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A Brief History of the Sani Pass

A Brief History of the Sani Pass
If you’ve driven the Sani Pass in the Southern Drakensberg, you’ll know it’s not for sissies…

Words and Pictures: Andrea Abbott

The rough and tough gravel road corkscrews up the Drakensberg to an altitude of 2 876m above sea level and includes sections where the gradient is about 1:4. It’s the only direct road that links KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho – specifically the Underberg region and Mokhotlong – and evolved from paths worn down over many years by donkeys, horses and pedestrians.

The name Sani is widely but wrongly considered to refer to the San people who once lived in the region. In his thoroughly-researched and entertaining book, The Saga of the Sani Pass and Mokhotlong, author Michael Clark explains that the term Sani derives from the name Rafolatsane who was the son of Paramount Chief Letsie.

In 1890, the chief appointed Rafolatsane as District Chief in the Mokhotlong region. Colonial settlers arriving in Underberg would have looked at the gap in the mountains that led to the top of the escarpment, and ask local people where it went.

As Michael writes, the answer would have been, ‘Ha Rafolatsane,’ which means ‘to the Chief Rafoloatsane.’ The settlers, being unfamiliar with the indigenous languages, probably abbreviated the chief’s name to ‘Sani.’

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The gravel road corkscrews up the escarpment to reach an altitude of 2 876 m above sea level.

The original narrow path followed the shortest route along the Umkomazana River that’s born in a vlei on the summit. Near the top of the river bed, the path was almost vertical and animals had to be dragged up it.

Eventually, that terrible path gave way to a slightly less treacherous, hand-built bridle path that zigzagged down the steepest slopes.

The pass was a busy trading route in the first half of the 20th century, the mode of transport the unfortunate pack animal. But in 1948, a Willys Jeep, towing a trailer, pioneered motor traffic on the pass. It was a gruelling trip during which the Jeep had to be manhandled around tight corners.

Pack donkeys were the true pioneers of the pass.
Hikers pause to appreciate the view from near the top of the pass.
Tackling the Sani Pass Wildflower Walk
Currently, only 4x4 vehicles are permitted to drive the pass – a rule that sustains a number of tour operators.

Today, the road has seen upgrades that make it less of a challenge for vehicles but still, 4 x 4s are the only motorised vehicles permitted to drive between the South African and Lesotho border posts. That’s set to change though with the planned concrete ‘upgrade’ of the pass.

And so the end of an era approaches and, with it, perhaps, the end of the road for some of the small tour operators who for many years have carried tourists up and down that celebrated pass.

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Michael Clark’s book is a fascinating account of the history of the pass and the surrounding region.

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