“See you again,” mumbles the immigration officer. He stamps my passport with force, pushes it back under the glass pane and garnishes his gesture with a friendly smile. How nice for people to smile at you without provocation. Bye, South Africa!
We now find ourselves in No Man’s Land, as we still have a way to go from this western border control in South Africa until we reach the Kingdom of Lesotho. Nobody owns this area; it is constitutionally masterless. That sounds grimmer than it really is. In fact, this is one of the greenest, roughest and most unique landscapes on the African continent. The two countries are connected by a narrow strait: the infamous Sani Pass, third steepest mountain pass in the world. If you leave South Africa at the border hut, 20km of nature lies ahead of you, ready to take your breath away. And that’s not just because of the ever-thinning air with every metre you ascend.
With an all-wheel drive through unique terrain
The Sani Pass is by no means an easy drive. The route between border posts of Lesotho and South Africa and the pass summit may only be driven over by four-wheel drive vehicles, according to a 1987 law. Anything else would be impossible anyway, as the pass is too narrow and steep, the nature around it too capricious.
The route is stretched around three phases: tarred roads, dirt roads and then the last phase, on which you judder over rough and smooth. Up to the border crossing, the road is still cobbled, thanks to a South African governmental initiative. Here in No Man’s Land, though, it features a dip into a gravel track. So, phase two. Even taxpayers’ money has its limits. It gets steeper and steeper. The Sani Pass endlessly snakes up the mountains and with every meter, the view over the surrounding countryside changes. Almost unreal, the enchanted fairytale landscape of the southern Drakensberg Mountains unfolds before the viewer, stretching out more than 100km towards the horizon. You soon get the urge to hold on tight at every bend. Bright green meadows are embedded in jagged mountainsides. Picturesque waterfalls splash across from meagre rock formations. Even the surreal-looking clouds, dancing over the peaks, fit into the picture. They are constantly being moved by the erratic wind. It feels a bit like being in a living Caspar David Friedrich painting. You wonder why the Drakensberg Mountains was only put onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.
The Sani Pass: unpaved, unprotected, unbelievable
The dirt road is mostly erratic. Crash barriers? Nope. If you roll off the track, you have a long fall ahead. Then there are potholes, as large as buckets. This is phase three: you’ve barely passed a curve before ten new ones appear. They all have terrifying names like Devil’s Corner, Suicide Bend and Hairpin Bend, each one doing its name justice. With each winding road, the Jeep fights upwards. Its motor screams, it rattles, struggling over the rough Sani Pass towards the peak of the Drakensberg Mountains, which is gradually becoming visible over the horizon.
Unlike the adventure-seeking tourists in their four-wheel drives, the local population of Lesotho uses the Sani Pass even in windy weather, for daily trips into the neighbouring country. They squeeze into often completely full, run-down buses that sometimes struggle so much with the slope that it almost hurts. The Sani Pass is the only road connection from the eastern border of Lesotho to South Africa, with the village of Underberg in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal the only way for them to go shopping or see a doctor.
Between rowing motors and howling donkeys
You even see donkeys on the route, fully packed up with sacks and bags. Pack mules were actually a popular mode of transport back in 1913 between South Africa and Mokhotlong, one of the ten districts of the Kingdom of Lesotho. Back then, local trade flourished and turned the winding roads into an indispensable transport route. Today, old ruined bridges are all that remain of the former path. It took more than 40 years for a military Jeep to drive over, in 1948, to prove its suitability for the terrain. Apparently it did pass the test, as just years later the construction of the pass road began. The company responsible is still here today, offering day trips to tourists under the name Sani Pass Tours.
Time will tell how much longer this will be necessary. In the near future, the rough road is supposed to be transformed into an asphalted road. What is surely a well-intentioned initiative from the South African government for a connection into Lesotho – and vice versa – has its disadvantages. Will modernisation blight the pass’ charm? One thing is for sure: the view onto the scenery of the Drakensberg Mountains will be unchanged, but the real Sani Pass experience will irreversibly become a thing of the past.
Back to phase three. After covering what is at most half of the route towards Lesotho, the air gets so thin that you notice it with every breath. It also gets noticeably colder. No wonder, as the average height of the country is 2,500m above sea level. The summit of the Sani Pass, however, is almost 400m even above that, at 2,875m.
The highest pub in Africa
With the goal in front of us, this is climbed even for the puffing 4-wheel drive surprisingly easily. After two exhilarating hours, we arrive at the top.
Unlike the mountain passes of the Alps or the Pyrenees, nobody has put up a summit cross in the Drakensberg Mountains, but instead a whole pub. It holds the title of Highest Pub in Africa, safe in the knowledge that some visitor or another will show up to appropriately drink to reaching the summit.
Most tourists stop for a pint and a quick rendezvous with the Kingdom of Lesotho before soon heading off again, down the steep Sani Pass, past magical scenery into the warmer fields of South Africa, where the border guard is waiting with a grin on his face, armed with a stamp.