The Sani Pass is a bucket-list trip for many travellers in South Africa. The famous pass lies in the no-man’s-land between South Africa and Lesotho, close to the KwaZulu-Natal town of Himeville.
The view from the top of the pass never gets old. Nor does the feeling of accomplishment as you look at the gravel road snaking its way up the valley below – the same uneven, rocky road you’ve just conquered.
Protea 4×4 Adventures has been offering tours to Sani Pass for almost 10 years, and we believe that one has to visit it in summer and winter to truly experience the area. The contrast is unbelievable: the clear blue summer skies, lush grasslands and colourful blooming wildflowers often make way for a white blanket of snow in winter, although we missed the snow this time.
Our convoy consisted of all three generations Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, the new Mitsubishi Triton Athlete and a Jeep Wrangler – all very capable off-roaders.
The Mitsubishi Triton Athlete that was used has an improved towing capacity of 3 100 kg and seven airbags. The price has been one of the great plus points for me. If you negotiate a bit you should be able to get it at around R560 000 or you can opt for the normal Triton that offers less towing capacity, 1 800 kg at around R490 000.
Mitsubishi vehicles offers a 4H selection, which is not a 4×4 system but rather an all-wheel-drive-mode that monitors the traction on the wheels at all times offering improved stability on gravel and tar roads with an unlimited speed rating.
With the new Super Select 2 gearbox and different gear ratios, the Triton gently glides up the mountain even with sections were the gradient is 1:2,5.
Although the saying, “Life’s a journey, not a destination” might be considered a cliché by some, I grew up believing that a holiday starts the moment you lock your front door and get into your car.
Travelling from Johannesburg to Lesotho takes you through some of the most spectacular parts of the Drakensberg Mountains. If you leave Gauteng before rush hour, the city smog is soon a distant memory: the sky becomes brighter by the kilometre.
We recently discovered the Thanda Tau stop and fuel station about 200 km outside Johannesburg on the N3 to KwaZulu-Natal (between Villiers and Warden, about 60 km after the Wilge Toll Plaza). It’s ideal for enjoying breakfast (or lunch) and freshly brewed coffee, and replenishing your biltong supplies. In summer, patrons can sit on the balcony outside and enjoy the view of the wide Free State expanse; in winter, you can cosy up indoors next to the fireplace.
Just after Mooi River, we took the Nottingham Road/Curries Post off-ramp. Although there’s an abundance of inviting shops on both sides of the road as one drives into Nottingham Road village, we opted for a brief stop at Nottingham Road Brewing Company. The brewmaster loves sharing his knowledge of and love of beer.
Next stop was Piggly Wiggly on the R103 in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, with its array of curio shops selling iron works, leather goods, clothes and furniture, as well as its coffee shops, cheesery and winery.
Not far from here, about 5 km outside Howick, you’ll find the Nelson Mandela Capture Site where the former South African president and struggle icon was arrested by apartheid police in 1962.
It is late afternoon when we pull in at the newly rebuilt Premier Resort Sani Pass, previously known as the Sani Pass Hotel, at the foot of the pass. Premier Hotels & Resorts has upgraded the 1957 old lady to offer its clients new and modern facilities. Things that haven’t changed, are the friendliness of all the personnel, the cleanliness of the hotel, and the quality of the food and service. The rooms are spacious, well equipped, warm and cosy.
By Richard van Ryneveld
Two of my favourite people to have fun with are Jannie Rykaart and his wife Ansu. So, when he asked, “Would you like to come with us to drive a summer ascent of Sani Pass?” I jumped at the chance.
Driving the iconic pass in the summer is like prime real estate: location, location, location. Except that in the case of Sani Pass and its surrounds, it is ‘scenery, scenery and more beautiful scenery’.
Not only are the vistas from up high breathtaking, but also the flowers and the myriad waterfalls and streams that you cross on the rough corkscrewing track that winds up to the summit at 2 874m above sea level.
While a summer adventure on a dry road is certainly easier that one in wet winter conditions, (or even slick snow), you still have to keep your wits about you on both ascent and descent. Some of the gradients are as steep as 1:4. We did two stints up that winding track which seems to disappear improbably into the precipitous cliffs looming ahead. The highlight on the first ascent was having a slap-up meal at the highest pub in Africa. From the wooden verandah of the Sani Mountain Lodge, you look down, down into the verdant summer-grassed valleys of Kwazulu-Natal.
As Jannie’s own story of his winter trip explains, there is plenty to do on the way up to the Drakensberg. I was lucky to get a copy of Michael Clark’s small publication, ‘The Saga of the Sani Pass and Mokhotlong’, at Huddy’s bookshop in the well-known Piggly Wiggly complex near Howick.
We depart at around 09.00 to start our 25 km-journey from the hotel to the top of Sani Pass. The gravel road up the mountain is mostly made up of loose stones that can cause wheelspin. We lower our vehicles’ tyre pressure to 1.8 bar to ensure better traction and a more comfortable ride.
As soon as we reach the gravel road, we slip the Mitsubishi into the 4HLC (high range with a locked centre differential), to ensure more stability. The idea is to travel with as little wheelspin as possible, as this causes corrugations in the road.
Although serious off-road tyres aren’t necessary for Sani Pass, opting for tyres with a thicker sidewall (such as BF Goodrich KO2 all-terrain tyres) means that you don’t have to worry about punctures or cuts.
Our approach to driving Sani Pass is to take things slowly, stopping off along the route and enjoying fresh mountain water from the several waterfalls. As the climb starts to get steeper, and the road rockier, the real adventure begins. One of the most common mistakes is not to engage the correct 4×4 system for the terrain you are about to tackle.
It takes us close to four hours from our start at the hotel to our lunch-spot at Sani Mountain Lodge, as we always make several stops along the way. The last part of the pass has tricky, steep corners, especially when vehicles coming down don’t obey the rule of “ascending vehicles have right of way”.
When we reach the tar road at the top, we disengage all our 4×4 systems to ensure that we don’t damage the drivetrains.
Remember that you have to pay road tax of R60 per vehicle at the Lesotho border post − make sure you have the correct amount available.
We normally stop at the Sani Mountain Lodge to enjoy lunch (our favourites are the traditional Basotho lamb stew and the soup with traditional bread) and a Maluti beer. Take a walk along the border of the mountain to view the pass from the top.
Getting down Sani Pass can be scary and dangerous, depending on the weather conditions, but the new Pajero Sport offers hill-descent control which makes life a lot easier on this type of descent. The rest of us used plan B: low-range-Tiptronic first gear, rear diff-lock engaged, with a foot just touching the brake pedal to activate the electronic brake distribution (EBD) system.
It’s time to tackle Sani Pass again, and a few of the previous day’s passengers are now behind the steering wheel. Today’s journey leads us deeper into Lesotho to the Black Mountain Pass, and one of the highest points reachable by car in that country.
The Black Mountain Pass road has recently been tarred, so it’s very easy to get to this point. Here we are met by strong winds and (at last) a few patches of snow. We enjoy a picnic on top of the world… and luckily, we have some excellent Beyerskloof wine at hand to keep us warm. (At least, for those not behind the wheel).
During the last few years, we have made a point of visiting the Basotho Village to experience the locals’ way of life. We ask our guests to bring warm clothing, blankets, cutlery etc. to donate to the local community living in these harsh conditions. Even with only a small fire in the middle of the hut, on which the meals are prepared and bread is baked, these huts are incredibly cosy inside. Be sure to ask to taste some of the bread – it’s delicious.
After a hearty breakfast, we decide to take the back way to Nottingham Road. The landscapes along this gravel road are beautiful, but I wouldn’t suggest using it at night.
One of the stops on our way back to Gauteng is the Llandaff Oratory, a tiny Catholic church situated between Ladysmith and Harrismith, at the top of Van Reenen’s Pass.
Since the time that the tarring of Sani Pass was approved by the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2014, speculation has been rife about when it’s actually going to happen. If you’ve always wanted to conquer the pass in its current form, make sure you do it soon.
CAMPING NEAR SANI PASS
Sani Mountain Lodge:
A true, rugged, mountain experience. The Mountain Lodge is situated on the border between South Africa and Lesotho, 2874m above sea level.
The campsite includes ablution- and self-catering facilities. You may also book your meals at the lodge.
Pop in at the “Highest Pub in Africa” for a hearty meal and a friendly drink.
Sani Lodge Backpackers:
Basic camping area with grass and shade for small tents. Separate area for rooftop-tented vehicles.
No power points, so unsuitable for caravans. Campers have unisex ablutions (two showers, two toilets and two hand-basins), and a braai area.
This is not an official camping site, but simply an area offered to those who are on a strict budget and like the outdoors. There are no designated sites, so occupancy of the camping area is on a first-come-first-served basis.
Goxhill Trout Lodge:
Just outside Himeville, Goxhill offers a number of sites under trees alongside the lodge, and overlooking the lake. Upmarket facilities are provided, and laundry can be arranged by request.
Cobham Campsite is located 11km from Himeville Village in the southern part of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. The campsite is rustic and sites aren’t designated, so you can pick your own spot.
There are various braai areas, and the ablution blocks do offer hot water.
Situated on Borreray Farm in the Southern Drakensberg, Lotheni district, Highland Nook is about 40km from the bottom of Sani Pass.
The camping sites have ablutions with hot-water baths and showers, plug points (not all sites) and a chest freezer for storage of your braai meat. There are lots of shady trees to camp under, on well-manicured lawns.
A backpackers and camping site located in the farming town of Underberg. Only two caravan- or campsites with electricity are available. The campsites share the ablutions, and the kitchen/dining area/lounge with the backpackers.
Just over an hour’s drive from Sani Pass, this is a well-maintained resort with an excellent reputation. The caravan sites are grassed, and each site has a 15 amp electrical point as well as a water point. The ablution block has ample hot water and bath/shower facilities. There are also laundry and drying facilities on-site.
Read our review of Silverstreams by clicking on this link.
By Jannie Rykaart