The Drakensberg Mountains, that sounds awesome. There’s something ancient, something mystical and something rough to it. Best of all, that’s not just how the mountains sound, that’s also how they look. Is the Sani Pass the coolest way through the mountains? A mountain pass that leads to the plateau of Lesotho. We braved the pass with a 4×4.
The Sani Pass is accessible from the South African towns of Underberg or Himmeville, near Durban. From here, it is the Sani Pass Road that leads you straight to the mountain pass. It is wise to take a guide with a 4×4, as the pass is tricky. The two small towns are set up for tourism and arranging a guide is a piece of cake here. We went with Drakensberg Adventures, an operator located on the Sani Pass Road. The tour costs between 990 and 860 rand (56/50 euros) per person, depending on the size of your group.
Once the Sani Pass Road seriously starts to slope uphill, the asphalt disappears and you have reached the mountain pass. From here on out, it’s fourteen kilometers forward and six hundred meters up. On both sides of the pass, the green mountains meander uphill, while the shake of the car reveals that the route is getting rougher. If you look through the windshield, you can already see the edge of Lesotho awaiting.
Sharper turns and a steeper way up
This pass really starts once you pass the customs office of South Africa. The border is open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. The road, which was already quite sloping, now rises steeply; and then descends steeply again. Turns that were already sharp turn into actual hairpin turns. Here and there, you drive through the streams of rain and meltwater, which can be a multitude larger or smaller in a few hours. Looking to the left, the mountains wind upwards. Looking to the right you will see the serpentine road you just drove on. While the distant view stretches further by the minute.
After the last sharp stretch up, the next customs office looms: the entrance to Lesotho. This place is a strange experience. After more than two hours of driving uphill with mountains and cliffs around you, everything suddenly seems very calm. At the top, the plateau of Lesotho is as flat as a pancake. A few hills dot the horizon, the rest is a flat landscape.
Opening the car door suddenly turns out to be an unexpectedly great challenge. That is logical, because on this high plateau the wind has completely free rein. Getting out takes more muscle strength. Why must this door open, you wonder? About a hundred meters into Lesotho, on one of the sporadic hills, there is a building you must visit: the highest pub in all of Africa. At 2,874 meters above sea level, the Sani Mountain Lodge has the highest tap in the continent. With locally brewed Maluti beer on tap, made from the meltwater of the Drakensberg.
The edge of the plateau
It is worth taking a walk along the edge of the plateau from the pub. From the edge you have a beautiful view over the Drakensberg and further into South Africa. Of course, be careful with the raging winds. The easiest way is to follow the paths used by the sheep herders in Lesotho. Actually, that is not necessarily a path, rather parts where the grass is a bit trampled. With the rough boulders, green hills and sporadic clouds floating below you, the view is truly unparalleled.
If you’re not already out of breath from the reduced oxygen in the air or walking against the wind, you can still venture to Hodgons Peak. On the ground in South Africa, the peak on the edge of Lesotho can already be seen. Above, the so-called ‘giants cup’ can be reached without technical climbing. It is a gradual ascent of about four hundred meters on foot, after which the hardest part is climbing the peak itself. The view at the top is well worth it, with a 360-degree view over the Drakensberg and into Lesotho. At least that’s what I was told. As a Dutchman who spends most of his days around sea level, this altitude difference was a bit too much for me. The view from the base of the peak is also magnificent.
That way back through the pass is equally impressive as you descend with a new perspective. The flat landscape at the top of Lesotho gives way to steep descents with sharp turns. The flow in the rivers on the way there have changed on the way back. Slowly but surely the road is getting sturdier. Then the tires hit the asphalt again and we look back on a unique experience. The Sani Pass is one of a kind.
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