Sani Pass – Mkhomazi Wilderness area, South Africa - Atlas Obscura

Sani Pass

Mkhomazi Wilderness area, South Africa

Brace yourself for the slowest, scariest, most spectacular drive, down the Drakensberg Escarpment.  


Originally built as a trade route between Mokhotlong in Lesotho and Himeville in South Africa, this treacherous stretch of road is now mainly used by tourists, and to transport laborers between the two countries. With a gradient as steep as 1:4 in places and poor traction, the pass is only accessible by 4x4, and can take up to 4 hours to cover less than six miles, depending on road conditions.  

The pass is challenging at the best of times, but in winter, after a snowfall, it is even more hazardous. Due to their dangerous nature, each turn has its own colourful name: Big Wind Corner, Hemorrhoid Hill, Suicide Bend. Guides readily share the funny stories of how the corners got their names. 

Beyond the danger of the road itself, the pass is surrounded by the gorgeous Drakensberg, part of the Great Escarpment, and fields upon fields of wildflowers and native fauna. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the closest living relative of the elephant, a small furry mammal called the dassie or rock hyrax. 

The South African government has plans to upgrade the road and tar it over in the near future, which would make it more accessible and decrease the travel time. But locals say that would be a real shame. Most of the excitement and fun comes from going at a snail’s pace up or down, with ample time to enjoy the beautiful surroundings, while simultaneously lurching and bouncing around in your seat. 

If you make it from the bottom to the top, you can reward yourself with a Maluti beer in the highest pub in Africa, which is opposite the customs house. 

Know Before You Go

If you want to attempt driving up the pass yourself, you will need a 4x4 and a fair bit of experience. If you have neither, you can book a tour in Underberg for a reasonable price. A tour is recommended if you want to learn about the history and be able to take in the scenery. 

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July 2, 2020

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