Sani Pass - KZN

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Sani Pass - One of many waterfalls Sani Pass - One of many waterfalls - Photo: Photo: Trygve Roberts

Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. Statistically and in every sense, it out distances, out climbs, and out performs all it's competitors with consummate ease to have become the most iconic gravel pass in SA.

Situated between KZN and Lesotho the pass was built circa 1950 and remains a challenging drive in 4x4 vehicles with all the drama, scenery, bad weather and treacherous conditions expected of a pass with a summit altitude of 2876m ASL. That equates to 9400 feet and at 10,000 feet aircraft need pressurised cabins!

This is high altitude stuff. Go prepared for bad weather at any time and expect snowfalls as late as October.

Scroll down to view the map & video. This pass has been filmed in 2 parts. The videos are shown in the correct order. It is recommended to watch this video in HD. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 720HD.) Wait a few seconds for the video to display.....

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Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.


Digging into the details:

The Sani Pass starts at 1544m and rises 1332 vertical meters to summit at 2876m. This altitude gain is almost 300 meters more than its nearest competitor - the Naude's Nek Pass in the Eastern Cape. The Sani's average gradient is only 1:20, thanks to the long easy gradient section in the foothills of the Drakensberg, but certain sections are as steep as 1:4 and it is here that most drivers come unstuck when the going gets slippery. The large number of car wrecks down the ravines bear mute testimony to the dangers.

Many visitors travel from abroad to tackle the notorious Sani Pass in hired 4x4's. Such is it's reputation. For most South African's it remains more of a dream. There has been talk recently of tarring the Sani Pass. There was an immediate rash of objections from a range of individuals and societies interested in preserving the true, raw nature of the area, but I presume that ultimately, progress will have it's way. Should the tarring project go ahead, the challenge and allure of the Sani Pass will move from a tough 4x4 route to a casual afternoon drive in a hatchback. Whilst it's still there, make a plan, and drive the Sani. It will leave you feeling like a child - in it's sheer size and scope. The pass holds an attraction for advertisers too - recently two TV commercials were filmed on the pass for Nissan and Ford vehicles respectively.

The road connects the KZN town of Underberg with Mokhotlong in Lesotho. Himeville and Underberg are approximately 20 km to the south-west with Mokhotlong in Lesotho about 60 km to the north-east. The lower reaches of the pass has several hotels and a wide range of guest farms, B&B's, lodges and other self-catering accommodation on offer. Always check with authorities or local business owners as to conditions on the pass before attempting the pass. Obviously the pass experiences its most frequent closures in winter, when snow is the common culprit.

It's difficult to establish exactly where the pass starts in KZN. Determining this point affects all the vital statistics. In most cases passes start at a river crossing or low point. We have used the set of dams in the valley North of Underberg as the starting point. Once you are heading north the attractive gravel road progressively narrows and worsens as the hotels, and guest farms are left behind at lower altitudes. The well known Sani Pass Hotel and Golf Course is one of the final landmarks to look out for before entering the Mhkomazana Valley.

Rough riding on the Sani pass Above: A good idea of road conditions near the base of the pass / Pic courtesy of Jonah Jones

The bulk of the Drakensberg looms ahead with no apparent way through. Soon you will arrive at the South African border post. Note that this is not the official border between SA and Lesotho. The border is actually right at the summit, where the Lesotho border post is located. Several books and websites incorrectly don't acknowledge the Sani as being the highest pass in South Africa - they all assume the border is at the SA border post. Make sure you have your passport with you and that is valid for at least 6 months. You will also be required to produce proof of vehicle ownership and insurance.

The South African authorities may refuse you permission to drive the pass if they deem your vehicle unfit to tackle the conditions. This is for your own safety. Note that both border control points close at 18h00. Allow yourself a good two hours to complete the pass and you don't want to find yourself marooned between the two border control points by not making the cut-off time as there is a considerable distance to cover (almost 80% of the pass) between the two control points.

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.

Sani PassAbove: Sani Pass as the valley narrows / Photo courtesy of Michael Trezzi

On 26th October, 1948, Godfrey Edmonds (an ex RAF Spitfire pilot) was the first person to ever drive the pass in a vehicle. This was before the road was built. It took him five and a half hours to reach the summit and he was assisted by a team of Basothos with mules, ropes and other equipment. In those days, this achievement was akin to climbing Everest. It was a remarkable and led in no uncertain terms to the approval of the road construction. There is no official record of which vehicle he used, but I would imagine it would probably have been an open top Willys Jeep.

In 1955 a local Natalian, David Alexander, using an ex British army Land Rover, formed a company called the Motkhotlong Mountain Transport Company - to take curious adventurers on the amazing 1332m climb up the Sani. Incredibly his company still exists and they still do the Sani tours to this day (still in Land Rovers!). I am astounded that Land Rover have never seen the pass as an advertising platform with folklore like this?


Part 2 of the Sani Pass covers the section from the South African border control post to the summit at the Lesotho border control post and Sani Pass Chalets. This is where the serious stuff happens.

Once you have cleared customs and made use of the immaculate toilet facilities at the border control point, the adrenaline part of your trip begins. The first half is just a casual drive, compared to what is waiting higher up the pass. Very steep gradients of up to 1:3 with loose rocks, mud, ice, and snow can all be encountered on this section. You will need to have 100% concentration as you ascend the final six switchbacks near the summit. This section is also preferably driven in low range 2nd and 3rd gears. It is here that you will appreciate why only 4WD vehicles are allowed to drive this pass.

The beautiful Khomazana river valley steepens as the road gains altitude and the views become expansive. There is one specific sharp left-hand bend, where there is parking for four or five cars with a lovely viewsite - and if the skies are clear, you will have the opportunity to take beautiful photographs from this vantage point.

Donkeys on Sani PassLocal Basotho's can still be seen carting food and goods up the pass by horse and mule / Pic courtesy of Don Howard

There is no need to worry too much about encountering mules on the pass, as your speed will by necessity, be slow enough to stop with time to spare. Residents from Lesotho still use donkeys extensively as their primary mode of transport and the scene depicted below is quite common. Donkeys are used to lug basic foodstuffs and provisions back up the pass after having being purchased in South Africa. This lends a new meaning to mule shopping versus mall shopping! Please be patient and give way to the animals.

After the view-site described above, the road starts to enter into the first set of switchbacks. These get increasingly steeper, rougher and tighter as the summit looms. The altitude gain along this final section is rapid and you might experience nose-bleeds, headaches and popping ears. Once you enter the switchback section, there are very few places to stop safely.

Most of the hairpin bends are 180 degrees or close to that number. Some of them allow sufficient space for one vehicle to stop. At the time of filming (Oct 2013), roadworks were in progress near the summit, whereby the hairpins were being widened to make the road a bit safer. If you traverse this final section in clear weather, consider yourself fortunate, as on most days it is under cloud. It is also possible to experience severe summer electrical storms and extremely strong winds throughout the year. Drive deliberately, remain in the right gear, maintain your momentum and stay sharp. We want you back to drive more passes!

Sani PassYou can watch the scenery and the road if you drive very slowly. - Pic courtesy of chrjp

Please note that the actual RSA/Lesotho border is at the summit and not at the SA border control point. The entire Sani Pass is on South African soil. When you arrive at the summit with a sense of awe and relief, prepare yourself for something of an anti-climax at the Lesotho border control post. This consists of a run down old building, sadly in need of a coat of paint. You will need to get your passports stamped and pay the compulsory Lesotho road tax, which is calculated according to the size of your vehicle. As an example, in our group, the Toyota Hilux LDV and Pajero GLX paid half of the amount charged on the Nissan Patrol and Toyota Land Cruiser.


Snow on the passA winter wonderland on the Sani Pass. - Photo courtesy of Jerryvh

With those formalities out of the way, you can bump your way over a short, but very poor quality road to the Sani Mountain Lodge (previously known as Sani Pass Chalets), where you can enjoy a rest at the highest pub in Africa. With a roaring fire and walls adorned with history and graffiti, you can while away a few lazy hours and get a meal as well. They also offer overnight accommodation.

Sani pass wrecksThe result of inexperience and / or poor decision making on the Sani Pass. - Photo: Courtesy of Jonah Jones

We have purposefully posted the above photo as grim reminder not to drink and drive and to be alert and well prepared when tackling the Sani Pass. It is not to be trifled with and many lives have been lost. Treat the Sani Pass with respect. Ironically, the wreck depicted here is a Nissan Sani! Once you have successfully negotiated the Sani Pass, you can give yourself a pat on the back.


Sani 4 x ColinSummersgillJaw dropping views from the summit / Pic courtesy Colin Summergill

Watch the video below if you are planning on touring through Lesotho:


We recommend Penwarn Country Lodge as a convenient and hospitable overnight stop before tackling the Sani Pass

Below is a list of videos we have produced on various parts of Lesotho. If you are planning a first time visit to Lesotho, you will find interesting and useful information. Just click on the blue hyperlinks and hit your back-space tab (top/left of screen) to return to this website, as all the videos listed below are live on YouTube.

We have produced a short video clip on the Sani Mountain Lodge (previously known as Sani Top Chalets), which boasts the highest pub in Africa!

For travellers heading into further into Lesotho, we have a number of special feature videos on Lesotho to view:

1. Kotisephola Pass - is the next pass you will tackle straight after the Sani Pass on your way to Mokhotlong or Thabe Tseka

2. Lesotho - Mokhotlong to Ramas Gate

3. Lesotho - Qachas Nek & Senqu Canyon

4. Lesotho - Maletsunyane Waterfall & Abseil

5. Lesotho - Afri-Ski Mountain Resort

6. Lesotho - Katse Dam

7. Lesotho - Semongkong Lodge

8. Lesotho - Ongeluks Nek to Semongkong


Fact File:

GPS START

S29.681549 E29.485308

GPS SUMMIT

S29.584960 E29.286738

GPS END

S29.584960 E29.286738

AVE GRADIENT

1:20

MAX GRADIENT

1:3

ELEVATION START

1544m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

2876m

ELEVATION END

2876m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

1332m

DISTANCE

26.9 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

North

TIME REQUIRED

60 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

Self limiting

SURFACE

Gravel

DATE FILMED

23.10.2013

TEMPERATURE

18C

NEAREST TOWN

Underberg (20 km)


Route Map:

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Mountain Passes South Africa

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.
 

Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.
 

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