Drakensberg, the Sani Pass by Motorhome & Lesotho

“Are you driving that movable house?” asked the South African border guard. I don’t think they see too many motorhomes at the Sani Pass……

Overview: 4.5 days, 712 km

We’d heard of the Drakensberg before arriving and we’d seen part of the Drakensberg escarpment further north when we did the Panorama Route, but good introductory information about the Drakensberg proper was hard to come by online. Basically, it’s a string of camps, all run by our old friends KZN Wildlife, from which you can do hikes on the South African side of the escarpment.

We arrived at Royal Natal National Park (run by KZN Wildlife, not SANParks, despite the name) on Monday lunchtime. Our plan was to spend two nights here and do the Tugela Gorge walk on Tuesday. There’s a lot of conflicting information online, so I resolved to make enquiries at the park office when checking in. In particular, I’d figured out that there were three river crossings involved and that this might not be possible if the river was too high (it had put down 4cm of rain on our last night in Dundee alone, so I had flagged this as a possible issue). The park ranger nearly fell over laughing. Oh no, he informed me, the river is dry. So no waterfall? No, no waterfall.

Now, the whole point of the Tugela gorge hike is to get to the bottom of Tugela Falls, which is the second highest waterfall in the world (depending how you count etc etc). Hmmmmm. In the end, we decided to do a short wander to Sunday Falls on Monday afternoon (as you do, luckily the falls were still operating on the “wrong” day) then stitch together the walks to Gudu Falls and Tiger Falls on Monday.

The camp site here was lovely (and pretty empty):

Sunday Falls:

Gudu Falls:

Tiger Falls was a disappointment in comparison, though the fresh water crabs in the pool at the bottom were cute:

Lovely scenery:

Overall, we enjoyed Royal Natal National Park, though you wouldn’t want to spend more than a couple of days here (three at most if doing the gorge walk as well).

To get from one part of Drakensberg to the next involves quite a drive – out to the east, then south, then back west again. We skipped Cathedral Peak but stopped off at Giant’s Castle at lunchtime on Wednesday. There was a bit of an issue with a baboon trying to vault through an open window, but luckily Mark was sitting just inside and saw him off….

There’s rock art at Giant’s Castle, and more rock art further down the road at Kamberg, but we just didn’t have time to stop to see it. The next camp site we could find was much further south at Cobham, and in a country where you can’t just wild camp, the distance to the next camp site can seriously curtail your tourism opportunities!

Wednesday night was quite misty, but thankfully, the mist was clearing fast when we got up on Thursday…

This was good news indeed, as Thursday was Sani Pass day…. Mark says that he’s wanted to do the Sani Pass for years, and it was certainly mentioned very early in our South Africa trip planning…. Basically, it’s a very rough, very steep road up a pass between South Africa and Lesotho:

The choice of scale on the diagram may exaggerate matters somewhat, but I did read that the gradient reaches 1 in 3 in places…..

We’d heard lots of stories about the Sani Pass over the last few weeks as fellow campers had asked us our plans. One had told Mark that the whole thing had been tarred (you can imagine Mark’s disappointment). Another commented “you’ll never get up it in THAT” (meaning the NAVI-SOK). Another camper said “you’ll be absolutely fine in THAT”. You do get a lot of opinions on camp sites and you have to sort out the credible from the not so credible….

In this case, the most credible commenter told us that no, the Sani Pass hasn’t been tarred yet (although plans are afoot). It’s not quite what it used to be (they’ve done some work to the dodgiest bits) but we would have a great time….. The main problem that he’d had the first time he’d gone up was that he’d driven straight past the Lesotho border post at the top without realising (it being such a shabby little hut at that time) and they’d had to come running down the road after him!

The first few kilometres follow the side of a valley:

Work is underway to tar this part, up to the South African border post. It’s not just a question of a few loads of tarmac – it’s a massive engineering project with huge retaining walls, new concrete bridges, and sections of the hillside above being stabilised.

We made it around all manner of construction equipment, reaching the South African border post at around 11am. Only 4×4 vehicles are allowed past this point. Technically, the NAVI-SOK qualifies, though I’m not sure they see many motorhomes. “Are you driving that movable house?” asked the South African border guard.

I noticed that we were only vehicle number ten on his log for the day……

On we went, following the side of the valley ever upwards. You can see the top of the pass to the right hand side of the photo below:

It’s a bit steep in places:

Erm, where does the road go?

Don’t look down!

The thing that doesn’t really come out on the photos is just how rough the surface is. We crawled up – it took an hour and a half from the South African border post.

We got a good view from the top. You can just see a tiny car on one of the bottom hairpins….

We’ve been informed that the Sani Pass features on a world’s most dangerous roads website online. To be honest, it didn’t feel that dangerous (easy for me to say as a passenger!). You’re going very very slowly, and although the surface is rough, the rocks are pretty well embedded (so you’re unlikely to slither over the edge in an avalanche of gravel). Also, there’s no traffic: once we got past the construction site, we didn’t meet a single other vehicle. It’s just not in the same league as some of those roads in the Andes full of overloaded buses driving way too fast…

Of course, things may change if they do tar the pass all the way to the top (which is, apparently, the plan) and open it to all vehicles….

As Mark had negotiated the hairpins, I had thought it best not to mention the motley group of swaying dancers on the hilltop above….. Here’s a pic of one of them that I sneaked later.

This does seem to be the Lesotho national costume – balaclava or Gandalf hat, blanket, and white wellies (which Mark insists only people who work in abattoirs wear in the UK).

Now the real fun started…. The Lesotho border post seems to have been upgraded and now has flags and signage outside.

Inside, in a dark gloomy office, were three young lads who didn’t look like they had the energy between them to run after anyone who didn’t stop…. All seemed to go OK at first – they took 40 rand off us for our road fund contribution on entering the country (Swaziland charged 50 rand) and gave us the receipt. I thought it rather strange that they made us fill in departure cards (in red biro!) which, rather than leaving in our passports to be handed in on departure, they immediately shoved on a pile. OK, when in Lesotho…..

We got our passports back and headed to Sani Mountain Lodge a short distance away. I checked my passport: I had a departure stamp! We went in to arrange camping, then headed back out to the NAVI-SOK. A closer examination revealed that whilst Mark had a five day entry permit, I had not one but two departure stamps, on different pages of my passport!

Back to the border post. The young lads looked somewhat confused, but having had both passports shoved under their noses and the difference pointed out, finally gave me an entry stamp as well and assured me that the two bogus departure stamps wouldn’t matter.

On the way back across to the Lodge, I had a look at my entry stamp. Oh, for f***’s sake:

Now, I am not normally one to flaunt authority, but rather than take my chances a third time with those bozos, I decided it was time to hunt out a black biro and take matters into my own hands. The biro was given to Mark by the Isle of Man police during last year’s TT, so I figure it has some kind of official status:

This was enough to drive anyone to drink, but luckily the highest pub in Africa was on hand:

Once again, the “camp site” didn’t exist as such – you park up outside the backpackers’ in “the village” and can use the bathroom and kitchen facilities there.

The village:

By this point, it was late afternoon, and there were a number of locals silently gliding about in blanket and wellies. This one caught our eye:

Yep, he was gliding about whilst knitting (without any need to look down). Driving round Norway in 2017, we did notice that at least half the Norwegian motorhomes we passed had a lady knitting in the passenger seat, gazing at the road ahead as the needles clicked. Lesotho may just have taken the knitting prize though….

We had a surprisingly quiet night. Mark did notice that the roof was no longer working well, though as it was highly unlikely that all four gas struts had gone on the blink at the same time, presumably it was altitude-induced. Then on Friday morning, our gas wouldn’t light so we had to retire in the end to the backpackers’ kitchen for a cuppa. It hd got down to maybe 5 or 6 degrees Celsius overnight (brrrrrrr, though a sign in the pub had told us that the low here was -21 in June 2012) so perhaps that, combined with the altitude, had messed things up….

Heading off into Lesotho, we were surprised to learn that our uphill travels were by no means yet over:

By heck, it’s mountainous:

We saw lots and lots of these guys looking after sheep and cows. Mark was soon referring to them generically as Gandalfs. In what initially seemed an empty landscape, as he pointed out, if you looked closely you could see Gandalfs all over the place….

The roads in Lesotho were fantastic, all apparently financed by the Chinese. Could this have anything to do with the diamond mines we passed?

Here’s another strange thing we passed – it’s called Afriski and it’s a ski resort, though it only seems to have one lift. How you actually get to it in snowy / icy conditions in winter remains a mystery.

Finally, a universal truth. After lots of tiny villages, we eventually came across one with mains electricity. What’s the first thing people do when they get mains electric?

We managed to get stopped by the police twice on Friday afternoon, once by the Lesothan police a few kilometres before we crossed the border, and once by the South African police a few kilometres after crossing the border. Both checked Mark’s driving licence, gave the NAVI-SOK a good coat of looking at (with particular attention given to the tax disc) then let us get on our way….

We’re now on a really nice camp site at a place called Ladybrand. The good news is that the roof and the gas are fully back to normal. From here, we’re going to be heading broadly west, in the general direction of the Namibian border…..

4 comments

    1. …. and thankfully I didn’t get imprisoned as an illegal immigrant! That would’ve been one to remember!
      On leaving Lesotho, I carefully presented both passports open at the entry stamps, hoping that would avoid the need for discovery of my strange Sani Pass exit stamps….. the lad hadn’t bothered donning a uniform and was sat outside his official booth. He gave us both a blurry (illegible) purple stamp each without so much as glancing at either us or the photo pages of our passports….
      I’ve never seen such lax immigration arrangements…..

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Reminds me of the guy who flew from Prague via Amsterdam on his friend’s passport. A genuine mistake on his part that was not picked up by any airline or security personnel…..

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  2. The Sani Pass road looks exiting. Reminds me of driving up the 14000 ft Pike’s Peak in Colorado, though that is a tarmacced road. I’m also trying to picture Mark trying to throw a baboon out of the van! Don’t they have big sharp nails and teeth?

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