Backpacking in Lesotho, Sani Pass & the highest pub in Africa.
What could be more irresistible than having a cold crisp beer with good friends and a view that is beyond spectacular? Having a chance to explore one of Africa’s most impressive mountain ranges the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Mountains which crosses over into the often overlooked kingdom of Lesotho. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss! Although this would entail finding a reliable 4X4 and driving up one of Africa’s highest and depending on the weather, often impassable dirt roads. This would be no simple task but in the spirit of adventure and a good laugh, this seemed the perfect way to spend a weekend.
Sani Pass lies between the South African and Lesotho border. To cross into the border of Lesotho you have to drive up a steep dirt track to a summit in the Drakensberg Mountains, where you will find the Lesotho border post. From the South African border your journey starts at 1544m above sea level and then over a nine kilometre distance you climb to an altitude of 2876m. A total climb of 1332 metres where in places its a steep 1:3 gradient dirt road, that can be very difficult to drive in bad weather conditions.
Traditionally the pass was a bridal path used for trade between the two countries, which only pack mules and ponies could make. In 1948 an ex RAF Spitfire pilot decided that it would be a good idea to drive his Land Rover up to the summit. It was an epic first attempt and even needed a group of Basotho locals, their ponies, a chain and pulley block to help make the summit. The rest is history and today the route is driven daily by 4X4’s and taxis alike.
We camped out the night before at a backpackers near the border post, and headed to the border first thing in the morning. It’s a beautiful drive up to the South African border post and the first thing we noticed was how busy and lively the area was. Many families and tourists were making the journey up to Lesotho. What was surprising, was how many families were choosing to walk up the pass which seemed to be an annual excursion for many Durban families. The scale of the Drakensberg Mountains really changes your perspective, when you get up close, and for the first time we were really concerned about having the right vehicle. But after speaking to a local gentleman who had just made the journey down the pass in a smaller vehicle, we were assured that ours had enough clearance to make it up if the weather held. Passports stamped we were off!
Slowly climbing up the pass we stopped to admire the views of waterfalls, the valley falling behind us and the friendly banter of passing hikers. The weather was dry, but the mountain weather could change very quickly. The last 50m climb was the most intense. The road narrows down to a single track, with hairpin turns. Careful driving is the key here and we could see the evidence of mistakes still left next to the road. With deep breaths and all of us leaning forward for moral support, we made it to the top and were very happy to see the friendly Basotho immigration officers wishing us a warm welcome to Lesotho. ‘You made it,’ exclaimed one guard as he stamped our passports. A well deserved drink and a hot meal was our next mission and the ‘Highest Pub in Africa’ at the Sani Top Chalet, did not disappoint.
With the weather coming in quickly we decided to cut our lunch short and make our way down. Of course not before buying a few of the local hand crafted Basotho hats to mark our journey. Looking down the mountain you had the full impact of how treacherous the road can be. Although this did not perturb a local taxi driver who was taking the hairpin corners at full speed, in bad weather, with low clearance and a full load of passengers. FEARLESS!! Once we were safely down, the full impact of how amazing this part of the world hit us. Sani Pass, Lesotho and the Drakensberg are a true African adventure!