Every 4×4 enthusiast in South Africa dreams of driving up the famous Sani Pass into Lesotho. We are talking about 13332m of climbing to an altitude of 2878m!
It’s an adrenaline rush of hair raising switchbacks, through the dramatic Drakensberg Mountains. You are fore warned that this drive is not for the faint hearted and that great caution should be taken when traversing this magnificent pass. People are also advised not to attempt the ascent without a 4×4. There are steep rocky climbs of gradients of up to 35%, with loose rock and steep drop offs.
On the day we decided to attempt the ascent to Lesotho, the weather turned for the worst. It was misty, over cast and rainy. On the lower reaches of the pass we had the occasional sunshine and could admire the landscape, we were in the heart of the Drankensberg and at every turn we gazed out in wonder. Because of the recent rain we could see mini waterfalls glistening in the distance, running down the escarpment, chasing, to reach the river bellow.
We started our drive up the pass at a slow pace, really enjoying the journey, when horror struck. We realized that we were running out of time! The border post in Lesotho closes at 6pm! We had 8km to go, with only 30 minutes to spare. Trust us that is NOT enough time. All of a sudden we were in panic mode, horrified at the thought of being stuck on the pass with no shelter or warmth, watching dark stormy clouds chasing down on us. We put our lives in danger that day, and really tested the capability of our little Jimny up that pass. I was driving, Bernie was in the passenger seat holding on for dear life. The switchbacks scared the living day lights out of me, but we pushed on and made it to the top with 5 minutes to spare.
Our ‘bad’ luck didn’t end there, during our passport checks the officials at the border post informed me that I required a VISA to enter their country and that I wouldn’t be permitted entry.
You see, I have an EU passport. Practically useless in Africa.
Our hearts sank. I think they could see the despair in our eyes, knowing that we couldn’t turn back. The South African border post was closed for the day. I had visited the Lesotho embassy in South Africa enquiring about a VISA, they informed me that I didn’t need one! The officials at the border post however disagreed.
Thankfully they issued me with a day pass so that we could spend the night at the Sani Mountain Lodge.
Exhausted, cold and hungry we were thankful to reach our little chalet that had been warmed by a very welcoming fireplace. By this time we had run out of energy with very little will power to explore our surroundings. Yet another thing we would come to regret. At this point in time the weather was still amicable, with no wind, the ominous clouds we had seen earlier were gone, and the temperature was still at an agreeable level. A perfect combination to walk out to the view points and to appreciate the pass in all it’s glory.
Instead we decided to relax in the cozy pub, which happens to be the highest in Africa, with hot chocolate to warm our hands while we waited for dinner to be served. Dinner was just scrumptious, the pub served up traditional warm stews, finger licking desserts and a phenomenal selection of some of the best wines South Africa has to offer.
After dinner we scurried off to our cozy room, we had big plans for the next morning, getting up early to experience what promised to be a spectacular sunrise.
The sunrise run didn’t happen, it was absolutely freezing the next morning, with a strong wind that threatened to whisk us away. It tugged at us constantly, making it very difficult to walk or take any photographs. At one point I thought that the wind would whip my camera out of my hands. True story. The short 1km walk to the view point felt like an endless hike because of the weather conditions. We eventually submitted to nature and returned to the shelter of the pub. Thankfully a delicious breakfast spread was waiting for us, which warmed our almost frozen bodies.
After breakfast we sadly had to say goodbye to this magical little spot, the temptation to venture further into Lesotho was strong, but unfortunately we had to leave and head back into South Africa.
On our way down we met mountain bike enthusiasts who cycle, yes, cycle up the pass. The most memorable encounter was when we met Hugh, a 68 year old, who cycles up the pass every week from the little town of Underberg. He plans to do so until his 70th birthday. Don’t you feel like a couch potato right now?
Shepards were taking their flock of sheep out to graze. The Basotho people of Lesotho are traditional farmers, we loved watching them climb up the steep slopes of the surrounding mountains and listening to the bells tied around the sheep’s necks.
This time around we took our time driving down the pass, stopping every now and then to take photographs.
I know we have said this before about the other places we have visited, however it must be said about Lesotho too. Because of my little passport issue we couldn’t explore this beautiful country properly, so we absolutely must go back!
A few tips if you ever want to venture up Sani Pass:
- You need a 4×4 vehicle, don’t listen to the stories about 4 wheel drive vehicles and high rise SUVs making it up just fine. In good weather you may be able to get away with it, however if there is any rain or snow then you will definitely need a 4×4, especially for the ascent.
- If the Lesotho embassy informs you that you don’t need a VISA, get it in writing. I didn’t do that and we paid the price.
- Fill up in Underberg before entering Lesotho, especially if you plan to explore, fuel is scarce and only available in certain villages.
- We highly recommend Sani Mountain Lodge. Their food is great and the staff is super friendly. The chalets do need a little TLC. The wind tends to get through the cracks, thankfully there are fireplaces in the rooms to keep you warm.
- Take extra warm clothing with, the weather turns quickly and it can even snow in the summer.
- If you don’t plan to venture into Lesotho, spend at least 2 days at Sani Mountain Lodge so that you can explore the surrounds at your leisure. If you are feeling a little adventurous enquire about taking a guided tour into the mountains.
- There are plans to tar the pass in the next 2-5 years, so don’t wait too long to take the drive up into Lesotho. For now the tarred section terminates at the Lesotho border at the top of the pass.