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Sani Pass (P318)

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Sani Pass - Summit view Sani Pass - Summit view - Photo: Wikipedia

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.

This is high altitude stuff. Go prepared for bad weather at any time and expect snowfalls as late as October. Snow has fallen on the pass in every month of the year, albeit not in the same year.

To maximise on the scenery, we filmed the pass in the descending mode. For most drivers the pass will be driven in the ascending mode for first timers, so we have retained our original 2 part video set filmed in the ascending mode, filmed in October, 2012. The videos appear at the bottom of the page.

Introduction: Sani Pass drone footage / Smithsonian Channel

[Video courtesy of Smithsonian Channel] 

 

Scroll down to view the map & video.  The videos are embedded in the correct order. It is recommended to watch this video in HD. (Click on the "quality" button on the lower taskbar of the video screen and select 1080HD.) Wait a few seconds for the video to display.....

 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

FULL-SCREEN MODE: Click PLAY, then pass your mouse over the bottom right corner of the video screen. The outline of a square will appear. Clicking on it will toggle Full Screen Mode. Press ESC to return to the original format.

Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.


Digging into the details:

Getting there: To approach from the west via Lesotho, (as we have produced it) head south-east from Mokhotlong on the A14 route via the Black Mountain Pass (Kotisephola Pass) for approximately 60 km to arrive at the western end and summit point of the Sani Pass.

To approach from the east (Himeville or Underberg), take the tarred P318 road for roughly 20 km towards the Sani Pass Hotel to arrive at the foot of the pass.

The Sani Pass starts at it's western end at am altitude of 2876m ASL close to the Lesotho border post and descends 1332 vertical metres to end on the tarred road to Underberg at 1544m. This altitude variance is 232 meters more than its nearest competitor - the Mariepskop Pass in Mpumalanga. The Sani's average gradient is only 1:20, thanks to the long easy gradient section in the foothills of the Drakensberg, but certain sections are as steep as 1:4 and it is here that most drivers come unstuck when the going gets slippery. The large number of car wrecks down the ravines bear mute testimony to the dangers.

Snow on the Sani passSnow on the Sani Pass / Photo: Jerryvh

Many visitors travel from abroad to tackle the notorious Sani Pass in hired 4x4's, such is it's reputation. For most South African's it remains more of a dream. The pass is presently being prepared for tarring and will be completed in two stages, with the initial project taking the tar yp to the SA border control point. Work on at least another 5 years before the entire project is completed. There was an immediate rash of objections from a range of individuals and societies interested in preserving the true, raw nature of the area, but progress ultimately will rule. 

Once the tarring has been completed, the challenge and allure of the Sani Pass will move from a tough 4x4 route to a casual afternoon drive in a hatchback. Whilst it's still there, make a plan, and drive the Sani. It will leave you feeling like a child - in it's sheer size and scope. The pass holds an attraction for advertisers too - TV commercials were filmed on the pass for Nissan and Ford vehicles respectively.

 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

The road connects Mokhotlong in Lesotho with the KZN town of Underberg. Himeville and Underberg are approximately 20 km to the south-east with Mokhotlong in Lesotho about 60 km to the north-east. The lower reaches of the pass has several hotels and a wide range of guest farms, B&B's, lodges and other self-catering accommodation on offer. Always check with authorities or local business owners as to conditions on the pass before attempting the pass. Obviously the pass experiences its most frequent closures in winter, when snow is the common culprit.

Sani PassHairpin bends for Africa! / Photo: chrjp

Please note that the actual RSA/Lesotho border is at the summit and not at the SA border control point. The entire Sani Pass is on South African soil.

Our journey starts at the Lesotho border post. Most trips down the Sani Pass are preceded by a visit to the Sani Mountain Lodge (previously known as Sani Pass Chalets), where you can enjoy a rest at the highest pub in Africa. With a roaring fire and walls adorned with history and graffiti, you can while away a few lazy hours and get a meal as well. They also offer overnight accommodation.

You will need to have 100% concentration as you descend the first 11 switchbacks below the summit. This section is also preferably driven in low range 2nd and 3rd gears. It is here that you will appreciate why only 4WD vehicles are allowed to drive this pass. If there is ice and/or snow on the road, you need to be extremely careful. Very few South African drivers have adequate snow driving experience. Add in some alcohol induced bravado and you have a recipe for disaster. It's better to stay over at the lodge an extra and wait for conditions to improve. 

  

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

It can snow on the pass in any month of the year. If you are expecting snow, invest in a set of snowchains and practice fitting them at home. Working outside in snowy conditions and sub-zero temperatures will make things very much more difficult.

Donkeys on Sani PassMule trains on the pass / Photo: Don Howard

The first set of hairpins are incredibly dramatic. As the road starts descending, the sheer scale of the landscape comes into focus as the first few bends disappear down the ravine like a lazy serpent. In most vehicles, there's some passenger apprehension at the prospect of perhaps not making it safely down, but soon the staggering views calm people down,

Most of the hairpin bends are 180 degrees or close to that number. Some of them allow sufficient space for one vehicle to stop. Roadworks near the summit, have improved the hairpins by being widened to make the road safer. If you traverse this first section in clear weather, consider yourself fortunate, as on most days it is under cloud. It is also possible to experience severe summer electrical storms and extremely strong winds throughout the year. Drive deliberately, remain in the right gear, maintain your momentum and stay sharp. 

Gabions have been installed at critical points to prevent rock-falls and water diversion ditches have been dug to get rid of excess water. The reality is that the road has been built right up the middle of the ravine, exactly where the water must flow down. It is the water that causes all the damage to the road. Driving up or down the pass in a heavy electrical storm is not for the faint-hearted.

The beautiful Khomazana river valley opens up as the road loses altitude and the views become expansive. There is one specific sharp right-hand bend, where there is parking for four or five cars with a lovely viewsite - and if the skies are clear, you will have the opportunity to take beautiful photographs from this vantage point. 

 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

There is no need to worry too much about encountering mules on the pass, as your speed will by necessity, be slow enough to stop with time to spare. Residents from Lesotho still use horses, mules and donkeys extensively as their primary mode of transport and the scene depicted below is quite common. Donkeys are used to lug basic foodstuffs and provisions back up the pass after having being purchased in South Africa. Please be patient and give way to the animals.

Sani pass wrecksThe pass has claimed many lives / Photo: Jonah Jones

After the view-site described above, the road starts to enter a section with less sharp bends, but the gradients remain fairly steep between 1:5 and 1:10.

We have purposefully posted the wreck photo as grim reminder not to drink and drive and to be alert and well prepared when tackling the Sani Pass. It is not to be trifled with and many lives have been lost. Treat the Sani Pass with respect. Ironically, the wreck depicted here is a Nissan Sani! Once you have successfully negotiated the Sani Pass, you can give yourself a pat on the back.

Soon you will arrive at the South African border post. Note that this is not the official border between SA and Lesotho. The border is actually right at the summit, where the Lesotho border post is located. Several books and websites incorrectly don't acknowledge the Sani as being the second highest pass in South Africa - they all assume the border is at the SA border post. Make sure you have your passport with you and that is valid for at least 6 months. You might also be required to produce proof of vehicle ownership and insurance. For those ascending the pass, you might be turned back if your vehicle is not a 4x4. Attempting to drive the pass in a non 4WD vehicle is unintelligent and reckless.If the weather changes up the mountain you could find yourself in serious trouble.

Note that the minibus taxis that ply the route are all 4WD models.

Note that both border control points close at 18h00. Allow yourself a good two hours to complete the pass and you don't want to find yourself marooned between the two border control points by not making the cut-off time as there is a considerable distance to cover (almost 50% of the pass) between the two control points.

The Lesotho authorities are far less concerned about safety and allow normal vehicles through, but for the descent only. However, if it's raining, a normal vehicle will be sorely lacking in traction and you could well end up going over the side. The Sani is strictly a 4x4 only route. 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]


The Sani Pass remains as the most iconic pass in South Africa and the only factor that has the potential to remove that title is the likelihood of the pass becoming tarred. Our take remains positive and even if the pass does get tarred, it will open it up to a vast new audience, which will boost local tourism and benefit the region considerably. Yes, the pass in its gravel form is for the purist and the 4x4 driver and this allure will be hugely diluted, but there are more than enough other big gravel passes to satisfy that need. 

An AWD Audi slid off the road on the ice in the winter of 2019 / Photo: Herald Live

For many years Sani Pass has held the outright record for the highest pass in South Africa, but as recently as October, 2016, a new pass has been opened to the public which has finally exceeded Sani's altitude record by 125m. This is the '4x4 only' Ben MacDhui Pass, which summits at an ear popping 3001m.

 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

It's difficult to establish exactly where the pass ends in KZN. Determining this point affects all the vital statistics. In most cases passes start at a river crossing or low point. We have used the set of dams in the valley north of Underberg as the starting point. The well known Sani Pass Hotel and Golf Course is one of the final landmarks to look out for before completing the pass a few kilometres further at the 26,9 km mark.

 

[Video cover photo: Trygve Roberts / MPSA]

 

History:

On 26th October, 1948, Godfrey Edmonds (an ex RAF Spitfire pilot) was the first person to ever drive the pass in a vehicle. This was before the road was built. It took him five and a half hours to reach the summit and he was assisted by a team of Basothos with mules, ropes and other equipment. In those days, this achievement was akin to climbing Everest. It was a remarkable feat and led in no uncertain terms to the approval of the road construction. There is no official record of which vehicle he used, but I would imagine it would probably have been an open top Willys Jeep.

In 1955 a local Natalian, David Alexander, using an ex British army Land Rover, formed a company called the Motkhotlong Mountain Transport Company - to take curious adventurers on the amazing 1332m climb up the Sani. Incredibly his company still exists and they still do the Sani tours to this day, but have now switched to Toyota Land Cruisers. 

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site is a transnational property spanning the border between the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa. The property comprises Sehlabathebe National Park (6,500 ha) in Lesotho and uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park (242,813 ha) in South Africa. Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site is renowned for its spectacular natural landscape, importance as a haven for many threatened and endemic species, and for its wealth of rock paintings made by the San people over a period of 4,000 years. The property covers an area of 249,313 ha making it the largest Protected Area complex along the Great Escarpment of Southern Africa.

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park range of mountains constitutes the principal water production area in Southern Africa. The areas along the international border between the two countries create a drainage divide on the escarpment that forms the watershed for two of Southern Africa’s largest drainage basins. The Thukela River from uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park flows eastwards into the Indian Ocean. The rivers of southern Maloti-Drakensberg including Sehlabathebe National Park drain into the Senqu/Orange River which flows westwards into the Atlantic Ocean extension of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site to include Sehlabathebe National Park add special hydrologic qualities to the area.

With its pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges, the property has numerous caves and rock shelters containing an estimated 690 rock art sites, and the number of individual images in those sites probably exceeds 35,000. The images depict animals and human beings, and represent the spiritual life of the San people, representing an exceptionally coherent tradition that embodies their beliefs and cosmology over several millennia.


Here are the original videos filmed in the ascending mode in 2012 in imperfect weather.

Part 1 - Ascent

[Video cover photo: TheWholeWorldIsaPlayground]


 Part 2 - Ascent

[Video cover photo: Wikipedia]


 Fact File:

GPS START

S29.584960 E29.286738

GPS SUMMIT

S29.584960 E29.286738

GPS END

S29.681549 E29.485308

AVE GRADIENT

1:20

MAX GRADIENT

1:5

ELEVATION START

2876m

ELEVATION SUMMIT

2876m

ELEVATION END

1544m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS

1332m

DISTANCE

26.9 km

DIRECTION - TRAVEL

ESE

TIME REQUIRED

60 minutes

SPEED LIMIT

Self limiting

SURFACE

Tar & Gravel (P318)

DATE FILMED

28.09.2019

TEMPERATURE

20C

NEAREST TOWN

Underberg (20 km)


Route Map:

Use these powerful features to get the best use out of the map:

  • Choose either Map View or Satellite View (overlaid on the map detail.)
  • Zoom in and out; rotate in any direction.
  • Use the Get Route'feature (directly beneath the map): type in your address to get a personalised route straight from where you are to the pass, with time and distance included.
  • Detailed written and printable directions.
  • Drag the 'little orange man' icon onto the pass for a complete 360° tiltable "street view".

From Address:


Route files:

||Click to download: Sani Pass (Note - This is a .Kmz file which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS software)

 

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Mountain Passes South Africa

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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