Sani Pass

The Tour

The awe-inspiring Sani Pass climbs the face of the escarpment to an altitude of 2874m and into the “Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho”. It is the gateway to the “Roof of Africa”. The scenery is breathtaking and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Originally developed as a bridal path in 1913, the pass served as an important link between the Underberg district and the remote settlement of Mokhotlong, in Eastern Lesotho. The first vehicle negotiated the pass in 1948. It is now used for the most part by 4×4 vehicles and has become the highlight of the Southern Drakensberg.

The tour will reveal the history of the pass, geology of the mountains, flora & fauna, and a unique experience with the Basotho people. The highest pub in Africa offers a cold beer & lunch before the descent back to Underberg.

Sani Pass

A Pack Train transporting wool and dried peas descending the Pass in 1958

Sani Pass must rank as one of the top ten birding spots in Southern Africa and birding on the Sani Pass is excellent and it’s a prime venue for high altitude alpine birding with some 160 bird species being recorded.

Flower trips take place in the spring and summer growing seasons to explore the mountain floristic wonderland of the Drakensberg. The Sani Pass trips begin at 1550m and reach 3240m, passing through altitudinal vegetation zones. At 1800m, you enter the Drakensberg Alpine Centre of Endemism, home to 2400 species of plants including 400 endemic plants.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is a World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, covering 242,813 ha (2,428 km2) of area. The park spans parts of both South Africa, in its KwaZulu-Natal province, and Lesotho. The park includes Royal Natal National Park and the Drakensberg National Park, both provincial parks under the umbrella of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Some History

The severe drought in the early 1930’s led to the construction of the bridle path system in Basutoland, instituted to provide work and food for the starving Basuto as well as to open up the mountains. Maj. Harry Smith, the po­lice officer in charge at Mokhotlong in Basutoland, sat on a rock at the top of Sani Pass and without standing up counted 60 dead animals that had died of exhaustion and starvation after climbing the pass. He thus got permission to build the bri­dle path down into Natal, a distanceof ten miles (16km). He accomplished this for the princely sum of 60 pounds. The drought broke in 1933 and this was the beginning of Sani Pass.

In 1948 the first motor vehicle (a Willy’s Jeep) with trailer negotiated the Sani Pass track, driven by Godfrey Edmond of Kokstad, carrying a payload of 900 lbs. It took 14 hours of zigzagging, reversing and manhandling to enable them to complete the journey.

Brother Peppin of the St James Mission also went up and down the track, but with a trac­tor. In 1955 David Alexander started the first motorised service with one Jeep and six mules. In 1957 the bridle path was converted to an access track for Jeeps.

Grace Corner on Sani Pass. Legend has it that in winter, because of the snow and ice, one only got around it by the Grace of God – 1962

David Alexander was joined by Arthur Major, John Webb and Bill Bright and his Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company (MMT) was formed. This increased trade with Natal and allowed for phenomenal development in Mokhotlong and surrounding areas.

In 1958 they moved the operation to start from Himeville and in 1960 to the present site on the Sani Pass road.

May 1959 saw the great snowfall that blocked the Sani Pass for three months. The heavy rains, lasting for three days, washed away bridges on the South Coast. The road to Underberg was cut off for 24 hours by the floods.


Road Upgrades

An economic impact study of surfacing the Sani Pass Road was compiled in August 2011. An environmental impact assessment for the proposed phase 2 upgrade of the Sani Pass road was compiled in October 2011.

On 2 July 2013 the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism approved plans to upgrade the road surface on the final 19 km long section leading up to the Lesotho border post over the following three years.

The intention was to re-gravel the final 5km of the pass. The department also authorized plans to upgrade the storm-water drainage system and retaining walls along the route to reduce sand and gravel erosion.

On 21 May 2014 the South African Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, approved the tarring of the final 5km stretch of the pass.

The tarring of phase 2 was planned to start within the five months following the announcement and would bring the total cost of phase 2 of the project to R887-million.

Sani Pass Sport

It is one of the few events which takes place in a World Heritage Site (uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park) and the Sani Dragon MTB Race is undoubtedly one of the hardest MTB events in Southern Africa. While there are climbs as long and as steep, none of them have the oxygen depleted altitude of Sani Pass. The 42kms event takes cyclists up the fabled Sani Pass, climbing 1674 meters before turning at the top of the Pass and returning to the starting point. Riders have the privilege of riding through the unspoilt beauty, with breathtaking views and lung busting climbs.

Sani Stagger Endurance Race is a tough run; the climb to the Sani Pass Summit is 1300 meters and you do that in just over 20 kilometres. By the time you’ve reached half way you only would have done 280 meters and the border post is at 1968 meters above sea level. The Sani Stagger has been ranked as a well organised and well presented event and has often been voted as one of the country’s top ten marathons.