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Driving the Sani Pass

When talking of iconic mountain pass drives of the world you’ll often find the Sani Pass included in this renowned list. The Sani Pass drive is an 8 kilometre rough, rocky, gravel road in South Africa that snakes down the Drakensberg mountain range that lies between Lesotho, the highest country in the world, and South Africa.

Driving the Sani Pass offers not just an opportunity to pit driver and 4×4 against the unforgiving road conditions but a chance to witness spectacular scenery en-route during the 1332m descent. The drive will test the nerves of both driver and passenger – if you’re of faint-heart, then think again. We had the chance to conquer the Sani Pass as a fitting end to our Lesotho off-road trip.

Driving the Sani Pass – Video 

GoPro footage of the entire Sani Pass route (at x8 speed)

Map – Sani Pass Road

Sani Pass: Quick Facts

  1. The Sani Pass is 8 kilometres of un-tarred rocky, gravel road stretching between Lesotho and South African Border Posts in western Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. The closest main town is Underberg which lies 35 kilometres south-east of the South African Border Post.
  2. 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.
  3. 1913 was the year 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.
  4. The altitude gain when driving the Sani Pass is 1332m topping out at 2876m where you find yourself at the doorstep to Lesotho, the highest country in the world.
  5. The best time of year when driving the Sani Pass road is November to March when the expected rainfall is low. June to August is best avoided as there is a good chance of winter snow.
  6. Citizens of certain countries require a visa to enter Lesotho. Find out which countries need a visa.
  7. You will need your passport to clear immigration from South Africa into Lesotho. Upon entering Lesotho, you will need to pay vehicle tax  (we paid ZAR 40 for our Toyota Hilux).
  8. Driving the Sani Pass road will require clearance through the Border Posts. The opening times are South Africa (06:00 am to 18:00 pm); Lesotho (08:00 am to 16:00 pm).
Foggy weather at Lesotho border gate at top of Sani Pass

Lesotho Border Gate at the top of the Sani Pass

South African Border Gate at the base of the Sani Pass

9. If you have a change of plan and decide that driving the Sani Pass is not for you then the quickest exit from Lesotho would be to follow the A1 222 kilometres to the Caledonsport Border Post which is only 10 kilometres from Fouriesberg. The Caledonsport border post opening hours are 06:00 am to 22:00 pm.

10. If the weather is bad, the Border Posts will close the Sani Pass to traffic.

11. Driving the Sani Pass must be undertaken using 4×4.

12. When entering via the South African Border Post, officials may stop you if they deem your vehicle unfit to handle the conditions.

13. There are no crash barriers on the edge of the road to stop a vehicle sliding off the mountain edge.

14. The series of switchbacks near the top when driving the Sani Pass become increasingly tighter, steeper and rougher. You need to bring your ‘A’ game and keep your concentration up. This has to be the most challenging part of the drive going from lock to lock on the steering.

15. Sani Pass is often added to the list of worldwide iconic mountain pass drives.

16. A good weather app, and the one we use for the Drakensberg area, is ‘Weather Radar’ which shows current and forecasted weather.

Our Hilux traversing the Sani Pass, South Africa

Our Hilux was more than capable for tackling the Sani Pass

Vehicle and Passenger Quick Facts 

  1. Vehicle: 2016 Toyota Hilux 4×4 bushcamper
  2. Driver: an Australian male, semi-experienced 4×4 driver thrilled at the opportunity to tackle one of the iconic mountain passes of the world
  3. Passenger: an Australian female wondering how she let herself be talked into this crazy drive.
Tracks4Africa Shop

Arrival at the Sani Pass Summit Campsite – Lesotho

Having entered Lesotho from the north-west of the country and driven south-east 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.

The Backpackers Campsite at Sani Pass has showers and a communal cooking / lounge area

The Backpackers Campsite at Sani Pass has showers and a communal cooking / lounge area

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 mentioned that the fog might lift by morning. An incredulous look crossed the faces of the reception staff made us think otherwise. We were promptly informed that the fog at this time of year was quite normal and it could hang around all day!

Oh, I see …! We wandered off to the Highest Pub in Africa, around the corner from reception, to contemplate a plan B for tomorrow. Luckily, the pub has great wifi which was a saviour as we hadn’t bothered to buy a Lesotho SIM card.  It made the planning suddenly a whole lot easier!

Man having a beer at the highest pub in africa at sani pass

How can you pass up having a beer at the Highest Pub in Africa right beside the Sani Pass?

Leaving for the campsite, a mere 300 metres from the Lodge reception, involved one of us walking in front with a torch – complete 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 called an end to the day.

The Sani Mountain Lodge at the top of the Sani Pass

The Sani Mountain Lodge at the top of the Sani Pass has the claim of the Highest Pub in Africa

Little surprise when the next morning 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 here!

Sani Pass with fog billowing up the pass

Sani Pass lookout with fog billowing upwards

The fog enveloped the Sani Pass in mere minutes

The fog enveloped the Sani Pass in mere minutes

Bye, Lesotho! Let the Sani Pass Drive Begin

With the prediction of rain later in the morning, we decided we would have to attempt the descent. The first challenge though was actually locating the Lesotho Border Control immigration office. The thick fog completely covered any and all signs. However, we soon found the way when a 4wd stopped behind us and the passengers made their way to a small building close by the road.

Ah, the Lesotho Border Control immigration office. 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.

With passports stamped, we tentatively started the gravel road drive into the fog towards the first part of the Sani Pass descent. Within 100m we had pulled off to the side. We could not see far enough ahead or to the side, to be able to judge our driving lines – so we waited. We put the GoPro on standby to capture this epic drive.

It was fortuitous that within a few minutes, one of the Lesotho-plated 4wd passenger vans regularly plying the Sani Pass route would pass 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.

This Toyota Hi-Ace looking passenger van had standard suspension and was carrying 9 adult passengers including the driver. I mean if he could get through then we should have absolutely no worries. I did find out later that these passenger vans have been modified with new engines and a 4×4 transmission.

Following another vehicle on the rocky Sani Pass descent

Employing the ‘buddy system’ during the foggy, Sani Pass descent

Sani Pass Road Conditions – With Video

Seeing the state of this rocky, dirt rock it was quite clear that 4×4 low range 1st gear was the safest choice. Although the width of the path was probably 1.5m, a singular track was being followed for both the descent and ascent meaning that vehicles needed to give way when there was space to do so.

Within the first kilometre of the descent, you’ll tackle all the switchbacks of the whole drive. At times, I was at full lock negotiating the bends whilst picking the best driving line. Once, I had to reverse up and re-try the turn so the passenger wheels would not overhang the edge. No doubt about it, the pulse does rise a bit when skating the mountain edge.

It’s probably not as much fun for the passenger as they can look out and witness the drop right by their window. The thing is, driving in 4×4 low range 1st gear is slower than normal walking pace, so if need be, the passenger can always hop out and walk 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 little ascending traffic with just three 4wds crossing our paths and two of those vehicles with passengers on a Sani Pass driving tour. I didn’t see one smile on those passengers faces.

As mentioned before, the Sani Pass is a gravel road. This is a single lane that is shared by both vehicles on the ascent and descent. 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.

Rocky road of Sani Pass road

A typical road on the Sani Pass

We crossed two slow-running streams during our descent at a depth of just a few inches however, 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 half-way through the descent, the road started to flatten out and the bends were gentler. It was here we realised that the worst of the drive was well behind us.

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. The drive, from start to finish, was on a rocky, dirt track. There is no question here, a 4×4 is a must when driving the Sani Pass.

The first 90% of the descent was spent in 4×4 low range 1st gear. Only when the road flattened out at the bottom and the condition improved did I use 4×4 low range 2nd gear. It’s wasn’t a race and I didn’t see the point of incurring any unnecessary wear and tear or damage to our vehicle.

Our personal feedback after completion of the Sani Pass descent

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 of 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. Safe travels!   

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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