Sani Pass, KwaZulu-Natal
Did you know?
The Sani Pass trail was first blazed by the San (Bushmen) hundreds of years ago.
The Sani Pass is a zig-zagging dirt-road drive up the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
In the mid-1950s, Sani Pass was no more than a Lesotho pony trail dropping from the Eastern Highlands of then-Basutholand (now Lesotho) into KwaZulu-Natal. It was a prolific trade route, used to ferry wool and mohair for barter with the country stores of KwaZulu-Natal.
In 1955 the trade route concept was broadened by David Alexander, followed by the formation of the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company who built a depot at the top of the pass.
A basic hostelry was also set up at the top of the pass to shelter travellers and traders from harsh winter conditions. It still houses Africa's highest pub and boasts one of the finest mountain views on the continent. Home-cooked soups and breads are a popular repast – and the pub is well-known for its fireside atmosphere.
Hikers, 4x4 enthusiasts, mountain bikers and mountaineers have long favoured this challenging part of the Drakensberg mountain range, and the hostelry features the accounts of many intrepid adventurers who have made their way up the pass using various modes of transport. In the old days rusted car wrecks were testament to the treacherous nature of the pass and its ice-covered hairpin bends.
The route to the pass is more easily accessible today thanks to a major resurfacing project, but caution is always advised as there's not much room for error. In good weather a drive to the top will take about two hours from the little town of Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal.
If you're a skier, the Sani Pass area offers great skiing opportunities in winter about 25 minutes' drive into Lesotho on the road to Mohotlong. Before embarking on the final steep ascent up the pass you will pass through the border post, so make sure you take your passport with you.
There are many organised tours up the pass in 4x4 vehicles driven by experienced guides. The trip usually includes a brief foray into a nearby hamlet in Lesotho where you have time to meet the locals and sample their beer and bread.
Birders will delight in the knowledge that the Sani Pass is a premier South African birding spot, particularly for those hard-to-find endemic species that birders love to tick. In the environs you will find the majestic bearded vulture, Cape vulture, the canary-like Drakensberg siskin, wattled crane and the bush blackcap.
If you enjoy a challenging drive, stupendous views, and out-of-the-way destinations, then head for the Sani Pass.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)36 488 1207
How to get here
The Sani Pass climbs up into Lesotho's high plateau from Underberg and Himeville in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. You can drive here from Johannesburg or Durban.
Best time to visit
Winter can be snowy, but early spring, when the area is carpeted with indigenous wild flowers, is particularly lovely.
Tours to do
Organised tours often include a brief visit to a small settlement near the top of the Pass. If you have spare blankets or clothing, they will be welcomed by the neighbourhood children.
If you're not taking a tour, a 4x4 would be the best option.
Length of stay
Technically you could do this as a day-drive, but it's far more fun to stay overnight, or longer if you want to explore the fascinating Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
What to pack
If you're here in winter, bring plenty of warm clothing. In summer, sunscreen and a hat.
Where to stay
There are lovely guesthouses and B&Bs in Underberg and Himeville. On the Lesotho side there are a few lodges – one at the top of the pass, and another in Oxbow where there is skiing in winter.
What to eat
A stop at the hostelry for homemade soup and freshly baked pot bread is a must. A beer in the pub with photos of your visit to the highest pub in Africa is a nice memento to have.
Once in Lesotho, buy one of the typical conical straw hats. Or perhaps a traditional blanket. Each pattern holds special significance.