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RR Sport to Africa’s highest pub

  1. Welcome to no-man’s land, population zero. We exited South Africa at the base of the Sani Pass, the border post no more than a couple of Nissen huts and a barbed-wire fence strung across the hillside. Passports stamped, gate slammed behind the Range Rover Sport, and now we are in no-man’s land. The Lesotho border lies at the top of the pass, a thousand metres straight up and 20 miles along the track. We’re stranded in the space between countries.

    My first thought is the only logical one when you find yourself abandoned in a place without laws: so this means we can drive as fast as we want, right? Turns out to be a moot point. Yes, I am loose with a 288bhp RRS in the land that traffic police forgot, but I’m also on a road impossible to tackle at more than 20mph: rutted rock and gravel, tight hairpins and thousand-foot drops off the barrierless edges. Potential for non-speeding-based crime, too, is limited, there being no one, literally no one around to be criminal toward.

    Pictures: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Utter emptiness aside, as no-man’s lands go, this one hardly feels the most foreboding. In fact, on a sunny late-spring morning, the bottom of the Sani Pass is surely as idyllic a spot as exists on the planet. The grassy uplands of the Drakensberg Mountains, green and glossy as velvet, fringe the horizon. Birds sing, gentle streams of meltwater trickle across the road as near-vertical basalt peaks loom a mile above. A vervet monkey scurries up a purple jacaranda tree. It’s like Jurassic Park without the ravenous raptors or Dickie Attenborough.

    I crane my neck upwards. The top of the escarpment, some 3,000 metres above sea level, marks the end of no-man’s land: the frontier of the kingdom of Lesotho. That’s where we’re aiming. Why? Because of history, that’s why. The Sani Pass, one of Africa’s most notorious mountain roads, was employed for hundreds of years as a bridle path along which mules and horses would ferry goods between what we now call South Africa and southern Lesotho. It remained impassable to vehicles until 1948, when a budding entrepreneur called David Alexander conquered the Sani in his troupe of imported 4x4s, among the very first cars built by little-known British upstart Land Rover. In seven years, Alexander and his Series Is tamed the Sani, turning this muddy donkey track into a muddy car track. Land Rover made the Sani, and the Sani made Land Rover.

  3. But there’s a far more important reason for our voyage to the faraway kingdom. Beer. Lesotho is home to the self-appointed Highest Pub In Africa. As the two pubs nearest to the TG office are shoo-ins for the titles of Most Expensive Pub in Britain and Fightiest Pub in the Northern Hemisphere, we figured it’d be good to get a third superlative to complete the set.

    Gotta get there first, though. As we scale the pass, KwaZulu-Natal falls away beneath us, and the path turns twistier, slippier and nastier. Click the RRS into mud-and-ruts programme, engage low-range mode on the gearbox. The Sport rises on its springs, flashes up a cheery array of lights and twisty-axle graphics on the dash, and sets about trudging its way up the one-in-two rocky scree with the effortless plod of a packhorse. No scrabble, no slip, just a relentless, oddly delicate assault.

  4. And this from a car on summer road tyres and 21-inch wheels. So assured is the Sport’s gentle ascent that I decide this is a good moment to take my hands from the wheel and dive into the footwell to retrieve a chunk of biltong dropped earlier. When I resurface a few seconds later, I note with interest that a) we are a couple of metres from toppling off the pass and down the side of a mountain and b) the photographer is capable of emitting noises at the outer reaches of the human aural register. Mental note. RRS: very good at off-roading; cannot steer itself.

    Approaching from the south, you can see nothing of Lesotho until you’re almost in it. The last hundred metres through no-man’s land are a scrabble up an almost vertical cliff face, hopping over rockfalls and collapsed road. Were a Bond villain to design his own no-expense-spared mountain lair, I’m not sure he could come up with a driveway more imposing than this. A weird driveway for a weird country. Lesotho is, essentially, an island nation, but one surrounded by near-impassable cliff rather than sea. It’s a statistical anomaly of a place: the same size as Belgium, it’s the only country in the world to lie entirely above 1,000m in altitude. In fact, Lesotho’s lowest point is 1,400m above sea level, which is the highest lowest point of any country on earth. It’s the most southerly landlocked country in the world, and one of just three countries to be completely enclaved within just one other: the Vatican City and San Marino are the other two. Two turns from the top, I’ve no idea what to expect.

  5. The end of days, that’s what. As we roll over the top of the pass, Africa’s palette shifts in an instant from the aquamarine of a lush valley morning to the black-grey of a post-nuclear winter. Dark, doom-laden clouds close about us and a 70mph wind whips down from the north, spitting grit into our eyes. Photographer Brimble, hopping out to take a photo, has to grab a doorhandle to avoid being blown off the edge and back down into South Africa.

    Through the Lesotho border post - a rusted shack and twist of wire that makes the South African effort at the bottom look like Fort Knox - and into a different century. We are faced with the most un-African of vistas, a post-apocalyptic interpretation of the remotest sweeps of Dartmoor: wild, wind-whipped moorland as far as the eye can see, with a rough stone path stretching off into the distance. There is not a tree in sight - we’re two miles above sea level, way up above the tree line - just a bleak ocean of scrubby moorland and boulders. The air is thin, watered-down, leaving us gasping for breath like a pensioner with an 80-a-day habit. The Sport doesn’t care, rolling calmly on.

  6. Slowly, lumpily, we wind north into the heart of Lesotho. There are no towns, no villages visible in any direction, just the odd cluster of stone huts huddled into the hillsides. God, they must be cold places to live. Triple-glazing and underfloor heating, I fear, are yet to become de rigueur in these parts.

    A shepherd trots towards us on a stumpy horse, driving his dozen sheep down the track in close-knit four-by-three formation. I am impressed by their synchronised obedience, and then realise they’re desperately clustered together for warmth. Their owner is wrapped head to toe in a vast poncho, only his eyes visible within the mass of wool. I click up the Sport’s heated seats a couple of notches and feel like the worst sort of tourist.

  7. The local Basotho are known as the blanket people, on account of, erm, the fact they wear a lot of blankets. If you spent your life in snowy, sub-zero temperatures - Lesotho is one of only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa in which you can ski (though apparently the vin chaud is frightfully average, dahling) - you’d opt for a blanket-based wardrobe, too. I wonder what made the Basotho leave the clement plains and thick, syrupy air of South Africa below and venture up to this harsh, unyielding land. The reason, I discover later, is that, some 200 years ago, the Basotho became rather bored of being butchered by the Zulu. Anything for a bit of peace and quiet.

    As we ford a shallow river, a steatopygous momma materialises from behind a drystone wall, blankets whipping in the wind. She waves urgently at us. I lower the window. “You are… so pretty!” she exclaims in precise, slow English. “Thanks!” I reply, a little bewildered. “You’re very pretty too.” She nods and smiles. “You are… very big.” The Basotho are not a tall race, but then again, neither am I. I begin to suspect something may be getting lost in translation. “Very big… and very fast. I like you. You are a good car.” Ah.

  8. As the sun drops, the black clouds lift and the wind eases. Lesotho reveals itself to be, in a desolate, ominous sort of way, oddly beautiful. Unlike its roads, which, merely appalling before, raise their game to deeply harrowing levels. Still, the Sport seems unperturbed. Heading northwest from Durban to the Sani this morning, we trailed a Land Rover Discovery being driven keenly along a twisty, sweeping valley road. As the Disco - admittedly a porker in the world of seven-seat SUVS - tilted and lurched its way round the fast, cambered bends, our Sport remained perfectly flat, cornering, if not quite like a sports car, at least like a tidy diesel hatch. No squidge, no roll, just flat, even progress.

    The trade-off for such on-road composure should be that the Sport crashes and thunks its way up these rocky paths. It doesn’t. The suspension travel and axle articulation are astonishing, the RRS picking its way over boulders and ruts with long-legged composure. It’s welcome proof that a sorted SUV can have a worthwhile existence beyond school-run status symbol.

  9. See, I never really got the old Sport, a heavy, ostentatious brute driven by men with Bluetooth earpieces and suspiciously kempt facial hair. No doubt this new version will be just as rapturously welcomed by the Creative Beard brigade, but now it’s a car that can be justified for its do-everything abilities as well as its badge. This is an all-rounder in the truest sense: seven-seat family wagon, grand tourer, off-roader and lugger of horsebox, boat or - if you’re a true South African - trailer loaded to the brim with freshly shot animals. It might just be the perfect one-car garage, assuming you have 60 grand to spend. Perhaps the Sport’s only real issue is how heavily it tramples on the toes of its big brother: if you’re after a do-everything 4x4 rather than a business limo, I’m not quite sure why you’d need the full-fat, 20-grand-pricier Range Rover rather than this Sport.

  10. But that’s for Land Rover to worry about. I’m just pleased to be ensconced in a Lesotho-proof SUV: one that, largely of its own accord, has found its way to the Highest Pub in Africa before sunset. We park on a rocky outcrop, a beacon of British brilliance teetering on the edge of Lesotho. Armed with a long, cold glass of something frothy and local, we peer out over the void as a thick mist pours its way up the valley from South Africa below, leaving us gloriously stranded on this strange little island above the clouds. Not a bad spot for a pint. Not a bad car for the job.

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