There’s only one place in the world where you can drive along a road with sections named Devil’s Corner and Suicide Bend, on route to the highest pub in Africa. Despite 9 kilometres, 13 hairpins and 1332 metres of ascent, the Sani Pass is a must-do experience for anyone visiting or living in South Africa. Your goal for this experience is less to do with taking a day trip to Lesotho and more to do with experiencing this terrifying yet thrilling road taking you to the ‘roof of Africa’.
What is Sani Pass?
Originally built for donkeys and horses to use in 1913, the Sani Pass is still the only road link between KwaZulu Natal in South Africa and Lesotho.
During the colonial era, the rough trail connected the Eastern Highlands of old Basutoland with Natal. The Basotho people transported wool and mohair down the pass. They would then exchange them for blankets, clothing and maize meal.
Nowadays, Sani Pass is an experience for the intrepid travellers, The serious climbing starts after the South African border control. With steep gravel road gradients of up to 1:3, the pass is exceptionally steep and harsh. The road is not paved, it is intermittently maintained and the weather can seriously affect the conditions of the pass with large loose boulders and deep ruts.
The road begins at the South African border control at 1544 metres, finishing at the Lesotho border control at 2876 metres.
DO I NEED A 4 WHEEL DRIVE VEHICLE?
You have to- I repeat- HAVE TO use a vehicle with 4×4 drive to up Sani Pass. This is non negotiable. The road- and I use that term loosely- is a steep, narrow track close to a precipitous drop, going over large, loose rocks.
WILL IT COST ME MONEY?
We booked this tour with Sani Pass tours for day trip to Lesotho simply because we neither had a 4WD drive vehicle or the expertise to navigate the pass. We met them at their offices at 9am and then returned by 3pm.
We chose this particular tour which cost us R940 per person. However, there are A LOT of tour operators offering similar packages so I would research to see what suits you best.
I do recommend this tour as we enjoyed it and found our guide helpful and informative.
WHAT IS MY STARTING POINT?
All tours start in Underberg. The best thing to do is to book a night in Underberg before your tour and the day of. I DO NOT recommend driving from Durban on the day you’ll cross the Sani Pass as it will be unnecessarily long and exhausting. Besides that, Underberg- and the surrounding area- is stunning and deserves its own trip.
We stayed at Castleburn Resort which was 34 minutes away from the starting point of our tour.
WHAT CAN I DO THERE?
For your day trip to Lesotho, you must take your passport as you need to exit South Africa and enter Lesotho. For South Africans this is not an issue but if you’re from a country that requires a visa to re-enter South Africa, make sure you have a multi entry one. The South African border post is the last time you will have access to a bathroom for a while.
The Sani Pass Lesotho tour that we enjoyed included information imparted to us by our guide, Martin, about the history and topography of the area as we went through the bumpy pass.
There are a lot of photo stops of glorious viewpoints including waterfalls in various stages!
Eventually- after around an hour- we reached the passport control for Lesotho. The immigration officers are used to people coming for day trips so this is a smooth process.
Note: You must have a copy of your covid-19 vaccination certificates (with a QR code) with you (a digital copy will suffice).
Once you are in Lesotho, the fun begins. If its winter, your guide will take you to a place where you can take photos with snow. My parents enjoyed themselves here!
Then we went to the home of a local pastor. He explained to us about the local culture of the Basotho people and showed us how the traditional blankets are worn.
Eventually, we ate some delicious bread he had baked and sent us on our way. As we departed, the shepherds treated us to a singing performance.
We then made our way to the highest pub in Africa- the Sani Mountain Lodge bar- for refreshments and lunch. We chose to enjoy some hot chocolates and coffee instead of a meal because I felt that their menu was limited. The best part of this pub are the mountain rats that burrow into the ground near where patrons sit. Don’t miss spotting them!
A few steps away from the pub are the spectacular viewpoints overlooking South Africa as you sit on the edge of Lesotho. We had an hour at the pub and we spent most of it taking photos from here.
We then made our way back to Underberg, exiting Lesotho and re-entering South Africa.
When to visit Sani Pass?
Due to the tough nature of the road, the weather plays a huge role in when you visit. The best time to visit Sani Pass 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 are also good months. We went in June and were very lucky that it did not snow. Snow and rain can make the gravel road slippery and muddy, adding extra difficulty for drivers. I was really grateful that we had someone as experienced as Martin particularly when passing some very tight hairpins.
If you’re taking a tour, inquire with the tour company about when is the best time to visit based on current weather conditions.
WHAT ARE THE RATINGS ON PANDA’S RATING SCALE?
The top of Sani Pass is known as the Roof of Africa. And not without good reason as it boasts breathtaking views of a dramatic landscape. A trip up Sani Pass to visit Lesotho makes for an adventurous day out and can be combined with a longer stay in Lesotho depending on your preference. Don’t miss this incredible opportunity if you happen to be in the Drakensberg vicinity and definitely don’t forget to add it to your itinerary.
- It’s possible to drive yourself if you have the proper vehicle and knowledge to do so.
- If you’re renting a car, you’ll be required to present 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 should inform the rental company beforehand and get one printed when you pick up your rental car.
- 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 can check if you need a visa for Lesotho by using this link.
- The Sani Pass runs between the South African and Lesotho border posts. Both are open from 6am to 6pm.
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Visiting Oribi Gorge in South Africa
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Have you considered taking a day trip to Lesotho from South Africa? Or have I just put it on your list? Let me know in the comments below!