Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. Statistically and in every sense, it out distances, out climbs, and out performs all it's competitors with consummate ease to have become the most iconic gravel pass in SA.
Situated between KZN and Lesotho the pass was built circa 1950 and remains a challenging drive in 4x4 vehicles with all the drama, scenery, bad weather and treacherous conditions expected of a pass with a summit altitude of 2876m ASL. That equates to 9400 feet and at 10,000 feet aircraft need pressurised cabins!
This is high altitude stuff. Go prepared for bad weather at any time and expect snowfalls as late as October.
Scheepersnek is a minor climb over a smallish hill with two tiny changes in direction and an altitude gain of only 64m. It is located 15 km south-west of Vryheid on the tarred R33 route. If you did not make a note of precisely where it is, this little "pass" would probably go by unnoticed. What it lacks in physical presence, it counters with some interesting battlefields history, as this is where the Battle of Scheepersnek took place on the 20th May, 1900.
A substantial pass of 7,3 km located to the west of Umzimkulu in KZN. It's a mix of gravel and tar, with the major portion being tar. The pass descends a total of 238 vertical metres producing an average gradient of 1:26, but there is one steep section at 1:6 just after the summit on the eastern side. It also has many sharp corners and a speed limit of 60 kph is best adhered to. This is a high altitude traverse and is subject to mountain mists in summer and snow during winter.
Schuinshoogte is a short gravel pass situated near Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, shaped like a back-to-front question mark when viewed from the south. It takes its name from a hillock on the northern side, which was the scene of a famous and decisive battle during the 1st Anglo-Boer War. The road is bumpy and rutted, but should not present too many problems for non-4x4 vehicles except in wet weather. The pass forms an access route from the R34 between Newcastle and Memel to the Schuinshoogte battlefield memorial site, which consists of numerous monuments and gravesites located on both sides of the road.
Smith’s Nek is located on the eastern outskirts of Dundee, a small town in Northern KwaZulu-Natal. This minor tarred pass is named after the pioneering settler Peter Smith, one of the founding fathers of the village, and Dundee itself is named after his hometown in Scotland. The pass has mundane statistics, being just 2.4 km long and with a height gain of only 42 metres, but it does provide a good overview of the town when approaching from the eastern side. The road surface is in a reasonable condition and can be driven in any vehicle, although some minor roadworks were in progress at the time of filming.
The Sondagsrivier (Sundays River) Pass is a long gravel pass of 14 km with two summit points followed by a big descent on the eastern side, offering grand views of the Chelmsford Nature Reserve and Ntshingwayo Dam. There are some very sharp corners (including one hairpin bend) and steep gradients on this pass, which might well cause traction issues for non 4WD vehicles in very wet conditions. This pass gives access to Brandons Pass, Rogers Pass and Keays Pass (all of which are 4x4 only passes) as well as the Normandien Pass.
Soutar’s Hill is an official tarred pass located between Nottingham Road and Himeville on the Lower Lotheni Road in KwaZulu-Natal. It isn’t much of a pass, and it pales into insignificance when compared to the next three massive passes which have to be negotiated before Himeville is reached when travelling from east to west. Despite intensive research, we have been unable to establish the identity of the person after whom this pass is named, but, like some many of the other mountains and hills in this area, it is probable that it originated after an important personage related to one of the Anglo-Boer wars.
The Devil's Pass is a rough jeep track only suitable for 4x4 vehicles. It runs from east to west up the Southern slopes of the historical Mhlobane Mountain to summit at 1562m ASL, offering 360 degree panoramic views. This is a not track to be tackled lightly as it is a dead end at the summit, which means you have to back-track to where you started. Allow plenty of time (4 hours) to complete the circuit. It is probable that a permit is required to do this route and it might even be closed to vehicles and only accessible on foot. Inquire at Vryheid Tourism.
An easy traverse along the tarred N11 route just south of Newcastle. The short pass climbs 90 vertical metres over 2,6 km producing an average gradient of 1:29 but the road steepens to 1:14 near the summit. From the pass there are good views of the old Newcastle power station and the Kilbarchan Colliery. The pass is suitable for all vehicles and holds no apparent dangers.
The Tintwa Pass is a 4.7 km gravel road running through the Drakensberg on the North-West / South-East axis. It is known as the S1101 and connects the farming areas north of Bergville with the upper plateau of the Free State around Swinburne, Van Reenen and Harrismith. Some references list the Middledale Pass and the Tintwa Pass as being the same pass. Together they are virtually one long pass with a plateau joining them in the middle. Although it has an average gradient of just 1:48, this figure is somewhat misleading, as the pass rises and falls a number of times over its length, and the pass is more demanding than would first appear.
Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa.
Passes are classified according to provinces and feature a text description, Fact File including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map and a narrated YouTube video.
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