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Travelling up South Africa’s historic Sani Pass

16 April 2016 ( 20 October 2016 )

Travel writer Suzanne Payne recounts her experience travelling up South Africa’s historic Sani Pass, which tops out at a staggering 2,873 metres above sea level…

View from the passenger's seat of the Sani Pass, South Africa
View from the passenger's seat of the Sani Pass, South Africa

I’ll never forget taking the bumpy four-wheel drive excursion up the Sani Pass in South Africa. It’s one thing to read about the thrill of heading high up into KwaZulu-Natal’s Drakensberg Mountains but altogether something else once you’re there.

Fingernails digging into the seats as the tires skid around tight switchback bends and grapple for purchase on slippery gravel ascents – all whilst the valley floor dwindles to a hazy speck far below. It’s the kind of pass outdoor adventure lovers dream of, and whilst certainly not for the faint of heart, fear not as the gradient averages 1:20 (that is except for in a few nerve-twanging spots that are as steep as 1:3).

Our driver was fantastic, filling us in on the history of the Sani Pass and never pushing the vehicle more than any of his passengers could handle. 

Originally a pack animal trail, ex-RAF Spitfire pilot Godfrey Edmonds was the first to drive the pass in 1948, paving the way for it to be officially opened to traffic in 1955. 

Six decades later and 4WD vehicles are still the only way to make the ascent, although plans are afoot to tarmac the higher reaches soon.

A fabulously illustrated history

The pass’s history was perfectly illustrated when a rather blasé donkey herder casually sauntered pass us, leading a reluctant mule downhill. He gamely paused for photos, although he seemed a little bemused by the interest that we showed in him. 

We were also lucky enough to spot a pair of Guernsey’s sugarbirds perched in the long grass beside the single track – another chance to snap even more photos. Our driver’s skill was firmly established as he guided the four-by-four across a stony brook. 

We collectively held our breath – all too aware of the unforgiving drop to the side without any guardrails to protect us – as the vehicle danced across rocks that shifted beneath its weight. 

Our trust was rewarded tenfold when we stopped to stare in disbelief at a crumbling cliff face glazed over by a frozen waterfall!

A celebratory drink at 2,873 metres above sea level!

After ascending over a 1,000 metres and crossing into little landlocked Lesotho, we reached the summit of the Sani Pass before breaking for a celebratory drink in Africa’s highest pub. 

Nicely warmed up inside and out after our time in the chilly four-by-four, we carried on to our final stop, a traditional Basotho village.

As the drizzle which had followed us on the way up suddenly cleared, I was bowled over by the view – a vast barren plateau rising in leaps and bounds toward a horizon staked out by a row of vertiginous peaks iced with snow. 

We made our way towards a small settlement of thatched huts clustered together for company and we were warmly welcomed inside one of the rondavels to break bread with a local family. 

They must have been expecting us as it was hot out the oven, or in this case, a metal pot heated over a fire dug out from the hard ground in the centre of the hut.

Out of all our adventures in Africa, nothing took us further away from the everyday than this. I don’t even remember the journey back!

Experience Sani Pass for yourself on our wonderful Stay and Relax holiday to the Blue Marlin Hotel in South Africa.

South Africa, often described as a whole world in one country, is blessed with the lion's share of sights and experiences. Find out more about our holidays to South Africa here


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.