DRIVING THE SANI PASS SOUTH AFRICA
When discussing iconic mountain pass drives of the world, you’ll often find the Sani Pass South Africa included in this renowned list.
Driving the Sani Pass takes you on an exhilarating 8 kilometres of 4×4 rough, rocky, gravel road. Snaking over the Drakensberg mountain range, this tough trail lies between Lesotho, the highest country in the world, and its neighbour, South Africa.
The Sani Pass road does not only offer an opportunity to pit driver and 4×4 against the challenging road conditions but also a chance to witness spectacular scenery.
This descent was the culmination of our fabulous Lesotho road trip.
MAP – SANI PASS ROAD
DRIVING THE SANI PASS SOUTH AFRICA — VIDEO FOOTAGE
OPTIONS TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS in SOUTH AFRICA
Depending on the type of experience you want, there are a few different options to choose from for enjoying the Sani Pass.
# Drive the Sani Pass Yourself
For us, having bought our 4×4 in South Africa, a fully kitted out Toyota Hilux bush camper, we had the right equipment for the job.
However, if you don’t have your own vehicle, hire a 4×4 to undertake the drive.
The road conditions definitely require a 4×4 vehicle – this is a non-negotiable. The full realisation will dawn upon you during the final steep ascent.
# Book a Personal Sani Pass Tour
Booking a personal Sani Pass tour allows you to sit back and enjoy the experience with an experienced tour driver at the wheel.
Some tour companies allow you to drive your own 4×4 and tag along with the tour for a little bit of extra peace of mind
OUR SANI PASS DRIVE VEHICLE and 4×4 EXPERIENCE
- Vehicle: 2016 Toyota Hilux 4×4 bush camper
- Driver: an Australian male, semi-experienced 4×4 driver revelling at the opportunity to tackle one of the iconic mountain passes of the world
- Passenger: an Australian female wondering how the heck she had let herself be talked into this crazy drive.
ARRIVAL AT THE SANI PASS SUMMIT CAMPSITE – LESOTHO
Having entered Lesotho from the northwest of the country and driven southeast via Katse Dam, we were now ready to leave Lesotho and re-enter South Africa.
It made perfect sense to attempt driving the Sani Pass, one of the world’s most incredible mountain passes, down from Lesotho into South Africa.
Using our Tracks4Africa map, we saw that the Sani Tops Backpackers Campsite, situated right on the cusp of the Drakensberg mountain range, was the perfect site from which to launch our Sani Pass attempt.
Driving the last few kilometres to the campsite was done in complete pea-soup fog.
During campsite check-in at the Sani Mountain Lodge reception, we were chatting with the staff and we asked whether they thought the fog might lift by morning. An incredulous look crossed their faces and said that the fog, at this time of year, was quite normal and it could hang around all day!
Not exactly want we wanted to hear!
HIGHEST PUB IN AFRICA
All was not lost. We wandered off to the Highest Pub in Africa, around the corner from reception, to contemplate a plan B for the next day.
Luckily, the pub had great wifi which was a saviour as we hadn’t bothered to buy a Lesotho SIM card. It made planning a whole lot easier.
Leaving for the campsite, a mere 300 metres from the Lodge reception, involved one of us walking in front with a torch because a completely foggy blackness had descended.
The track was indiscernible with no night-time driving markers. A wrong veer either left or right meant we were contacting rocks. We completely passed the parking place beside the ablutions block and had to backtrack to it.
Finally, we popped the roof tent and settled in for the night, hoping the fog would be clear by morning for the Sani Pass descent.
Little surprise when the next morning arrived, we awoke to … yes, thick fog.
We drove from the campsite back to the Lodge and walked to a viewpoint overlooking the Sani Pass.
Waves of fog were being pushed up the Pass towards us but we had some fleeting views of the road and the descent.
Looked ok from there!
LET THE SANI PASS DRIVE BEGIN
With the prediction of rain later in the morning, we decided we would have to attempt the descent pretty soon.
The first challenge though was actually locating the Lesotho Border Control immigration office. The thick fog completely covered any and all signs.
However, we eventually found the way when a 4wd stopped behind us and the passengers made their way to a small building close by the road.
We quickly followed suit. We half expected one of the officials to ask, and they didn’t if we were driving a 4×4 but I can only assume that they were thinking you wouldn’t be driving the Sani Pass without one. It is actually a legal requirement for driving the Sani Pass.
With passports stamped, we tentatively started the gravel road descent into the fog on the first part of the Sani Pass drive.
Within 100m we had pulled off to the side.
We could see just a few metres ahead and there was no way to judge our driving lines, so we pulled to the roadside and waited.
FOLLOW THE LEADER ON THE SANI PASS DRIVE
Luckily, within a few minutes, one of the Lesotho-plated 4wd passenger vans, regularly plying the Sani Pass route, passed us by to start the descent.
Shelley and I quickly agreed that following one of the locals would surely be a smart move. We considered this a safe-ish bet and played follow the leader.
A few times on the descent, we noticed that all the van’s passengers had to alight from the vehicle and take to foot while the van crossed the waterways. Obviously, ground clearance was an issue.
I was thinking that if that Toyota Hi-Ace passenger van with standard suspension and 9 adult passengers could tackle the Sani Pass then surely I was in with a good chance of success.
I mean if he could get through then we should have absolutely no worries.
Fortunately, both that van and our vehicle made it to the bottom. However, I did find out later that these passenger vans have been modified with new engines and a 4×4 transmission.
SANI PASS ROAD CONDITIONS — WITH VIDEO
Seeing the state of this rocky, dirt road quickly confirmed that 4×4 low range 1st gear was really the only and the safest choice.
Although the width of the path was probably about 1.5 car widths, both the ascending and descending traffic shared a singular track.
Where we came head to head, the vehicle with the best op[ortunity to pull to a safe spot did so, allowing the other vehicle to pass. I was super-mindful to keep my outer tyres at least 0.5m from the edge.
Within the first kilometre of the descent, you get to tackle all the switchbacks.
At times, I was at full lock negotiating the bends whilst picking the best driving line. Sometimes I couldn’t successfully round the bend on full lock and I had to reverse up and get a better line.
Of course, by this time it had started showering, so there was the odd tyre spin to contend with but was achieved without mishap.
I didn’t have any time to admire the views being fully focused on the task at hand. I could probably say the same for Shelley (my trusting wife) at times too.
A pointer worth sharing is that the descent was driven in 4×4 low range 1st gear which is slower than a normal walking pace. So, if need be, the passenger can always hop out and walk alongside and/or instruct the driver.
Below is a short video showing the road conditions and the most memorable parts of the drive. This also highlights why you need a 4wd when driving the Sani Pass.
I like to take a quick peek at the scenery when driving, but in this case, with the fog blanketing the Pass, it was the road that held my attention, 100% of the time.
There was very little ascending traffic, with just three 4wds crossing our paths, and two of those vehicles with passengers on their private Sani Pass driving tour. I didn’t see one smile on those passengers’ faces.
NEARING THE END OF THE SANI PASS DRIVE
As mentioned, the Sani Pass is a gravel road. There are some opportunities to pull to the side for photo opportunities but be mindful that other vehicles still need to get past you.
General 4×4 courtesy dictates that the ascending vehicle has right of way unless, of course, the other driver has indicated that you may continue first.
We crossed two slow-running streams during our descent, at a depth of just a few inches deep. However, I would guess that these conditions would quickly change during periods of rain.
Some of the bends on the drive were deeply rutted caused by the channelling of downhill water.
Roughly halfway through the Sani Pass descent, the road starts to flatten out and the bends become gentler. When you see this, you know that the worst of the drive is well behind you.
SANI PASS SOUTH AFRICA: FAQS
1. WHAT DISTANCE IS THE SANI PASS DRIVE?
The Sani Pass drive is a total of 8 kilometres (one-way).
2. HOW HIGH IS THE ASCENT OF THE SANI PASS?
On the South African side, you start the drive at 1544m altitude and it reaches 2876m at the top of the Drakensberg Range.
3. HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DRIVE UP OR DOWN THE SANI PASS?
Set aside 3 to 4 hours in each direction. Of course, this timing is very much weather dependent. We were held up by fog at the top of the Sani Pass and waited hours for visibility to improve.
A good weather app, and the one we use for the Drakensberg area, is Weather Radar which shows current and forecasted weather.
4. DO I NEED A 4X4 TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS?
Yes, absolutely. The Sani Pass drive requires a 4×4 and officials may stop you if they deem your vehicle unfit to handle the conditions.
5. WHAT ARE THE SANI PASS DRIVING CONDITIONS?
The Sani Pass trail consists of an un-tarred rocky, gravel road that is often washed out and heavily rutted in many sections.
6. WHAT IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS ROAD?
November to March is best when the expected rainfall is low. June to August is best avoided as there is a good chance of winter snow in the higher sections of the route. We travelled in February.
7. DOES THE SANI PASS HAVE ANY PAVED SECTION OF ROAD ALONG THE WAY?
No, the road through the Sani Pass is totally unpaved.
8. DO I NEED A PASSPORT TO DRIVE THE SANI PASS?
Yes, passport control is at both ends of the Sani Pass drive. South Africa passport control is at the bottom and Lesotho passport control is at the top.
9. IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE DRIVING ROUTE TO THE SANI PASS NEARBY?
No, Sani Pass is the only road that reaches the top of the Drakensberg ranges and the only access road from Kwa-Zulu Natal to the Lesotho highlands.
10. DO I NEED A VISA TO ENTER LESOTHO WHEN DRIVING THE SANI PASS?
Citizens of certain countries require a visa to enter Lesotho. Find out which countries need a visa here.
11. IS THERE ANY VEHICLE TAX TO BE PAID WHEN ENTERING LESOTHO?
Yes, upon entering Lesotho, there is vehicle tax to be paid. It’s not extortionate, totalling ZAR 40 for our Toyota Hilux.
12. WHAT ARE THE BORDER POST OPENING AND CLOSING TIMES WHEN DRIVING THE SANI PASS?
For the South African border post (06:00 am to 18:00 pm) and the Lesotho border post (08:00 am to 16:00 pm). If the weather is bad, the border posts will close the Sani Pass to traffic.
13. WHEN DID THE SANI PASS OPEN?
In 1913, the Sani Pass opened as a trade route, but it took until 1948 until the first vehicle (an ex-war jeep) was driven and manhandled to the top.
14. HAS THE SANI PASS DRIVE EVER BEEN COMPLETED BY A 2WD?
Yes, one of the first successful attempts was made in 1956 by Leicester Symons, in a 1.2 litre VW Beetle. What an amazing feat – here’s the story
DRIVING THE SANI PASS – FINAL THOUGHTS
From start (Lesotho Border Control immigration office) to finish (South Africa Control immigration office), the descent took us 1hr 40 minutes without stopping. We averaged a speed of 5km/hour. We chose to go it alone without a guide which suited us just fine.
However, depending on the weather conditions and your 4wd experience, you may choose differently but whichever option you choose to go with, you’re sure to feel the same thrill and take away some brilliant memories.
Watch the video for our differing feedback at the end of the Sani Pass drive …
The drive is not that technically challenging when on the descent, although I am not sure the same could be said for the ascent, especially if you face rainy conditions.
When driving the Sani Pass, a methodical and unhurried approach is by far the best way and we were never in danger. But it has to be said, don’t underrate this drive, it has claimed casualties before.
Treat the Sani Pass drive with respect and you’ll come out the other end with a great story to share about this epic drive.
No doubt about it, driving the Sani Pass is one of those 4×4 bucket-list drives that many dream about, but have yet to tackle.
I’d really like to hear about your experience of planning and conquering the Sani Pass behind the wheel of your 4×4.
And if the Sani Pass drive is on your bucket list then you’ll need to hire or buy a 4wd in South Africa. You can find out how and other important information in our post ‘4×4 Africa – Top Considerations when Buying or Renting’.
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