I recently caught Fords latest television advert for their All New Ranger. The advert showed the vehicle ‘taming what is known to be one of the most treacherous mountain passes on earth, the Sani Pass. This magnificent South African mountain pass ascends through the sheer cliffs of the Drakensburg Mountains in zig zag curves, linking the South African province of KwaZulu Natal with the tiny, independent mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The road is a notoriously dangerous one which can only be traversed by 4x4 vehicle, mule, quad bike, off-road motor bike or for the very fit, on foot. The route is approximately 8 km in length and takes you to ‘the roof of Africa, a summit of 2873 m following a climb of over 800 m by 4x4 (an average slope of 1:10). The scenery en route is breathtaking, taking in spectacular towering peaks, some of which are 3200 metres above sea level.
The Sani Pass was once a rough mule trail where tough drovers used mules or donkeys to carry down wool and mohair, returning with blankets, clothing and maize meal. In 1955 David Alexander opened up the pass to vehicle traffic using 4 wheel drive vehicles he had seen on service in World War 2. His company Mokhotlong Mountain Transport was the first to operate on the pass, only to be followed by many more.
Today tourists journey the pass with one of these expert 4x4 companies or take the plunge themselves. To drive the pass one requires an above average driving experience. On occasion one can see the remains of vehicles that have not succeeded in navigating the steep gradients and poor traction surfaces. Over the years there has been a catalogue of frightening stories of failed attempts to ascend the pass. The road is bumpy, the heart-stopping switchbacks twist back and forth up the mountain, but most will argue that it is worth every nervous second and odd moment of blind panic. Those reaching the top have often been heard to mutter ‘I need a drink after that! As if by magic a pub appears! At 2874 metres above sea level, it is the highest in Africa. As long as you dont plan on descending that day or journeying onwards in Lesotho, you may decide to partake in a cold glass of the local Maluti Lager to calm the nerves and enjoy the views.
The Pass is often closed due to weather conditions, particularly in winter where one risks snow and ice on the roads. Many 4x4 enthusiasts will say that the real challenge of the Sani Pass is an ascent or descent in the rain when the roads are extremely wet and muddy. A good, reliable 4 wheel drive vehicle with good clearance is essential when tackling the Sani Pass. Added features to modern 4 wheel drive vehicles, such as the Ford Rangers ‘electronic shift on the fly, electronic stability programme and traction control have arguably moved 4x4 vehicles to a different level, making journeys such as the Sani Pass far more comfortable, safe and enjoyable.