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Jo'Burg Days: The Roof Of The World

Barbara Durlacher recalls a thrilling ride in Land Land Rover, up the Sani Pass to the Roof of the World.

Yes, that’s right, the locals call them the roof of the world; but compared to the Alps or the Himalayas perhaps they’re not so impressive. They’re high, all the same. The roof is Lesotho, once called Basutoland, encircled by the majestic Drakensberg or Dragon Mountains, which the Zulus know as the ‘Rim of Spears’. Marvellous names: full of wildness, danger, challenge and adventure.

There are few navigable routes from KwaZulu up the ‘Berg to Lesotho. For many years an occasional rough track suitable for herd-boys and their flocks had wound its way vertiginously up to the peaks, but until the 1950’s there was no road suitable for cars or wheeled vehicles. It took the initiative of one man to open up the only pass providing a link between what was then called Natal into Basutoland. A journey up the pass is still is considered dangerous today, and when I did the trip, it was literally a case of putting your life in someone’s hands, and hoping for the best.

Then in the mid-1950’s David Alexander had the courage and foresight to take the initiative by starting the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company*. He ran it for some years using a small fleet of Land Rovers and it was his spirit, practical engineering skills and sheer determination which kept it going, despite all difficulties.

Even today, negotiating Sani Pass is considered a challenging and serious business. People have been killed attempting it. The tight hairpin bends of the untarred road are perilous during all seasons of the year, but none more so than when the thick mists descend. Heavy snowstorms can occur with very little warning, blocking the narrow road with ice and snow and it is fatally easy to get into an uncontrolled skid which can catapult you over the edge.

As his son Campbell said recently during a radio interview, “Dad had two iron rules. One was that the doors had to be removed from every jeep, and the other was that every descent down the Pass had to be made in the same gear as when ascending,” and having travelled this long and tortuous road, I realise how wise these precautions were. The lack of doors makes it possible to jump out if the vehicle teeters over the edge, and the low gear prevents it going out of control if the brakes fail.

Well, I did a trip with David many years ago and it was an exhilarating experience. I had sailed from Cape Town to Durban, taken a South African Railways [SAR] Road Motor bus to Bergville and from there we [another girl and I going to the same hotel] were fetched by car. As our luggage was offloaded on arrival at the Sani Pass Hotel, I noticed her skis and sticks. Sailing up the coast she had told me she was an assistant in one of the big department stores in Cape Town; I was a secretary in a small office on the Foreshore. We were a real pair of greenhorns.

“What’s there to do around here?” I asked the hotel receptionist.

"You can go up Sani Pass,” she replied, “I’ll book it with Mokhotlong Mountain Transport. Start at eight sharp tomorrow.”

Next day, as we waited for the jeep, “Why did you bring those skis?” the hotel receptionist asked the girl from Cape Town.

“I’m staying in the mountain hut at the top. I want to get in as much skiing as I can,” she said.

“You’ll be lucky – it hasn’t snowed all winter,” the receptionist replied. Then, “Can you ski?”

“No, but someone will teach me” said the young lady.

“But there’s nobody up there – only a black man who brings the firewood and washes the dishes,” answered the receptionist.

Then, a flurry of gravel and a small cloud of dust as the jeep, driven by David Alexander, arrived. “Hurry up, we’ve got a long way to go,” he called loading up. Then, “Everybody ready? OK, hold tight.”

And we rattled off, over the washed out gullies, the rocks, and round the boulders, the road narrowing as it got steeper. A few yellow leaves fluttered bright flags in the ravine; the wind bent the grass lower, it was getting colder. As we inched round the hairpin bends, we saw the occasional frozen stream, icicles hanging into space. Through the clouds the mountains fell away thousands of feet, the road hugging the slopes. There, bringing up the rear far behind us was the mule train we had met at the Trading Store.

Stopping earlier for a break and a cool drink we were met with a scene of colour and activity. Rural people gossiped on the stoep; it was a centre of social life. Here the locals cashed their postal orders or the shop-keeper read scrawled letters from menfolk, absent for months on the mines, to a lonely wife or girlfriend.

In the gloom, three-legged pots hung from the rafters. On the floor stood piles of plastic-covered bowler hats alongside gumboots and metal buckets. Colourful Basuto blankets hung on the walls, and a brisk trade in sticky cool drinks was going on at one side. The shelves were filled with patent medicines, enamel kitchen utensils and stacks of bright cotton prints. The store was busy. Unknotting grubby handkerchiefs shy young girls pushed their carefully saved “tickies” and “siekis” across the wooden counter as they murmured their requests. “Shillingi” mielie meal; “Siekis sugar”; “tickies salt,” and were given their small purchases in twists of newspaper.

Outside, the mule train was resting. Then, with a whistle and a shout, the drivers returned from their gossip and smoke, and, pushing a gumbooted foot into the mule’s stomach, they tightened the girths, checked the buckles on the leather panniers and moved off. The train was led by an umfaan, while at the back the ‘guard’ sang along to the radio balanced on his head. But the mules were experienced and despite the value of their cargo, which sometimes included a Barclays Bank order for miner’s wages in gold coin, they could do the trip unaccompanied. Nothing was ever stolen. The only crimes were the occasional dangerous night trips down the pass in unlit vehicles by growers smuggling dagga and trying to avoid police detection. Life was simpler in those days.

Today, the hardworking and enterprising Mokhotlong Mountain Transport no longer exists, and to quote David Alexander’s wife Mary, “Now the Pass is very dull and there is a procession of 4x4s making their way up and down without an animal in sight. In fact there are quad bikes. The trading stores are no more than lifeless ruins - a far cry from the bustling parade of people and animals …”

Now I shudder at how naïve we were. None of us had ever heard of Mokhotlong Mountain Transport, and the standard of their drivers; were they reliable and experienced or reckless chancers?

“Danger: What danger?” seemed to be our approach as we laughed and joked all the way up the pass. What would have happened if it had snowed? We would have been stuck up there, half way and not able to get up or down, in open jeeps and sub-zero temperatures. How foolhardy we were - thank heavens for David's experience, care and driving ability.

And the young lady with her skis and ambitions to fly down the slopes? Well, we left her at the mountain hut, dejected and wondering what she had let herself in for.

Then, a day later we had a tremendous snowstorm, the roads were closed and guests were snowed in. I often wondered how she managed, up there alone in that freezing stone hut, not a soul for company, with only candles and a flickering fire to keep her warm. Skiing or hypothermia: I wonder which came first?


*Read David Alexander’s account of those years in his book “Riding the Dragon”.

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