My breath fogged in front of me as I followed my parents through the throngs of people. The aroma of bacon and eggs sizzling on a nearby braaistand* wafted through the crisp air like an ocean current, pulling me towards it.
But I couldn’t eat; it was far too early and my stomach was still asleep, and anyway, I didn’t want to risk needing the toilet somewhere on the mountain. I risked a cup of coffee though; my insides needed thawing. I followed my father to the coffee stand, who was unknowingly prodding passers-by with his long, wooden walking stick tucked horizontally under his arm.
Every nerve in my dormant body seemed to be jerked awake by the R5 coffee and I instantly felt more ready to tackle the Sani Pass hike.
“…remember this isn’t a competition…” trailed the organiser’s voice from somewhere behind me, where a circle of people gathered to listen to the dos and don’ts, “…you have the whole day…”
A small butterfly fluttered somewhere in the depths of my stomach. I’m not the fittest of people; I do a lot of walking, but most of it is to the fridge. And my knees make funny clicking sounds when I walk. I really didn’t want to be one of those people who gave up and jumped into one of the waiting bakkies* carrying injured soldiers to the top…
“Ready, set, GO!” shouted the organiser finally.
An excited ripple of chatter broke out as the colourful exodus of hiking gear, matching takkies* and beanies, bulging backpacks, reflective sunglasses, walking sticks ad hovering 4x4s crawled like a giant millipede up the dusty path.
A kid who looked literally twenty years my junior marched past me. Well, if she can do it there’s hope for me…
At 8am the passing postcard surroundings were still untouched by the low sun, leaving the bristly shrubs and omnipresent mountains darkened and crystallised.
There were parts of the ground that seemed to never be touched by the sun, whether it shied away in the low sky or stood boasting at its zenith. A small waterfall, which once curtained from a rocky ledge, stood frozen mid-cascade. It looked as if a bride perched somewhere unseen at the top of the ledge and threw her silky train down the slopes to our feet. I, by now, was accustomed to seeing water-turned-to-ice during the below-freezing Korean winters, but my parents, who were only accustomed to seeing water-turned-to-ice in a freezer, started to make a scene.
“OH MY WORD!” exclaimed my mother. “It’s FROZEN, it’s actually FROZEN. HAVE YOU EVER SEEN SUCH A THING IN YOUR LIFE?!”
My father’s eyes bulged in agreement as he prodded gingerly at the hardened waterfall with his walking stick, as if it were a dead snake and he was making sure it was dead.
“I mean it’s a WATERFALL, but it’s FROZEN. Absolutely MIND BOGGLING,” she continued to gush.
People started to stare as they passed us.
I left the two of them to their marvelling and wandered on ahead. The slightest chill gnawed at my exposed neck. I pulled my jacket closer and focused on revelling in the now lifting sun, which poured over the rippled, green hills like golden syrup.
Just ahead of me a white bakkie waited for surrendering hikers. A lady stood at the back of the double cab handing out biltong* and naartjies*. I gladly accepted a stick of biltong while I waited for my parents to catch up.
It was like someone flicked a switch and turned the wind on. The slight chill that gnawed at my neck earlier suddenly evolved into a snapping hiss at my ears. I pulled my beanie lower over my head and continued up. My parents trailed a few steps behind, my mother nagging my father for the fifth time to check that their passports were in the bag (“…if we get to Lesotho and you’ve forgotten the passports, I’ll kill you!”)
The higher we climbed, the more fierce the wind grew, like it was protecting something at the top and tried to push us away from whatever it was protecting .
Angry sand launched heavy blows at our three bodies, now as sturdy as three twigs in the billowing gust. The sand blew into every crevice on our faces and stayed there. My lips soon looked like they were made out of earth as the grime buried itself in my sticky lip balm. And my nose gushed like that frozen waterfall once did.
My beanie jerked threateningly; I re-pinned it onto my head with my palm and kept my hand there until that episode of wind blew over.
A moment of calm. But that’s all it was – a moment. Squinting our eyes, we bowed our heads and pushed ourselves against the wall of wind. Now, whether we were trained or hiking for the first time didn’t matter; our pace was reduced to one step forward and two steps back, making it seemingly impossible to pass through Sani Pass.
I managed to reach another bend in the winding road and slowly turned to my left to take in the vista across the cliff face. I lifted my sunglasses so the view wasn’t tinted; the sun, now mounted high in the bluest sky, highlighted velvety, green pleats in the mount –
The hungry wind ripped my unsuspecting beanie off my head. In what can only be classified as a stupid move, I ran after it back down the path. My accelerated pace and downward direction provided the wind with fuel; it roared behind my back and shoved me perilously close to the edge. I slammed my heels as hard as I could into the ground, centimetres away from the cliff edge and involuntarily flung my arms out at my sides. I could hear my mother’s shriek somewhere ahead of me, “leave it, LEAVE THE BEANIE!”
My feet found their footing and I watched with deep sadness as my beanie soared down the bushy slopes and into the rocky depths of the mountain.
My sunglasses joined my beanie.
“Noooo,” I moaned. This time I didn’t attempt to save them, but my mother still barked, “LEAVE IT!” just in case I did.
Inch by inch I turned, and as soon as the wind died, I bolted to the opposite side, away from the cliff edge, to safety.
Up another bend and at last we saw it, that wondrous green signboard:
Sani Pass Gate
Border Post 300m
According to the sign, we were so close, but we were still moving one step forward every thirty seconds.
“Arghhhghgh,” came my father’s muffled shout. His hands shot to his shiny, bald head, but it was too late – his beanie joined mine.
“LEAVE IT,” shouted the broken record that was my mother.
We pushed. And the wind pushed back. Sometimes we stood still, arms out for balance, heels lodged into the ground. When it died down, we pushed again. But the wind just pushed back.
Next to us, a lady kitted out in green and grey, with white hair pulled back in what was once probably a neat ponytail, marched determinedly against the gust. Her fists were clenched as was her face and she stared fixedly through squinted eyes at the signboard ahead.
And then suddenly the wind claimed her. As if she were made of paper, it flicked her over with a hard thud onto her back. She didn’t move, or couldn’t move, just like her unmoving eyes which looked unseeingly up at the sky.
My father, who was closest, hobbled over to her and tried to bend to help her up. He tottered dangerously, and for a moment I thought he was going to blow over too, but he steadied himself and slowly extended his hand to her.
“Leave me,” she said, a bit too dramatically. Her voice was frail. “I think I need to rest here for a while.”
We obviously didn’t leave her; we waited with her until the air was calm enough and then with all the might he could muster, my father heaved her back onto her feet.
As we edged closer to the openness of the top, the wind grew impossibly angrier, but our hunched bodies staggered on. It took us about fifteen minutes to finish the last few metres, but we saw it at last:
Welcome to the Kingdom of Lesotho
A small, decrepit building stood close by. Something was hand-written untidily in fading black paint across the peeling wall. A few of the letters were missing. It read:
WELC ME to LES HO
We made it.
There was another building on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Smoke puffed out the chimney.
This meant fire. This meant warmth. This meant food. We moved as fast as we could towards the building and read the sign:
Highest Pub in Africa
“Excellent,” said my father. His eyes were bloodshot.
“I need a drink.”
*braaistand = BBQ stand
*bakkie = van
*takkies = trainers/running shoes
*biltong = kind of like jerky, but way more delicious
*naartjie = citrus family, kind of like a mandarin