Sani Pass snow squealing, Southern Drakensberg

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I’m sure I say the same thing every time I do Sani Pass; I vow to never to never scare myself mercilessly out of my wits by slipping and sliding up a mountain to 2873m above-sea-level.

And on this trip 18.8.18, I squealed the same words at one of the final corners on ascent. Myself, Wolfie and Craig (experienced Monique & 4×4 driver), were the first car going up the Pass on this snowy Saturday morning. The Southern Drakensberg peaks were already all dressed in white and it was snowing heavily most of the way.

You really need to experience big snowflakes tumbling from the sky and settling on your windscreen…with a backdrop of the Kwa Zulu Natal Drakensberg Mountains, of course.

Soon, the road up to the South African border control will be tarred the entire way (see below link for more), but on this day we navigated through wonderfully muddy road, skidding to the border at 08:30am. About 2 minutes later, we were through into the “no-man’s land” of Sani Pass, a stretch of about 8 kilometres ending at the Lesotho border. We were the first vehicle to go up the Pass and saw 2 vehicles descending, the whole time it snowed heavily.

The benefit of being early ascenders is the snow is not yet turned to mud, BUT you also cannot see a mapped out “safe way” to proceed.  Just note that at such an altitude (at this point we were roughly 2700m above sea-level) engines don’t function normally, so 4×4 driving experience is essential here.

After passing a herd of snow cows and a dog (much to my continued delight, I’ve been waiting for snow cows for 2 years in KZN), we began to ascend the very steep and twisted section of Sani Pass.

Near the top we came to halt on a particularly steep corner, wheels spinning in new snow and water-soaked sand, making a thick mush. We had to roll back a few times to re-attempt the corner in low range.

There is almost nothing more terrifying than looking behind you to a sheer drop, and rolling slowly towards it on slippery terrain (you can imagine the squealing and whimpering). I couldn’t look and had to fight the urge to spring from the vehicle with my Wolfie and leave Craig, with his calm disposition to his manly adventures.

Having freed ourselves from the sludge corner (yay for Toyota Fortuna once again), we proceeded up the pass reaching the Lesotho Border control at about 10am. We passed an abandoned bakkie, leaning dangerously over the edge, only saved by solidly wedged between some rocks (insert spine-chill).

As we arrived at the border crossing, a descending driver enquired as to the conditions of Sani Pass. He had the unfortunate job of assessing &/ retrieving a stuck vehicle near the top of the pass. Behind him on foot, the shrewd Basotho fellows rather take their chances walking behind the vehicle, instead of drive the treacherously steep & newly snowed section of the Southern Drakensberg Pass.

At the top, the best views down the pass are from Sani Mountain Lodge “The highest Pub (and accom) in Africa”. Wolfie’s joy at the thick blanket of untouched snow was only matched by my own excitement.

From the top we saw the predicted flow of snow-chasers ascending the pass, it was time to head down. In such situations, the ascending vehicles have right of way; simply put, because it is more difficult (if not impossible) to get started again once you are stopped on ascent. Therefore it often takes longer to get down a mountain pass than up. The current dirt road section of Sani Pass is about 22 kilometres (from Premier Resort Sani Pass to Sani Mountain Lodge); this took us 3.5 hrs to drive in the thick, newly settled snow. As time and fellow travellers pass, so does the stability of the newly fallen snow. Travellers reaching the top look more like muddy hippos and less like 4×4 vehicles.

I’ve only done it 3 times, 2015, 2017, 2018 and each time I do this Drakensberg mountain drive, I’m once again like a child, in every way. Each time I am more joyous yet more vulnerable, happier in my weakness and insignificance…and you can see it on my face.

Book a Sani Pass Tour: Roof of Africa Tours, Sani Pass Tours, Major Adventures

Some places to Stay on Sani Pass: Premier Resort Sani Pass, Sani Lodge Backpackers (4 star & Fair Trade Tourism Certified, Mkomazana Mountain Cottages, Seaforth Country Lodge, Sani Valley Lodge, Dieu Donne Cottage, Glencairn Farm. See additional places to stay near Sani Pass on SA Venues…and of course my Cottage Imvana (35 kms from Underberg)

Road development & more about Sani Pass from Umzimkulu River Lodge

Mountain Pass Driving from Arrive Alive

 

 

 

 

Drakensberg Snow Road Trip: Sani Pass

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“Do you think we’ll get up?” I asked Craig nervously as the 4×4 wheels of our Toyota Fortuna skidded confidently the in thick mud.

He didn’t bat an eyelid at the sliding vehicle and said, “We’ll get close! Good thing we got in early before the rest of the world coming to see the Sani Pass snow, the more the cars pass through, the more messy the road becomes with melting snow.”

Two days ago, the first proper snowfall of the season had blanketed the Southern Drakensberg, just in time to turn our road-trip into a snow-trip. Saturday 13 May 2017 we left Bulwer before 9am wearing 3 pairs of socks, gloves, beanies, thermals and our cold faces. The trip from Bulwer up to Sani Pass is <70km, passing through the KwaZuluNatal towns of Underberg and Himeville, then over the South Africa/Lesotho border, and finally the steep climb up the Southern Drakensberg mountains.

“Here, ask this family coming past what’s happening further up the pass!” I urged as the second of 4 vehicles gingerly made its way down towards us.

It wasn’t good news; we were told the road was very bad ahead and a few of the early-bird explorers had turned back. But fortunately, Craig is a seasoned Sani Pass tripper, having done it plenty times, and he reassured me we would be fine to press on.

A few times we had to stop and wait; either at a safe following distance behind an ascending car, or far enough over for a descending car to pass.  The die-hard explorers without 4x4s had long since disappeared and the majority of 4x4s were proudly Toyota, their passengers of all ages. I was stirred by the intense feeling of comraderie between us travellers; the sheer epic of the Sani Pass experience formed a common bond. Almost every person you make eye contact with smiles, and there is a knowing in their eyes.

After a 4 minute stop at border control and a stamp in our passports, we were back on the muddy road and could see the thick snow on the Drakensberg peaks. As we climbed, the dark green landscape became more and speckled with white, until all around us was winter wonderland and sparkling snowflakes were falling from the sky.

About 80% of the way up and before the zigzag section, there were at least 15 cars creeping down the slope and we could see a queue up ahead. The the road was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles side by side, but fortunately just up the way there was a verge.

We pulled over and I lurched from the van and began to frolic in the 30-60cm snow in my leopard print gumboots, throwing snowballs and feeling like a kid – completely forgetting my frozen fingers in the fun of it all.

On the verge, there was a solo traveller that made the trip annually to stay in the mountains for a few days. He told us that up ahead a vehicle has lost its cargo and this had caused a traffic jam on both sides, with at least 18 cars waiting to ascend.

It was now around 11am and the snow was falling rapidly, dramatically reducing visibility. So reluctantly I said “Let’s go back, it’s a pity we will not get to Sani Mountain Lodge for lunch though. But we’ll will do Sani Pass again, on a sunny day, so we can get the most of the views from the top.” And at that we began our hair-raising descent, slipping and sliding down the pass.

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Back down where there was more mud than snow, we saw one of the few non-4×4 vehicles on the road. A MiniBus Taxi, fully loaded with commuters and luggage appeared to be helplessly stuck in the mud, like a wildebeest about to be taken by a mountain of a crocodile. We were at the top of a hill they were trying to ascend, so we stopped and waited. But this was no problem at all for these locals! Out the vehicle they jumped, some unloading and carrying baggage up the hill, while the rest began to push and within I minutes the taxi was back on its way.

 

I was quite astounded, but Craig gave me the insider’s perspective “These are the Basotho people, they grew up in these mountains and have travelled this road many times. This must be a regular thing on the drive to and from work in and around Underberg. They know what they are doing.”

A couple of slippery and sludgey kilometres later, we were back through the border and onto tar road, on an absolute high! We came, we saw, and the way my heart felt, I could conquer the world.

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