Eight years after then minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa gave the green light for Sani Pass to be tarred. However, only the first three kilometres have been done and the route remains a 4×4 enthusiasts’ Mecca.
History of Sani Pass
Originally a mule track, Sani Pass is still the only road link between KwaZulu Natal and Lesotho. It’s also the only road crossing over the summit of the Drakensberg. Because of this, Sani Pass remains as terrifying to navigate as when it was originally developed as a bridal path in 1913.
Back then, the rough mule trail connected the Eastern Highlands of old Basutoland with Natal. The Basotho people transported wool and mohair down the pass. They would then exchange them for blankets, clothing and maize meal.
Sights to See in Sani Pass
Breathtaking Cliffs and Slopes
The fangs of the slender serpentine gravel road has an infinite supply of loose rocks. It’s also filled with steep gradients and sheer drops. However, these are veiled by mind-blowing plant diversity and spectacular views. If you’re an observant traveller, you may also spot some camouflaged wildlife.
The drive up Sani Pass is nothing short of spectacular. It passes under the watchful eye of the Twelve Apostles – a towering series of distinctive pinnacles on the main escarpment. The route then vertically ascends a mammoth 1332 metres in just nine kilometres. This will see you going from 1544 metres at the foot to 2872 metres at the summit.
The serious climbing starts after the South African border control. With steep gravel road gradients of up to 1:3, the pass is tremendously steep. What’s more, the landscape changes rapidly as the odometer (and altimeter) ticks over.
At the summit awaits an unconventional mountain kingdom. To this day, it has remained untouched by the modern world. This beauty is set apart by dramatic scenery, wide-open spaces, and wildflower displays. It also boasts of inconceivable silence. From time to time, blanket-wrapped Basotho people pass by. It is as if one has been transported back in time to Biblical days. Simple mud and stone huts and shepherds tending to the flocks are common sights.
The tablet-sized solar panels that locals carry to charge their cell phones are the only signs of technology. They definitely look odd and out of place.
Endemic Shrubs and Sea of Wildflowers
The Kniphofia linearifolia (red-hot-poker marsh) is found in the wetlands of the valley bottoms. They flower in early February and creates a sea of orange and yellow. These provide food for many bird species. Up to 40 pairs of malachite sunbirds have been spotted at a time during this special showing.
The area below 2000 metres is classified as montane grasslands. It is dominated by Protea dracomontana and watsonia socium. The former is a dwarf protea common on grassy slopes over sandstone.
Other protea species also occur up to 2375 metres. These include the fire resistant Protea coffra and Protea roupelliae. Protea subvestita, identified as vulnerable, is fire sensitive. They are, therefore, found in boulder beds that offer some fire protection. The Sani Pass is one of the few places in the Drakensberg where the public can easily see these.
Once you passed the 2000 metre mark, you will enter the Alpine belt. There, the landscape is characterised by tussock and tufted grasses. Rare and endemic shrubby species provide sources of wonder. From 2100 metres to near the summit, wildflower species add splendid pops of colour. These include the Helicrysum, Euryops, Erica and Passerina.
Higher up, sandstone is replaced by basalt. There, the cliffs are decorated by bright red Gladiolus flanaganii. Also known as suicide gladioli, they got their name because they are so difficult to reach.
All this beauty and diversity can be overwhelming. However, don’t forget to look for eland and mountain reed buck. You may also want to watch out for grey rhebok and Sloggett’s ice rats. All these you can do while slowly navigating the scary switchbacks up to the Lesotho border.
Activities to do in Sani Pass
Those who prefer not to self-drive in Sani Pass can book a day trip with Drakensgberg Adventures. The trip includes a drive up Black Mountain Pass. This is the second highest road pass in Lesotho at 3240 metres. This will then be followed by a short walk to the highest peak in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 metres).
A picnic lunch usually follows the walk to the peak, after which you can meet shepherds. They spend summer months in the highlands tending to sheep and goats. You will have the opportunity to capture some highly photogenic moments.
Visiting a Basotho Cultural Village
You will also visit a Basotho cultural village. There, you will be able to taste freshly baked sweet bread and traditional beer.
Drinking at the Highest Pub in Africa
There’s also a stop at Sani Mountain Lodge for a drink at the highest pub in Africa. This provides the liquid refreshment needed for the hair-raising trip back down Sani Pass. With gradients so steep and turns so sharp, the cautious driver sometimes has to do a two-point turn to make the hairpin bends.
Sani Pass is a birder’s paradise with a number of endemic and other species to discover. They can often be found along the lower sections and ravine bushes. They can also be seen in the karroid vegetation higher up, the slopes, and the rocky sections. There are also some on the escarpment above the pass. Birders would especially want to keep an eye out for a malachite sun bird or two.
Best Time to Go at Sani Pass
The best time to go at Sani Pass greatly depends on what kind of sights you want to see or what kinds of activities you would want to experience.
Best Time to Go at Sani Pass for Outdoor Activities
The landscape changes dramatically with every season. Summer months (October to March) are green, wet and ideal for outdoor activities. However, routes can be tricky to navigate. There’s rain-induced water crossings and slippery conditions to worry about.
Best Time to Go at Sani Pass to See Snow
Mid-winter almost guarantees snow, which could be fun. However, black ice makes high passes dangerous to drive on. Shoulder months (April, May, August, and September) are the best for driving. This is because they are generally drier and most routes are navigable.
With this in mind, getting frequent road condition updates is a good idea. Extreme weather can alter road conditions quickly. You may also want to plan for extra time to make emergency detours. Unexpected road closures are likely in poor weather conditions.
Creating a Sani Pass Itinerary
Exploring the Mountain Kingdom can be intimidating. Many areas are completely isolated. Many are also out of cell phone network range. Planning your itinerary with the help of a local specialist like may be worth considering. Drakensberg Adventures, Malealea Tours or Sani Pass Tours are great options.
Currencies Accepted in Sani Pass
The Lesotho loti is tied to the ZAR and both currencies are accepted in Lesotho. However, ATM’s and credit card facilities are scant outside of Maseru. Make sure you always carry enough cash. Fuel is cheaper than in South Africa but there are often shortages. Fill up wherever you can.
Passing Through South African and Lesotho Border control
South African border authorities legally require that only 4×4 vehicles are allowed on the pass. However, you will most likely come across shabby old 2×4 taxis. You may also see trucks struggling down the pass from the Lesotho side. Some of them will probably even be broken down. A valid passport is required.
Travel Essentials When Going to Sani Pass
- Cash to buy souvenirs or Basotho blankets at the border.
- Warm clothing. The summit can be up to 20 degrees colder than the foot of the pass.
- Comfortable walking shoes.
- Hat & sunscreen.
- Enough snacks and cold drinks. It is a long day there are no shops to buy refreshments.
- A reliable fridge freezer
- Refuse bag for own rubbish.