Sani Pass, the Gateway to Lesotho

Sani Pass Lesotho Header

Take a journey with me on one of the most iconic mountain passes in all of Africa, the Sani Pass, which also happens to be the gateway to the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho!

I recently got invited by Cape Union Mart to join the Kingsley Holgate Foundation and a group of likeminded adventurers on a trip up the Sani Pass and beyond, mostly all in Series One Land Rovers, but that’s a story for another time.

Sani Pass Series One 06 Kingsley Holgate

This post is all about the Sani Pass, a dirt road built in the 1900’s as a trade route between South Africa and Mokhotlong via one of the most insane most gruelling mountain passes in Southern Africa, but with a victorious view once the summit was reached.

Sani Pass Mike

The pass was originally used only by pack mule, of which the herders always had extra’s on hand in the event they pushed one over the edge while adjusting the load on it’s back. This happened frequently I was told.

So as you can see, it wasn’t all fun and games as is the case with today’s adventurers heading up the pass in their Landies, mountain bikes and trail running shoes.

Sani Pass Series One 04

The first car on the Sani Pass wasn’t seen until October 1948, which is when an ex-spitfire pilot by the name of Godfrey Edmonds, and a group of local workers took his open top Willys Jeep to the top, along with a huge supply of rope to pull it up and sleeper wood as makeshift handbrakes.

Kingsley Holgate Handbrake

It took them 6 hours and litres of sweat by the gallon to push and pull that little Jeep to the top of Sani Pass, but once there, Godfrey was officially the first to get his car to the top of the pass, starting a movement that was soon followed by Alwyn Bisschoff in 1952 in his Land Rover Series 1.

Sani Pass Series One 03

In 1955, a group of Land Rover owners, headed up by David Alexander, began constructing an actual dirt road up the pass, which is the pass that up until today, has been used for trade through this magnificent gateway into Lesotho.

It is sad to know however, that the Sani Pass is already in the process of being tarred and from the Lesotho border post at the top, the roads are now completely tarred by the Chinese, who have been commissioned to construct this road.

Sani Tarred 01 Sani Tarred 02

Yes, giving Lesotho easier access would be good for a number of things including tourism, but having a tar road in an area so many adventurers in the past have spent days ascending will be felt by 4×4 enthusiasts and locals a like.

Being able to ascend the Sani Pass in a convoy of Series 1 Land Rovers through thick mist and the sight of a sunrise lighting up the red sand and rocks of the Sani Pass below on the last morning of the Expedition is something I will never forget.

Sani Pass Series One 06

There is still time to do this route in a 4×4, Mountain Bike or by foot and I highly recommend that you do it before this legacy is gone. If you’re reading this a year from now and you missed the adventure up the Sani Pass on dirt roads, Lesotho is still packed full of unexplored dirt roads that are similar, but not quite the same as the Sani Pass.

One thing that will not be disappearing anytime soon though is the Sani Lodge, which is hostel and lodge located at Sani Top offering breathtaking views over the pass below as well as The Highest Pub in Africa.

Sani Pass Highest Pub in Africa

It here that I was looking down into what should have been the pass below, but all I saw was white from the mist when a group of Basotho herdsmen appeared and I took this shot of them.

Basotho Herdsmen Sani Pass 01

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12 Comments

  1. Audry Lotter
    March 2, 2016 / 12:56 pm

    I love it Mike, a gifted writer and photographer! What an adventure we shared.

    • March 2, 2016 / 2:24 pm

      Thanks so much Audry :) Oh that adventure has stories that I’ll be telling my grandchildren one day!

  2. Audry Lotter
    March 2, 2016 / 1:51 pm

    Mike, I think that you should name the first photo in this article: Stairway to Heaven ! (the Led Zeppelin song) Sani Pass is a stairway to heaven!!! What you think?

  3. March 2, 2016 / 3:03 pm

    Love it! I drove down the pass a couple of years ago. Any idea when the tarring will be finished by Mike?

    • March 7, 2016 / 10:06 am

      It’s amazing right!! From what I heard over the expedition, it’s looking to be finished all the way to the SA Border Post at the bottom of Sani by the end of this year. So sad :(

  4. Sebitiea Makutla
    March 7, 2016 / 9:42 am

    Beautiful pictures and awesome graft-work story… Thank you Mike for sharing my Hometown Glory…!

  5. San
    July 25, 2016 / 1:04 pm

    Great Photo’s Mike … Anyone up for a road trip (Durban to Sani Pass) September 2016?

  6. Carol Ratcliffe
    December 9, 2017 / 9:47 am

    I have been searching for a special place to wake up on my 80th birthday (Oct. 2018).

    Then inspiration struck & I thought of the top of Sani . Although we live in Cape Town we have “done” Sani many times , both from the Free State side & KZN . However I seem unable to find reliable info. re the tar (our Landy hates tar ). Can you help ?

    Would be much appreciated .

    Regards , Carol

    • January 8, 2018 / 10:36 am

      Hi Carol,

      I had some friends go up Sani Pass this December (2017) and it is not completely tarred up yet, so an adventure up there is what you’ll get if you are looking to head up.

  7. Barry Grindley-Ferris
    April 12, 2018 / 2:20 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I have driven up and down Sani about 400 times, even in my beloved Rover 3 litre, so I know it and the surrounding artea like the back of my hand.

    We mounted an expedition up Sani to put a vehicle on the top of Thabana nTlenyana / Thadetsonyana in late December 1980. ‘Entrants’ were a Ford F100, a Steyr Puch Haflinger, a DKW, a Land Rover Forward control, a Series 11A Landrover and our 1950 Series 1 Land Rover.

    Only our Series 1 made it, the others getting bogged down or expired or (in the case of the DKW and the Steyr Puch, running out of breath!

    What fun we had! The trip was published in a magazine, The Radio and TV guide, if I remember correctly. I have an electronic copy should you be interested. I have another expedition ‘up my sleeve’, traversing the Swartberg mountains — perhaps your group might see some merit in this. Koos Roets, the film maker is interested and I’m sure it could make for great television viewing…

    Regards,

    Barry Grindley-Ferris.

    • April 13, 2018 / 7:35 am

      Barry, thanks for the comment. I’d love to hear more about this story via the electronic version. Could you please send me an email to michael.eloff@gmail.com.

      • Barry Grindley-Ferris
        April 13, 2018 / 8:36 am

        Sure thing. I’ll get to it today! B.

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