Driving the Sani Pass to the highest pub in Africa is one of the most adventurous, nerve-testing 4x4 crossings in South Africa. Should you drive yourself or take a tour? Here’s what you need to know.


“Do you trust your driver?” asks the South African border guard as he peers over my shoulder to our 4×4. “It’s a bit rough up there.”

He is not wrong.

Within a few minutes our 4×4 is slowly crunching through rock and gravel. Unpaved, the Sani Pass is a mass of loose boulders with deep channels cut into the windy track. After crossing a small stream, we get stuck for the first time. Failing to rise over a large boulder we reverse and have another go – this time with more pace.

It’s not even that steep yet, but rocks are battering the bottom of the car.

We pass a couple coming the other way. “Does it get worse?” we ask.

“Yes.”

The track steepens and climbs. The boulders get a bit bigger and the ruts a bit deeper. Then come the hairpins. Rising on a 1:3 gradient, they twist up the side of the Drakensberg escarpment. We pass the aptly named sections on Sani Pass on route to the highest pub in Africa: Devil’s Corner, Suicide Bend, Hairpin Bend.

We get stuck again. This time in a rut on a steep corner with a vertical drop on one side and a wall of rock on the other. Our nerves are shot. We’ve been sitting in tense silence for the last 30 minutes. After a quick reverse to get some momentum – leaving behind a, hopefully, unnecessary piece of undercarriage – we’re over our latest obstacle.

It’s been 9 kilometres, 13 hairpins, 1332 metres of climbing and many swear words, but after just over an hour we reach the top of Sani Pass. We welcome the beaming smiles on the Lesotho border guards with some suspicion. Are they incredulous we made it up?

Passports stamped, we drive over to the bar, order two Lesotho beers and slump onto a wooden bench.

Here, at the highest pub in Africa, overlooking the incredible sight of the Sani Pass snaking its way up the green canyon walls below us, we are slightly incredulous we made it here ourselves.

WHAT IS THE SANI PASS?

The Sani Pass is a gravel track connecting South Africa with the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Rising 1332 metres in just 9 kilometres it has 1:3 gradients and numerous tight hairpins. It’s the most dramatic 4×4 drive in South Africa.

The pass was built in 1950 and begins at the South African border control at 1544 metres. It finishes at the Lesotho border control at 2876 metres. It’s not paved, and the weather can seriously affect the conditions of the pass. It can be anything from a well-graded gravel track to a very challenging 4×4 drive over large loose boulders and deep ruts. In any condition, it’s a steep, narrow track close to a precipitous drop.

It can only be driven in a 4×4 vehicle. It’s a challenging but truly exhilarating adventure and if you have the nerve to look, the Sani Pass offers some of the most spectacular views over the southern Drakensberg.

It’s not the only way to get to Lesotho, but it’s definitely the most exciting. The effort to get up the Sani Pass is rewarded with a drink at the highest pub in Africa – the Sani Mountain Lodge bar.

HOW DIFFICULT IS DRIVING THE SANI PASS?

Make no mistake, the Sani Pass can be very difficult to drive and in bad conditions should only be undertaken by people with some experience driving a 4×4 vehicle. But conditions change significantly depending on the time of year you visit.

Whatever time of year you visit the gravel track has a steep gradient (1:3), near vertical drops on one side and numerous very tight hairpins – so tight, some of them required a three-point turn.

In winter, snow and rain can make the gravel road slippery and muddy, adding extra difficulty in getting up that steep incline. However, the worse conditions are after a heavy rainfall when a downpour can cut deep rivulets in the road. This makes it very likely you’ll get stuck – even in a 4×4 – and need to back up to try a better section of road.

The track is re-gravelled and flattened every month. If the road has been recently repaired and there has been little rain, the pass would be fine for any type of 4×4. However, if it has been a few weeks and heavy rain has cut a rough disintegrating track then you will want a larger 4×4 with high clearance to avoid those large boulders and deep ruts.

OUR EXPERIENCE UP THE SANI PASS

For our journey, the conditions were clear and dry, but there had been torrential storms the week earlier. So the road was in very poor condition.

We were relatively inexperienced drivers in a 4×4 Nissan All Trail rental and got stuck twice in very deep ruts. This meant getting out of the car to inspect the road, reversing (on a very steep incline) and trying a slightly different section of road.

The clearance was also a challenge. We scraped the bottom of the car many times, snapping off a piece of the undercarriage. A larger 4×4 with higher clearance would have made it easier.

Coming down was easier in that we didn’t get stuck; but we found it much harder on the nerves. Those vertical edges seemed much closer as the car tried to get a grip on the steep gravel track. Mercifully, our 4×4 had a low range downhill lock which limits the speed and applies break automatically. All you need to do is sit there and steer.

Finally, because the navigable section of the road is so narrow, you need to keep your eye on cars coming in the other direction and find somewhere safe to pull over and wait.

All in all, it was a nerve-wracking ascent and descent, which needed to be treated with respect. Both the car and our relationship may never quite be the same again! But the sense of satisfaction was immense, the views were magnificent and the beer in the highest pub in Africa was a just reward.

As a side note, I’ve seen Sani Pass videos on YouTube where the road had recently been graded and it looked like a totally different experience.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS?

It took us 1 hour 15 minutes to complete the 9 kilometre Sani Pass (one way) excluding stops to get unstuck and rebuild our nerve.

But the time it takes depends greatly on the conditions you encounter and the type of car you have. In good conditions with an experienced driver and a large 4×4, we have heard of people who made it up in 30 minutes. We’ve also heard of people who didn’t make it and had to turn around to go back down.

We recommend you give yourself at least 2 hours to make the 9-kilometre journey (one-way). If the conditions are good, you’ll probably feel the urge to stop and take some photos.

There have been suggestions that the Chinese government is going to tarmac the pass. Should it go ahead, it will turn this 4×4 adventure into a simple afternoon drive – and much less fun. For the time being, a mass of local objections – hoping to preserve this unique experience – have maintained the adventurous integrity of the Sani Pass.

WHAT IS THE BEST TIME TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS?

The Sani Pass runs between the South African and Lesotho border posts. Both are open from 6:00 to 18:00. You need to clear both border posts by 18:00. So, allowing yourself 2 hours, we recommend clearing the South African border post on the way up (or the Lesotho border post on the way down) by at least 16:00.

If you intend to go up and back in the same day, then you will want to be through the South African border post no later than 13:00. This allows for 2 hours up, 2 hours back and an hour to grab a drink and take photos at the top.

The pass is most challenging when it is wet and slippery, muddy or after it has been cut up by heavy rains.

Torrential storms come to the Drakensberg almost every afternoon in the summer months (November to March). Over this period, the pass is likely to be the most challenging to drive, which we can attest to as we did the drive in January.

Winter (June – August) is generally dryer which makes the track much less slippery. However, snowfall at the higher altitudes can make the journey treacherous as it melts and runs down the length of the pass.

The best time to do the drive is in winter when there is no snow. April and May are particularly good as it’s relatively dry and not too cold. September to October is also fine although the views will not be quite as attractive as the valleys will have lost their glistening green.

Whatever time of year you go, try to find a dry day with good visibility to make the journey.

LESOTHO

What to do at the top of the Sani Pass

Once you pass Lesotho border security, the first thing you want to do is head to the Sani Mountain Lodge – home of the Highest Pub in Africa. It’s a right-hand turn after the border and about the only building around, so you can’t miss it.

If ever you have deserved a drink, it’s this one. Sit on the outdoor balcony staring over the escarpment and the twisting zig-zag road you’ve just conquered and pull out your favourite road trip quotes minus the expletives. As you can see most of the road from this vantage point, it’s fun to pick out cars and make bets on whether they are going to make it or not. If it’s a bit cold, there’s a great fire inside.

Secondly, explore the Lesotho village just passed the border control. The village is not much more than a few huts and a small shop, but it is dramatically different from the South Africa you have left behind.

Finally, take time to explore the escarpment. The views from any point along it are excellent. But for something even more special make the hike to Hodgson’s Peak South. It’s 2 hours each way across the grassy plateau of Lesotho. You’ll meet Basotho goat and sheepherders and be rewarded with stunning views. The path is not that easy to find so either use the Walking in the Drakensberg guidebook (along with google or maps.me) or hire a guide from the lodge.

SANI PASS TOUR OR 4X4 SELF DRIVE?

The Sani Pass is a truly exhilarating adventure which includes a challenge, staggering vistas and a pint at the highest pub in Africa. Although we were nervous for much of the drive, our sense of satisfaction at the top made it one of the most memorable experiences we had in South Africa. Spending the night at the top and watching dawn light up the Drakensberg escarpment was the icing on the cake.

But if driving the Sani Pass is not for you then it is still well worth going up on a Sani Pass tour. Tours leave around 9 am from Underberg and after completing the ascent you’ll visit a Basotho village then have lunch at the highest pub in Africa. The tour returns mid-afternoon. It’s a fantastic day out where someone else takes the strain.

BOOK YOUR TOUR

SANI PASS TOUR OR 4X4 SELF DRIVE?

The Sani Pass is a truly exhilarating adventure which includes a challenge, staggering vistas and a pint at the highest pub in Africa. Although we were nervous for much of the drive, our sense of satisfaction at the top made it one of the most memorable experiences we had in South Africa. Spending the night at the top and watching dawn light up the Drakensberg escarpment was the icing on the cake.

But if driving the Sani Pass is not for you then it is still well worth going up on a Sani Pass tour. Tours leave around 9 am from Underberg and after completing the ascent you’ll visit a Basotho village then have lunch at the highest pub in Africa. The tour returns mid-afternoon. It’s a fantastic day out where someone else takes the strain.

BOOK YOUR TOUR

WHERE TO STAY FOR DRIVING THE SANI PASS

The nearest town to the Sani Pass is Underberg which is a 3 hour drive from King Shaka International Airport in Durban. The South African border post at the bottom of the pass is another 45 minute drive from Underberg along a road which is in the process of being upgraded from a gravel track to tarmac. So, it may take a little longer.

Here are our suggestions for where to stay when undertaking the Sani Pass.

OH! THE VIEWS

SANI MOUNTAIN LODGE


If you plan on driving yourself, the Sani Mountain Lodge – at the top of the pass – is the place to stay. The rooms are a little basic and it’s not cheap. But apart from the adjacent campsite, there is nowhere else to enjoy such spectacular views.

The highest pub in Africa is also in the lodge where a buffet dinner is served at 7 pm. The communal lounge is furnished in swiss chalet-chic with comfy chairs and a wood-burner fire. In the morning, watch the sunrise and explore the escarpment.

HOTELS.COMBOOKING.COM

WALLET FRIENDLY

SANI LODGE BACKPACKERS


Beautifully located between Underberg and the South Africa border post at the bottom of the pass, this backpacker lodge provides home-cooked meals, charming common areas and a lovingly designed garden. The pool has mountain views and you can join yoga classes or head into their wellness facility.

The owners will help you organise a day trip to Sani Pass where you can eat with Lesotho locals or hike on the escarpment. It’s a great value place to hang out for a few days.

BOOKING.COM

PEACE & QUIET

SANI VALLEY NATURE LODGES


These self-catering chalets have wooden balconies that look across a privately owned lake up to Sani Pass and the Drakensberg escarpment. It’s a beautiful, tranquil and peaceful location. The lodge can organise hiking, canoeing and biking and meals at their clubhouse.

The chalets are located at the end of a 3.5-kilometre track that runs off the main road between Underberg and the South African border post. They have a 2-night minimum; great to enjoy more of this fantastic area.

HOTELS.COMBOOKING.COM

OH! THE VIEWS

SANI MOUNTAIN LODGE


If you plan on driving yourself, the Sani Mountain Lodge – at the top of the pass – is the place to stay. The rooms are a little basic and it’s not cheap. But apart from the adjacent campsite, there is nowhere else to enjoy such spectacular views.

The highest pub in Africa is also in the lodge where a buffet dinner is served at 7 pm. The communal lounge is furnished in swiss chalet-chic with comfy chairs and a wood-burner fire. In the morning, watch the sunrise and explore the escarpment.

HOTELS.COMBOOKING.COM

WALLET FRIENDLY

SANI LODGE BACKPACKERS


Beautifully located between Underberg and the South Africa border post at the bottom of the pass, this backpacker lodge provides home-cooked meals, charming common areas and a lovingly designed garden. The pool has mountain views and you can join yoga classes or head into their wellness facility.

The owners will help you organise a day trip to Sani Pass where you can eat with Lesotho locals or hike on the escarpment. It’s a great value place to hang out for a few days.

BOOKING.COM

PEACE & QUIET

SANI VALLEY NATURE LODGES


These self-catering chalets have wooden balconies that look across a privately owned lake up to Sani Pass and the Drakensberg escarpment. It’s a beautiful, tranquil and peaceful location. The lodge can organise hiking, canoeing and biking and meals at their clubhouse.

The chalets are located at the end of a 3.5-kilometre track that runs off the main road between Underberg and the South African border post. They have a 2-night minimum; great to enjoy more of this fantastic area.

HOTELS.COMBOOKING.COM

TIPS FOR DRIVING THE SANI PASS

VEHICLE / Only 4×4’s are allowed to drive the 9 kilometre Sani Pass. Ideally, hire one with a low range and higher clearance. Even though you have a 4×4, the South African border control may stop you if they think the conditions are too bad.

TYRE CHECK / Check your spare tyre when you pick up the car rental and before you start the ascent. It’s rough up there and if a tyre gets punctured you are going to want to have another.

PASSPORT / You need to pass through both South Africa and Lesotho border control so bring your passport and ensure it is valid for 6 months. You won’t need a visa unless you are visiting Lesotho for more than 14 days.

LETTER OF AUTHORITY / At the border, you will be asked for proof of ownership of the vehicle. If you have hired a car you need a ‘Letter of Authority’ from your car hire company giving you permission to take the car into Lesotho. You can get one when you pick up your rental car. It costs about R650.

BORDER / Both the South African and Lesotho border controls were very quick, neither taking us more than 5 minutes. SA Border post: +27 (033) 702 1169

ALTITUDE / Since you climb 1332 metres in just over an hour, there is a chance that you will suffer from altitude sickness. If so, take your time and allow yourself to become accustomed to the lower oxygen level. If it persists and you are uncomfortable go back down.

FUEL / There is no fuel at the top of Sani Pass. Fill up in Underberg or Himmeville before you make the journey.

SUPPLIES / Although there is a restaurant at Sani Mountain Lodge at the top, there is only a very basic local shop. So pick up any supplies you might need in advance at the SuperSpar in Underberg.

CLIMATE / With the top 1300 metres higher than the valley floor it’s much colder up there. Bring warm clothes, especially in winter. If you are spending the night, be aware that at dawn it can be as cold as 3 or 4 degrees in summer and down to -15 degrees in winter.

CLOTHING / A waterproof is also essential as storms can come over quickly without warning and if you plan on walking in Lesotho bring a sun hat and sunscreen.

CAMERA / Whatever you do, don’t forget your camera. The views are staggering!


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