KwaZulu-NatalSouth Africa

Summiting Sani Pass in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg

The famous Sani Pass that links South Africa with Lesotho is one of the few vehicle access routes onto the great uKhahlamba escarpment. The spectacular “Barrier of Spears” has always proved to be a challenge to negotiate. Despite recent improvements in the road condition, Sani Pass still remains one of the region’s most arduous and scenic routes.

Sani Pass Drakensberg top
The top of the famous Sani Pass in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg.

Sani Pass highlights

  • Experience the world-famous uKhahlamba Drakensberg, southern Africa’s highest mountain range and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Check out the old Good Hope Trading Post at the bottom of Sani Pass and learn some history of what was originally only a treacherous bridle path between the two countries.
  • Visit Lesotho for the day.
  • Enjoy breathtaking views over the Mkhomazana Valley.
  • Watch the scenery change as you pass through a number of vegetation biomes as the altitude increases.
  • A fantastic birding spot for high altitude alpine species (over 160 species recorded).
  • Relax at the Sani Mountain Lodge’s pub – the highest in Africa at 2874m!
  • For the 4×4 enthusiast, this may be your last chance to 4×4 an iconic route before the road upgrades are complete (expected date of completion 2019).

 

Gully to the top of the Sani Pass.
The view through the final gully to the top of the Sani Pass.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg

Ranging from 2000 to 3482 m in altitude, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg is southern Africa’s highest mountain range. Both the isiZulu and Afrikaans names (uKhahlamba, meaning the “barrier of spears” and Drakensberge, meaning “dragon mountains”) allude to the imposing strength and scale of this incredible range.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountains are indeed impressive. Forming the eastern section of the Great Escarpment, these mountains outline the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, and KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. They also form the border between South Africa and Lesotho, the “kingdom in the sky”.

The Drakensberg escarpment near Sani Pass.
The Drakensberg escarpment near Sani Pass.

Over the centuries, the permanence and imposing structures that make up the uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountains have provided people with a place of peace and refuge; from the ancient Bushmen whose rock art decorates countless caves in the area, to the Basotho people who inhabit the Kingdom of Lesotho. Even today, the dramatic basalt buttresses draw visitors to the peace and magnificence of this UNESCO World Heritage Site as a chance to escape the distractions and pace of life, and to reconnect with nature in the plentiful hiking and cycling opportunities on offer.

 

The epic backdrop of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains.
The epic backdrop of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Mountains.

Sani Pass

Atop the Great Escarpment, the Kingdom of Lesotho truly is a “kingdom in the sky”. The rugged terrain and steep gradient of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountains along its southern and eastern border all but cut this region off entirely from South Africa, save for a few tenuous and barely-traversible passes. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is Sani Pass; a narrow and cliff-hugging route that would perhaps better be described as infamous for its death-defying drop-offs, challenging gradients and often inclement weather.

Thomas on Sani Pass
Thomas following the tread marks of the pioneers who have gone before.

Originally developed as a bridle path between Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal and the small town of Mokhotlong in Lesotho, Sani Pass was first driven in 1948 by a man named Godfrey Edmond from Kokstad. Reports on his progress vary, and range from a total of 5 and a half hours to get to the summit assisted by a team of Basothos with mules and ropes, to a rough 14 hours of zigzagging, reversing and manhandling. Regardless of which is true, there is no doubt that this was an epic task in a time before any real road had been created.

Today, Sani Pass is far more accessible and offers visitors a unique chance to ascend the Great Escarpment in a day and take in everything that this entails, from the breathtaking scenery, to the varied vegetation and animals as the altitude rapidly changes and to end it all, another stamp in your passport as you enter Lesotho! Sani Pass is an icon of the Southern Drakensberg and a huge attraction in the area for everyone from the self-drive 4×4 enthusiast to the day visitor who joins one of the many tour operators offering trips up the pass.

 

Descending Sani Pass
Steep drops and narrow gravel tracks have characterised the Sani Pass since it was first developed.
The views from the top of Sani Pass are reward enough for the effort of getting there.
The views from the top of Sani Pass are reward enough for the effort of getting there.

4×4 route up the Sani Pass

Ever since the opening of the Sani Pass as a public gravel road, it has been a big tick on the 4×4 driving map, out-distancing and out-climbing any other gravel mountain pass in South Africa. Although the average gradient of the ascent is 1:20, it reaches 1:3 in some sections near the top and finishes at an altitude of 2874 m above sea level. There are several shallow water crossings in summer, and snow and ice are common on the road in the colder months. The pass is characterized by steep drop-offs, hairpin bends and some switchbacks with angles of 130-180°! Not for the faint-hearted, those with limited driving experience nor anyone afraid of heights…

Currently Sani Pass can only be completed in a sturdy 4x4.
Currently Sani Pass can only be completed in a sturdy 4×4.

The route is pretty straightforward as there is only one road up and down with no deviations along the way. At the bottom of the pass, shortly after the Sani Lodge Backpackers, you’ll encounter the ruins of the old Good Hope Trading Station. A short stop at this site might give you an insight into the lives of the traders who would have used this post as a means to buy and sell goods across the border.

The ruins of the old Good Hope Trading Station at the base of the mountain.
The ruins of the old Good Hope Trading Station at the base of the mountain.

From here there are a number of view sites on the side of the road that offer spectacular views up the main gully to the escarpment. The South African border post is the farthest one can go up the pass without a 4×4, but most road cars might have already decided to turn around by that point.

The easy curves of the lower section of Sani Pass.
The easy curves of the lower section of Sani Pass.

The road between the two border posts is the most exhilarating as the gradient gets a lot steeper and the switchbacks towards the top of the pass are always a challenge and require nerves of steel in icy conditions.

Once at the top you’ll definitely want to take some time to explore the many spectacular views as well as take a break at the highest pub in Africa before committing to the descent.

The famous switchbacks that indicate the final stretch of the pass.
The famous switchbacks that indicate the final stretch of the pass.

Although popular among the self-drive 4×4 community, there are a number of tour operators who offer guided trips up Sani Pass. As well as being able to relax and enjoy the scenery, these guided trips have the added advantage of a guide who can recount some of the history of the route as well as explain the changing flora and fauna – with such a rapid ascent the road passes through a number of different biomes. A quick glance down one of the many ravines will reveal the rusted remains of at least one vehicle, sobering evidence of the infamous nature of this route and why it is not suitable for inexperienced and unprepared drivers.

 

The changing face of Sani Pass

In an effort to improve trade relations with Lesotho, in 2014 then-Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa approved the tarring of the final 5 km section of Sani Pass over the next three year period, following a number of road upgrades that had already taken place, including improving drainage and resurfacing the full final 19 km stretch. These upgrades have been a somewhat contentious topic between those in strong favour of the development of Lesotho, and 4×4 enthusiasts and others in the tourism sector who fear the loss of this iconic 4×4 route.

Sani Pass in winter.
Sani Pass in winter.
Sani Pass in summer.
Sani Pass in summer.

Once the surface has been completed (anticipated date of completion is in 2019) a 4×4 vehicle will no longer be a requirement to tackle Sani Pass. Indeed, rumour has it that a future maximum speed of 60 km/h will be enforced in the more treacherous sections of the pass and 80 km/h on its lower sections. Hard to imagine for anyone familiar with the legendary Sani Pass of old.

Construction efforts are already well underway. On our last visit late in 2015, the road surface had been smoothed and gravelled, and a number of the notorious hairpin bends widened.

Despite the presence of construction vehicles and the already-changed nature of the drive, we always love getting to experience Sani Pass. On our most recent visit, we were lucky enough to get a relatively clear day that afforded breathtaking vistas of the mountains above and valley below. One of our favourite memories of Sani Pass came during the descent, when a gap in the clouds revealed a lammergeier silently riding the thermals below. Sani Pass and a bearded vulture – you can’t get any more iconically  Drakensberg than that!

 

Map of Sani Pass

 

What to pack

  • Passport valid for at least 6 months from the date of arrival.
  • Vehicle ownership papers and proof of insurance.
  • Cash for the compulsory Lesotho road tax, calculated according to the size of your vehicle (ZAR accepted).
  • Camera.
  • Binoculars.
  • Snacks and supplies.
  • 4×4 rescue equipment
  • Cellphone.
  • A steady hand and nerves.

Please note there are restrooms at the South African border post at the base of the pass, and again if you visit the Sani Mountain Lodge’s pub at the top. Not being too scared of public restrooms, I have used the ones at the Lesotho border post and wouldn’t recommend them…

 

When to go

Avoid the treacherous weather conditions that include ice and snow on the pass during the cold months of May-October. Under such conditions, the pass is closed. Phone ahead for an update on current conditions of the pass to avoid disappointment. In rainy weather, the pass can become very slippery making it a treacherous journey so these conditions are best avoided too.

 

Caution

The Sani Mountain Lodge pub at the top of Sani Pass is legendary and pretty much a compulsory stop after completing the pass. Please remember though, if you are driving the pass as a round trip, to limit your alcohol consumption.

Vehicles making the ascent have right of way through narrow sections.

The South African border post is at the base of Sani Pass while the Lesotho border post is at the top. Both border posts close at 6pm, and the pass takes roughly two hours to drive. Be sure to allow yourself sufficient time to cross through both border posts before the 6pm cutoff.

Please note also that the South African border control may deny you entry onto the pass if the vehicle you are driving is deemed unfit for the conditions on the pass. This is for your own safety and that of others on the road.

 

Getting there

Take the R617 to Underberg, in the Southern Drakensberg. Follow Sani Road straight through Himeville and at the four way intersection approximately 2km outside of Himeville, turn left onto Sani Pass Road which will take you to the bottom of the pass itself.

 

Details to keep on hand

The Sani Lodge Backpackers at the base of Sani Pass will be able to provide current conditions of Sani Pass. Added to this, they have great facilities for those wishing to stay over in the area and are a wealth of information in themselves.

They can be contacted on +27 (0)33 702 0330.

The gully up the impenetrable uKhahlamba Drakensberg range.
The gully up the largely-impenetrable uKhahlamba Drakensberg range.

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