Sani Pass Self Drive - All you need to know
In the previous two articles we drove up the Sani Pass and spent a night at the highest pub in Africa, the Sani Mountain Lodge.
For another taste of what it’s like to drive the Sani pass yourself, here’s a quick taste of what it’s like on the way down, once you pass back through the border post into South Africa and say goodbye to the Kingdom of Lesotho.
It really is steeper than it looks. At times the road turns so sharply and steeply that it falls out of sight. As you get to the turn in point, the road has dropped out of view and all you see at the end fo the bonnet is sky.
This is why if you’re going to drive the Sani Pass, self drive is the way to go.
It’s not technically a particularly challenging drive, in the dry. In the wet would be a different matter, but in the dry, although it’s steep and tight, it’s categorised as no more than average difficulty for a four-wheel drive vehicle or a motorbike.
When you’re behind the wheel though, unless you’re a particularly high adrenaline thrill-seeker, it is definitely thrilling.
It’s a rugged and impressive environment, it’s bumpy and steep and unprotected, and it is exhilarating.
Maybe it’s not wing-suit flying or base jumping but you are in charge of a vehicle driving above the clouds and if you don’t pay attention or you get cocky on the downhill and run out of brakes into one of the hairpin bends, then you’ve had it.
It’s a spectacle. It’s memorable. So here’s how to arrange your Sani Pass self drive, and Sani Pass car hire rules.
Entering the Kingdom of Lesotho
Sani Top, where you will find the highest pub in Africa, is in the Kingdom of Lesotho. You can approach from Lesotho, usually entering via the capital Maseru, and driving across the mountain plateau that is the Kingdom, to leave with a drive down the pass.
Most visitors enter from South Africa, drive up the pass, spend a night at the highest pub in Africa, and either return the next day or spend a few days exploring more of Lesotho.
When you enter from South Africa, first you pass through the South African border post, down in the valley. Your vehicle paperwork will be checked. Most car rental in South Africa, and especially 4×4 and safari camper rental, will include the necessary paperwork for passing into Lesotho.
Check that yours does. More importantly, it must be an off-road capable 4×4. Ordinary cars will not be allowed onto the pass.
Once your passport gets the exit stamp, off you go. And yes, you do need a passport to pass from South Africa into Lesotho, and back.
From the border post, it is almost 8.5km to Sani Top. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and Google Maps will tell you it should take about 20 minutes or something, but ignore that.
The whole route is spectacular, and you will be stopping to take photos and just to take in the view. You could easily spend 3 or 4 hours going up. Most people take abut 2 hours.
In dry conditions you could do it in less than an hour if you just drove, but what would be the point. If it’s wet and muddy, count on double or triple the travel time.
Sani Pass self drive
You will not be allowed to pass through the border gate at the bottom unless you have four-wheel drive. That means a vehicle with good ground clearance, not a regular saloon car with four-wheel drive.
The authorities don’t want to waste their time and money and put themselves at risk trying to recover cars that get stuck, so if you don’t have an off-road capable vehicle you will not be allowed in.
Near the top, it is very steep, with tight hairpins and little room to pass other vehicles. Visibility can be practically zero near the top when cloud or fog settles. Winds can be extremely strong.
At the top, you pass through the Lesotho border post and get your entry stamp.
British nationals can enter Lesotho without a visa. Your passport must be valid for at least 90 days and have at least 2 blank pages. Confirm entry requirements with the Foreign Office if you are British, otherwise your own government, before you go.
The border posts are open from 6am to 6pm, but there may be seasonal variations.
Getting to Sani Pass
Take a look at the map. Turn on the satellite view, zoom in, and explore the landscape around Sani Top, the highest pub in Africa, and into Lesotho. It is rough, and Lesotho is sparsely populated. The drive across the Kingdom to the capital Maseru is a long one.
If you’ve got the time to explore, it is a spectacular place, with some jaw-dropping drives, but don’t underestimate how much time you need to allow to drive through it.
You can actually explore some of Lesotho’s roads with Google Street View, and if you’re planning a trip you should definitely take a look to see what you’re up against.
Sani Pass Self Drive from South Africa
Distances to Sani Pass:
- Durban 150 miles / 250 km
- Johannesburg 350 miles / 565 km
- Port Elizabeth 500 miles / 800 km
- Cape Town 900 miles / 1450 km
The only major town from where you could sensibly visit Sani Pass in a day is Durban.
From Johannesburg, it’s most of a day to drive to the base of the pass. It would be a bad idea to plan to go up the pass at the end of a drive like that.
You’ll be tired, there won’t be much daylight left, and the border posts at top and bottom close by 6pm. You’d be in a dangerous rush and wouldn’t have chance to enjoy the drive and the views.
Coming from Johannesburg, or if you’ve been visiting the Rorke’s Drift battlegrounds, it’s better to stay overnight in one of the many Underberg campsites, hotels, motels, and lodges in the areas around Route 3 towards Durban and then the Route 617 that takes you towards Sani Pass.
Except in peak season, or unless you have a large group, you can get away without booking, and pick a place to stay based on where you are at the time you decide to stop.
One of the easiest starting points is Durban. Leave town at dawn, get to Sani Pass by mid-morning, enjoy the drive up the pass, and spend some time at the highest pub in Africa.
The only day tours to Sani Pass start from Durban. Unless you can’t drive or really don’t like the idea of it, you will get so much more out of the experience if you self drive.
PS, if you do the Sani Pass self drive in peak travel season, a dawn start will get you ahead of the Durban day trip vehicles so you can enjoy the pass without being stuck behind a convoy of tourists. And avoid being stuck behind 5 cars full of people at the border post to get your passport stamp.
From Port Elizabeth and the popular south coast routes, you will need to break the trip into 2 or 3 days. Click the button below to find hotels and campsites in the area.
Sani Pass self drive route
Whichever way you go, remember to fill up with fuel before you get near to the pass. A Sani Pass self drive that ends with a 6 hour walk back to the nearest petrol station would not be a happy memory.
Sani Pass Car Hire
Most 4×4 hire cars will be fine as long as they are off-road or SUV types, not cars with low ground clearance.
If you’re planning a longer tour, safari campers can be rented from numerous companies in South Africa. Here’s the one I rented for a 6 week trip through Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and more.
With a rooftop tent and a complete kitchen in the back, this was an amazing home through the deserts and sand dunes, the national parks, and the mountains.
If you’re going to be using hotels and motels, you don’t need to go to this extreme. Any proper 4×4 will do.
Remember though, an ordinary saloon car, even with four-wheel drive, will not get through the border post. It has to be an off-road capable vehicle.
You can rent safari campers and 4x4s all over South Africa, so search for one wherever you are starting your trip.
Perhaps the most common start point for a Sani Pass self drive is Durban.
To find current prices for Sani pass car hire, click the button below and select 4×4.
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