In 1956, the twin-spoor Sani Pass was accessible only by donkey, Land Rover or Willys Jeep. But that didn’t stop four intrepid adventurers from tackling the dangerous pass – in winter, with snow lining the track – in a 1,2-litre, rear-wheel-drive Volkswagen Beetle, generally referred to as “The Bug”.
The late Leicester Symons was born on 1 April 1922. On April Fool’s day. Yet this charismatic motoring journalist’s life was anything but a joke. Sy, as he was generally known, flew a Spitfire fighter in the Second World War. He raced cars. He was a founding member of the Pretoria Motor Club and of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists. He was a real get-it-done type of guy.
The Sani Pass thing started in 1956, while Sy was motoring correspondent for the now defunct Rand Daily Mail newspaper. He saw an article in a rival paper about a mountain road called Sani Pass. It was accompanied by a photograph of a twin-spoor track, suited only to pack mules, Land Rovers and Jeeps. Details on the exact location of the pass were sketchy, and more information proved difficult to find.
Being a determined journalist, Sy set to work. After several weeks of phone calls, interviews and calling in old favours, he got the loot: the pass was situated on the Basutoland (now Lesotho) border, and he had obtained an address of a local transport operator who ran a supply service between Himeville and Mokhotlong, on the escarpment. He wrote several letters to the operator, but was reluctant to give away too many details of why he was so interested in the pass.
Several months after reading the original article, Sy arrived at the foothills of the Sani. It was all – and more – than he had expected. The operator agreed to take the rather secretive journalist up the pass to Mokhotlong, in a Land Rover.
It was on this climb that Sy divulged his plan, as well as his misgivings about what he had in mind. His idea was to drive a two-wheel-drive Beetle to the top – a feat never even contemplated before. But, after seeing the actual track, the sheer dropoffs and the rocks, he had serious reservations. His host just shook his head when he heard the real reason behind the journalist’s visit.
Back in Johannesburg, Sy called on three friends, one of whom was future rallying legend Ewold von Bergen. Together the four men would attempt to drive the Volkswagen up the pass. “The trip would obviously take its toll on the Beetle, so I arranged for some extra spares. Total supplied oil and fuel, and the promise of 100 pounds (equivalent to R200 at the time) if we made it to Mokhotlong,” Sy told an interviewer shortly before his death in 2006.
In 1956, the 100 pound prize was quite a reward. In those days a new Beetle cost in the region of 500 pounds. So, in the cold winter months of 1956, Sy and his small band of adventurers tackled the pass, with a Land Rover as back-up vehicle. In the snow, thin air and between all the rocks, the men mostly carried the powerless VW up the pass. “It was immediately evident that the high altitude was taking a heavy toll on the flat-four engine’s 25 kW of power, so it really struggled from the moment we started the ascent. To make matters worse, the track was full of rocks, and with the Beetle having virtually no ground clearance, the going was extremely slow,” said Sy.
But the crew was obviously prepared for this, following Sy’s earlier recce of the area. They had fitted the Beetle with a roofrack, on which wooden planks and a spare wheel were carried. To protect the vulnerable rear-mounted engine, the team had also fitted extra skid plates.
The planks were used to build temporary “bridges” over dips in the track. For the bigger obstacles the foursome, with some help from their support crew, literally picked up the car and carried it to more Beetle-friendly ground. “I tell you, we did more pushing and carrying than driving,” laughs Von Bergen today. “It was a hell of a thing, and I don’t think any of us knew what we had let ourselves in for, including Sy.”
But finally they made it to Mokhotlong, where the VW Beetle and its exhausted crew caused quite a stir among the local community. It was the first passenger car they had ever had in town, and the mayor duly invited the weary travellers to his residence for dinner. But the next morning another adventure beckoned: Going down the pass. And this leg of the journey proved to be even more challenging. Von Bergen volunteered to do the “driving”.
“It was more a case of sliding down the pass,” he recalls. “On the slippery, snow-covered track, the Beetle’s brakes were virtually useless. So we held kajuitraad (a meeting) and decided to
remove the driver’s door. We then attached a rope around my waist. If the Beetle did go over the edge, the plan was that the other guys would hold onto me, while the VW went its own way!
“I really thought my last day had come, and looking back now I don’t think our rope system would have been very effective,” chuckles Von Bergen.“I was mostly just a passenger on that downhill trip. It was scary!” Luckily for SA motorsport, Von Bergen and the Beetle made it down the pass in one piece.
Sy Symons collected his 100 pounds from Total. Von Bergen went on to win two South African rally championships, and also competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in Monaco. And a VW Beetle became the first two-wheel-drive vehicle to conquer Sani Pass.
1956 VW Beetle 1.2
Engine: 1192cc, flat-four
Power: 25 kW @ 3 700 r/min
Top speed: 109 km/h
Driving aids: MPC (manpower control)
Safety systems: ARSS (advanced
rope restraining system)
First published in Leisure Wheels, August 2011