- 23 Dec 2016
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5 Great Reasons to Drive This Pass
1. The altitude
You'll embark on the zig-zagging trail from the foothills of the seemingly impregnable Drakensberg Mountains. Here Sani Pass starts at an altitude of 1 544m. As the road turns from tar to gravel, progressively narrowing and worsening, you'll rise a further 1 332m before summiting at 2 876m (9 400 feet). To give you an idea of how high that is, as a rule airplanes are pressurised at 10 000 feet. Warning: Those who live at sea level might experience headaches at this altitude.
2. The challenge
Sani's average gradient might only be 1:20, but from the South African border control point (Lesotho's border control point is at the summit), through the final swathe of hairpin bends, the gradient kicks up to a steep 1:4. These dramatic switchbacks with their sheer drop-offs not only make for panoramic vistas but are dangerous too. Loose shale, rocks, mud and ice on either side of the "correct" line make it slippery at best, and downright treacherous in adverse weather. Put a wheel wrong and you're in danger. Glance down into the ravines below and you'll see a multitude of car wrecks – an ominous reminder that the road is not to be underestimated.
3. The road beyond
The Sani summit is as far as most travellers go, but continue on and spectacular gravel trails – including the highest pass in southern Africa – will be your reward. This honour belongs to the isolated Kotisephola Pass. It starts where Sani Pass ends and summits at an oxygen-starved 3 292m on Lesotho's Black Mountain. At this altitude, expect shortness of breath and nosebleeds – you might want to consider taking an oxygen tank. In the winter months it's totally impassable because of snow, but will also eventually be tarred over.
4. The best beer
After navigating the final hairpins and summiting Sani Pass, reward yourself with a refreshing Maluti lager, a warm fire and some pub grub served with delicious Sotho bread. That's what's on offer at the Sani Mountain Lodge's "highest pub in Africa". Plan to spend the night if you're set on indulging in more than one frothy ale.
5. The quirky town
Sani Pass connects the KwaZulu-Natal town of Underberg with Mokhotlong in Lesotho. Once it's tarred over, the quaint KZN hamlet will change character. Visit all its small-town drawcards before it's too late. Play polo or take a horseback tour at the picturesque Absolute Polo farm, taste your way through the Underberg Cheesery and visit the historical Reichenau Mission for a moment of self-reflection.
Best car for the trip? The Mercedes-Benz GLC 220 d 4MATIC. Why? It will give you that hovercraft effect on your way to the SA border, and excellent gravel road traction after it.