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

By: Paul | Last Updated: 21 Nov 2023 | Jump to Comments & Questions

Down Arrow

Within a few minutes of leaving the South African border crossing, we get stuck for the first time. With our 4×4 crunching over loose gravel on the steep incline of the Sani Pass, we fail to get it over a large boulder.

We reverse and have another go – this time with more pace. We make it, but already our nerves are being tested.

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

“Yes.”

Rising on a 1:3 gradient, the Sani Pass twists up the side of the Drakensberg escarpment, passing the aptly named Devil’s Corner and Suicide Bend, on route to the highest pub in Africa.

When we finally complete the 9 kilometres, 13 hairpins and 1332 metres of ascent on the Sani Pass, we’re welcomed by the beaming smiles of the Lesotho border guards who look a bit surprised we made it.

But sitting at the highest pub in Africa, overlooking the incredible sight of the Sani Pass snaking its way up the green canyon walls rising to Lesotho, it’s abundantly clear that this is an adventure well worth achieving.

the gravel Sani Pass snaking up the Lesotho mountains

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, finishing at the Lesotho border control at 2876 metres. The road is not paved, it is intermittently maintained 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 all conditions, it’s a steep, narrow track close to a precipitous drop.

The Sani Pass only be driven in a 4×4 vehicle. It’s a challenging but truly exhilarating adventure with some of the most spectacular views over the southern Drakensberg Mountains.

Driving into Lesotho from South Africa is definitely the most exciting way to experience this unique mountain kingdom. Reward your efforts with a beer in the highest pub in Africa – the Sani Mountain Lodge bar. It quickly became one of our favourite places in South Africa.

sani pass south africa lesotho 1
sani pass south africa lesotho 11

HOW DIFFICULT IS DRIVING THE SANI PASS?

The Sani Pass can be very difficult to drive and in bad conditions, it should only be undertaken by people with some experience driving a 4×4 vehicle. However, conditions can change significantly depending on the time of year you visit.

The track has a steep gradient (1:3), near-vertical drops on one side and several very tight hairpins. Some were so tight and the road so rocky, they required a 3-point turn to pass.

In winter, snow and rain can make the gravel road slippery and muddy, adding extra difficulty in getting up that steep incline. Generally, the worse conditions are after 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 recently been overhauled 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 deteriorated the track then the pass will be much more challenging. In these conditions, you will want a larger 4×4 with high clearance.

sani pass south africa lesotho 9
sani pass south africa lesotho 25

OUR EXPERIENCE UP THE SANI PASS

When we drove from South Africa to Lesotho via the Sani Pass, the conditions were clear and dry, but there had been torrential storms the week earlier so the road was in very poor condition.

In a small 4×4 Nissan All Trail we 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 different section of road.

The clearance was also a challenge. We scraped the bottom of the car on large boulders several 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 it was a bit harder on the nerves. Those vertical edges seemed much closer as the car tried to get a grip on the steep gravel track. Our 4×4 had a low range downhill lock which limits the speed and applies break automatically, which was very useful once you got the hang of it.

All in all, Sani Pass a nerve-testing ascent and descent, which needed to be treated with respect.

sani pass south africa lesotho 4

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 nerves.

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 one-way journey. If the conditions are good, you’ll probably feel the urge to stop and take some photos.

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 6am to 6pm. You need to clear both border posts by 6pm so – allowing yourself 2 hours – we recommend clearing the South African border post on the way up by at least 4pm.

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 1pm. This allows 2 hours to go up, 2 hours to get back down, and an hour to grab a drink at the highest pub in Africa.

BEST TIME OF YEAR

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.

To help plan your trip, read our guide to constructing a South Africa itinerary and our advice on the best time to visit South Africa.

sani pass south africa lesotho 6
sani pass south africa lesotho 2

WHAT TO DO AT THE TOP OF THE SANI PASS?

If you’re not just undertaking the Sani Pass to drive through Lesotho, there are several great things to do in the mountain kingdom.

HIGEST PUB IN AFRICA

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. The views are stunning as most of the road is visible from this vantage point. If it’s a bit cold, there’s a great fire inside.

VISIT A LESOTHO VILLAGE

Take some time to explore the Lesotho village just passed the border control. It’s not much more than a few huts and a small shop, but it is dramatically different from the South Africa you have left behind. Your accommodation will also be able to organise a guided tour of a village.

EXPLORE THE ESCARPMENT

The views from any point along the Lesotho escarpment are excellent. But for something even more special, 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 south africa lesotho 27
sani pass south africa lesotho 29

SANI PASS ORGANISED TOURS

The Sani Pass is a truly exhilarating adventure that 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 9am from Underberg and after completing the ascent you’ll visit a Basotho village then have lunch at the Sani Mountain Lodge.

sani pass south africa lesotho 30

WHERE TO STAY IN LESOTHO?

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.

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

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.

Sani Mountain Lodge is the highest pub in Africa and it has a communal lounge furnished in a swiss chalet style with comfy chairs and a wood-burner fire. A great buffet dinner is served at 7pm. In the morning, it’s the best place to watch the sunrise and explore the escarpment.

sani pass south africa lesotho 12

SANI LODGE BACKPACKERS

Beautifully located between Underberg and the South Africa border post at the bottom of the pass, the Sani Lodge Backpackers 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.

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.

Sani Valley Nature Lodges can organise hiking, canoeing and biking and meals at their clubhouse. It’s 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.

sani pass south africa lesotho 22
sani pass south africa lesotho 24

TIPS FOR DRIVING THE SANI PASS

VEHICLE

1 – 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.

2 – 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 a spare.

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

paulmarkawrblog

LOVE THIS GUIDE?

If you found this guide useful, buying us a coffee will help fuel our next adventure.

Buy Me A Coffee

DOCUMENTATION

4 – 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.

5 – 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.

6 – If you get into any difficulties and need to contact the South African Border post, their number is: +27 (033) 702 1169

sani pass south africa lesotho 19

NECESSITIES

7 – 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.

8 – 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.

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

10 – 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.

sani pass south africa lesotho 23

WHERE NEXT?

As one of our favourite places to visit for winter sun, great hiking and incredible wildlife opportunities, we’ve been to South Africa several times. Here’s some more reading you might find useful.

How to design your own South Africa itinerary

When to visit South Africa

5-day Cape Town itinerary

10 reasons to visit the magnificent Drakensberg Mountains

Hiking to the stunning Tugela Falls

A complete guide to Cathedral Peak

27 incredible African safari animals and where to see them

Sabi Sands vs Kruger – which safari experience is better?

10 tips for seeing the most animals on a self-drive Kruger safari


A BIG THANK YOU

We’ve been providing free travel content on Anywhere We Roam since 2017. If you appreciate what we do, here are some ways you can support us.

Thank you!

Paul & Mark

FOLLOW US ON INSTAGRAM

USE OUR RESOURCES PAGE

bmc button

paul mark 1
ANYWHERE WE ROAM IS
READER-SUPPORTED

When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.

Thanks for your support.

You can also buy us a coffee, and follow us on Instagram or Facebook.

- Paul & Mark.