Skip the country for a day by heading up the magnificent Sani Pass
No rain in nine months, but now a 90% probability of precipitation on the day when I will be in a vehicle driving up a rocky road with a massive drop-off on one side. Oh, good.
On the drive to the bottom of the Sani Pass, we pause opposite a golf course to watch a quartet of mountain reedbuck cropping the greens (or, in drought conditions, perhaps more accurately the ‘browns’). A little further on, just after the (current) end of the tar section, are a couple of ruined buildings – the remains of an old trading post originally run by a Scotsman named John White-Smith. This touch of entrepreneurial spirit played a large role in the route now followed by the Pass being where it is. Lesotho herdsmen and farmers would come down the mountain with their mules to have their wares – mostly wool – weighed in one building, where they would receive a credit to spend on food and other items in the store opposite.
The Pass traverses the Maloti Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, which means both that the scenery is utterly gorgeous and that the management of the route and its surrounds is challenging. Some of that is easy, sensible stuff, such as leaving dead alien black wattle trees standing (it would be an easy extra step to cut them down) because birds have existing nests in their branches.
Other aspects are far more complex. There is a currently a great deal of construction on the Pass on the South African side of the border, part of a plan to tar the whole road. Many observers have some concerns over this strategy, as it may affect the Heritage Site status. Our driver Lungelo – who often goes up and down the Pass twice a day and knows every inch of it – also worries that making driving easier actually increases the danger. Higher speeds on precarious slopes is probably not a good idea, and the inevitable ice – some corners are hardly ever exposed to sunlight, no matter the season – will invite potentially lethal skids. Looking around as you drive, a number of other potential maintenance hitches present themselves: rockfalls, water using the road as a channel down the mountainside during heavy rainfall, and the tar surface freezing and cracking.
Those are matters for governments and provincial authorities. For now, once you pass the South African border post – a neat, compact place to get an extra passport stamp – the road gets rockier and bumpier than it has been to that point. A 4×4 is definitely necessary here. The distance between the South African and Lesotho border posts is 8km. It’s not a no-man’s land, as is usually the case. This is South African territory; it was simply felt that the present location was more convenient.
You climb quickly – and convincingly, if you’re in a vehicle built for the terrain (don’t dwell too long on the taxis coming downhill, packed to the gills with people and their luggage). There are new and more spectacular vistas with each corner, going from 1,900m at the border – slightly higher than the altitude of Johannesburg – to 2,873m at the summit, a difference of Table Mountain, give or take a few metres. There are a couple of designated lookout points along the way, where at least one joker will stand right on the edge to provoke a minor heart attack in a partner or tour guide.
Just before you reach the top, there is a set of hairpin bends so tight that some long-wheelbase vehicles may have to stop and reverse halfway through a turn to avoid driving off the precipice. Just adjacent to the road, a small waterfall remains frozen solid, having been that way all through the winter.
Back on the slightly straighter and less narrow, the Sani Mountain Lodge, home to the ‘Highest Pub in Africa’, looms out of the low cloud just before the Lesotho border post. Just then, the car wheels leave the gravel and hit the first tar on offer in that country, part of a China-financed network of pothole-free smoothness.
Those are matters for governments and provincial authorities. For now, once you pass the South African border post – a neat, compact place to get an extra passport stamp – the road gets rockier and bumpier than it has been to that point. A 4×4 is definitely necessary here. The distance between the South African and Lesotho border posts is 8km. It’s not a no-man’s land, as is usually the case. This is South African territory; it was simply felt that the present location was more convenient. herdsmen when they’re around for the summer, and to the sheep-shearing staff, who work in a shiny modern facility built for that purpose a couple of hundred metres away. A hundred years later, at the other end of the Sani Pass, and wool and food are still being traded… The bread baked by one of the women in a cast-iron pot is shaped like a flower, and buying one of the ‘petals’ – a chunk of substantial size – is a wonderful souvenir for R10.
Cold and comfort
Getting out of the wind and the cold, we head back to the pub. It’s rustic and cosy, with the same sort of feel as an Alpine ski slope café. The food includes stews made from some of the local livestock, as well as some more conventional South African pub fare. Photographs on the wall – by now, the views outside are completely obscured by thick grey mist, so looking out of the windows is no good – show the depth of the snow around the venue, metres deep in some instances, and mention some other interesting statistics, including that the coldest ever temperature there was -21°C, which seemed a kind way of telling us to suck up our complaints about the slightly nippy spring weather during our visit. On the way down the Pass, we descend into the mist, a completely different experience that confirms Lungelo’s comment that travellers will never have identical visits to this picturesque area.
As long as the Sani Pass remains untarred – and that’s likely to still be a while, as the last proposed completion date was this year and there is, figuratively, still a mountain of work to do – it’s still a proper adventure, something worth putting on your to-do list. If you’re in Pietermaritzburg on business, add an extra day or two to your schedule and hire a car for the drive out to Overberg, where you can spend a restful day and night with five-star views, before beginning your exciting international exploit.