Sani Pass: find your alpine Zen in the Kingdom of the Sky

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Eight years after then minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa gave the green light for Sani Pass to be tarred, only the first three kilometres have been done and the route remains a 4×4 enthusiasts’ Mecca.

Originally a mule track and to this day still the only road link between KwaZulu Natal and Lesotho as well as the only road crossing over the summit of the Drakensberg, 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 and the Basotho people transported wool and mohair down the pass in exchange for blankets, clothing and maize meal.

The sharp hairpin bends of the Sani Pass can be seen zig-zagging near the summit of the pass.
The sharp hairpin bends of the Sani Pass can be seen zig-zagging near the summit of the pass.

The fangs of the slender serpentine gravel road with its infinite supply of loose rocks, steep gradients and sheer drops are veiled by mind-blowing plant diversity, spectacular views and camouflaged wildlife that reveals itself to the observant traveller.

At the summit awaits an unconventional mountain kingdom that has remained untouched by the modern world and is set apart by dramatic scenery, wide-open spaces, wildflower displays, and inconceivable silence and Basotho people, wrapped in blankets. It is as if one has been transported back in time to Biblical days of simple mud and stone huts and shepherds tending to the flocks.

The tablet-sized solar panels that locals carry to charge their cell phones are the only signs of technology and look odd and out of place.

Zigzagging up Sani Pass

The drive up Sani Pass is nothing short of spectacular. Under the watchful eye of the Twelve Apostles – a towering series of distinctive pinnacles on the main escarpment – the route vertically ascends a mammoth 1332 metres in just nine kilometres from 1544 metres at the foot to 2872 metres at the summit. The serious climbing starts after the South African border control and with steep gravel road gradients of up to 1:3, the pass is not only tremendously steep, but the landscape also changes rapidly as the odometer (and altimeter) ticks over.

The Kniphofia linearifolia (red-hot-poker marsh), found in the wetlands of the valley bottoms flower in early February, creating a sea of orange and yellow that provides food for may 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 and is dominated by Protea dracomontana (a dwarf protea, common on grassy slopes over sandstone) and watsonia socium.

Other protea species also occur up to 2375 metres, including the fire resistant Protea coffra and Protea roupelliae. Protea subvestita, identified as vulnerable, is fire sensitive and 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.

As you pass the 2000 metre mark and enter the Alpine belt, the landscape is characterised by tussock and tufted grasses as well as rare and endemic shrubby species. From 2100 metres to near the summit, wildflower species like Helicrysum, Euryops, Erica and Passerina add splendid pops of colour.

An Angora goat on a rocky outcrop with tourists approacing.
An Angora goat on a rocky outcrop with tourists approaching.

Higher up, where sandstone is replaced by basalt, the cliffs are decorated by bright red Gladiolus flanaganii, also known as suicide gladioli, because they are so difficult to reach. Birders can keep their eyes peered for a malachite sun bird or two, as these pollinate the Gladiolus flanaganii.

All this beauty and diversity can be overwhelming, but don’t forget to look for eland, mountain reed buck, grey rhebok and Sloggett’s ice rats while slowly navigating the scary switchbacks up to the Lesotho border.

The pass is also a birder’s paradise with a number of endemic and other species to discover along the lower sections, ravine bushes, in the karroid vegetation higher up, on the slopes, rocky sections and on the escarpment above the pass.

Inside the Mountain Kingdom

Those who prefer not to self-drive can book a Sani Pass day trip with Drakensgberg Adventures. The trip includes a drive up Black Mountain Pass (the second highest road pass in Lesotho at 3240 metres), followed by a short walk to the highest peak in Southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 metres) and a picnic lunch. Here you will meet shepherds who spend summer months in the highlands, tending to sheep and goats and have the opportunity to capture some highly photogenic moments.

Two Shepherds with a her of sheep and Angora goats near Thabana Ntlenyana.
Two Shepherds with a her of sheep and Angora goats near Thabana Ntlenyana.

You will also visit a Basotho cultural village where you will be able to taste freshly baked sweet bread and traditional beer. A stop at Sani Mountain Lodge for a drink at the highest pub in Africa provides the liquid refreshment needed for the hair-raising trip back down Sani Pass with gradients so steep and turns so sharp that the cautious driver sometimes has to do a two-point turn to make the hairpin bends.

A Basuto village where tourists can buy sweetbread and traditional beer.
A Basuto village where tourists can buy sweetbread and traditional beer.

The best time to go

The landscape changes dramatically with every season. Summer months (October to March) are green, wet and ideal for outdoor activities but routes can be tricky to navigate with rain-induced water crossings and slippery conditions. Mid-winter almost guarantees snow, which could be fun, but black ice makes high passes dangerous to drive one. Shoulder months (April, May, August, and September) are the best for driving as they are generally drier and most routes are navigable.

With this in mind, getting frequent road condition updates is a good idea as extreme weather can alter road conditions quickly. You may also want to plan for extra time to make emergency detours as unexpected road closures are likely in poor weather conditions.

Exploring the Mountain Kingdom can be intimidating as many areas are completely isolated and out of cell phone network range. Planning your itinerary with the help of a local specialist like Drakensberg Adventures, Malealea Tours or Sani Pass Tours may be worth considering.

Cash is king

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, so always carry enough cash. Fuel is cheaper than in South Africa but there are often shortages, so fill up wherever you can.

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 and trucks struggling down the pass from the Lesotho side, some broken down.

Kit list essentials

  • Passport.
  • 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.
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