Sani Pass in white snowcaps and carrot noses

Driving up Sani Pass when it’s dry is already a challenge. It becomes even more of an adventure when this sinuous and climbing road is covered in snow. Rizèl Delano threw caution to the wind…

“Pack your bag. We’re going to look for snow,” said John Swanepoel, my travel buddy. I raised my eyebrows: “Last time I saw snow was in 1981”.

Not very excited and thinking about something more enjoyable, like a crackling fire and red wine, we pulled into Bulwer in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. But when the sleet started to fall, I shuffled eagerly in my seat for the first time, my eyes spread wide and an excited flutter in my belly.

By the time we got to Himeville at the foot of the Drakensberg, it was coming down just like in the movies: millions of white fluffy snowflakes, settling on top of the thick layer that already looked like whipped cream.

I chuckled, and asked John, who was behind the wheel of the 4×4: “Do you think we could go up Sani Pass?”

John replied with a Garfield grin, “I don’t see why not”. Adventure was written all over his face.

The South African border post was closed at first, but they allowed us through by 12h00. We deflated the tyres to increase their footprint for better traction and determined the depth and consistency of the snow. If it was too deep we could get stuck.

“Help me look for tree stumps and rocks hidden in the white crust on the way up.”

“Yes, Herr Capitan,” I saluted.

John locked the front and rear sets of wheels, the tyres gripped and the double cab forced its way through the snow, following the tracks made by two vehicles ahead of us. Just like in mud, the snow forces you to drive in the ruts and my eyes were fixed on where the front wheels should go.

“We actually need chains,” was the thought that flicked through my mind. Oh well… if we really get stuck we can always try to sipe the tyres (cut tiny slits in the tread).

I grabbed the dashboard when John accelerated through a corner, causing the rear wheels to slide and throwing the tail closer to the edge. There was a moment of fear. What if we tumbled off the cliff?

We heard a helicopter, and I smiled. We could always construct a big “help” sign next to a carrot-nosed snowman.

A hump in the road bumped silly thoughts from my mind, and I watched the road with more concentration.

The tyres spun on a soft spot and John eased off the pedal a bit, allowing the tyres to slow down, rolling backwards slightly. He regained traction but lost it again after a few metres.

John turned the steering wheel quickly from side to side in short strokes, allowing the tyre walls to find extra grip, turned into the skid and accelerated. The weight transferred from the front to the rear wheels, the tail zigzagged but he managed the vehicle’s controls and weight distribution smoothly and surely, and we bulldozed up the cliff.

For all John’s driving skills, we couldn’t make it to the top (2874m), and only reached three-quarters of the way. Not even the most experienced driver from Antarctica could have got through, unless he was in a truck with a metre of ground clearance.

But I’d had my snow adventure, and quizzed John: “What do snowmen wear on their heads?” John smiled: “Ice caps, just like the Sani Top.”