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TThe Sani Pass is a zig-zagging dirt-road drive up the Drakensberg from KwaZulu-Natal into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho – so if you’re not powered by mountain-bike pedals or your own 2 feet, a 4-wheel drive vehicle is required.
In the mid-1950s, Sani Pass was no more than a pony trail dropping from the eastern highlands of then-Basutholand (now Lesotho) into what was then the province of Natal. It was a prolific trade route, used to ferry Lesotho wool and mohair for barter with the country stores in South Africa.
In 1955 the trade route concept was broadened by David Alexander, followed by the formation of the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company, which built a depot at the top of the pass.
A basic hostelry was also set up at the top of the pass, within Lesotho, 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, 4-wheel drive enthusiasts, mountain bikers and mountaineers have long favoured this challenging part of the Drakensberg mountain range, and the pub still 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 from the little town of Underberg in KwaZulu-Natal will take about 2 hours.
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 4-wheel drive 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 be delighted to know 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, the Cape vulture, the canary-like Drakensberg siskin, the wattled crane and the bush blackcap.
If you enjoy a challenging drive, stupendous views, the chance to spot rare vultures and out-of-the-way destinations – and you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle – a trip up Sani Pass just makes sense.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Sani Lodge Backpackers’ Hostel / Drakensberg Adventure Tours
Tel: +27 (0)33 702 0330
How to get here
The Sani Pass climbs up onto Lesotho’s high plateau from Underberg and Himeville in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. You can drive here from Johannesburg or Durban on the N3, turning off onto the R617 to Underberg at Exit 99 (about 96km from Durban, or 470km from Johannesburg). It’s about 110km from the N3 turn-off to Underberg, and another 43km up Sani Pass to the Lesotho border.
Best time to visit
Winter (June to August) can be snowy, but early spring (September to mid-October), when the area is carpeted with indigenous wildflowers, is particularly lovely.
If you’re not on a guided tour, a 4x4 would be the best option.
Tours to do
Sani Lodge Backpackers’ Hostel, 20km from Underberg on the way up the pass, is also the home of Drakensberg Adventure Tours, offering 4-wheel drive tours up Sani, mountain-biking, horse-riding, hiking and other adrenaline-fuelled outings.
Length of stay
Technically you could do this as a day-drive, but it’s much more fun to stay overnight, or longer if you want to explore the fascinating Mountain Kingdom.
What to pack
If you’re here between late autumn and early spring (May to September), bring plenty of warm clothing. Sunscreen and a hat are advised year-round; even the winter sun can be fierce. 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.
Where to stay
There are lovely guesthouses and B&Bs in Underberg and Himeville, as well as Sani Lodge Backpackers’ Hostel. On the Lesotho side, there are a few lodges – Sani Mountain Lodge at the top of the pass, and the Afriski Mountain Resort and New Oxbow Lodge, both near Oxbow (between 130 km and 150km, or around 3 hours’ drive, from the Sani border post), where you can ski in winter.
What to eat
A stop at the hostelry for homemade soup and freshly baked pot bread is a must. A photo 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.
- Underberg Tourism
- Southern Drakensberg Tourism
- Sani Lodge Backpackers’ Hostel
- Central Drakensberg Information Centre
- Sani Pass Tours