The Roof of Africa -Driving Sani Pass
I can still remember the first time I saw Sani Pass. I was watching Charlie Boorman’s Extreme Frontiers South Africa, and the intrepid motorcyclist was attempting to ride, then drive the iconic dirt road which climbs to 3000 metres in Southern Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, before emerging via a helter skelter of upward hairpins into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Boorman attempted the drive in Winter and ice made the already treacherous ascent almost suicidal.I watched open mouthed as his Land Rover, driven by a local guide, slid with wheels locked to the edge of a sheer drop, his producer having already leapt from the vehicle. Charlie survived but had to undertake the final section to the Lesotho border and the ‘Highest Pub in Africa’ on foot. At that point I decided that Sani Pass was a road I had to drive!
A year later and my partner and I are nursing a beer in a local bar in Underberg, KwaZulu Natal, contemplating our journey up the pass the following day. As always is the case in South Africa, the locals are happy to talk and we engage in friendly sport based banter, which occasionally drifts into the ubiquitous SA subjects of crime and politics. As we attempt to leave, citing ourearly start as a good reason for a semi-early night, we’re encouraged to have another Castle lager, or two.
‘Where are you headed tomorrow anyway?’ asks one of our new drinking buddies.
‘Up the Pass to Lesotho’. I respond, trying to sound nonchalant but feeling distinctly apprehensive.
‘Who are you going with?’ (There are a couple of companies in Underberg who specialise in Sani Pass day trips.)
The mood changes noticeably at my response ‘On my own. I’m driving it myself..’
I sense peripheral members of the group start to take an interest and the questions and advice begin, ranging from the type of 4X4 I’m driving, to specific sections of the drive.
I decide to order another beer but the man next to me, a typical brash and confident 30 something has changed his views on my alcohol consumption – ‘No. You need to go home if you’re driving the mountain. Show it some respect’. I smile. He doesn’t and we leave the pub feeling even more nervous than before.
The previous day had seen the Drakensberg shrouded in a pea soup of damp cloud but as we woke in our B+B at 7am, the sun was already finding its way through the gaps in the curtains. I pulled them back to reveal a perfect morning with not a cloud in the sky and the mountains visible in the distance.
With a few final driving tips from the owner of the B+B, we pulled the Nissan Bakkie into the road and set off to Lesotho and Sani Pass.
I’d read a lot about the pass, watched YouTube video’s from previous travellers and posted numerous questions on travel forums to try and get a feel for what I should expect. The Wikipedia entry for Sani Pass provides a good summary-
Sani Pass is located in the western end of KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa on the road between Underberg and Mokhotlong, Lesotho. It is a notoriously dangerous road, which requires the use of a 4×4 vehicle. This pass lies between the border controls of both countries and is approximately 9 km in length and requires experienced driving skills. It has occasional remains of vehicles that did not succeed in navigating its steep gradients and poor traction surfaces, and has a catalogue of frightening stories of failed attempts at ascending the path over the Northern Lesotho mountains. While South African immigration at the bottom of the pass prohibits vehicles deemed unsuitable for the journey, the Lesotho border agents at the top generally allow vehicles of all types to attempt the descent.
The South African border guard checked our vehicle and waved us off on our adventure. The road was rough gravel initially and we soon passed the sign forbidding further progress by non 4X4 vehicles. There was one other vehicle making the drive and as we rounded the increasingly steep bends I could see the white speck winding along the narrow road a couple of miles behind us, giving me some confidence that if I got stuck, or broke down I would at least have someone to assist me. The sun was shining, the views were amazing and we found ourselves stopping for photos whenever the road levelled off enough to give us confidence that we’d be able to set off again!
We eventually reached the famous section of a succession of hairpin bends with names such as Haemorrhoid Hill (2250m), Suicide Bend (2462m), Ice Corner (2775m), Reverse Corner (2880m) and Big Wind Corner. There was no chance of stopping here. Still in
4H, I engaged second gear and tried to maintain a steady speed as we bumped and bounced our way around the vicious curves. I’d been told that 20 years ago, it was necessary to do a 3 or 5 point turn to execute these corners, but the road has been widened enough to get round with full lock on the steering wheel.
The final section actually only takes a few minutes to negotiate, and eventually we
lurched onto the plateau of Sani Top with the Sani Lodge hotel perched on the lip of the cliff, enjoying fantastic views over South Africa. We cleared the Lesotho border control and paused for a drink at what’s advertised as ‘the Highest Pub in Africa’ at 2874 metres. (Actually, its not as we later had a drink at Afriski resort at 3200 metres!).
After enjoying a performance by the local band (Kids using oil cans and a bucket for some Lesotho style drum ‘n bass),we got back in the Nissan to continue our journey through Eastern Lesotho, the roof of Africa.
We had no real expectations of the country as its one of the least travelled locations in Africa, but we were soon raving about the scenery. Rough, mountainous dirt roads and a proliferation of colours- tan, burgundy, dun,and a variety of greens. Villages of traditional rondavel huts, populated by smiling Basotho people, clad in blankets and wellington boots. No traffic, save for the occasional pack horse train or flock of sheep being herded by shepherds in balaclava helmets. Local agricultural practices alongside the occasional Diamond mine or engineering development, Chinese overseers managing local labour. A fascinating country and one which lends itself to independent self drive exploration.
After 7 hours driving, we encountered a freak hail storm at 3000 metres and arrived at Afriski, where we would spend the night, to find the electric knocked out by the storm. The owners lit candles and served us a welcome Maluti beer, listening as we described our journey, and congratulating us on completing a drive that defeated Mr Boorman!
Matthew Lightfoot is the author of The Two Week Travllers, which details his adventures in 150 countries and is available in ebook and paperback from all Amazon stores.