short break and a chocolate biscuit things got easier, but we still needed lots of brief pauses and each reserved the right to send the other one up the final peak alone. Of course, neither would give up that easily and we were rewarded in the end.

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On the way back ‘down’ we had a couple of very exciting bird sightings (eagles and – possibly – some rare bearded vultures), but by the end we were broken. The last few kilometres back to camp felt like the home straight of a marathon but with only a few blisters and some slight chaffing we were smiling all evening and already plotting some of the other hikes we could do in the Drakensburg.

We had the pass more or less all to ourselves on the way back and although the Tinker Beast sounded a bit ropey on engine breaking, we took our time and enjoyed it almost as much as on the way up.

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Back at Sani Bottom, Sam tried to get to the bottom of our mechanical issues, while Cat went off for a bit of a hike/run up a very small peak (not before doing the washing for both of us mind). With the help of a local mechanic and his son, Sam finally got the check plug off the gearbox and ruled out any issues with the oil, which was a great relief even though something was clearly up. Everyone agreed we couldn’t justify taking the gearbox apart at this stage, although that was almost certainly where the problem lay, so for now all we could do was keep an eye (or rather, ear) on it as we ventured north.

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One Comment

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  1. Peter Cullen / Apr 27 2013 8:15 am

    Great entry and cracking images.

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