Astrophysicist: noun – an effervescent ulcer brought on by the ingestion of too many Cadbury’s candy-coated chocolate beans.
No but seriously, they’re an awfully clever collection of people. I’d go so far as to submit a new collective noun for astrophysicists, to wit, “a scintillation of astrophysicists.” But I digress…
The reason I brought up astrophysicists, instead of the Cadbur….oh that’s just gross… is that they will tell you: when the necessary catalysts for a chemical reaction are in the right place, at the right time, in the right qu…. ok, you get the gist – the bladdy reaction takes place.
So it was when we were at the Sani Valley Lodge. All the ingredients were there:
- Two fearless explorers
- Appropriate soft beverages and snacks
- One Toyota Hilux
- One Sani Pass
The result: One trip up the Sani Pass. QED.
Those who have experienced the Sani Pass will hasten to assert that, while it’s hardly a challenge, one ought to keep one’s wits about one. Signs on the approach ‘road’ expressly tell you in big capital letters that 4×4 vehicles ONLY are allowed on the pass.
For foreign readers, the Sani Pass is the only route in the vicinity between South Africa and Lesotho. It’s a single winding road – no turn-offs – leading up from the valley floor to a Lesotho plateau deep within the Drakensberg. There is only one reason why people drive the Sani Pass…Why am I belabouring this point? Read on…
At the bottom of the gorge is the South African Border post, manned by men (and women I suppose – let’s not add sexism to my already impressive list of shortfalls) of the South African Police Services (when they’re not striking). Putting on our most ingratiating expressions, we bid them good day as we subserviently offered our passports. These were stamped with all the precision of a WWII forger. Our customs man evidently took his time – and his job seriously.
“Are you going to the top?” asked the Lieutenant. A two pip loot, no less!
‘If he’s the one with the brains,’ I thought to myself. ‘We haven’t a hope.’
Despite an almost overwhelming temptation to parry with a witty response, I just smiled and replied to the affirmative…I mean, in the affirmative.
To cut a long story short – we drove up diddly up, up the pass – then drove down diddly down down, in much the same manner as those Magnificent Men carried on in their Flying Machines.
For a while, ours was the only vehicle on the pass and it was a rather wonderful sensation of solitude. The scenery actually beggars description. Even photographs here don’t really do justice to the majestic cliff faces, silently and benevolently looking down on man’s puny attempt to wend his uncertain way to Somewhere Else. The Sun, in His cobalt blue domain, warming the green slopes and the uncertain road; pink, purple and chrome yellow petals of the everlasting flowers reflecting their brilliant iridescence to buzzing busy insects.
Occasionally a crystal clear stream would scuttle down the hillside and duck under the road as if reluctant to be sullied by something man made. I do beg your pardon; I came over all poetic for a moment there.
Arriving at the top of the pass, we reported to the Lesotho police station. Although we didn’t see an actual sign telling us to do so, we felt obliged to pop in and say hello. While having our passports stamped we were asked to pay R6.80 each (no receipt, of course) for some privilege or other. The money disappeared into a cash tin with a speed that would make Derren Brown weep with envy, and we were sent on our way with a polite instruction to enjoy our visit. I suspect our money went to swell the coffers (yes, I spelled that correctly) – or to pay for the hot chocolate drinks, consumed by some very swollen looking officials – mentioned later.
Back outside, we felt the nippy wind. While not actually howling, it was certainly slapping the rope against the flag pole in an invigorating fashion; and the frayed, faded Lesotho flag – stiff in the breeze – did give the appearance of a petticoat of one of those…er…ladies who’d been round the block a few times. It (the wind, not the petticoat) had that high altitude chill about it that made you glad of the warmth of the vehicle’s cab.
Foreign tourists, say from Korea, who are accustomed to border posts (neat that, I thought…’ac-custom’, ‘border post’? You want to pay closer attention you know), where immaculately turned out soldiers stand square jawed, rock-like in protection of their border will doubtless have a bit of a culture shock. Here, the locals sit and doze in the lee of their huts on paint tins, beer crates or rocks in a state of solar-induced lethargy.
We decided we’d soaked up enough of the border post atmos, so we bumped off in the direction of the Sani Chalet – the highest pub in Africa, or so we were led to believe by the sign on the wall. We thought we’d support these enterprising bods by having a bite of lunch and a warming beverage at their restaurant. A few mud spattered, dented vehicles (4×4 only, of course) were parked outside, reflecting the sun and African adventure from every surface. A quick glance towards the ground showed a pile of shattered auto glass; just a reminder that the government-sponsored national sport – crime – was everywhere.
The entrance to the restaurant/pub was festooned with mountaineering memorabilia and dozens of photographs of ruddy faced climbers and hikers in thick parkas and wee woolly caps smiling in that impossibly radiant way, unique to adventurers the world over. Antique wooden skis, cleats and other climbing accoutrement bedecked the rough plastered walls…
And that’s where the ambiance crumbled…underneath an avalanche of disappointing African officialdom. As I was about to enter the pub lounge from whence one could take in the breath-taking mountaintop panorama, I was stopped by a group of glaring Lesotho officials. They were either standing around or recumbent – draped across the furniture, drinking what could only be described from the aroma, as heavily fortified hot chocolate drinks; and they made it abundantly clear that my entrance was unwanted.
So we retreated to the dining area and waited to place our orders. We were the only two in the dining room; but seldom have I seen staff putting in such a stout effort, working so hard and so diligently, to ignore us. I feel there ought to be some sort of award for this kind of outstanding performance – possibly just before shooting them. Every now and then we would furtively glance in the direction of the serving hatch, only to see them look away or walk off. At one stage, we actually saw a staff member drinking the last of what I hoped was milk, from a bucket.
“Well, if you wanted milk in your tea, forget it,” observed Mrs Chips wryly.
Thinking it might have been a semi-self-service establishment and that we had to go to the hatch to place our order, I got up, just in time to see the two staff members disappear before my very eyes – not to be seen again. ‘So this is where the great illusionists of the world come to refine their art,’ I thought. ‘Any moment now, and I’m going to see Derren Brown or David Copperfield come out smiling, saying we’d been a lovely audience and what would we like to eat.
Half an hour later, the peckishness we’d felt earlier had been replaced by that knotted-stomach feeling of frustration and annoyance at yet another reminder that this was yet another African dictatorship, awash with self-serving officials, veiled behind a diaphanous film of democracy; and we decided to take our business – and peptic upheaval elsewhere.
The drive back down was uneventful except for the quantity of vehicles coming up the pass containing nervous looking tourists. One poor dear looked decidedly unsettled as she raised a cautious finger in reply to our cheery greeting. We counted at least fourteen vehicles, carrying no less than four tourists in each. If they were going to look at the view from the Sani Chalet, we hoped they’d all brought packed lunches.
Notwithstanding our experience with the swollen coffers, our feelings of wonderment and exhilaration at our surroundings could not be repressed. And high of spirit, light of heart and empty of stomach, we made our way back to the South African border post.
Once again at the window, our re-entry to South Africa was recorded in our passports. Unexpectedly, the policeman asked, “Got anything to declare?”
“Ja,” I said, “The road’s moer of a bumpy hey.”
No I didn’t. I really wanted to, but wisdom prevailed; that and the threat of being imprisoned for attempting to import satirical wit into the country which, if the press tribunal thingy is implemented, will become a banned substance and a class-one threat to the ruling party, and its youth league.