Within South Africa is the land locked mountain kingdom of Lesotho. There is a road to Lesotho linking it to the province of KwaZulu Natal. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made several ‘Road To’ movies but they missed out on the road to Lesotho. The name of the road is Sani Pass. And although Sani Pass is only an hour and a half away from my base in KZN I had never been there. Friends of mine from England took a tour there last year. On TV here in the UK a few celebrities have also featured the pass in various programmes. After researching the area and already knowing that the road is restricted to four wheel drive vehicles only I contacted Sani Pass Tours. Lana patiently put up with my questions and queries and booked me onto an excursion.
The meeting point for the excursion is the Sani Pass Tours office in Underberg, ideally situated for accessing the pass. After ensuring all ‘tourists’ had their passports we were introduced to our guide Wilson. He checked us into his specialist tour vehicle and off we headed towards the Southern Drakensberg mountains.
Not far out of Underberg Wilson pulled over and pointed out landmarks in the distant mountains including The Giants Cup, Hodgsons Peaks and the pass itself. As we reached the start of the pass Wilson began to share his knowledge of the area and surrounding peaks. He pointed out the Balancing Rocks, which seemed to defy gravity. Next we passed through the busy ‘taxi rank’ where people were queuing for lifts to take them home to Lesotho. All taxis here are converted to four wheel drive. Here too are a few ramshackle buildings, some dating back over one hundred years. They are now being used to sell travel tickets, snacks and cold drinks. Originally they were used by Basutho traders who came down from the mountains to trade their wool and mohair. In those days the journey took ten days on foot.
Now we were travelling slowly and steadily up hill surrounded by stunning picture post card landscapes. Wilson continued to point out features above us including the Salt & Pepper Pots and the Twelve Apostles. We stopped and admired the various species of Protea, most in full flower, that grew and thrived at this low altitude. On one Protea flower a Gurneys Sugarbird gathered nectar and on a neighbouring tree a pair of Malachite Sunbirds noisily searched flowers for their nectar.
Our next stop, beyond Eagle Rock, was the border control post. Lesotho is a foreign country so no passport means no entry. The short queue of locals and tourists here waited the short time to get their passports checked and stamped.
The pass is relatively quiet however we slowed occasionally to give way to and let taxis and motorcycles overtake us. I was surprised to see several mountain bikes coming towards us at speed, not something I would fancy. The pass is, after all dangerous and has claimed many lives over the years.
The last section is a very steep climb on the winding loose gravel road. It is now that you appreciate several things: the skill of your guide who manoeuvres the vehicle steadily and slowly around each bend. The need for a four wheel drive vehicle to cope with such manoeuvres. The depth of the drop looking down over the edge of the road is both sheer and staggering. And lastly the sheer scale of the pass as you look down towards your starting point. To say the views are magnificent would be an under statement. They are mind blowing on a grand scale.
On reaching Lesotho you reach a height of 2873 meters. The landscape here is completely different to that of KwaZulu Natal. It is barren, windswept and treeless. The most surprising thing as you reach the Lesotho border control is the start of a brand new tar road. This is courtesy of the Chinese government who plan to extract lithium from the host country.
Wilson takes us to a stone built thatched hut where we learn a little of the harsh life that the Bosotho lead. Around an open fire in the hut we get to break fresh hot bread and sample some local home brew beer. Outside its bleak and vegetation looks almost non existent for a people who still keep and trade sheep, goats and wool.
Before heading down we grab a bite to eat and drink at the highest pub in Africa, The Sani Mountain Lodge. After a trio of sausages, a Maluti beer, some musical entertainment from local buskers and yet more stunning views it is time to board the bus.
The first section looks even steeper going down and provides me with a white knuckle ride as I cling onto my seat. It is a thrill to see the road wind down, down and down. Its curves and bends are in full view as is the sheer drop from my passenger seat window. Wilson again is cool and composed as he slowy takes each bend in turn. My instincts had me braking on every corner and my feet working imaginary peddles from my passenger seat. No need of course as we steadily and calmly made our way back to KwaZulu Natal.