Once an animal migration trail and escape route for rustlers, one of Southern Africa’s most spectacular scenic byways is slated to become a tarred transport route
On everyone’s list of the most memorable things to do amidst the unforgettable peaks of Southern Africa’s Southern Drakensberg region (Afrikaans for ‘Dragon Mountain’) is the bump and grind up one of the most spectacular mountain passes on this part of the continent.
Named after the San people who once lived in the area, the Sani Pass developed over the centuries as a path for game migration before gradually evolving into a route for local settlers following the Mkomazana River. Sitting at an elevation of 2,874m, it is today the only road link between the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal and the rugged, landlocked kingdom of Lesotho. Along the way, it traverses the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, a World Heritage Site that boasts the world’s greatest collection of rock art, created by ancient residents more than 4,000 years ago.
The trip to the top is an incredibly striking drive that requires the use of specialised 4×4 vehicles for the staggering ascent of 1,330 metres in just eight kilometres. The road snakes upward beneath towering cliffs, past tumbling waterfalls, colourful plants, unique birdlife and the occasional wreck – a sobering reminder of the genuine danger the route presents. Among the final zigzags is one waterfall that sees no sun during winter; from May to September its cascades are frozen in a jagged outcrop of white ice.
As in any truly wild country, the legend of the path is full of tales of selfless courage and reckless daring, myths of magical creatures and mischievous spirits, poignant stories of pioneering frontiersmen who took on the vagaries of the mountains (and lost), and amusing anecdotes of adventurers who sought fame and fortune on the windswept slopes. Without a doubt, though, the men who forged the pass were brave souls. Their valour is significant and their legacy – not to mention their material possessions, scattered up and down this adventurous route – enduring, but it all pales against the backdrop of this hard and harsh land.
A Tamed Passage
The Sani Pass first fell under motorised wheels in 1948 when an ex-RAF pilot named Godfrey Edmonds took over 12 hours to reach the summit. A regular transport service began in 1955. Nowadays, for visitors who don’t wish to face the drive on their own – South Africa will not allow non-4×4 vehicles to pass, but even in the right automobile, the rough and narrow road is not for amateurs – day trips are now readily available.
Using modern vehicles, the drive up to the pass takes about two hours, including photo stops and passport checks. The same amount of time should be allowed for the return-leg descent. An overnight stay at the top in the rustic Sani Top Chalet, built in 1958 with room for up to 30 people, is also an option.
Day-trip passengers aboard a Maluti Treks four-wheel excursion should plan to be on the road for about seven hours, including lunch at the Sani Top Chalet, where a traditional toast to safe passage is raised in the highest pub in Africa.
Valid passports are required to get to the top of Sani. Between the South African and Lesotho border posts are eight kilometres of hairpin bends, loose rocks and sheer drops. But the bumps are worth it; there’s nothing like the top-of-the-world feeling at the summit.
A further 15-minute drive beyond the Lesotho border post leads to Black Mountain Pass, an excellent ski run (with the right snow conditions) made stunning against the backdrop of Thabana Ntlenyana (3,483m), the highest peak south of Tanzania’s mighty Kilimanjaro.
Tourism personality Steve Botha is one of the mountain men who take on the challenges of the Sani Pass – and beyond into Lesotho – in much the same way other people go to the office. He has driven up and down the pass on a daily schedule for more years that he cares to remember, travelling in all weather conditions and in a wide range of four-wheel-drive vehicles.
For those who seek to test their mettle against the challenges of the pass, Botha’s advice is simple: stick to the rules and drive within capabilities.
“Except in winter, when the roads in the upper reaches are icy and can cause major heartaches, the Sani Pass is not particularly difficult,” he says. “But on Sani, always expect the unexpected. Just when you think it’s all plain sailing, something will pop up and bite you in the backside. It could be another vehicle, bad weather or mechanical problems.”
For safety in numbers, a growing number of drivers now explore Lesotho by joining a convoy headed by an experienced tourist guide like Steve. Overnighting in mission stations and guesthouses, these convoys take in a wide and varied range of activities – from the adrenalin rush of mountain biking, rappelling and white water tubing to the gentler pleasures of bird watching, appreciating rock art and stargazing.
Window of Opportunity
With the tarring of the Sani Pass already underway, the new road will forever alter the pristine feel of the region. Fortunately there is still time to experience the thrill of driving the Sani Pass before it’s permanently domesticated. But plan to do it soon. While the route will undoubtedly be made safer, one can’t help but feel a little of the magic will be gone from Sani experience.
In any case, despite the burgeoning urbanisation threatening to tear apart the traditional fabric of the tranquil mountain kingdom, Lesotho remains one of Africa’s last frontier countries. A trip to the Roof of Africa will remain a glorious and unforgettable experience in an area of spectacular natural appeal. For anyone who gets kicks from heart-pounding excitement and the thrill of living on the edge, the Sani Pass is calling.