The Sani Pass is mostly a single-track mountain road, and the only entry point into Lesotho from the KwaZulu-Natal side. A weekend getaway to the Sani Pass Hotel gave us an ideal opportunity to test our long-term Isuzu KB300 LX TDi 4×4 on this steep pass into Lesotho
Text and photography by Ian Tonkin
Many years ago traders with their packmules ventured out from what is today Lesotho on a narrow mountain track, now known as the Sani Pass. It weaved its way through the eastern highlands of Basutoland into Natal, where wool and mohair were exchanged for blankets, clothes and maize.
Today the pass is still a single-lane track, but it’s now as much a scenic drive for 4×4 owners as an important transport link between Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal.
Leisure Wheels joined a group of motoring scribes on a weekend jaunt as guests of General Motors South Africa, but it was also a golden opportunity to put our extendedterm vehicle, the Isuzu KB 3,0-litre turbodiesel double cab, to the test on the muddy and icy roads of the Mountain Kingdom.
We were booked into the Sani Pass Hotel in the Mkhomazana Valley, at the foot of the Sani Pass. Arriving after dark after a late start from Johannesburg, we unfortunately could not enjoy the spectacular views of the Drakensberg, which the brochure said could be enjoyed from all the rooms and chalets. That had to wait until morning, when we made an early start, mainly to avoid any queues at the border post, but it turned out not that busy at all.
The mountains looked spectacular from the border post at the bottom of the pass. Snowfalls the night before had covered the peaks, and what awaited us on top was something quite magnificent.
It is roughly 14km to the border post from the Sani Pass Hotel. Although the going was fairly easy, there were some rocky sections to test the vehicle’s abilities.
The condition of the pass had deteriorated over the years. The completion of the Katse Dam and Lesotho Highlands Water Project meant less traffic on Sani Pass and as a result not much has been spent on maintenance.
At the border post a sign reads: “No vehicle that is not equipped with four-wheel drive may be driven up the Sani Pass.” At least it was comforting to know that we had a capable all-wheel-drive vehicle that could, in all probability, take us to the top. We would have to wait and see, though!
After the border formalities, it was time to put the Isuzu into low range. We were told that the rate and gradient of turns would increase towards the top and low range would be essential.
Engaging low range in the Isuzu is done slightly differently from most other 4x4s. The traditional second gear lever has been replaced with a button on the dashboard that, at a push, engages 4-wheel drive and low range.
The low gear ratios did prove invaluable on the steep inclines at the hairpin bends. The snow at the top had started melting and small trickles of water were running down the mountain and across the road – making driving very tricky. It was important to maintain the momentum, as the wet and loose rocks did not offer much traction. We managed to maintain our impetus, and rounded the last of the daunting hairpins – called Big Wind Corner – before reaching the summit.
The top of the Sani Pass is 2873m above sea level and the view was breathtaking. It resembled a winter wonderland – snow-covered ground with white clouds hanging overhead. Walking in the snow made a crunching sound – in total contrast to the soft, cotton wool-like appearance.
With all the snow on the mountain, we were not going to miss the opportunity to build a snowman and throw a few snowballs!
The highest pub in Africa is situated at the top of Sani Pass. We stopped for scones and the customary glass of glüwein.
The drive down the Sani Pass was no less challenging. Once again we made use of the low range gearing and added engine compression to keep a steady speed.
The Isuzu took the many daunting obstacles in its stride, and a quick examination back at the hotel yielded no signs of damage.
Come Sunday morning, it was time to head back to Johannesburg. We decided to return via Nottingham Road instead of going the way we came, via Howick – a much more scenic drive that passes the Lotheni Nature Reserve.
We covered 1400km from Johannesburg to the Sani Pass and back during the weekend, having driven the long-term Isuzu KB on tar, on the gravel road and on the intimidating mountain pass. It took everything in its stride.