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

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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 4×4 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.

Renting a Car in South Africa

Renting a car in South Africa is the best way to explore the country  plus driving is relatively easy in the country (check out our tips on driving a rental car in South Africa). Having your own car gives you the flexibility to travel at your own pace a see place that are simply not possible on group tours or public transport.

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Where to stay for the Sani Pass

We stayed in the Malachite Manor in Underburg. 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 – check prices here!

Click here for the best Underberg hotel prices

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 4×4 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!

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Location of the Sani Pass:

Self Driving the Sani pass

In April 2016, at the time of our visit, a 4×4 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 4×4 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 4×4 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-9Pin

The current road surface and the reason for the 4×4 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-19Pin

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-3Pin

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.

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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-5Pin

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.

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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.

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The Final Stretch

Although we were in a 4×4 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-14Pin

Emm.. .is that the road?!
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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!

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

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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-27Pin

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

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!

4 thoughts on “Driving the Sani Pass: The path to the roof of Africa!”

  1. Hi there, we are planning a trip up the Sani Pass over period 29-31st Jan 2018 . We have a Hyundai IX35 (4 wheel drive). Would this vehicle be alright to do the pass. Don’t want to travel all the way there and cannot do the climb. Is the road all gravel or has it been tarred in the interim. We wish to drive up and down the same day, would this be alright.

    • Hi Lennox, we did it in a Fortuner – a 4×4 is needed though and there’s signs saying it is a requirement on the route. I don’t think they’ve made too much progress on the construction so doubt it’s been tarmacked since we did it last. One day would be fine to come up and down – we continued through Lesotho rather than coming back.

      Hope it works out and you enjoy


  2. Hi there, thanks for all the info on the pass! How long did it take you drive this route, including time to enjoy the sites and take photos? Would it be unreasonable to drive from Underberg to Maseru in one day?


    • Glad you liked the info on the pass. The day on the Sani Pass was a highlight of our time in South Africa. We drove from Underberg to Bloemfontein via the Sani Pass in one day. It’s definitely doable but it was a long day. The South Africa border at the base of the Sani Pass didn’t open until 8 am so we started the Sani Pass climb then. The drive to the summit and the Lesotho border took around 2-2.5 hours with stops. The main road in Lesotho was excellent quality and we made it to Bloemfontein at around 8pm that night. The borders were all very quick
      (less than 20 minutes). Hope this helps! Make sure to leave with a full tank in your car as we didn’t see many stations in Lesotho!


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