Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and scenic mountain passes in the whole of Africa, the Sani Pass lies between South Africa and its small landlocked neighbour, Lesotho. As the only road that crosses the summit of the Drakensberg mountain, the pass attracts adventurous travellers from across the world who wish to traverse the breathtaking natural scenery this precarious mountain has to offer. Whilst the route itself is short, it packs a big punch with its unforgettable views and the kudos of having conquered the highest and most iconic pass that South Africa has to offer — a must for any adventurous bucket list!
Start/end location: The pass connects the town of Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal with Mokhotlong, Lesotho, rising to an altitude of around 2,865 meters across a rough and un-tarmacked road.
Distance: Around 9km from the border post into Lesotho.
Duration: Allow a day to traverse the pass, beginning in and returning to Underberg.
Best time to go: Summer (November to March), when the weather is dry and the chance of rainfall low, is the best time to make a trip along the Sani Pass. The pass will be closed during adverse weather conditions, and is best avoided in the winter (June to August) when rain and poor conditions can make the drive exceedingly difficult. Plan accordingly, checking the long-term weather forecast, and go well-equipped in a suitable vehicle.
Most people begin their drive across the Sani Pass on the South African side. Whilst you’ll go through border control at the bottom, the whole of the pass is actually in South Africa, with the Lesotho border at the very top.
The nearest town is Underberg, about 20 km from the pass itself, and most travellers will begin their journey from here, perhaps as part of a larger South African road trip. Most travellers opt for the self-drive option, meaning you’ll be stopped first at the border control where your vehicle and documents will be checked. From there, you begin the climb up to an altitude of 2876 m, gaining 1332 m from your starting point at the border control of 1544 m. The drive begins fairly easily, but soon becomes harder as the gradient increases. Be sure to have experience driving off-road before attempting to drive the route.
Enjoy the impressive views of the Khomazana valley. There is also a viewpoint with space for parking about halfway up the track. Expect to meet other vehicles and even donkeys transporting goods from Lesotho! The road quickly gets steeper, and the gradient harder, as you approach the summit. Be prepared for the possible effects of altitude sickness and the need for concentration as the twists in the road become more treacherous.
The reward for your hard work is the sight of the Lesotho border control where you will need to show your documents and pay the necessary vehicle tax, after that it’s a short drive to the Sani Mountain Lodge for some well-earned refreshment! The journey can then continue either down into Lesotho itself or back down into South Africa — the latter the preferred option for most visitors, who then return to Underberg to spend the night.
If you still wish to experience the excitement and thrill of a drive over the Sani Pass but do not feel confident in attempting it yourself, then there are plenty of companies who organize day trips across the pass, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the drive, whilst others navigate the road. Be sure to research suitable companies and always travel with a reputable firm. Other companies run longer Sani Pass tours encompassing the wider region of KwaZulu-Natal which itself offers spectacular scenery and wildlife watching opportunities.
Many people attempt the Sani Pass as part of a longer road trip, or base themselves in Underberg from which it is possible to take other trips such as venturing to Durban on the South African coast or enjoying the wildlife in the Giants Castle Game Reserve. Alternatively, the pass can be attempted as part of a shorter trip, driving in from one of South Africa’s many other fascinating regions.
Most travellers will opt to traverse the pass from the South African side but some will travel down from Lesotho, a perfectly viable option, though be warned: vehicle checks at the Lesotho border are far less stringent and if you travel down in an unsuitable vehicle, chances are you won’t get back up!
Transport: The route can only be accomplished using a 4x4 vehicle, this does not include the sort of 4x4 ‘jeeps’ found in many towns and cities today. If your vehicle is not deemed suitable you will not be allowed to begin the drive by the border authorities, this is for your own safety. If you are hiring a vehicle then make sure it is suitable for the South African terrain you intend to tackle. The Sani Pass is a rough and unforgiving ascent on tracks which can become extremely difficult to traverse, it should not be attempted by any but the most confident drivers in the right kind of vehicle.
Food & accommodation: The ‘highest pub in Africa’ is found on the pass. Known as the Sani Mountain Lodge (formerly the Sani Pass Chalets), it offers food, accommodation, and a good place to break the journey. The Penwarn Country Lodge, close to Underberg, provides a convenient place to stay the night prior to tackling the pass and a welcome return after the day’s challenge, but there are a number of good quality accommodation options close to the route and in Underberg itself.
What to pack: The Sani Pass can easily be traversed in a day (across to Lesotho and back to South Africa) but given the potential extremities you will encounter and the difficulty of the terrain you should go fully equipped for all potentialities. Firstly, ensure your vehicle is in good working order, with a spare tyre and a knowledge of the vehicle’s mechanics. Secondly, ensure you have a basic first aid kit, suitable clothing, plenty of drinking water, a detailed map of the route and high energy food, along with sunscreen and mosquito repellent, remember too that mobile phone reception is not guaranteed.
In the correct conditions, the Sani Pass is both a challenge and a fantastic day out. Remember to pack your camera, and take advantage of the superb photo opportunities, along with binoculars for viewing the local wildlife.
Driving the Sani Pass is both a challenge and an exhilarating adventure. Completing the drive will offer you unparalleled views of Africa as well as the thrill of having reached the highest mountain pass on the continent, straddling two countries with unrivalled scenery and landscapes. If you’re eager to drive to the roof of Africa, then this is the place to do it!