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Inside: How to drive the legendary Sani Pass between South Africa and Lesotho and why it’s a terrific day trip from Durban,
It’s the world’s highest base-altitude nation. Where even the “lowlands” sit at a dizzying 4,500ft above sea level earning it the nickname, the Kingdom in the Sky.
Though Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa, its defensible position in the mountains and a determined people kept it independent through the decades of apartheid.
While tiny Lesotho is one of Africa’s poorest nations, this alpine mountain kingdom just might be one of the continent’s most underrated travel destinations.
Lesotho is easily accessible from Durban or Johannesburg – as long as you have a 4×4, that is. The nation’s highest peak tops 11,400 feet, the highest in all of Southern Africa (topped on the continent only by Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro).
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I’m nearing the mid-point of my 9th annual round-the-world trip and after a fantastic few days in Cape Town, I touch down in Durban, South Africa.
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I’ve come to Durban primarily to board a cruise to Mozambique in a few days. But before my cruise departs, I have 2 nights to kill here in Durban and there is just one thing I’m dying to do.
Visit the Kingdom of Lesotho and the Drakensberg Mountains via the legendary Sani Pass.
Where is the Sani Pass?
Located on the road between Underberg, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa and Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the Sani Pass is a 9 kilometer mountain pass known for its steep switchbacks. It’s also known for incredible scenery as it passes through the dramatic Drakensberg mountain range.
The Sani Pass falls between the border controls of both countries and is only accessible by 4×4 vehicle. Due to the gravel road’s steep gradients and frequently treacherous conditions, the only safe way to make the trip is with an experienced local driver and guide.
Sani Pass Tour Options
Due to the travel distance from Durban, most tours recommend spending the night in Lesotho. Typically, this involves an overnight stay at the Sani Mountain Lodge (home to Africa’s highest pub) or the Premier Resort Sani Pass.
But day trips are available if you’re willing to start early. The roundtrip drive takes about 12 hours.
I only have one full day to devote to Lesotho so I plan to tough out the day trip. But unfortunately, my one day here is a Sunday, when no regularly scheduled day trips are available.
So, to get there I’ll have to stomach the cost of a private tour (the equivalent of paying for 2 people).
I arrange my trip through a company called Street Scene Durban. My guide, Rudi Botha, is a former ranger at Kruger National Park. He’s made the trip through the Sani Pass more than 2,000 times so I figure I’m in pretty good hands.
I fork over my credit card and just hope the trip will be worth the cost.
A Day Trip to Lesotho via the Sani Pass
The next morning, Rudi arrives at the hotel to pick me up right on time at 6:00am.
He explains that our first stop today will be the quaint town of Underberg at the base of the Sani Pass. This portion of the drive will take about 2 1/2 hours and is easy-going, highway all the way.
As we begin to climb from sea level in Durban higher into the mountains we go through two thick layers of clouds. At times, visibility is near zero and I’m already grateful I didn’t even consider attempting this drive on my own.
And we haven’t even hit the dirt roads yet.
Luckily, Rudi obviously knows these roads well. But I begin to wonder if I’ll be able to see anything at all by the time we reach the Sani Pass.
If not, this is going to be one very expensive day of cloud viewing.
A quick stop in Underberg
We arrive in Underberg and make a brief stop at the bed & breakfast owned by Rudi’s in-laws. It’s a good opportunity for a restroom break and to stretch our legs before continuing on.
Once outside Underberg, the paved roads quickly end, and the real climb begins. It’s time for Rudi’s workhorse 4×4 to start earning its keep.
Luckily, just as we enter the Sani Pass, it seems we’ve finally risen above the top layer of clouds. The sun is shining for the first time all day and the view all around me is utterly fabulous.
Lush, green mountains surround us, so immaculate they look like perfectly manicured lawns.
Rudi makes a number of stops for photos at the most scenic spots and proves quite adept at shooting with my Nikon DSLR (not his first time taking photos of his guests, obviously).
After an hour or so of driving, we reach the South African border crossing and I present my passport.
Once across the border, we drive another hour (in sort of a no man’s land) before we reach the top of the Sani Pass and the Lesotho border checkpoint.
The highest pub in Africa
After we’re officially stamped into Lesotho at the tiny border checkpoint, we head next door to the Sani Top Chalet at the Sani Mountain Lodge.
The lodge is home to the Sani Top Chalet, the highest pub in Africa (because, as Rudi points out, there’s no pub at the top of Kilimanjaro).
The views over the winding pass we just drove up are spectacular and the sun continues to shine. I’m feeling extremely fortunate that the weather has turned out to be so amazing today.
After lunch and a refreshing Lesotho beer (for me, not Rudi, you have to have a drink at the highest pub in Africa, right?) we get back on the dirt road and drive deeper into Lesotho.
A Lesotho Village Visit
Next, we head to a traditional rural Basotho village where Rudi will introduce me to two of his friends who live there.
The Lesotho People
Citizens of Lesotho are known as the Basotho people. The Basotho have remained remarkably free of conflict throughout history and are known for warmly welcoming visitors.
We arrive in the tiny village and I’m introduced to Rudi’s friend Matitso, who welcomes us into her hut. Once inside, Rudi explains a little about the Basotho way of life and how their huts are constructed. He also mentions that the family’s youngest child (of 5 children) has just gone off to school.
In Lesotho, to attend school the children have to leave their village and only return home on holidays and school breaks. When Rudi inquires about the youngest child, Matitso is barely able to conceal the emotion on her face. No doubt, a child leaving home for the first time transcends all cultural borders.
Rudi quickly changes the subject to the cutout in the center of the hut’s floor where a giant stone pot is heating over coals.
Matitso is baking an enormous loaf of bread and is kind enough to share some with us. It was incredibly delicious. She then asks Rudi if it’s ok to bring in some of her crafts to show me and he nods.
I’m excited to see what she has and to help support her business. There aren’t exactly any souvenir shops in Lesotho and I really want something to remember my visit.
Matitso returns with lots of things from jewelry to woven hats. But my favorite crafts are the little hand-made dolls wearing the traditional Basotho blanket. I choose one of those to buy for my niece.
Matitso and her family have also visited Rudi and his family in Durban. In fact, they are going back to Durban again next week so Rudi can help them shop for a 4WD truck. They’ve been saving up money for years and this will be the first vehicle in their entire village.
Rudi brought along a car sales magazine with tons of different trucks and prices. I smile as Matitso and her husband flip through every page with obvious delight.
Heading Back Down the Pass
After our village visit, it’s time to start making our way back down the Sani Pass. We still have a long drive ahead to Durban.
The drive down is a bit scarier than going up since you’re constantly aware of the steep drop-offs around every bend. But you still can’t beat the incredible views of the Drakensberg Mountains. The entire drive down is filled with stunning vistas over the mountains as the clouds continue to remain at bay.
As much as I loved the drive down, I’ve never been so happy to see a paved road again as we approached Underberg.
After 6 hours of jaw-rattling, rock-strewn dirt roads you would be, too. And Rudi’s 4×4 is definitely built more for mountain survival than comfort.
Once back on the paved road we again pass through several layers of cloud cover as we descend back to sea level in Durban. The weather in Durban is overcast and rainy when we arrive back at the Hilton and I cann’t believe my good fortune with the sunny skies in the Sani Pass.
We went from sea level to over 11,000ft and back in a single day and it was every bit the adventure I hoped it would be.
It was absolutely worth the price of the private trip and I can’t think of a better way to have spent my brief stay in Durban.
Next up…tomorrow, I’ll board the MSC Opera bound for Mozambique!