Driving the Sani Pass: The path to the roof of Africa!

by | Aug 3, 2016 | Africa, Blog, Latest Posts, Lesotho, Road Trips, South Africa, UNESCO Sites

Driving across the Sani Pass was perched firmly at the top of our South Africa bucket list and, despite warnings of hairpin bends and white knuckle drops, we were determined to make the drive over the stunning Drakensberg escarpment from South Africa into Lesotho. The beautiful scenery and the adrenaline inducing turns, with names such as Devil’s Corner, Suicide bend and Hairpin Bend, instantly caught our attention and we were ready to take them all on! With our 4x4 at the ready and our passports to hand we set off from Underberg towards the South African/Lesotho border eager to conquer the Sani Pass and explore Lesotho.

So what is the Sani Pass? 

The Sani Pass is a mountain pass which cuts through the UNESCO designated Drakensberg mountain range linking South Africa with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The pass itself runs through no-mans lands between the two border posts. As the only road link between southern Lesotho and South Africa it was an important trade route to enable the landlocked Kingdom of Lesotho to trade with South Africa. More recently it has become a magnet for tourist and 4x4 adventurers, eager to experience the challenging off-road drive and magnificent views of the Drakensbourg mountain range. It’s also one of Africa’s highest mountain passes and home to the highest pub in Africa at the top!

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-14

Location of the Sani Pass:

Self Driving the Sani pass

In April 2016, at the time of our visit, a 4x4 vehicle was mandatory to self drive the Sani Pass. The border authorities in both Lesotho and South Africa will not let any vehicles through that are not 4x4 off-road vehicles and there are lots of signs to this effect on the route. Researching ahead our trip we read of the many warnings about this restriction and opted to upgrade our rental car to a 4x4 for our South Africa road trip in order for us to make the drive on the Sani Pass into Lesotho.South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-9

The current road surface and the reason for the 4x4 requirement! There are plans to resurface the road in the coming years so the road might not look like this for much longer:South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-19

Setting off on our Sani Pass adventure

After a short drive from our wonderful hotel in Underburg, the lovely Malachite Manor which we booked through Agoda, we set out upon the Sani Pass route. The start of the pass represented the end of the asphalt road for the next 20 km!!

The start of the Sani Pass:South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-3

Border Crossings

We travelled from South Africa to Lesotho on the Sani pass so the drive was all uphill from the South Africa border post and all the way to the top to the highest pub in Africa which is just across the Lesotho border. After a quick stop at the South Africa border post we were on our way up the main climb to the Sani Pass.

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-8

Starting the climb

After leaving the South Africa border post the real climb began. The road was in reasonable condition initially, however as we climbed higher after our departure from the South Africa border the quality of the road deteriorated quickly and it quickly became a dirt track allowing us to experience some proper off-road conditions

Each twist and turns gave way to stunning scenery and we found ourselves stopping at almost at every turn to admire the view and take some photos:South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-5

As we snaked through the canyon and up into the pass we cautiously made our way over the now very rough terrain. For a seasoned off-road driver I’m sure the drive would have been fun, but as someone who’d never really driven off-road before, the journey was a white-knuckle experience.

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-12

Our hearts skipped a beat each time the wheels skidded (which was pretty frequently close to the top of the climb!). The views were spectacular all the way to the top and it was a breathtaking experience.

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-7

The Final Stretch

Although we were in a 4x4 and we knew we were perfectly safe we couldn’t help but sweat a little as we caught sight of the final stretch of the pass. The road, with its frequent twists and turns, looked like as it was stacked on itself like Lego blocks!

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-14

Emm.. .is that the road?!
South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-18

The pass most definitely lives up to its reputation in its final few kilometres and we finally realised where those crazy names of the turns came from. Our final descent was a mix of rough terrain coupled with hair raising bends and sweat inducing drops over the side until finally we reached the Lesotho border. It was definitely the most fun part of the drive for me although I’m pretty certain my passengers had their eyes squeezed shut for most of it!

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-20

It was worth all the effort when we took in the unforgettable view of the pass snaking down through the Drakensberg mountains.

South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-19

Our route!
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Lesotho and the highest pub in Africa

Crossing the border and getting our passports stamped we took a well deserved break at the highest pub in Africa and enjoyed the view!

The Lesotho border:South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-27

The highest pub in Africa!South Africa Driving the Sani Pass-32

Can you spot the Shepard?

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So after the exhilarating morning drive up the Sani pass the mountain kingdom of Lesotho lay before us. Read more about our Lesotho adventure here!

Where to stay for the Sani Pass

We stayed in the Malachite Manor in Underberg which we booked through Agoda. We loved the hotel for its close proximity to the Sani Pass, the beautiful rooms and food and the wonderful owners who were incredibly welcoming to three weary souls who’d driven in thick fog to reach the hotel!

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