Sani Pass

Sani Pass, a hairy drive to the roof of Africa

Sani Pass is a high mountain pass at an elevation of 2.876m (9,400ft) above the sea level, located in the western end of Kwa Zulu-Natal province of South Africa on the road between Underberg and Mokhotlong, Lesotho. It is a notoriously dangerous road, which requires the use of a 4x4 vehicle. It’s a serie of winding twists, hairpins, plunging drops and mind-blowing scenery. It’s one of the highest roads of the country.

The road over the pass connects Kwazulu-Natal and Lesotho. It’s one of the most hairpinned roads in the world. Sani Pass road was built in 1950’s and remains a challenging drive in 4x4 vehicles with all the drama, scenery, bad weather and treacherous conditions expected of a pass with this altitude. This pass, also known as the Roof of Africa, lies between the border controls of both countries and is approximately 9km in length and requires above average driving experience. 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. While South African immigration at the bottom of pass prohibits vehicles deemed unsuitable for the journey, the Lesotho border agents at the top generally allow vehicles of all types to attempt the descent.

Is Sani Pass tarred?

The road over the pass is already in the process of upgraded. It will be totally tarred in 2019 by the Chinese, who have been commissioned to construct this road. 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?

The road is certainly breathtaking and it has a fearsome reputation. It takes between three and four hours to complete. 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. Allow enough daylight hours to appreciate the view and get some good photos.  Avoid driving in this area if unpaved mountain roads aren't your strong point. Stay away if you're scared of heights. The route traverses through several shallow water crossings (and waterfalls after the summer rains), hairpin bends, and switchbacks with angles between 130˚-180˚. There is only one view site on the pass with enough parking for 6 vehicles.

Is Sani Pass Safe?

It is a notoriously dangerous road, which requires the use of a 4x4 vehicle. 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. And have lunch at the top of the Sani pass at the highest pub in Southern Africa. 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. The Sani Pass is the only border post between Kwazulu-Natal and Lesotho.

Is Sani Pass open?

A 4X4 vehicle is necessary for this road especially if the weather is bad. The Sani Pass is 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 South Africa’s notorious Sani Pass – and only if border authorities think your vehicle’s up to the challenge. It closes at 6pm every day, and is often shut due to bad weather. 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. 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 dirt road, which connects South Africa's Kwazulu-Natal and the Kingdom of Lesotho, 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. 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. 

Is Sani Pass dangerous?

This road tests the skill, and courage, of any driver. It’s definitely not for anyone suffering from vertigo or a fear of landslides. 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. A pathway from SA’s Kwazulu-Natal region to neighbouring country Lesotho, the 9km Sani Pass sends drivers on a hair-raising journey of steep and slippery slopes over the Northern Lesotho Mountains.

What is the highest pub in Africa?

To drive this trail, you must have supreme confidence in your vehicle and your driving skills. 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.  Your mental and physical efforts will be rewarded when you reach the top of the Sani Pass and the highest pub in Africa (at 2.874m).
Pic: Yusuff Lockhat