Mountains and Snow in Southern Africa

After a very bad day, we had had a lovely evening and slept like logs that night, refreshed and ready to face the world again. I was first up, just after 6am, and looked out of my window to see frost on the ground. I checked the thermostat in the back of the Landrover, it was -1 degrees in here, never mind out there!

But I´m nothing if not determined, and pretty hardy when it comes to it, so I trekked out in my nightshirt, flip-flops and down jacket to the ablutions block. When I walked in I discovered it was significantly warmer in there so went back to the Landrover to collect my gym gear and did my morning training session in the toilet!

Meanwhile James had got up, put the diesel heater on full-blast and made me a steaming hot cup of Rooibos tea. Somehow James always knows how to take care of me! By the time I´d had my shower and got dressed the sun was shining, the frost melted away and we were raring to go.

It was another full day of driving to reach the Drakensburg Mountains and it was happily uneventful.

To ensure it stayed that way, and we didn´t end up with any more stress finding a campsite again, we decided to stop an hour before the national park and camp up early. It took a couple of goes to find somewhere open but we finally hit on a lovely campsite by the river with an incredibly kind and accommodating owner. He had opened up just for us and diligently went round filling up the toilet roll, lighting the boiler and making us feel welcome.

We chatted to him about our experience in Mthatha and, just like the people at the beautiful campsite the night before, he shook his head sadly and said that Mthatha is a ´bad place´. It did make us feel better to know that we had just unfortunately strayed into the wrong place rather than it being a reflection on the whole area. It´s that lack of local knowledge again – the biggest downfall of the nomad.

The next morning we woke to find James wasn´t feeling well. Perhaps from the water, the food, or more likely just a bug he´d picked up. With time running ever short we decided to press on into the national park anyway, where we hoped to book some time in the vulture hide, see some San rock art and enjoy the gorgeous mountain scenery from the park campsite.

But when we arrived we found it was very expensive to get in, the vulture hide was already booked up and it was a 45 minute walk to the San art. And worse, they said we couldn´t drive around the park, it was hiking only. James´s face said it all, he wasn´t up for any of this the way he felt so we thanked them and turned around.

It was a shame, but the Drakensburg Mountains are more than just the national park and simply driving around the area we were able to experience the beauty and majesty of our surroundings.

I consulted the itinerary. The other main event in this area was driving the Sani Pass into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho – an independent country entirely seperate from South Africa. The Sani Pass was 3.5 hours away but it was still early in the morning, the roads and scenery were lovely and we didn´t have much else to do that day!

So off we went. It was a wonderful 3 hour drive through rural, dirt roads surrounded by mountain peaks.

At first James couldn´t appreciate it as he was feeling so grim but after about 2 hours he started to feel better and the rural roads started to get more twisty and mountainous. Before long his smile was coming back.

We came to a surprisingly neat little town, not at all in keeping with its rural surroundings, and from there lead the Sani Pass Road.

We followed the tarmac road for about 10km, the views getting more and more breathtaking, until we reached the South African border.

The border guards looked over at Henry, smiled, nodded and stamped us out of South Africa. The Sani Pass is treacherous and only 4x4s are allowed through – many people are turned away, including friends of ours in their 13 tonne Mercedes overlander only the week before. But no-one was about to doubt Henry´s credentials as he stood strong and proud!

The Pass started off interesting to say the least.

From the South African border it is 9km to the Lesotho border at the top of the mountain – 9km almost vertically up! Hairpin bends, rock climbs and sheer drops litter the way and at this time of year, from about halfway up, the path is covered in ice. It was originally nothing more than a goat trail and no vehicle had ever driven up or down it until a Landrover made it to great acclaim and surprise in 1948.

I´m not sure the pass has changed much since then!

We slowly made our way up, twisting this way and that, hairpin beds getting tighter and tighter – until we couldn´t get round them in one go and had to reverse half-way to realign.

We saw the wreckage of vehicle that had gone over the edge, everyone was fine but no-one had been able to recover it.

As we rose higher the temperature dropped until we were driving over sheet ice.

Finally we reached the top and the Lesotho border, with big grins on our faces and thumping hearts. We had done it!

What we didn´t realise was that we had had an audience as we climbed – a group of South Africans were at the Sani Mountain Lodge which overlooks the Pass and they had been watching our slow climb up, apparently in awe! They all said they could see Henry was a beast and watching us come up had been a great spectacle.

We had planned to stay the night at the Lodge ourselves – their campsite was closed as it was too cold so we had expected to be splashing out on a comfortable rondavel at great expense. What we didn´t realise was that the high price we thought we would be paying was per person not per rondavel but it was too late and too cold to do anything about it so we blew the moths out of our wallets and stumped up the extortionate bill!

And it was worth every penny! Dinner, bed and breakfast. Gorgeous rondavel and fabulous service.

They lit a fire in our room as we were checking in, loaded it up again as we were having dinner and put two long hot water bottles in the bed at the same time.

The bedding was so thick and heavy we could hardly breath underneath it!

And we even had a drink in Africa´s highest pub…

All the staff were friendly, happy and helpful. We felt very spoilt and well looked after and didn´t begrudge the cost one little bit.

Just the views alone were worth it all.

After a cosy night tucked up with our hot water bottles and log burner, we woke to an icey morning and clear views down the valley.

Breakfast was huge and delicious, they even made fresh muffins for us which we took with us for lunch.

We headed off into Lesotho itself for a day of driving the sweeping mountain roads. Higher than we have ever been before, far higher, even, than Andorra.

Lesotho is very different from South Africa. Never troubled by apartheid, little changed in centuries and very friendly. Mainly inhabited by shepherds.

The part of the country we saw in the north and east is barely developed.

Apart from the perfect tarmac road cutting all the way through the mountains from one side to the other.

Now thick with snow.

We felt an immediate difference in the atmosphere here, it was very calm and peaceful, everyone seemed happy and relaxed. The people were incredibly hardy though, out here so high up and so cold, tending their flocks, driving their horses, wrapped up in woollen clothing but still with a smile.

Every now and again the dangers of driving high mountain passes became evident.

But by mid-afternoon we were at the northern border and re-entering South Africa. The views were still stunning, but we stopped to lock all the doors again!

We drove to the town of Clarens but it was a bit touristy and we couldn´t see anything of much interest so carried straight on to find a campsite for an early finish and some time to give Henry a bit of much-needed TLC.

We were much lower now but it was still freezing cold. Whose idea was it to come to South Africa in winter??

We were making good progress on our itinerary and having had to miss out the Drakensburg National Park I was now relatively confident that we were going to make it to Kruger for a couple of days before heading out of South Africa altogether and into Eswatini.

But there was no time to spare. We had five days left on our visas and the big hitters of the Panorama Route and Kruger still left to do. Henry was suffering from the time pressure – his props needed greasing, his ever-problematic wheel bearing was showing signs of coming lose again and he needed a service. He was also starting to over-heat on some of the steep uphills and James was convinced he was losing power. We didn´t think any of this signified a serious problem, just a lack of time and attention. James was concerned about him and felt as though we were neglecting him.

Once we entered Eswatini we would have a new 30 day visa in a small country so could take some time to rest and relax and pay proper attention to Henry´s needs. We just had to make sure we got that far! We counted up the days – it was Monday evening, we would be entering Eswatini on Saturday. Yes, James decided, Henry could cope until then, we should press on.

So the next day we were up early again and set off for yet another long drive to the start of the Panorama Route. I had heard it was stunning and had a list of sites to see along the way, but we weren´t sure exactly what to expect. We had to do the whole thing in one day and get to Kruger that evening – but we had no idea whether that was realistic or whether we should have put a week aside for it!

But first, just to get to the start of the Route, it was a full day of driving through some of the most beautiful scenery yet. We took it in 2 hour shifts stopping only once for a pizza and burger lunch in a rather dodgy pub!

We arrived at the first attraction, the Long Tom Pass, at 4pm that afternoon and drove along it. We were both tired and didn´t really appreciate it as much as we should.

We approached the town of Sabie and headed straight for the campsite we had been targeting. It was in the centre of town but safe and secure and very friendly. I spent the evening in the restaurant, not eating, but using the wifi to do our year end accounts, pay some bills and generally catch up on all the admin that had been left for far too long. James meanwhile did what he could to tend to Henry´s needs and nurse him through until we arrived in Eswatini.

The next morning it was far too cold to train so we left early to give ourselves as much time as possible.

We found that the Panorama Route can be done in a day but two would have been better. We also found that it is a well-oiled tourist trap! Not in the sense that it´s over-commercialised or tacky, indeed quite the opposite is true – it is a series of truly wonderful natural sites which are well worth the time to visit. The well-oiled bit is because every natural site or viewpoint has gates with a gate-keeper and an entrance fee! A very small entrance fee in most cases, generally a couple of pounds but if you let them charge you the international fee it goes up to six or seven, and there are a lot of sites. We managed to smile sweetly and get the South African rate each time but still ended up spending about €50 over the course of the day!

First up was the Sabie Falls. In the town and right on the edge of the road but pretty.

Then it was the Mac Mac Falls, far more impressive.

The Mac Mac Falls were followed by the Mac Mac Pools, where we wandered for half an hour or so.

The town of Graskop had a Spar where we replenished our food cupboards and had a quick take-out pie to save time making any real lunch.

We then headed off to the next site at the Pinnacle Viewpoint – a strange and wonderous granite rock jutting out of the valley.

From there it was God´s Window, a series of viewpoints over the valley from within a forest.

The Lisbon Falls were next.

Followed swiftly by the Berlin Falls.

We missed out Bourke´s Luck Potholes as we were running out of time, I´m never going to be the world´s biggest fan of potholes, it was three times the cost of any other site and looked a bit too touristy. So we turned around and headed straight to the Blyde River Canyon lookout point – which was surrounded by locked and bolted gates!

Ok, we were picking up time! On to the Three Rondavels viewpoint where we could see the three tree-lined mountain tops.

The last on the list was Echo Caves but it was 20 minutes in the wrong direction for the Kruger Gate where we needed to end up at that night and we were feeling somewhat ´Panorama´d out´!

There has been a lot of rain in South Africa this winter, very unusual for most of the country which is normally either dry and cold or warm and wet. But even so, we had started to see a lot of road-side fires as we drove. The futher east we got the more fires there were and here it seemed particularly bad.

Away from the fires though, the scenery was as spectacular as ever.

It had been a beautiful and very successful day but the sat nav was telling us we still had an hour and a half´s drive to get to Kruger and the gates closed in 3 hours. We weren´t desperately short of time but we had had our fill of rushing about and decided to turn our sites towards our final South African goal.

Kruger! One of the most famous national parks in the world and renowned for plentiful big cats. My heart was racing as we headed towards the gate, we had made it through our South African itinerary with three days left to search for those elusive lions….

One response to “Mountains and Snow in Southern Africa”

  1. Do you feel the running about was worth it?

    Trying to cram so much into a short period of time dilutes the experience perhaps?

    Kruger will be exciting!


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