Sani Pass


David Whitley makes his way from South Africa to Lesotho along one of the world’s great roads.

 

 

“Welcome to Haemorrhoid Hill,” says Elias as he prepares to shake and shudder us up yet another stretch of brutally dispersed rubble. “If you didn’t have them before, you will have afterwards.” Elias is driving us up the Sani Pass, one of the world’s highest, toughest and most spectacular roads. In just over 22km from the Sani Pass Hotel to Sani Top, the road ascends 1,307m. Almost 1,000m of this climb is in the last 8km stretch, a wild no-man’s land between the border posts of South Africa and Lesotho.

 

 

The road can be tackled by 4WD vehicles only, and inexperienced drivers shouldn’t go near it. As Elias says, “Phase one is reasonably smooth, phase two is bumpy and phase three – yeeee! We call it the African massage.”

 

But this unique form of white-knuckle vehicle wrecking is under threat. Following an agreement between the South Africa and Lesotho governments, the Sani Pass is in the process of being tarred and sealed. The idea was to make the road accessible to all vehicles by the time the football World Cup kicked off in June 2010. The proposals have met with fierce resistance. Locals in Himeville and Underberg rely on tourism, and 4WD tours up the Pass are the big earner. Tar it, and the romance goes, is the theory.

 

“They want to take away our adventure,” says Elias. “And it will become more dangerous as more people try to drive it in unsuitable vehicles.” Not that there aren’t enough of them already. On the way down, we see trucks overloaded with wool and minibus taxis from Lesotho crammed with people. “We call them Two-Mores,” says Elias. “Even when they’re full, there’s always room for two more.”

 

Not far past the South African border post, we meet our first casualty. It’s a broken-down Land Rover Discovery and on board are four hapless passengers. Elias invites the stranded tourists in with us. An unwritten code of mutual assistance applies amongst Sani Pass – refuse to help and you never know when you’ll need bailing out yourself.

 

As we make painful progress upwards, it becomes clear why the Pass is something of a 4WD holy grail. Waterfalls pour down basalt outcrops so grand they look like forts; green hills spread down from the top of the escarpment like they’re the toes on a giant’s foot; mists are entered and cleared within a few metres.

 

The road veers from tough to horrendous, but Elias still has time to point out flora and fauna. We stop to check out baboons, elands and eagles, and learn about the ancient cave art that can be found in the peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains opposite. Finally, we get to the really steep bit. The top of the Sani Pass is a series of terrifying hairpin turns, and all at have names like ‘Ice Corner’, ‘Oh My God Corner’ and ‘Don’t Look Left Corner’.  At times, the back wheel is only inches away from doom. Quite how Elias drives this road in the snow – and he says he does frequently – is hard to comprehend.

 

With a final rev of the long-suffering engine, we reach Sani Top and Lesotho. It’s not called Africa’s Mountain Kingdom by accident, and the change in scenery is staggering. We’re above the tree line, and the ground is a scrubby steppe. Shepherds clad in traditional blankets ride amongst their flocks and a few thatched huts dot the horizon. If feels splendidly isolated, largely because it is.

 

But just on the border is what many come for – Sani Top Chalets is the self-proclaimed highest pub in Africa. And at 2,874m above sea level, no-one is really contesting this. We stop for lunch and a peek down the road just travelled from the outdoor terrace. 

 

But mid-meal, Elias starts getting a little edgy. Peering towards the bottom of the pass, he sees dark clouds. Soon enough, there is a crack of lightning – a fairly common occurrence in the Drakensberg. “Come,” says Elias. “It’s time to go.” He explains that if the rain flows too heavily, the point where the waterfalls create a stream across the road lower down can be impassable. We’d have to wait for four hours after the rain stops before getting across.

 

The lightning cracks and black skies add an extra element of tension to our descent, and it’s clear that the vehicles coming up the other way won’t be getting back to South Africa today. But we eventually make it onto the small section at the bottom where the tarring has started. It’s here that Elias reveals his lack of concern about the road upgrading project. “It was never going to be done by June 2010. It’ll probably never be done by June 2055,” he says.

 

“This bit already needs resurfacing, and they’re just not going to be able to get the machines up there to do the rest.” Hopefully he is right. To tar the Sani Pass would be to tarnish it. May the budget problems , brutal terrain, romance and adventure remain. 

 

More photos here

 

Disclosure: David Whitley was a guest of Viator (Viator.com).

 

A Reason to go back to Africa