Self-drive off-road 4x4 thrills on the Sani Pass
Conquering South Africa’s highest off-road mountain pass
Would you want to drive up the infamous Sani Pass?
As part of our Drakensberg Road Trip, we allocated a day to drive up the pass. It was something we wanted to do for many years, and finally had the opportunity. The weather was a bit temperamental, but we chose a good day, although it was hazy and quite cold on the top of the mountain.
The Sani Pass is notorious amongst South African 4x4 enthusiasts. These fanatics aspire to self-drive and conquer this steep gravel pass.
Are you one of them?
Legend has it that it is meant to test your off-road skills. But is that the only reason? It also has stunning views along the route as well as from the top. Then, of course, there is a legendary pub at the top of the pass.
Having only driven up the pass once, I’m no expert. I was the passenger, so technically I didn’t drive, because hubby wanted all the excitement for himself – only kidding, but I would have happily driven it. I do have a few tips for you, though, if you’re keen to do it. I’m not going into the technical side of things – there are enough 4x4 forums for that. I’m just suggesting a few practical tips.
Tips for driving the Sani Pass:
1. Border requirements.
Pack your passport. When entering any foreign country, you require your passport. The same goes for driving the Sani Pass. Why, you may ask. Close to the bottom of the pass you will cross the border and exit South Africa and will need to have your passport stamped. At the top of the pass you will enter Lesotho where your passport will be stamped again. Make sure you take the necessary documents required for the duration of your stay in Lesotho. Some foreigners may need visas. At the time of writing. the border was open between 6am and 6pm.
Papers for your vehicle. We didn’t require ours, perhaps because we were only there for a couple of hours, and we’re South African citizens, but if you intend staying in Lesotho you’ll need them. Either way, you will have to pay a nominal Lesotho road tax fee, as per the size of your vehicle.
2. Take warm gear.
Jackets, caps, scarves and possibly gloves. There is a sign at the pub on the top of the Sani Pass that advises you how to park and hold onto your door in the wind. That to me is an indication that it is often extremely windy, as it was when we were there. Even in summer you might need a warm jacket.
3. Make sure you have enough fuel.
The last place to fill up on the South African side is in Himeville. There is no fuel at the top of the pass. In fact, there is nothing between the border posts, except beautiful scenery, gravel roads, vehicles, some pedestrians and occasionally livestock.
4. Deflate your tyres.
The terrain is rough and even though you can manage on hard tyres, it does help to reduce the pressure slightly and make your drive just a tad less uncomfortable. It also assists in preserving the road just a little longer. Engage in 4-wheel drive.
5. Don’t try to break the world speed record by rushing up the pass.
Drive slowly and enjoy the views. How long does it take to drive up the pass? It is actually very difficult to drive fast up the pass, but I’m sure there are some that do it regularly. Give yourself about 2 hours to get to the top, depending on your interests. Leave enough of a gap between your vehicle and the one in front of you when driving. That way you won’t have to drive in their dust. You might want to stop along the way, to take photographs or give your bones a rest from rattling around on the gravel. I could have done with a sports bra - or corset – another item to add to the packing list! Places to stop and park are scarce, but there are a few. Allow yourself sufficient time to get back down again, before the border closes.
6. A 4x4 vehicle with good clearance is a necessity.
There are plenty of signs before you reach the South African border to warn you that you need a 4x4. However, 2×4 vehicles can be given approval at the bottom of the pass by South African immigration if they are suitable. Bikers are known to go up the pass too. Nevertheless, you may notice on the Lesotho side the immigration agents allow most types of vehicles to descend.
It is possible to stay overnight but you would have to book. There is no large, upmarket hotel or resort at the top of the pass, but Sani Mountain Lodge provides accommodation in bungalows, backpackers rooms or camping. (I’ll skip the camping in winter, thanks!)
8. What to do when you’ve summited the Sani Pass.
You’ve reached the top, so what do you do once you’re up there? You could turn around and go all the way down again, but that would be a waste, so how about some exploring? There is the highest pub in South Africa, (because it’s not technically in Lesotho) where you can have lunch or a few drinks, but I’d go easy on the alcohol, if you’re still driving down again. Yeah, yeah, I know, downhill doesn’t sound quite as bad, but believe me, you could still slip down the pass, trailblazing a new route.
You can drive slightly further into Lesotho to Kotisephola or Black Mountain Pass. It is tarred with a beautiful road. However, caution is still the order of the day, because the wind speed can be high, and the road can be treacherous in snow or icy conditions. The pass itself is approximately 30 kilometres in length, so I wouldn’t venture much further if your time is limited.
9. Driving down the Sani Pass.
When driving down, it seems somehow easier, but the same principles that you used going up, apply for the downhill. I would still be cautious and take it slowly, as you’d be driving around those same hairpin bends and it wouldn’t take much to go over the edge if you’re too hasty or overenthusiastic or hit a slippery spot.
10. Still want to go up the pass, but you don’t have a vehicle?
There are tour groups that will take you up the mountain, so all is not lost if you don’t have transport or the need to drive up yourself.
11. When should you drive up the pass?
I’ve heard weekends can be busy as would South African school holidays. If you’d like to be part of the crowd, you’re welcome but we chose to do it in the week. It was still fairly busy. Likewise, if it has snowed or rained and you have no experience driving in off-road conditions, I would reconsider.
Our experience of driving the Sani Pass
We chose to drive the Sani Pass as part of our Drakensberg road trip. Most women would want to celebrate their birthdays being pampered in some spa in an exotic location. Not me – I chose to have my bones rattled and my spine jolted for most part of the day. Ok, I admit, only a few hours of the day.
Just a bit of useless information: As far as I know, it is the longest section of no-man’s land between South Africa and a bordering country. There you go – you’re welcome. Correct me if I’m wrong.
In my humble opinion, it’s not the most technically challenging 4x4 road to drive on. The road was in fairly good condition when we were there. However, that could change in the blink of an eye. The terrain is definitely rough and towards the top the hairpin bends are sharp, steep and narrow, with very little to no space to pass another vehicle. In wet and slippery or snowy conditions it would be challenging.
It is not the most difficult road we’ve driven on, but it is a long, steep section of off-road or gravel and it is still necessary to exercise extreme caution when driving it. Many vehicles have had accidents when they’ve taken a hazardous but unintended shortcut. They ended up in a heap, wedged between rocks, off the road, halfway down the slopes. Not a place where you want to find yourselves.
The height of the Sani Pass is approximately 2874m depending on where you are standing. That is a high altitude.
They are busy with roadworks on the South African side of the Sani Pass. It is only for a few kilometres, but there can be a short delay to allow the trucks and machinery to pass.
Although it was in the pipeline to tar the road many years ago, it will still take a while for the entire pass to be tarred.
Talking of tar, as we crossed the border into Lesotho, we drove onto a beautiful tar road, in excellent condition.
On the plateau the rocky alpine is bleak and battered by the wind. The only signs of vegetation were low-growing herbaceous shrubs and grass. I think very little else would grow there.
We drove a further 10 kilometres on the tarred road to the top of Kotisephola or Black Mountain Pass. On the slopes and at the top of the pass there was still snow tucked away in places. Dotted along the way were some neatly packed stone cottages and ring shaped walls for livestock.
Life up there must be tough for the Basotho people living in this harsh and unforgiving area, as it is miles from anywhere and no matter which direction you go, neither route is short.
10 Quick Tips to Pin Later:
Tips or advice from other bloggers
Because I’m no fundi I’ve decided to ask other bloggers for tips or advice when driving up the Sani Pass.
Monique van der Walt says:
Roxanne Reid says:
Driving in Lesotho:
If you want to drive deeper into Lesotho, I have a few more tips for you.
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It is still possible to reach the top of the Sani Pass without a 4x4 vehicle, but you’d have to go the long way round.
Cindy Alfino from 3 Kids 2 dogs and 1 old house will tell you how:
Photos courtesy of Cindy