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Sani Pass - see it now!


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Soukous

Sani Pass

 

The Sani Pass is one of those iconic South African locations that sits on so many people’s wish list but so often remains a wish unfulfilled.

It provides the only road link between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and is the only road crossing the summit of the high Drakensberg.

Originally a mule track, it is still a tortuous, hair-raising road today. At 2873m you enter the land of the hardy “people of the blanket”; young shepherds wrapped in blankets that roam the high plateau tending their herds of sheep.

The views from this altitude are nothing less than awe-inspiring, with snow and frozen waterfalls in winter, and a blaze of flower blooms in summer.

It is also a birders paradise with some endemic species found nowhere outside the Drakensberg.

 

Anyhow, we decided to 'do' the Sani Pass on our recent trip to South Africa. 

 

One of the reasons we chose to do the Sani Pass was that it gave us both something to get excited about. For me it was the birds I was unlikely to see anywhere else; for Madame it was the pass itself and the chance to set foot in Lesotho.

 

Our accommodation for the first 2 nights was in Himeville, the closest town to Sani Pass. It was nothing special, ( I wouldn’t recommend it and therefore won’t name it) but there seemed no point in booking expensive accommodation when we would only be sleeping there.

 

To make the most of the trip we engaged a local birding guide to accompany us. Stuart McLean is one of the top birding guides specialising in the Sani Pass.

 

Stuart picked us up at 05:30. Even though it was starting to get light, the day began with very overcast skies and heavy grey clouds loomed overhead. We were hopeful though, that we could break through the clouds as we ascended the pass.

 

A slow climb

The route up Sani Pass starts at 1544m, and climbs 1332 vertical metres to an altitude of 2876m. (although a sign by the Lesotho border claims it is 3240m)

The steep gravel road has gradients up to 1:3, and can be difficult to drive in bad weather and may frequently be covered with snow and ice in winter.
By South African law only 4x4 vehicles are allowed on the road but you’ll encounter taxis and trucks from Lesotho that struggle through with just 2x4. Broken down or stuck vehicles are not an uncommon sight.

 

The road begins with a few kilometres of decent tarmac before becoming a rough gravel road. There had been heavy rain the previous day and we soon realised why 4x4 was recommended.

 

Upgrading the road

The fact that the Sani Pass is a mecca for 4x4 drivers has not stopped the governments of South Africa and Lesotho from wanting to upgrade the road to one that is accessible to all vehicles.
The process of upgrading the Sani Pass dirt road is taking place in 2 phases; phase 1 extending for 14 km from the P318 (Sani Pass) turnoff and finishing at the old Good Hope Trading Post, and phase 2 extending from kilometre 14 to kilometre 33, the summit of Sani Pass.

Construction work for the first phase commenced in December 2006 and was completed in September 2012.

On 2 July 2013 the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism approved the execution of phase 2 of the project, with the ultimate objective to re-gravel the final 5 km of the pass. The department also authorized plans to upgrade the storm-water drainage system and retaining walls along the route to reduce sand and gravel erosion.
On 21 May 2014 the South African Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, approved the execution of phase 2. Tarring was planned to start within five months following the announcement and would bring the total cost of the project to R887-million. In July 2015 it was stated that phase 2 shall be completed in 2019

Ha Ha. By Feb 2020 only the first 3km on the South African side had been upgraded. Meanwhile, funded by aid money, the Chinese tarred 50km of road up to the border post on the Lesotho side in less than 3 years.

 

Given the low number of vehicles actually using the pass and the fact that even with a tarred road there will be little ‘trade’ between South Africa and Lesotho on this route; the bulk of trade between the 2 countries is likely to continue to be on the road that links Lesotho with the Free State. Using the route through the Lesotho Highlands and what will still be a tortuous twisting road through the Sani Pass is unlikely to be attractive. Given this, the cost seems high when set against the potential benefits.

Currently the Sani Pass is a mecca for 4x4 enthusiasts and is the focus of a tourism industry in the nearby towns of Underberg and Himeville. This industry will cease to exist once it is possible for self drivers to traverse the pass in their own sedan or a standard hire car.

 

The environmental impact is likely to be significant though – whatever the impact assessment concluded.

There are several species of bird endemic to the pass which are not found elsewhere. With traffic crawling up or down a rough dirt road these species are not disturbed very much and stopping to view them is easy.
Once the road is tarred and open to all vehicles the level – and speed – of traffic will increase and species that can currently be seen beside the road will move further away.

I also think that the increase in traffic and speed of travel will lead to a significant increase in the number of accidents and fatalities on the route. A combination of driving too fast, poorly maintained vehicles and drivers being distracted by the stunning scenery.

 

We checked out of South Africa and headed on up the pass. The South African border post is not actually on the border, but quite a long way below the summit of the pass.

The South African/Lesotho border is at the summit of the pass and not at the South African border control point. Sani Pass therefore lies entirely within South Africa.

 

 

Sani Pass

 

Sani Pass

The area around the SA border post got our bird count started.

 

Pin-Tailed Whydah

 

Pin-tailed Whydah

 

Cape Wagtail

 

Cape Wagtail

 

Cape White-eye

Cape White-eye

 

Above the clouds

 

With the first few photos I took needing an ISO of 16400 I was definitely hoping the day would brighten up. Thankfully it did.

As Stuart had predicted, we soon drove through the clouds and were pleased to see blue skies. The views back down the pass were spectacular and the better light made everything look more cheerful.

 

Sani Pass

 

 

Sani Pass

 

 

Sani Pass

 

The views looking back were pretty good too

Sani Pass

 

The border

Lesotho border, sani Pass

 

The Highest Pub in Africa

As you approach the summit, and the border, you see the highest pub in Africa, Sani Mountain Lodge.
The lodge is mostly in South Africa but straddles the border and you need to enter Lesotho to get to it.
Apparently it’s a popular spot to spend New Year’s Eve.

 

Sani Mountain Lodge

 

The plateau at the top, where all you'll see are shepherd boys and herds of sheep and goats

 

Plateau at the top of Sani Pass

 

It looked amazing on the way back down too, as the clouds parted over the river.

 

Sani Pass

 

Sani Pass

 

Sani Pass

 

A moderate tally

We managed to spot 77 species on our trip. This is about 20 less than we would have expected on a fine day.
Unfortunately my phone was dead so I had to wait until I got back to our lodgings before I could properly compile my list. I didn’t miss any, but I normally rely on the time of listing to match up with the photos and confirm the IDs. Because I listed them all in one go at the end of the day, they were not recorded in the order in which we saw them.

 

 

See it before it is gone

If you want to see this magnificent phenomenon, see it soon. Even now, with road construction crews at work, the birds have been disturbed and are harder to see than before.

 

Sani Valley

 

After our adventure up the Sani Pass we still had a couple of days in the area.

We’d booked much nicer accommodation for these 2 days as we would be just making short excursions to explore the area.

 

We stayed at Sani Valley Nature Lodge, which was magnificent. The accommodation, the views, the whole experience was wonderful.

In fact we liked the place so much we decided it would be a shame to leave it and so we just explored the reserve rather than venturing elsewhere.

Edited by Soukous
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Peter Connan

Nice little mini-TR Martin!

 

It's a pity that when I was there, I had not yet developed an interest in birds. 

 

A couple of things I noticed though:

1) The taxis plying up and down the pass were at that stage Toyota Hi-Aces. They looked pretty much like the ones seen all over SA even today. However, I noticed that they had locking hubs on the front wheels. Those are 4x4! Not sure if they still use those though, that was about 10 years ago.

2) The folks at Afriski have a huge argument with Sani Mountain Lodge. They have three pubs, all of them higher than Sani...

 

I will probably return one day, but I must say Lesotho underwhelmed me. Apart, that is, from Katse dam. They have a dam wall tour every day, and that was an amazing experience enjoyed by the whole family.

Edited by Peter Connan
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TonyQ

Thank you for posting. Very interesting, and beautiful photos.

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pedro maia

I love to drive iconic roads and this is one of them although I’m pretty sure I’ll never drive it, thanks for posting the pictures and the description.

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Soukous
16 hours ago, Peter Connan said:

It's a pity that when I was there, I had not yet developed an interest in birds. 

 

Oh, that is so true of so many places I have been.

 

My association with Africa began with the adventure of travelling through it, then there was the wild life, it was only after many years that I started to take an interest in birds. Now I'm back to the adventure again :D. I love looking for and photographing the birds, but I get just as much thrill from exploring places.

Edited by Soukous
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xelas

I've heard Sani Pass being a scenic destination, but your photos shows it in a fantastic, mesmerizing way!

 

@Peter Connan, I think it is time for a revisit. Do you need a co-driver ^_^?

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Soukous

I feel I must say a few words about Sani Valley Lodge. It really was a magic place to stay.

Sani Valley Lodge is a private nature lodge that sits within the dramatic Drakensberg mountain range, borders a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the closest luxury lodge to the famous Sani Pass. 


The reserve has a very limited number of secluded guest lodges designed to accommodate couples, families and small groups.
Within the valley sits one of the largest privately owned lakes in South Africa. The lodges are scattered on the edge of the lake which is surrounded by a variety of antelope, zebra, baboons and other wildlife.
This is one of the very few animal reserves in the Drakensberg, further enhanced by the vast lake which attracts unparalleled birdlife.

 

This is the view of the lodge as you drive in

 

Sani Valley Lodge

 

Sani Valley Lodge

 

Sani Valley Lodge

 

and this is the view from our chalet

 

Sani Valley Lodge

 

Sani Valley Lodge

 

In the morning, zebras come down to drink right in front of us

 

Zebras

 

 

 

 

Edited by Soukous
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optig

I am planning to visit Lesotho later this year as part of birding safari in South Africa. These photos are encouraging me.

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  • 4 weeks later...
Atravelynn

Loved your photos but not your comment of:

 

If you want to see this magnificent phenomenon, see it soon. Even now, with road construction crews at work, the birds have been disturbed and are harder to see than before.

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