A reader’s Sani Pass snow hike

The mountains in our lives are there to challenge us, build us up and push us to our limits. Mine almost pushed me over the edge. This is a story of courage and determination – a tale of a Sani Pass.


Reader’s Adventure text and images by: Noel Stapelfeldt


A tempting challenge

I received a call from an old friend a few days ago. Terrance Petersen knew that deep down I wouldn’t be able to resist when he casually mentioned a hike up Sani Pass. The intiative had been organised by CHOC – an organisation which aides children who suffer with cancer. A sum of R57 000.00 was raised on the day. The walk was to start at the South African border, head through no-man’s land all the way up to the Lesotho boarder; covering approximately 16km in total and climbing to an altitude of 2865 metres. Terrance knew the madness in me would not pass on such an opportunity.

I began my training, but due to other commitments, I didn’t come near to pushing my body as far as we knew the pass would.

We arrived at the boarder at around 10am, after a quick stop over at the Himeville arms for breakfast (the scramble eggs, bacon, toast and fresh orange juice was exactly what the doctor ordered).

At the registration point, we met Joy De Witt from CHOC, one of the event organisers. Once our passports were stamped and we said a prayer for guidance through the mountain. Thereafter, as part of the last group to leave, we gently began the gruelling task of walking into the unknown.


The long way up

Approximately 300m into the walk we encountered our first shallow water crossing. The key to a successful hike would be keeping my Salomans as dry as possible. At the crossing we used a few rocks as stepping stones. We passed our first group of fellow hikers, and as we passed more people, we all resembled a team of army ants marching to an unknown destination. We greeted fellow hikers, who shared a few pictures with us. Our walking sticks came in handy as the terrain became steeper and slippery. Our legs and shoulders felt the weight of our ruck sacks. An occasional vehicle would pass by, forcing hikers to stop and allow them passage and as the pass became narrower, so did the walking track.

The distance between walkers increased as the walk began to take its toll on those with varying experience. When we reached our next crossing, Terrance and I used the shade provided by the lazy mountain as our first rest point. Our weary bodies were replenished by energy bars and water. My rucksack became an irritation as the dead weight hung from my shoulders. The walkers became fewer, and Terrance and I spoke less as the walk became more demanding. We occasionally changed from follower to pace setter, and stopped now and then to admire the awesome scenery.


An off-roader loses hope

The driver of an Isuzu bakkie had come to a halt after the mountain refused any relationship with his vehicle. Her admitted defeat, and retreated. We were told by a group of fellow hikers of the deep snow further up – they had turned back after it was decided that continuing would be suicidal. Suddenly, I had flashbacks of our last incident on the mountain, exactly a year ago, when we got stuck in the snow. My family and I had to abandon our trip down the pass when conditions become too risky and vehicles started slide and dance, the mountain’s ice ignored any proposed contact with the vehicles’ tyres. We were forced to hike back into Lesotho to seek refuge at the Highest Pub in Africa.

The conditioned worsened as we walked – the wind speed increased and fine powdered snow began piercing my skin. I decided it was time to wear my blue K-way rain jacket, which together with my First Ascent Land Rover G-4 issued jacket provided all the cover I needed.


One gives up, three push on

Suddenly, Terrance and I reached realised we’d reached the furthest point of all the hikers. The air was thin, the wind was strong, the snow was deep, the slopes were slippery and we had to seriously consider our next move. At that point, a couple who had been trailing as at a distance appeared. They were keen and determined to explore the mountain further, so I followed them, and Terrance began making his way down the pass.

The new found trio moved over the thick snow taking care not to cause too much of a shift. I stayed approximately 15 meters behind the couple, taking a few pictures of the mountain in all its crisp white splendour. We encountered a yellow grader which had been abandoned on the pass. The road had completely disappeared, at some sections we had to tread very lightly. Along other sections we balanced on the edge as the gusting winds reminded us how fragile we were. At some areas, the snow simply wouldn’t support our weight, and we were forced to retreat quickly from the knee-deep holes our legs made in the snow.

As if out of nowhere, we suddenly spotted the roof of the Highest Pub In Africa in the distance. Instantly, our energy levels were renewed, and now the howling wind sounded like a song of encouragement. Up a slope or two, our pace increased, until the Sani Pass board appeared like the symbol of an oasis before us. The Lesotho boarder lay silent, submerged by one meter deep snow in some places.


At the peak

We had made it, against all odds. Colin and Megan embraced as they posed for a picture. Voices appeared in the distance, the customs officials surprised to see us on foot. The boader had been closed for 5 days. The snow had built up around the entrance of the stamping office. Once we helped clear the snow from the entrance of the building, our passports were stamped.

One of the officials had recognised my face from my previous visit, exactly one year ago. The other officials listened intently trying to make sense of this crazy man who happens to choose the perfect time to walk into Lesotho.

My hike would not be complete without a visit to the pub. Colin and Megan decided to pass and made their way back to the South African boarder. At the pub, myself and a fellow traveller who had consequently appeared at the post were greeted by John’s bombardment of questions. A quick gulp of warm Milo and a firm handshake later, John watched Philip and I disappear down the pass again.


Chasing the sun

It was 3pm, and we were losing light. Philip has hiked Table Mountain and Kilomanjaro – he’s was living his dream one mountain at a time.

The mountain was like a ghost-town by now – we only encountered three vehicles. Philip took long strides and as I battled to keep up, I became drowsy. A quick sip of water together with an energy bar put me back in shape. We had now approached the gravel section of our walk, and met a couple who had a message for us. Philip had the passport of one of the members in his group, as they had split up during the climb up the mountain. Without the passport the group was forced to wait for one and a half hours for Philip. We reached the South African border at 4:40 pm. Terrance was glad to see us; he had grown concerned as time passed. Philip and I were the last people to walk through the border.


Hungry, tired … happy

I was hungry, I could eat a horse and its tail, my legs felt like jelly, I was dizzy and had to sit down for a while – but I was not sorry I’d done it. The mountain reminded me that each one of us have mountains to conquer. Don’t let the mountains in your life break you – allow them to make you.