Sani Pass: winding twists, hairpins, plunging drops and mind-blowing scenery

Sani Pass is an international high mountain pass at an elevation of 2.876m (9,400ft) above the sea level, located on the border of South Africa and Lesotho. It’s one of the highest roads of the country.

Sani Pass

Where’s Sani Pass?

The pass is located on the border of Kwa Zulu-Natal (province of South Africa) and Thaba-Tseka District (in Lesotho). This pass, also known as the Roof of Africa, lies between the border controls of both countries and requires above average driving experience.

How long is Sani Pass?

The pass is 76.5 km (47.53 miles) long running from Himeville (in the foothills of the picturesque Southern Drakensberg of South Africa) and Molumong (in Lesotho). It’s one of the most hairpinned roads in the world.

When was Sani Pass built?

The road to the summit was built in the 1950’s. It has occasional remains of vehicles that did not succeed in navigating its steep gradients and poor traction surfaces, and has a catalogue of frightening stories of failed attempts at ascending the path over the Northern Lesotho mountains.

Is Sani Pass tarred?

The road over the pass is already in the process of upgraded. The road has been tarred from Underburg/ Himeville all the way to the foot of the pass, the pass itself +- 11 km hasn't been tarred yet. It is understood that the first six kilometres of phase one will be 8,5 metres wide and will designed for a maximum speed of 80 km, while the remainder will handle a 60km maximum speed.

How long does Sani Pass take?

To drive the road without stopping will take most people between 2.5 and 3.5 hours. Allow enough daylight hours to appreciate the view and get some good photos. There is only one view site on the pass with enough parking for 6 vehicles. In summer waterfalls cascade and tumble into the river below. The green slopes that sweep upward to the base of towering basalt cliffs are dotted with the colour of our great variety of flowers and the roadside is lined with flowers. A vast floral variety, in number of species and their traditional uses, that will earn this region the coveted world heritage site status. Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. It is the gateway to the ‘Roof of Africa’ scenic route that links the spectacular scenery of the Drakensberg with the mountains of northern Lesotho.

Is Sani Pass Safe?

It is a notoriously dangerous road, which requires the use of a 4x4 vehicle. The average gradients are 1:20, but there are 1:3 sections near the top, with mud, ice and snow possible at almost any time of the year. Ascending cars and pack mules have right of way. The route traverses through several shallow water crossings (and waterfalls after the summer rains), hairpin bends, and switchbacks with angles between 130˚-180˚. The road is notoriously dangerous and is littered with the remains of the vehicles that failed to make it. Not only is the surface poor, but the inclines are ridiculously steep too as you climb up to the summit. Add to this the unpredictable weather conditions and it's easy to see why accidents are common. It's a very steep and twisting road pass that can only be driven in a four-wheel drive vehicle, quad bike, off-road motor bike - or walked, if you up to it. You need a 4x4 to traverse it and only if border authorities think your vehicle’s up to the challenge. The pass drops (or climbs, if you are heading into Lesotho) over 800m in just under eight kilometres of length - which is an average slope of 1:10.

Is Sani Pass open?

A 4X4 vehicle is necessary for this road especially if the weather is bad. It can be closed anytime due the bad weather. This highly dangerous international road is generally closed during the southern hemisphere’s winter months of May through to July. Don't forget your passport. Caution must be exercised and drivers or riders must be alert while navigating the pass as it has claimed many lives. It closes at 6pm every day, and is often shut due to bad weather. Never underestimate the changeability of the weather in Lesotho. A common truth is that you can have four seasons in one day, so be prepared. The Lesotho authorities are far less concerned about safety and allow normal vehicles through, but for the descent only. However, if it's raining, a normal vehicle will be sorely lacking in traction and you could well end up going over the side. The Sani is strictly a 4x4 only route. Although the South African authorities at the bottom of the road insist that you climb in a competent 4x4, the Lesotho border control at the top are happy for you to make the descent in anything. Due to the many accidents which have occurred along the pass the South African border control will not allow vehicles along the pass which are deemed unsuitable for the trip, although there are no such restrictions when leaving Lesotho to travel into South Africa.

Is Sani Pass dangerous?

It’s a challenging drive for 4x4 vehicles only, with a series of winding twists, hairpins, plunging drops and mind-blowing scenery. If it’s been raining heavily or snowing, check with the locals before setting out. You wouldn’t want to get snowed in. Be prepared for rough conditions in parts, and reducing speed to just 20km/h in some places, bouncing over rocks and dongas. There are more switchbacks near the top and the road becomes slippery when it rains. Take care with the temperature contrast, it can be extreme. The road is full of holes, loose rocks and gravel and hairpin bends that make your stomach churn. Especially when you look over the side and see the depths to which you could fall if you made a slight miscalculation. Along the road, you’ll see debris from cars that weren’t so lucky.

What is the highest pub in Africa?

The summit hosts the highest pub in Africa, at an elevation of 2.876m (9,400ft) above the sea level.
Pic: Yusuff Lockhat