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The History of Sani Pass

March 2, 2011
Approaching the top of Sani pass

As most Lesotho adventure travelers are aware the Sani Pass is a must do on their travels around this little known country. Sani Pass is the only access from KwaZulu Natal to the Lesotho Highlands, the domain of the endangered Bearded Vulture, Basotho shepherds and their animals.

This steep zigzagging pass climbs the face of the Drakensberg escarpment to an altitude of 2874m. It’s generally not a difficult drive in any modern 4×4 vehicle and is a wonderfully scenic drive, if the weather plays its part.

Early days

The Sani Pass was originally developed as a bridal path in 1913 which was primarily used as a trade route between South Africa and Mokhotlong. All goods were carried by pack mule.

The drivers usually had spare beasts on hand to replace any laggards that they’d push over the edge after shifting their loads to the reserves. In those early days Sani was easily identifiable from afar because of the vultures and Lammergeiers that circled above awaiting their next meal.

The Sani Pass was opened in 1948 by an ex Spitfire pilot called Godfrey Edmonds, who On the 26 October 1948, aided by labourers armed with ropes and assorted blocks and tackle, manhandled a war-surplus Jeep up the path in an exercise that took about six hours.

Sani Pass Land Rover

(Photo by LROC)

For those ardent Land Rover fans out there, Alwyn Bisschoff drove the first Land Rover up Sani Pass in 1952. “Alwyn had no doubts that if a Jeep could do it, so could a Land Rover.”

In 1955, David Alexander and friends began constructing a road for their Land Rovers, so they could create a trade route between Himeville in KwaZulu-Natal and Mokhotlong in Lesotho. So the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company was created, and the Pass which it made famous. Sani Pass had at last been conquered by the wheel, and five years later the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company began running eight-ton 4×4 freight trucks up and down the pass, which was nowhere near as user-friendly as it is today.

A simple inn was built at the top to give shelter to travellers. You get warm beds, good food and “the highest pub in southern Africa“.

The Highest Pub in Africa

The Highest Pub in Africa – Sani Top Chalets

In 1994, when the access road from Mokhotlong to Butha-Buthe was tarred, the heavy traffic stopped using the pass all together.


Today is very different from those early years. The pass is mainly used for recreational purposes by hikers, cyclists, motorcyclists and 4×4 enthusiasts and to ferry migrant labourers between Lesotho and South Africa.

While South African immigration (RSA border post +27337021169) at the bottom of pass prohibits vehicles deemed unsuitable for the journey (only 4×4 vehicles allowed), the Lesotho border agents at the top generally allow vehicles of all types to attempt the descent.

It has the occasional remains of vehicles that did not succeed in navigating its steep gradients and poor traction surfaces, and has a catalogue of frightening stories of failed attempts.

The Border between the two Countries closes at 4:00 pm every day and the Pass is often closed due to weather conditions, especially during winter when an icy layer covering the road can be especially treacherous, evoking feelings of apprehension within drivers.

Snow at Sani Pass top

Snow at Sani Top (Photo by Jonathan of Sani Top Chalets)

A big thank you to Jonathan (Sani Top Chalets) for his contributions to this article.

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  • Reply Stephen Chapman March 2, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Interesting read. I made the journey up Sani Pass about 12 months ago. A great trip! There was a lot of talk around the effects that tarring the pass would have on its reputation as little piece of adventure, amongst other concerns. The majority of it still remains unsealed.

  • Reply Maliba Lodge March 3, 2011 at 8:53 am

    Thank you Stephen. The tarring of Sani Pass, remains a contentious issue for many stake holders in the area. It will be the basis of a future post on the blog, so keep an eye out for it.

  • Reply Wally Palmer February 21, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Yes interesting,lived in Mokhotlong camp at Mountian Trading
    Store 1965 to 1968 still have original fotos

  • Reply Frans October 14, 2016 at 10:01 am

    Busy with Springbok Radio Archiving & came across an episode of “Africa is Adventure”, which tells the story of David Alexander & Sani Pass.

  • Reply Glodel Rose January 2, 2017 at 10:07 am

    I am happy to say that my Subaru cruised up the road with ease ! Well done Colin Ridgard for driving so well !

  • Reply Brian Downie January 19, 2018 at 6:14 am

    The Institution of Civil Engineers is publishing a book on the History of Roads in South Africa.
    If you were agreeable, we would like to use some of your material in the book (with appropriate credits).
    Could you contact me?

  • Reply Leslie Nel January 19, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    One of my many jobs to pay my way through university in the 60’s was driving tourists up Sani Pass for the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport. Great experience especially in the snow! LWB Landrover had to reverse on 3 corners while the Food Aid Bedford’s had to reverse up to 12 times on some corners. Returned in the 90’s not quite the challenge! Plan to revisit this year before it becomes too commercialized. Les

    • Reply Clare Fowle April 12, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      There is no mention of Arthur Major and John Webb – weren’t they involved in getting things going for the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport.

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