Don’t walk – ever!
At the best of times I always believed that cars were created – not manufactured but created – so I didn’t have to walk, anywhere, ever. The one block distance to buy milk required a lot effort to find the car keys, spend a while fussing about the scratch on the back-bumper, going to the fuel station, deciding to get the air-conditioner re-gassed en route, looking for parking and finally returning home. The thought of simply walking there and back did not feature on my radar.
And then we moved to Underberg.
“Has anyone told you that you don’t have to do this? We offer tours, you do have options”.
People actually travel vast distances to come here to walk and not just around the block but to walk over rocks and valleys and mountains and rivers. Secondly many of the places that people want to see are not accessible by normal vehicles but have to be reached either on foot or for those a little more sane in mechanical beasts known as 4×4 vehicles.
Not only do these people want to walk in these dire conditions but some even spend the whole year training to run or walk up and down this treacherous pass in marathons or such events with applicable names such as ‘the Sani Stagger’.
I have been tempted to set up a table and chairs at the starting point with a resident counsellor and a sign reading “Has anyone told you that you don’t have to do this? We offer tours, you do have options”.
Even more confusing is that when they reach the finishing line, most collapse in agony, clutching blistered feet and knees with ‘roasties’ and all fake beaming smiles like Miss South Africa runner’s up at the final pageant.
‘We did it’, they chant, ‘we walked the giant!
The sani stagger descent
Our Bodies weren’t designed for this torture.
It is inhumane to push the boundaries of those thigh muscles to clamber up this very unforgiving Pass and then even more torturous to toddle back down when the momentum threatens to push you all the way to Durban harbour. I’ve been worried that some of the larger participants, who start to gather speed on the downslopes may quickly develop a speed wobble and land up emigrating across the sea without any prior intentions.
Feats of Courage
But for those like ourselves, who daily traverse these wild and rocky switchbacks to take tourists on a journey, we see some unbelievable feats of courage on the pass.
One of the most astonishing daily sights is the ‘Sani Pass Day Walker’. Clad in a threadbare blanket and disintegrating rubber boots, he wonders the pass from sunrise to sunset searching for wood.
He is a familiar sight especially in the late afternoons as he determinedly pushes up the steep mountain carrying a full load of wood on his shoulders. Bearing in mind that for any normal person, walking just a few kilometres in this terrain is exhausting but here is a man who plods through the high altitude and seasons in rain, heat, hail and snow shouldering a very heavy, unwieldy load of wood. Further-more he does this every-day.
Many tourists leave with his photo amongst the many memories of their trip and perhaps mention this strange man, when showing the family their holiday snaps. His picture has certainly echoed around the world by this stage.
His name is Hlohonono
His name is Hlohonono which is the Sotho word for ‘envy’. Whilst little is known about Hlohonono it is evident that he is dumb but does appear to hear a little. As wood is a very scarce commodity in Lesotho, he obviously learnt at a young age that this was his ticket to survival. Every evening he trades his wood for a meal, a place to stay or on rare occasions an enamel mug of home-brewed beer. Although it is against the law to remove any vegetation from the Pass as it is a National Heritage Site all turn a blind eye to this resourceful man.
He is however, prone to jumping with great gusto in front of descending 4×4’s. This takes at least 10 years off the driver’s life and does little to calm the fluttering nerves of the guests. I personally believe that it provides him with great amusement. Often, he tries to climb into the vehicle. No-one would really mind him tagging onto a tour, its just the three meter branches of wood on his shoulders that cause some discomfort to the passengers and upholstery in the vehicle.
The Sani Pass Day Walker
If he could speak, I’m sure his stories would provide such colourful and entertaining accounts of life on this special track of land adjoining our countries. He must have seen so many amazing sights and watched the progress of life on the Pass over so many years.
What’s in a name?
Some time back two USA university students were appalled when their guide explained to them that Hlohonono was retarded. They voiced their horror at the choice of the word and assertively suggested that he was simply intellectually challenged. They felt so strongly that they posted their disdain across social media. This is where the difference in cultures is so apparent. Hlohonono is really not sensitive as to what anyone calls him. His only concern is reaching the top before the night descends and finding a place to sleep peacefully.
He has handled his disability with determination and courage. His office is between the crevices, steep cliffs and waterfalls with endless mountains vistas posing as his daily view. His only limitations are weather and wind. He is neither a victim to boardroom stress nor the senseless need to accumulate wealth. He is trapped by neither man nor beast. Perhaps in his own way he is far happier than the majority of society.
I wonder what he thinks of the crazy folk who come in their hoards to run up and down the pass and I wonder if he also mulls over the sanity of these strange people dressed in neon tights and fluffy expectations. He certainly requires no water points, special gel hydration drinks or equipment to track his pace.
I believe, that despite my obsession with getting anywhere on four wheels, it is only on the majestic peaks of this ancient mountain that true freedom can be found.