I first saw a photo of the Sani pass years ago on another overlanders blog, and I’ve wanted to drive it ever since, so it was with both excitement and a hint of nervousness that we left the Drakensburg and headed for the famous 4x4 only pass between South Africa and Lesotho. The Sani pass is a 22km mountain hugging dirt track that ascends 1300m to top out at 2873m, around switch backs with names like Haemorroid hill, Suicide Bend and Big Wind Corner. To the South African 4x4 community it’s a dream road, with large rutted tracks, big stones, water crossings, bedrock and culminating in 13 steep switchbacks on very loose scree. However when attempted in an overloaded vehicle it’s a nerve racking journey. Brenda is, to be fair to her, an extremely capable off road truck, but without a turbo or supercharger she really struggles at altitudes of over 2000m where the thinner air has the effect of retarding the engine meaning a noticeable loss of power.
We left the South African border post at the bottom in 4wd and did well for a while, but by 2000m we couldn’t get out of first gear and by 2500 we were in L4 (low gear 4wd) for the first time ever in Brenda. We slowly gained altitude, wincing every time we bottomed out, hoping we weren’t leaving parts of the sump on the track as we climbed ever higher, slipping and sliding, taking the wide point of every corner in a bid to find the flattest path. We hit the start of the final switchbacks with our hearts in our mouths and, engine screaming for air, finally completed the last corner, reaching the Lesotho border pass with a sense of relief and pride. I had finally driven the Sani Pass. A South African guy later told me it’s in the worse state it’s been in for a long time. Covid has stopped what little maintenance there was on it, and the recent rains has caused a lot of the road to be washed away. And if I’m honest I’m kinda glad it was that bad – I feel if it had been in good condition I’d have been cheated out of the adventure I have been waiting years to have.
We were now in Lesotho, The Mountain Kingdom. The people are friendly, the scenery spectacular, the passes high and the mountains higher. The storms come sweeping through the mountains causing mesmerising light, clearing at night to reveal the Milky Way visible to the naked eye. The local shepherds still walk the mountains wearing traditional blankets, and during a lunch stop one day a typically friendly herder wandered over to ask for a bit of lunch, which we happily provided.
We reached the highest point of the trip at 3284m (only about 200m short of our highest ever which was in Ethiopia in 2011). Our route has taken us on a 800km meander through the mountains with 21km of ascent and decent, interspaced with frequent police stops where I seemed to be constantly in trouble. I got stopped for speeding and won an M30 (£1.50) speeding fine, to be paid only by phone, which was a problem for us because we didn’t have a local SIM. I suggested an ‘on-the-spot’ fine, which was politely declined due the unavailability of a receipt and the fear of me making a complaint. A stalemate was reached, and the subject of conversation changed to avoid the fact that a solution was unachievable. Finally, after 20 minutes of polite, pleasant, but wholly avoidable conversation I managed to insist on giving cash, at which point I was officially informed that the money would not be going to the government, and would, in short, be used to purchase goods for the attending police, and would I consent to such terms. Man, Africa has changed.