The Sani Pass has long been one of those things I have to do someday, ever since i saw a documentary on it. For some reason this dirt road with numerous switchbacks from South Africa to the kingdom of Lesotho (itself a strange landlocked kingdsom) draws many tourists who want to drive up it. Now long time blog readers and friends will probably remember that time i rode a mountain bike down the worlds most dangerous road in Bolivia and think i’ve gone insane, but in reality this road is quite tame, but spectacular.
When i realised I was going to extend my South African and Namibian trip to a nice round month (I’m a huge fan of this and happy to have people jump on the bandwagon), the Sani Pass was the must do item. I originally thought about hiring a 4WD myself, then when I realised costs and the fact a private tour was cheaper i ended up going with a private tour. However the private tour leaves from a smallish town called Underberg and getting there by public transport would have been a challenge. So i hired a car and this is where life got interesting yesterday.
The car i picked up from King Shaka International airport in Durban, was a Toyota Agya. A car that is marketed in certain countries for a cheap price and is about the size of half a car. I had planned for a lack of satnav, by bringing a mount for my phone. I hadn’t planned for the maximum speed being about 100km/h and South African Freeways have a top speed of 120 km/h. I spent a lot of time in the left hand lane letting speeding cars past me and occassionly ventured into the middle or right lane to overtake trucks, who all seem limited to 80 km/h. I did find a nice driving groove though and ended up at the Natal Lion Park. The website made it sound a lot more than it was. It was not until I entered the lion enclosure in my Toyota Agya, that i realised as cool as the 4 sleeping lions 3 metres away from me were, the 4 of them could open the Agya up like a tin of sardines. Thankfully the elephants were not a drive through enclosure, but more a drive up to enclosure that was literally a two wire electric fence. It was clear though the elephants had at some stage been trained as they came when their keeper called them. They may have been rescued though and there certainly wasn’t a push to interact with the elephants and just watch them eat.
The rest of the drive took me through regional Kwazulu-Natal province to where the Sani Pass starts. Yesterday the weather was miserable after i arrived in Underberg, this morning it was freezing, snow on the mountains and some good visibility. Geez did luck shine on me for this trip i’ve wanted to do for so long. My guide who had a very long african name which i feel ashamed of not writing down now for this blog was full of knowledge and answered all my questions and passed with flying colours. We made multiple stops as this tour was private and just for me, when i saw a photo i wanted to take we stopped. The Sani Pass really is only used by tourists and the Basotho (what people from Lesotho are called) that come to South Africa for shopping and work.
As we bounced our way up the 4WD road, the snow became thicker, we no longer saw baboons or reedboks. The switchbacks are at the top and at that point the top of the pass is close and soon a sign greets you and welcomes you to Lesotho. I think this is whats magical about the Sani Pass, its like a stairway to a magical Kingdom. The magic continued as we drove 5kms to a local village, where it was blue sky and no snow to be seen. The local villagers seemed to think we were joking about the snow, as it is late in the year for snow to fall! After eating some of their delicious bread the villager said she wanted to build a homestay next door to this hut so people could come and stay the night as well and experience more than the standard 30 minute stops she gets. It sounds like a great idea, they even brew their own “beer”, likely to be fermented something. I did tell her travellers do like these authentic experiences and a homestay would be a great idea.
Also I can’t forget to mention the highest pub in Africa, which was packed with tourists. whoever cam up with that enterprising idea has done well. I got to drink Lesotho beer in my way to brief visit to Lesotho and I’ll have to come back once that homestay experience is up and running.