Conquering South Africa’s most feared road: Sani Pass unravelled!

“Hold on tight as it is going to be a little bit bumpy”, our guide Christeen calmly announces. She confidently steers the wheel of the extended Land Rover Defender which roaring engine is clearly working to its maximum capacity. The 4×4 steadily crawls forward on the steep rocky road winding up towards the kingdom in the sky. We are about to enter Lesotho for a multiple day horseback riding adventure (click on the link for our article about his unique experience) although the real adventure has already started at the foot of the legendary Sani Pass in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa.

The scenic and rugged valleys of the Drakensberg are known to have been inhabited by Bushmen about 8,000 years ago. These nomadic hunters and gatherers painted scenes from their daily lives on the sand stone formations giving a significant cultural value to the Drakensberg. In the summer, Bushmen followed eland paths to look for wild animals in the mountains of today’s Lesotho.

Much more recently, in the early 20th century, settlers in the eastern highlands were growing wheat and pees, and producing high quality wool. A brave Basotho* chief by the name of Rafolasani came down the steep eland trail to trade for wood, salt and manufacturing goods like cooking pots. To avoid accidents on this path that quickly eroded, a stony bridle path named after the chief was built: the Sani Pass. “Look at that building here”, Christeen says after avoiding a huge pothole filled with water. “These are the remains of an old trading post and lodge with a field for the animals to graze and rest. The way back home up the pass could take up to a few weeks.”

The engine keeps roaring as we pass by a heavily loaded truck that has slid into the ditch. The driver and his companions are silently waiting for help to unload their goods and get the truck back on the road. Sliding on the other side of the pass would have been lethal…

As the clouds vanish, Christeen is focused on the road and its surroundings. She abruptly stops: “Rock dassies” she pronounces softly as she points out to a whole family of little marmot-like furry animals laying on the rocks that are warming up fast as the sun starts to break through.

With its culminating 2865 metres, Sani Pass is the highest pass of South Africa and requires some serious driving experience. Passing by yellow signs and bright orange tape, we can only notice the progress of the road works. Several kilometres have been paved already, and the goal is to pave the whole pass up to Lesotho. If this might help Basotho people have a faster access to jobs in South Africa, it is bound to be an environmental disaster, and most likely an engineering disaster as well. Beyond the extremely bumpy dirt road, the steep gradients and narrow passages make it very unlikely that a decent paved road can be built and maintained here. And we haven’t even started the last seven hairpin bends that are literally climbing up a cliff face.

As we make it to the top and pass the border post, we can notice that the paved road has already been completed on the plateau on the Lesotho side. As the Land Rover slowly makes its way up on the smooth asphalt, road signs call for carefulness: “use caution when snow and ice”. Funny! Now that the dirt road has been tarred, caution is merely useless in icy conditions, as the road is so slippery that it cannot be driven. The former dirt road on which people drove slower and had more traction was much safer and usable all year round.

Besides the cultural aspect thanks to the open art gallery of 520 known sights of Bushmen paintings, this area is unique for its geology, its stunning beauty and abundant flora and fauna of which 10% is endemic. For these reasons, this outdoor paradise has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. One can only wonder if this status will be maintained with this absurd construction project.

Claire & Marcella

* Basotho is the main ethnicity of Lesotho.

Travel trips:

  • For various adventures in the area, from hiking to horseback riding in Lesotho, refer to Drakensberg Adventures. The quality of their freelance guides and community approach to sustainable tourism make them an award-winning company.
  • Drakensberg Adventures is located at Sani Lodge.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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9 thoughts on “Conquering South Africa’s most feared road: Sani Pass unravelled!

    • Hi Michael, yes, it is really awesome! The guides are professionals and excellent drivers who have gone up hundreds of times, so I consider it as safe (as long as I’m not the one driving ;-)). As for pricing, the best way is for you to click on the link to Drakensberg Adventures to get all the details. Thanks for your read and comment, and I hope we inspired you to check this adventure out!

      Liked by 1 person

    • The tours are all very professionally conducted. This gem of Nature is most definitely worth a visit from all Nature lovers. Border posts need to be crossed at both the South African and Lesotho borders making this one of the most protected and safest tours in the country.

      Liked by 1 person

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