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Coriolistic Anachronisms | Lesotho Trip - 2/2 - Coriolistic Anachronisms
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Coriolistic Anachronisms - Lesotho Trip

   

Cartwheels over Lesotho, Part 5 – Differential Lock on the Sani Pass

We attacked the next leg with dreams of grandeur. Just like Sossusvlei had been the apotheosis of our 2009 Namib trip, Southern Africa’s highest mountain pass was going to be something to write home about.

Located in the Drakensberg mountain range, on the  easternmost flank of Lesotho, the Sani Pass leads from Basotho Highlands to South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province, in a hairy descent that drops pretty much straight down from one of the highest roads in Africa.

That road, as most in the area, is made of dirt and gravel. In fact, dirt, gravel and boulders, as we would soon find out. A few hundred kilometers long, the approach climbs irregularly all the way from the northwestern border of Lesotho through the Maluti Mountains and into the Drakensberg, then flattens out for a while on a ghostly high plateau inhabited only by solitary herders and then, suddenly, plunges down towards South Africa, in a tight zigzagging series of hairpin turns only negotiable by 4-wheel drive vehicles.

Strangely, the Basotho border post is perched at the top of the pass and the South African one at its bottom, some 10 kilometers below. South African authorities strictly  prohibit access to unsuited vehicles – in other words if you don’t drive a real 4×4, you don’t go up. The road ascends (or descends, depending on the direction of travel) from 1,586m at the Sani Pass Hotel, South Africa, to 2,873m at the very top, 22 km all in all – or in the steepest section, about 1,000 vertical meters from border post to border post in a mere nine kilometers. A couple of kilometers from the top of the pass rises the highest peak in Southern Africa, Thabane Ntlenyana, 3,482m.

As one can imagine with such staggering statistics, the Sani Pass is associated with many a scary story and we had heard them all, from automobile carcasses lying at the bottom of the valley after failed attempts, to ice and snow closing the road in the deep of winter.

Our itinerary was going to take us across Lesotho and into South Africa – hence down the pass, the easiest direction of travel, so we didn’t worry too much. Coming from Golden Gate, we again crossed at Caledonspoort. There were a few other high passes to be scaled along the way and one of them, the Moteng Pass, climbed to Afriski – highest ski resort in all of Africa below the Tropic of Cancer. Well, that’s not such a big deal since there are only… two.

Now used to the reality of pedestrian traffic on narrow roads, we took our time and by early afternoon, we were becoming acquainted with the Drakensberg slopes. Then we suddenly came upon a tight open bend in the dirt road. Workers up ahead waved and yelled at us to stop. I  stepped on the brakes and pulled over. There was a problem.

A few pick-ups were parked in the way and the scene showed surprising human activity, an ephemeral oasis of life after hours of quiet nothingness. Right above us to the left, where the road continued its steep ascent to a neck, a large truck was stopped and people had gathered around it. Their body language was easily deciphered: they moved and talked according to the international code of mechanical trouble; the truck had broken down, they were trying to fix it. It was stopped right in the middle of a steep narrow section, there was no way to drive around it. However little traffic arrived in both direction, it would be held up.

Marie and I sat back for a while, watching the scene and trying to gauge the possibility of a positive outcome to this delay. We were on the only road leading to the Sani Pass and South Africa. If it remained blocked, we’d have to backtrack for hours in order to find another way out of Lesotho.

Light rain began to fall. Donning my raincoat, I ventured out and walked up to the scene. A road worker was talking to another crouching inside the truck’s high cabin. He turned around and answered my question grimly. “It’s the clutch. Broken. We can’t even back down the slope to the bottom of the curve.” “Does he have any hopes of fixing this?” I asked waving at the guy in the truck who was handling a very large wrench. “Maybe,” the man said.

I returned to the Landcruiser and spilled the news. The Sani Pass  had become optional. We tried to remain optimistic but evaluated our options. We had already been stuck there for some 45 minutes. We might have to escape backwards.

Suddenly, there was movement above us. I looked up. The truck had crept back a few inches. Then it happened again. Everybody got agitated and men began shouting at each other. Someone walked to the back of the truck to guide while the improvised mechanic was sitting behind the wheel. Freeing the clutch, he managed to start the engine and reversed slowly all the way to the widest section below. Traffic was free to go. The few pick-ups that had been held up all went by screaming in both directions and I let them have at it, knowing full well they would be driving twice our speed. We could now resume our quest.

Our maps had proven to be a little unreliable. Distances were variable and small Basotho towns randomly vanished and changed names from one edition to the next. When we suddenly found ourselves at the top of a long climb and a sign announced an altitude I’ve now forgotten, we thought we had reached the infamous Sani Pass. But a long plateau stretched far into the distance to a new mountain range. Something was off. The pass was supposed to drop straight down the slopes of the Drakensberg into relatively low terrain.

After a thorough analysis of all maps, we figured that not only had we  not arrived, there was a long way to go. We drove on as the sky darkened and clouds descended to meet the high desolate landscape. Solitary herders were riding their horses, slipping in and out of the mist, ghostly figures in a world of remote and harsh beauty. The mountain air was very chilly and as we cruised at altitudes between 2500 and 3000 meters, we had to reflect on how far in our conscience the other Africa had receded. We were slicing our way through the continent’s roof, our imagination flirting with shapes and legends in the descending fog.

Eventually, we came upon a few Basotho houses and a longer shack on the right side of the road. There was no gate and no one in sight, but we knew we had arrived at the first border crossing. We were about to leave Lesotho. Ahead of us and below, the road would plunge towards the South African post, some 10 km further down. We had found the actual Sani Pass.

Marie parked the Landcruiser and we walked over to the low prefab building with our passports, glancing around us curiously. This was one of the most isolated border crossing I’d ever seen and the fog made the place Hitchcockesque. We stepped into the outpost and were greeted by relative warmth. Two officers were looking at a laptop screen, probably watching a movie. A fire burned at the end of the room in a small chimney. It was like entering a movie scene.

Formalities were expedited and we went back out into the cold. A few  hundred meters away, we could see another building that was probably the Sani Top Chalet, a backpackers’ hotel hailed on the internet as featuring the highest pub in Africa. We didn’t even see a road leading to it. Our attention was focused on the path down.

Marie got behind the wheel and we slowly headed into the vertical no man’s land that separates the two countries. It was rather dramatic. With the clouds closing down on us and limiting visibility to a few hundred feet, we had no view and could only imagine the drop-off. Immediately, the road seemed to disappear from underneath our wheels and Marie found herself negotiating a series of tight turns with her foot on the brakes, trying to keep our speed slow and the wheels from sliding on the wet rocks that paved the way. She doesn’t like heights and each turn was a torture to her as, to go around, she had to first lead us straight into the cloudy void and turn at the last second.

The road was incredibly bad. Despite the Landcruiser’s high clearance, she was forced to work her way around huge boulders. Soon, she had had enough. “This is crazy. It’s too dangerous,” she said. She wanted out. Out, however, meant up, which was not really an option. We could have gone back to the hotel and waited for the  clouds to lift but probably would have had to spend the night. We were committed.

“It’ll be fine,” I said with more bravado than I felt. “I’ll drive us down, you’ve done your part.” I switched the differential to Low, locking the wheels together two by two and slowing us down to a sick turtle’s pace. Down we went. The road was so steep that in some spots it felt like I was standing on the pedals. I tried to use engine braking as much as I could to keep the brakes from overheating. In the sharpest turns, Marie got out, as much to guide me as to be out of the vehicle as I drove it over and around boulders straight at the precipice. I often had to come a meter from the edge, on slightly slipping wheels, before I could turn back towards the road and prepare for the next curve. She made me unbuckle, anticipating a forced jump out of the car.

I don’t have any pictures of this section of the pass. There was no time. Marie took a few when she was walking down the tight bends. At one point, a horrible  smell drove her to the edge where she was greeted by the gruesome sight of a decomposing horse. The Sani Pass had killed an innocent; but it had that reputation. On the way down, we would see a few car wrecks at the bottom of the ravine, silent reminders that not all who had attempted the pass had succeeded. The internet classified it as dangerous, requiring intermediate to advanced off-road driving skills, depending on the season. I could not even imagine that road in snow and ice.

Eventually, though, the clouds thinned and light improved. We caught several glimpses of the valley below, and then, just like that, we were out in clear air. We had already left the steepest part above and behind us, and slowly worked our way down. A few vehicles caught up with us. They seemed to be commercial 4×4’s doing the official Sani Pass tour and were just plummeting down the path, their occupants bouncing in all directions as the driver swerved right and left in the bumps.

We reached the South African border post at the same time as two other 4×4’s but managed to get ahead of them while tourists were slowly getting off and stretching. The dirt  road continued on South African soil, now rather flat and better maintained, and we left the Drakensberg behind us after a last photo stop to look back at the formidable mountains that had finally spat us out like insignificant specs of humanity.

Some 300 km and ten hours after leaving Golden gate, we arrived in Himeville. We found a small but rather expensive hotel and had dinner there before showering and going to bed. The room was infested with mosquitoes. Marie fell asleep but I was up well into the wee hours. The Sani Pass might have taken its toll but mosquitoes were a much more tangible threat and I fought them bravely.

 

 

Cartwheels over Lesotho – Space addendum to Golden Gate

We witness the ISS and the shuttle Endeavor orbiting the Earth together

On the 20th of February 2010, around 19:20, while camping in South Africa’s Golden Gate National Park, Marie and I were busy preparing our evening meal in the rapidly darkening valley. I happened to glance up at the sky, as I often do for no particular reason, looking for planes, for birds, for friendly or threatening clouds, for signs of times to come or navigational clues in a complicated world…

Then I looked again. Ascending some 30 or 40 degrees to the east from a rough southern origin, bright and crisp in a sky that was barely inviting its first stars, two satellites were racing each other, in the immediate intimacy of a shared orbit.

Despite having disconnected with worldwide news while we were scouting desolate roads in South Africa, I instantly knew what the two lights were. Only two of our Earth-made satellites could manage to coexist in such bright proximity. The International Space Station and the Space Shuttle were dancing a space ballet, a rendez-vous far above the ground that would be witnessed by millions, or no one.

Very few, in any case, would get such a privileged seat. There was virtually no light pollution and the air was clear. One of the orbiters seemed to be catching up with the other. I called Marie over and we watched, fascinated, as the two man-made crafts zoomed across space and disappeared towards the north. I took note of time, location and elevation and promised myself to look it up when back to civilization.

I turned out the ISS and Endeavour had just recently finished a joint mission and the shuttle was proceeding with post-separation maneuvers. I am still amazed. That they were so clearly visible, obviously much brighter than any other Earth-orbiting objects. That we could see them from such a remote location. That I just looked up.

Of course, anywhere on the planet is equally good to stare at the sky and satellites don’t think in terms of population. They overfly what they will and that’s that. But for us, lost in Southern Africa, far from the internet, TV, traffic, news, worries and toaster ovens, seeing these two beacons in our night sky was a direct link to all things wonderful, to the best of what humankind has managed to create, to dreams come true and those to be born.

The least I can say is that I was moved. And they too, were moving. At over 17,000 mph.

Thanks to Marie for reminding me.

 

Also see my previous post about some amazing photography of the Space Shuttle silhouette against the sun, and my own silly attempts on the matter…

 

Cartwheels over Lesotho, Part 6 – Flash Flood on the Road to Rhodes

My mosquito bites soothed and Himeville left behind, we drove southwestwards, keeping the dark Drakensberg walls to our right, through rolling hills and immense fields. This was Zulu land. We had already noticed around Himeville that  the locals were friendlier, more self-assured. The Zulus are a dancing people. It seemed to show.

We took two shortcuts. The first one, a long and rather straight dirt road across vast fields, was pleasant and efficient. So we got back on the main road and soon after Mount Fletcher, took another right into the unknown. Rhodes was less than 100 km away, now. We’d have to go over two more passes, through the Drakensberg itself and down onto Rhodes on the western flank.

There were giant storm clouds on the horizon, stuck on the mountains, dumping copious amounts of water where they sat. We kept an eye on them and I think I recall saying that we would most likely avoid the worst. As they say in cartoons, duh!

It becomes very tricky to judge the direction of travel of a storm when driving on a winding road. One minute it escapes, the next it is charging right at you. Rain began to fall. We didn’t worry. The Sani Pass was behind us, and with it, all memories of difficult driving.

Then it began to poor. The dirt road got wetter and wetter. Our Landcruiser was getting a real mud baptism, to Marie’s absolute delight – she hates a clean 4×4, a sure sign of urban driving and cowardly itineraries. She would aim for puddles and relish in the sound of splashing, momentarily speeding up the washers in a  triumphant gesture.

Soon, however, those puddles were so deep they slowed the vehicle as if we’d dropped into molasses. We began aiming around them. The soil was a striking red and small rivers started forming under our wheels, reddish and still hesitant in their downhill path.

The downpour had somewhat weakened, but rain had been heavy on the high peaks above us. All that water was, at that very moment, finding its way down the slopes, gathering momentum and strength as a thousand small rivers coalesced and grew stronger and meaner. We were now climbing steadily towards the Pitseng Pass. The zigzags reappeared and once more, we were inching our way along steep and exposed terrain.

Road conditions here were still a blessing. Despite the absence of paving, the soil and gravel surface had been relatively well maintained and kept free of boulders.  But this turned out to play against us because the red floods seemed to flow along paths of least resistance, and the road was such a path. The largest rivers cut straight across our way, flowing with gravity, but a lot of water was running down the road against our travel.

A man was standing outside his jeep at the bottom of a slope, legs firmly planted in the flowing red water, gauging the weather and the day. I stopped next to him and inquired how far we still had to go for Rhodes. He waved at the mountains: “You have to go over the whole Drakensberg.” That wasn’t encouraging. I asked what he thought of the conditions. He tapped the ground with his submerged boot and said: “It’s solid for now. Don’t know if it’ll last.” Marie understood it’s strong now, which could have meant the same, so we decided to go forward.

The largest rivers began to dig trenches across the road and forced us to slow down further, and steer towards the shallowest spots. Things were becoming unnerving and we had a long way to go. When one is driving uphill at a walking man’s pace, negotiating a flooding dirt road alongside a precipice, a simple kilometer takes on the scope of a small world. And we had many worlds to go.

Then there was a deeper submerged pothole and we bounced to the roof. That one had caught us unaware. By the time we figured things weren’t  looking good, we had been driving uphill in worsening conditions for about an hour and I had to admit the way was closed behind us. There would be no turning around. We had to push on through. Marie was behind the wheel and despite the bumps, doing a masterful job of navigating through the growing rush of water.

To keep spirits up and make us move forward, I set our aim to the simplest goal safely achievable: we would make it to the top of the pass and assess. If things were still getting worse, we’d hunker down and wait it out up at the top where we would be safe from the threat of water. Worse came to worse, we had our tent and could pitch next to the road in a field.

To achieve that goal, though, we’d have to make it up the pass. The terrain had become almost vertical and rivers coming from uphill were now falling onto our path in real waterfalls, digging further into the road that was becoming badly damaged and cracked. The threat of a landslide was now on stand-by in my mind.

All into her driving, Marie asked me to take pictures of the incredible liquid mess we were plowing our way through, and I replied much too dryly that this was no time for  pictures. One hundred percent of my attention was focused on the road and I wanted hers to be there too. While she negotiated the torrents at our feet, I would gauge waterfalls up ahead and calculated the safest spots between them, in case she had to step on it to get us out of trouble and needed a shelter. It was a long way down to where the water was pouring. She did manage to get a few shots and her own very good story is here.

And yet, we made it to the top of the pass without serious trouble, took a deep breath and wondered whether to push on as far as we could, without exposing ourselves to a similarly risky descent. We had arrived on a high plateau. Water here couldn’t flow down as easily and had instead accumulated, forming deep puddles on the muddy path.

Some puddles seemed so deep that I decided to walk through them before letting Marie drive in. I took my shoes off and ventured out in the red mud, never getting water much higher than my knees. But the mud was extremely soft and slippery and the heavy Landcruiser would sink in and struggle. Marie was having a hard  time, the back of the vehicle slipping sideways and threatening to get her stuck in a bad place.

At last, after slowing down a bit too much, she felt the truck slide to the left and could not hold it back as it leaned into the ditch. There was nowhere to fall and we stayed there, at a 30 or 40 degree angle, while she swore softly. She had been driving for many hours and handled the flooding slopes brilliantly, but stress had taken a toll and she was just tired.

I offered to take the wheel, hurting her feelings a bit. “You think you can do better?” she said defensively. “Maybe you have more experience driving through mud?” “No,” I answered diplomatically, “but driving in snow, yes. It’s the same. One brown, one white, both slippery. I’ll manage.”

I switched to low gear, drove us out of the ditch carefully, and then opted for a forceful entry into subsequent puddles. With enough speed and power, I could retain directional control and steering. Too little or too much speed and I  would fly off-course.

A pick-up appeared far ahead, coming our way. When he got to our height, the driver slowed down and lowered his mud-covered window. We asked him about road conditions ahead. “It gets better,” he said. “There are maybe two remaining puddles, and then it dries up. The road to Rhodes is good.” We thanked him with relief and he took off in a splash.

The rest of the drive was an easy ride. We drove through the following Naudesnek Pass in thick clouds, unbothered by water, and down into Rhodes. It was an interesting small town, showing signs of having been a happening place in high season, but for now asleep and peaceful, or even ghostly. The dirt roads were shaded by tall trees and all surrounding fields were impressively green. Here the  mountains ended and a lush farmland began again.

The very cheap campground we had anticipated to use was a horrible backyard disappointment. No electricity, certainly no other campers – who would have wanted to camp there, really? - a miserable, dark and stinky ablutions block, flies buzzing around the toilets. We bailed and found a neat self-catering little house instead, run by the campground owners who also had a B&B and located at the village’s entrance right across from the police station.

It had once again taken us over 8 hours to cover 300 km. The truck was dirty, our backs sore and our stomachs empty. It was time to rest. In the morning, we’d change beats and leave the Drakensberg behind us, headed down to the coast and Addo Elephant National Park.

 

Cartwheels over Lesotho, Part 7 – Stalking the Mountain Zebra

Out of Rhodes by mid-morning, we drove lazily through patchy fields, their freshly plowed soil dark as coal and contrasting strongly with lush green vegetation all around. In Barkly East, the dirt road was left behind and with  it, all driving worries. We drifted north to Lady Grey and Aliwal and then plunged directly south on the wide N6, picking up speed and making up for a slow start.

Cruising towards the sea, we realized we hadn’t booked a campsite at Addo Elephant National Park – a potentially fatal oversight on a Friday night due to the close proximity to East London and Port Elizabeth. The city folks were likely to escape for the week-end and Addo would be a prized destination.

We stopped in Queenstown and found a small computer store that offered internet access. The National Park web site was navigated to easily, and sure enough, it was fully booked. I came to grips with a disappointment the size of its object: I would not see elephants on that trip.

Scrambling for options, we remembered seeing a sign for  Mountain Zebra National Park on our way to Lesotho, while we traveled on an opposite course further north. It was in the general direction of Cape Town and would allow us to keep our subsequent legs relatively unchanged. We called the reservation office and they had space, so we took off westward-bound with renewed hopes.

Mountain Zebra is a small park located near the town of Cradock. It stretches across tall hills resembling those of the Karoo National Park and we arrived there in similarly unsettled weather. Thick dark clouds hung in the distance and fleeting curtains of virga appeared here and there, as an unusual amount of rainfall still affected this normally dry region.

The reception building was far inside the park and we spotted some bokkies along the way. Surprisingly, 2 of the Big Five were present in the park: buffalo and black rhinos, in addition to cheetahs and many species of antelopes. And of course zebra.

Our tent was pitched facing the hills, and braai prepared. Vervet monkeys were everywhere and labeled a pest. We witnessed them pillaging the supplies of fellow campers gone on a drive and who had left their food a bit too accessible.

We spent 2 very nice days in the park, dealing with rain and wind as much as heat and sun and driving around on scenic loops filled with game – though the elusive black rhinos and cheetahs remained hidden in the park brochure they inhabited.

On the second night, Marie was braaiing lamb chops and boerewors in a rapidly thickening dusk when she suddenly noticed a chop was missing on her grill, and the sausage coil seemed shorter. She had merely turned around for a few seconds to prepare something on the lowered rear hatch of the Landcruiser that we used as our kitchen space, never stepping further then 10 feet from the braai. She swears the chop count went down by one and I agree the boerewors looked quite short. So something with an obvious disdain for fire and red-hot coals might have jumped up and pulled a fast one on us. It could have been a jackal or a monkey, or her imagination. We’ll never know. But from then on, we watched our food very carefully.

Moody weather actually made for some incredible colours. Most of the park was located atop a long plateau from which the eye got lost into this distant horizon of storms and steel-blue rolling mountains melting into a foreground of fluid golden grass.

Walking and hikes were prohibited outside of the campground boundaries because of  potentially dangerous animals, but since we never saw them, we felt cheated of a very much needed bout of freedom. Our mood was changing subtly as the trip neared its end. We would soon return to relative civilization and while there remained almost three weeks before our flight back to North America, the precariousness of our upcoming situation was starting to creep into daily reality.

The last leg of our road trip would finally take us down to the coast where we’d camp in Tsitsikamma, near the Storms River mouth. After that, we planned on stopping in George to see our friend Bevan, and that would be that. A dash along N2 would lead us back to the Cape where two corgis and a lab were waiting for us to take on the green belt. The Constantia garden would smell of many flowers. Wine would be poured, along with memories, and stories would spill into the candlelit night.

We would have done cartwheels over Lesotho and returned.

 

Cartwheels over Lesotho, Part 8 – Sleeping under the Southern Cross

I must apologize to those of you depending on the forthcoming installments of this story to get your, err, daily dose of coffee and relaxation. A hectic work schedule has been keeping me up at night and dozing during the day when I should be  writing.

I will make this short and publish the following pictures without the thousand words they’re worth, and leave the rest to your imagination.

Our trip neared an end. We’d left the Mountain Zebra National Park and headed south, eventually reaching the coast and settling down for a camping night at the Tsitsikamma National Park, where we got reacquainted with civilization and tour buses.

We slept surrounded by tents and caravans, but with our nylon shutters facing nothing but ocean mist and under an immense canopy of magnificent southern stars. I walked around the campground at night and shot in the darkness, encouraged by a rising moon and the faint halo of distant tungsten lights. On long exposures, though, these registered like major spotlights.

The following day, we headed to George for a last sleep-over, ate Italian out with Bevan, enjoyed his hospitality ’till mid morning and then got back behind the wheel and rallied Cape Town. That final leg concluded our 2010 Lesotho road trip. We had driven some 4000 kilometers on Southern African roads with more dust to account for than dirt, and more height than heat.

Our cartwheels had been automobile-launched as much as emotional. We’d driven up and sunk in. We’d climbed back up and free-wheeled down. We’d bounced and coughed and laughed and worried. We’d sweated and shivered. We’d explored and learned and been humbled by our own ignorance and wealth. We’d done our best to keep our eyes open,  our minds awake and our hearts, giving. At that, we’d failed, sometimes.

But we had, first and last and always, been there and done that. And always, we would take that back home with us, to eventually share it with you.

The world is infinitely precious and beautiful and diverse and shocking and stunning.  I can’t pretend to understand it all. But I sure love it and I think you will, too. Don’t just click on these images for a slideshow. Click on the button that says, on another page, somewhere, buy this ticket. Go. To a new place or an old one. No matter how near or far. Sometimes the most fantastic journey takes place in one’s own backyard.

It’s not the distance that matters, it’s the inner eye. Mine always amazes me, once it has shaken loose days and weeks and months and years of laziness. It actually sees lots of cool things. If only I could show them to you…

The end.