Sani Pass is fabulous and rightly famous. You need to drive it at least once in your life, but if it’s been raining heavily or snowing, check with the locals before setting out. You wouldn’t want to get snowed in – yes, it happens.
Remember it’s a gravel road (at least for now), so be prepared for rough conditions in parts. When we drove it two years ago, we had to reduce speed to just 20km/h in some places, bouncing over rocks and dongas. The switchbacks intensified near the top and the road became slippery when it started to rain.
But we made it and the contrast was extreme. It had been 30 degrees at Underberg near the bottom of the pass; when we climbed out at the tiny Lesotho border post at the top an hour or two later, the temperature had plummeted to 12 degrees and an icy wind was blowing. In mid December.
If you’re still hyped up on adrenalin after driving the pass, and you simply must stand on the highest point in southern Africa, hike – a bit of a slog, really – from Sani Top up Thabana Ntlenyana (3482 metres).
But Sani is just one of many dramatic passes you can drive in Lesotho. Two of my other favourites are Mafika Lisiu and Moteng, even though both of them are tarred.
If you go to Katse Dam, you’ll get to experience the magnificent Mafika Lisiu Pass between Pitseng and Lejone for yourself. It was built as part of Phase 1 of the construction of Katse Dam and was special enough to receive an engineering prize.
My memory of it is of a series of steep climbs and descents, hairpin bends and waterfalls. During the rainy season waterfalls glisten like diamonds over rocks and hills just about anywhere you look. Small wonder water is referred to in Lesotho as ‘white gold’, especially given the massive Katse Highlands Water Project and its impact on Lesotho’s economy through the sale of water to South Africa via a network of tunnels through the mountains.
From Pitseng the road climbs in less than 30 kilometres to a breathtaking 3090 metres at the top of the pass. Every bend will have you wanting to stop the car to take in the view, to immortalise it in photographs. If you don’t have a head for heights, though, you may prefer to close your eyes and grit your teeth.
Unless you’re adventurous and have a strongly developed sense of humour, some of the road signs along this pass aren’t likely to thrill you either. Signs warn of Sharp descent, Snow/ice and Falling rocks. Take notice. They’re not kidding.
At the top of the pass is the Bokong Nature Reserve, the highest nature reserve in Africa accessible by car. Not far from the turnoff we saw an enormous rock fall, a scary reminder of what can happen. The slopes are steep and when it rains, rocks and stones get dislodged onto the road, carving craters in the edge of the tar (hopefully not your car) as they land.
Signs will also warn you of Steep curves for 5km – after you’ve already been twisting helter skelter for kilometre upon kilometre. Just as you go into a Sharp descent another sign will helpfully tell you that Brake failure has killed. Here where there’s not a repair shop or AA check centre in sight. Bit late for that warning, then.
Another pass worth driving is the Moteng Pass (2820 metres), which coils like a corkscrew just before you reach Oxbow on the A1 road from Butha-Buthe. If you remember that this area is usually covered in enough winter snow to make it one of Lesotho’s prime areas for skiing, you’ll get a hint of what to expect. In summer when we visited, we drove up through the clouds and then looked down on them from above, that’s how steep these hills are.
South of Oxbow and Afriski (where you’ll find the pub that claims to have toppled Sani Top’s pub from its pedestal as the highest in Africa) is the Tlaeeng Pass. At 3251 metres it’s the highest motorable pass in Africa, so you might think it’s going to be even more exciting than Moteng.
It turns out to be a bit of a letdown, mainly because you start so high that it hardly feels like a big deal at all. I certainly wouldn't class it as a 'must-drive' pass - which is why I haven't included it in the title of this blog, which refers to 3 passes.
Still, it’s nice to say you’ve driven the highest pass in Africa. And we did enjoy the waterfalls, the Motetsi River gambolling through the hills, and red-hot pokers and yellow, white and purple Afro-alpine flowers, at the top of the windswept pass.
If you have a favourite – or least favourite! – pass in Lesotho, I’d love to know about it and what happened to make you feel that way.
[Update 2017: The road is now tarred right from Maseru, through Semonkong, to Quachas Nek, making it an easy drive in one day, even going to the Maletsunyane Falls viewsite.]
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