Charley Boorman Log- Day 20

June 29, 2012

In which Charley takes on the incredibly dangerous Sani Pass in less than ideal conditions. Sani Pass 1

Last night we met with Ray, who runs Thaba Tours. They’ll be supplying the guide who’ll be taking us up the Sani pass and we took the chance to ask him what conditions are like up the mountain at this time of year. His biggest piece of advice was to keep a window on our vehicles open so we can jump out if it slides on the ice and starts heading for the edge.

Ray’s a really laid back guy with a huge air of nonchalance about the winding, icy road we’ll be taking. I realize he’s been traveling on the pass for years and knows it’s moods well, but the fact that he has the grim reaper on his T-shirt is hardly reassuring.

The Sani Pass threads through the Drakensberg Mountains, connecting South Africa to Lesotho, often called simply “The Mountain Kingdom”. It’s a small country in it’s own right, completely surrounded by South Africa. The fact that it’s over 2000 metres above sea level and bloody hard to get to probably explains how it’s managed to stay independent.
Sani Pass 2

The road itself is one of the world’s great bike rides. A thin, winding, unpaved road with some huge drops off the side. In the height of winter the weather can turn nasty too, as we discovered about 2 kilometers from the top of the route.
Turning a corner, the road suddenly became sheet ice and my bike slid out from under me. Once the initial moment of panic settled, I realized I’ve gotten away with only bumps and bruises – but we’re not going to be able to get to the top of the pass on the bikes. We watch enough cars with off-road tyres slide their way down the road to know our support vehicles won’t be any help this time.

We consider turning around. After all, we’ve made it almost all the way up and to try and go any further without the right equipment could be lethal.

Our last chance is to trust Martin, our soft-spoken guide. He has a mountain equipped vehicle but even with his experience, this last treacherous stretch will still be difficult and even dangerous – as we discovered two turns in, when the car with a stench of burning rubber, accelerator down full, began to slide back down the slope towards the precipice behind us.

Martin, as ever a cool customer, brought the car back under control and we were safe again, but that feeling of being out of control and heading towards certain death isn’t a feeling I’ll forget any time soon.

Sani Pass 3We have a similar experience on the next corner, and the next. Now, even Martin admits defeat and we decide to walk the rest of the way. After Half an hour’s uphill trudge through the ice and snow, we’re finally rewarded with the Lesotho Border and sitting just before it, the highest pub in Africa. We gratefully come in from the cold, rest our numb feet and drink hot chocolates by the open fire.

It was a hard and sometimes hair-raising climb up, but this makes it all worthwhile. Now all we need to do is get down…

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