Text and photography: Kerrith Fraser
Whenever a group of overland enthusiasts discusses Lesotho, the fact that Sani Pass will soon be tarred is mentioned. And those in the group who haven’t ventured up the famous pass are always encouraged to experience it before it is too late.
However, tarring this track seems to be a slow process. In fact, the disappearance of this glorious 4×4-only pass has supposedly been imminent for quite some time now, but there is still little evidence of “progress”. So maybe it will never happen.
Being avid off-road fans, we didn’t want to take the chance. In the middle of 2010, we used Sani Pass’s ever-looming revamp as an excuse to venture into Lesotho. We wanted to traverse this winding route while it was still the exclusive domain of 4×4 vehicles, and we wanted to experience it at its icy worst.
So with this in mind, we travelled from Rosetta in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands to the border post near Himeville. Road construction near Underberg forced us to make a slight detour, but we were at the South African post in no time at all. We quickly had our passports stamped, and then prepared to tackle Sani Pass.
The meandering road was indeed as steep and daunting as everyone had claimed. Tight turn followed tight turn, always at a steep upward angle. The exposure was quite thrilling. With patches of ice coating many of the narrow pass’s sharp turns, it was easy to understand why a trip up the pass in cold conditions could end in disaster.
Needless to say, we took it very slowly. Driving from the South African post at the bottom of the pass to the Lesotho post at the top – a distance of about 9km – took us four hours. The entire route was traversed in low range. We also met quite a few vehicles making their way down the track, and passing them on the narrow and exposed trail wasn’t always easy. Since it is tougher to travel up the pass than down, the descending vehicles usually made way and allowed us to pass.
Thankfully, our trusty 2,5-litre TDi Ford Ranger Supercab proved equal to the challenge and carried us up the pass without incident. Slowly but surely, we passed the trail’s colourfully named landmarks, such as Haemorrhoid Hill, Whisky Spring, Suicide Bend, Reverse Corner and Big Wind Corner.
As we crawled up the pass, we noticed that the temperature was dropping rapidly. It was clear that very chilly weather would be waiting for us at the Roof of Africa.
The view from the top of the pass was unbelievable. I had been told many times that it is impressive, but descriptions didn’t adequately prepare me for the breathtaking scenery. It was sublime.
Crossing the Lesotho border was also speedy and painless. Our passports were once again quickly stamped, and then we were officially in the Mountain Kingdom.
Light snowfall had blanketed the region and we were eager to have a bit of fun in the snow, so we travelled to the top of Lesotho’s Black Mountain via the Black Mountain Pass – the kingdom’s second highest road pass (the highest is the Tlaeeng Pass, which has an elevation of 3275m). The Black Mountain Pass has an elevation of 3240m, and the snow was consequently fairly thick here.
We explored the snow-covered area, took pictures and even spotted a rare bearded vulture. Eventually, however, the plummeting temperature forced us to seek refuge.
We booked into Sani Top Chalets, a well-known tourist destination close to the Lesotho border and also the site of the highest pub in Africa.
The lodge is very popular among overseas visitors and backpackers, so its cosy pub is always filled with quirky and interesting characters. We spent a couple of blissful hours next to the log fire, sipping glüwein and chatting with our fellow guests. Two shaggy dogs napped contentedly at our feet.
Staying at Sani Top Chalets, however, also offers a few challenges. Electricity is available for only a brief period each day. It is supplied by a generator that is switched on at sunset, and turned off at around 21h00.
The extreme weather can also cause the lodge’s water supply to freeze. Indeed, this happened while we were there, though it must be said that the lodge’s staff members did their best to help and managed to provide us with some water.
Sleeping in sub-freezing conditions is also quite difficult. Visitors should come prepared to withstand temperatures of as low as -16C. A hot water bottle won’t be enough to keep you warm! I would suggest packing loads of warm clothes, preferably down-filled items.
After a cold but bearable night, it was time to head back down the pass. We left Sani Top at around 09h30, but the outside temperature was still -12C.
As we started to drive towards the border post, we realised that our vehicle was struggling despite our liberal use of anti-freeze to protect its cooling system. The extreme cold had turned our diesel into half-frozen slush. The Ranger’s engine revolutions wouldn’t exceed 1500 r/min, and we were forced to drive up and down a short section of road until it had been warmed thoroughly.
Travelling down the pass wasn’t bad. No snow had fallen during the night, so the road was in the same condition as it had been the day before. And traversing it at a downward angle was also much easier. We were at the bottom in two hours and thirty minutes.
Visiting Lesotho in winter is definitely worth the effort – if only to experience icy temperatures and snowy conditions that you won’t often find in South Africa. Just make sure to pack an extra blanket or two!
How to get there: Travelling up Sani Pass in winter can be dangerous. Ice and snow can make the track very slippery, which makes traversing the narrow track very tricky. Be prepared to travel slowly, and usually in low range.
Where to stay: Sani Top Chalets is located at the top of the pass. The lodge is a popular tourist destination and home to the highest pub in Africa. Electricity, however, is available only for a few hours each day, and freezing conditions can cut off its water supply in winter.
What to keep in mind: Lesotho’s winters can be cold. Very, very cold. If you plan on travelling to the Mountain Kingdom in June or July, be prepared to deal with temperatures as low as -16C.