“Do you think we’ll get up?” I asked Craig nervously as the 4×4 wheels of our Toyota Fortuna skidded in the thick mud.
He didn’t bat an eyelid at the sliding vehicle and said, “We’ll get close! Good thing we got in early before the rest of the world coming to see the Sani Pass snow. The more the cars pass through, the messier the road becomes with melting snow.”
Two days ago, the first proper snowfall of the season had blanketed the Southern Drakensberg, just in time to turn our road trip into a snow trip. Saturday 13 May, we left Bulwer before 9 wearing three pairs of socks, gloves, beanies, thermals and our cold faces. The trip from Bulwer up to Sani Pass is <70km, passing through the KwaZulu-Natal towns of Underberg and Himeville, then over the South Africa/Lesotho border, and finally the steep climb up the Southern Drakensberg mountains.
“Here, ask this family coming past what’s happening further up the pass!” I urged as the second of four vehicles gingerly made its way towards us.
It wasn’t good news; we were told the road was very bad ahead and a few of the early-bird explorers had turned back. But fortunately Craig is a seasoned Sani Pass Tripper, having done it plenty times, and he reassured me we would be fine to press on.
A few times we had to stop and wait; either at a safe following distance behind an ascending car, or far enough over for a descending car to pass. The die-hard explorers without 4x4s had long since disappeared and the majority of 4x4s were proudly Toyota, their passengers of all ages. I was stirred by the intense feeling of camaraderie between us travellers; the sheer epicness of the Sani Pass experience formed a common bond. Almost every person we make eye contact with smiles, and there is a knowing in their eyes.
After a four-minute stop at the border control and a stamp in our passports, we were back on the muddy road. There was thick snow on the Drakensberg peaks. As we climbed, the dark green landscape became speckled with white, until all around us was a winter wonderland. Sparkling snowflakes were falling from the sky.
About eighty percent of the way up and before the zig zag section, there were at least fifteen cars creeping down the slope and we could see a queue up ahead. The road was barely wide enough for two vehicles side by side, but fortunately, just up the way, there was a verge.
We pulled over and I lurched from the van and began to frolic in the 30-60cm snow in my leopard print gumboots, throwing snowballs and feeling like a kid – completely forgetting my frozen fingers in the fun of it all.
On the verge, there was a solo traveller that made the annual trip to stay in the mountains for a few days. He told us that up ahead a vehicle has lost its cargo and this had caused a traffic jam on both sides, with at least eighteen cars waiting to ascend.
It was now around 11am and the snow was falling rapidly, dramatically reducing visibility. So reluctantly I said “Let’s go back. It’s a pity we won’t get to Sani Mountain Lodge for lunch though. But we’ll will do Sani Pass again, on a sunny day, so we can get the most of the views from the top.” And at that we began our hair-raising descent, slipping and sliding down the pass.
Back down where there was more mud than snow. We saw one of the few non-4×4 vehicles on the road. A MiniBus Taxi, fully loaded with commuters and luggage appeared to be helplessly stuck in the mud, like a Wildebeest about to be taken by a mountain of a crocodile. We were at the top of a hill they were trying to ascend, so we stopped and waited. But this was no problem at all for these locals! Out the vehicle they jumped, some unloading and carrying baggage up the hill, while the rest began to push and within minutes the taxi was back on its way.
I was quite astounded, but Craig gave me an insider’s perspective. “These are the Basothos; they grew up in these mountains and have travelled this road many times. This must be a regular thing on the drive to and from work in and around Underberg. They know what they are doing.”
A couple of slippery and sludgy kilometres later, we were back through the South Africa/Lesotho border and onto tar road, on an absolute high!
We came, we saw, and – the way my heart felt – I could conquer the world.