This story was updated on 16 December 2019.
Sani in the Southern Drakensberg is the king of passes, a pass with attitude. Combine that with swathes of colour across its formidable landscape on the annual Sani Pass Wild Flower Walk…
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After dinner, we three girls returned to our room where we found a scantily clad man reclining on the top bunk. We all – the stranger included – gasped in unison. And gasped again when we learnt there was no mistake.
There being a spare bed in our dormitory (the fourth member of our party had bailed out) and no other room at the inn (read backpackers), the stranger had been allocated that bed. That’s the norm at backpacker establishments, we later learnt.
Nonconformists to such custom, we three retreated, driving out into the rain and solid darkness and down a lonely road to search for somewhere else to spend the night. But when the tar came to an abrupt end, and we found ourselves on a potholed dirt track, sleeping with a male stranger suddenly didn’t seem such a bad idea after all.
It was just a matter of attitude really. And, in retrospect, perhaps we should have responded in the manner that a friend did the next day, when we told her about our rejected room-mate. “Oooo!” Cecily said, her eyes lighting up.
Taking a walk on the wild side
Such was the little adventure that served as a prelude for the three of us to the much bigger adventure of the WESSA (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) Sani Pass Wild Flower Walk on the last Sunday of every January.
‘Last Chance?’ advised the notice of the 2016 walk. ‘The upgrading of Sani Pass has finally been approved – despite our fight against the idea of a hard surface – and work is likely to start soon. This may be your last opportunity to walk the pass before roadworks take over!’
The Sani Pass in the Southern Drakensberg, you may know, is the only direct road connecting KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, and the only road crossing the summit of the high Berg. Synonymous with adventure, it’s a mountain pass with attitude.
“Want a challenge?” the King of Passes could be saying, as you stand at its foot and contemplate the gravel road zigzagging up the formidable basalt bulk before you. “Here, take this!” the King declares, giving you all it’s got on the white-knuckled journey to the top, or bottom if you’re coming from Lesotho.
Whichever direction, you’re guaranteed sheer drop-offs, hairpin bends so tight you’ll wonder if you’ll get around them, ever steeper gradients and a slippery surface. When the King is in a particularly capricious mood, he’ll throw in mist, zero visibility, ice and snow, raging river crossings, and rockfalls that leave colossal boulders strewn across your path.
Driving this epic road that evolved from donkey paths requires steely concentration, which makes it difficult to enjoy the magnificent landscape, let alone the special flora along the way. For that, it’s best to walk. And so, with the road upgrade heralding the end of an era of unique adventure and determination, the 2016 Wild Flower Walk was not to be missed.
It all started with a walk
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The event has its origins in the 1960s, when Himeville neighbours Mona Lund and Ella Clark would walk up Sani in January to look at the flowers, when high-altitude flora are at their best. They’d spend the night at Sani Top Lodge and walk down the next day. “Others became interested and joined in. Among them was amateur botanist Ann Rennie, who made a major contribution because she started to describe the plants,” says Mona’s son, Michael Clark, author of a fascinating book, The Saga of The Sani Pass and Mokhotlong.
For a number of years from around 1972, when he bought shares in the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport Company, Michael contributed to the walk by providing a four-wheel-drive lorry to carry the flower seekers up the pass. They would then walk back down to the South African police post.
Underberg resident and a past chairman of the Sani branch of what was then The Wildlife Society, Bill Small recalls how everyone would clamber onto the back of the lorry. “If you weren’t friends when you set off, you were firm friends by the time you got back. The road was bloody rough.”
In the 1990s, The Wildlife Society (now WESSA) formalised the walk, making it a fundraiser. The event continues the tradition of transporting participants up the pass, only now, instead of lorries, 4×4 minibus taxis are the means.
To the top
Nervous when we set off (who wouldn’t be, given the track record of minibus taxis in our country?) we soon realised that our driver was a pass master, and took no risks.
Starting from the Giant’s Cup Café at Sani Lodge Backpackers (from where we’d fled the night before), we proceeded to the South African border post some 15 kilometres away. While waiting to have our passports stamped, my companions, Jenny Dean and Anno Torr and I struck up a conversation with a man who, in his hiking gear, wasn’t immediately recognisable as our near room-mate. He turned out to be charming and quite knowledgeable on the mountain flora. A pity we’d bolted.
From the border to the summit it’s about six and a half kilometres and, over that distance, the rise is nearly 1 000m (the altitude at Sani Top is 2 865m), which must be an excruciating experience if you’re on foot. On this occasion, the Pass King was in a benevolent mood, the road in surprisingly good condition, which had us wondering why the authorities had approved the concrete ‘upgrade.’
Delivered safely to Sani Top, we checked in at the Lesotho border post. The full group fragmented into smaller groups accompanied by botanical experts, among them Dr Elsa Pooley, who pointed out exquisite little alpine flowers that have adapted over the millennia to survive the harsh conditions on that exposed plateau. These and the other high-altitude flora we saw that day occur within an exceptionally rich centre of plant diversity that’s a globally recognised botanical hotspot.
The day’s programme allows for a maximum of ninety minutes to explore the special botanical niche on that plateau, and to enjoy the spellbinding view of the pass and the Mkomazana River Valley. There’s also enough time to duck into the pub at Sani Mountain Lodge – the highest pub in Africa – for a cup of coffee or something stronger for those who need fortifying ahead of the downhill slog.
Descending Sani on foot is an experience to cherish. To walk in that vast mountain landscape, immersed in unimaginable natural beauty and breathing the purest air, is a privilege, even if by the end of it your knees are on strike. “That’s why I stopped doing the walk a few years ago,” Bill Small told me later. “My knees couldn’t take the strain anymore.” Bill, by the way, recently celebrated his 92nd birthday.
The descent took us about four and a half hours. We couldn’t have done it any faster, not because of aching knee joints and feet but because, at every step, there was something to see – like the Bearded Vulture that flew low over us, and flora species that were new to us.
“Flowering is unpredictable and the display variable,” says Bill Small. “About five years ago, for example, the south slopes were blue with agapanthus.”
That must have been a sight to behold. My abiding picture of the 2016 walk is of slopes painted pink with Geranium pulchrum and splashed with the yellow of Euryops tysonii, (both endemic to the Eastern Mountain Region).
We trudged into the border post late that afternoon, footsore and weary but all the richer for that fabulous experience. Taxis and other vehicles waited to transport hikers back to Giant’s Cup Café. There we rewarded ourselves with tea and scones before starting out on the long drive home. Originally, we’d planned on spending that Sunday night at the backpackers but, in the end, decided we’d had enough adventure already.
- At the time of writing, roadworks had not begun, so there’s a chance construction might not impact on
the 2020 Sani Wild Flower Walk on 26 January.
- WESSA members, Russell and Simone Suchet, organise the event. 033 702 0330; 083 987 3071;
- Take your passport (you will be exiting SA at an official border post and crossing into Lesotho), hiking boots, lunch, lots of drinking water, hiking stick, hat, warm clothing and rain gear (the weather in the Berg is unpredictable and can change rapidly. According to Bill Small, the walk has never been cancelled because of rain, but there is always a first. Wildflower field guides, binoculars and cameras are optional.
Where to Stay
- Sani Lodge Backpackers on the Sani Pass is Fair Trade certified. It’s the budget option and the most convenient as it’s the departure point for the walk. If you don’t want to self-cater, meals are available from the Giant’s Cup Café on the same property. 033 702 0330, 083 987 3071, [email protected]
- Sani Valley Lodge offers 4-star self-catering accommodation: 033 702 0203, 082 561 3275, [email protected]
- Mkomazana Mountain Cottages is at the foot of the pass. It’s where we found alternative accommodation that, while superb, lacked the novel excitement of a scantily-clad male stranger. 082 521 6343, [email protected]
- For other options along the Sani Pass Road and in the Himeville/Underberg region, contact the Southern Drakensberg Tourism & Accommodation: 033 701 1471
- Mountain Flowers – A Field Guide to the Flora of the Drakensberg and Lesotho (Flora Publications Trust) by Elsa Pooley
- The Saga of the Sani Pass and Mokhotlong is the culmination of 30 years’ research by author, Michael Clark. It’s a must-read if you want to get the most out of a Sani Pass trip, or even if you simply want to learn more about the history of the region. Self-published 2001 (currently in its 4th reprint), available in Underberg at Major Adventures, The Lemon Tree Gallery, the Speckled Hen and Puckitty Farm. Michael Clark, 033 702 1061.
Sani’s Flower Power
- In her 2009 report on the impacts the upgrading of the Sani Pass road could have on the vegetation of the area, acclaimed botanist, Dr Elsa Pooley stresses that the Maloti-Drakensberg Park is recognised as one of the world’s plant ‘hot spots’ – a centre of plant diversity of global botanical importance, with 2 200 plant species. Of those, almost 400 are endemics. ‘Plants may differ with every fold of the mountains, with every change in altitude, aspect, drainage and rock type, from one valley or mountain peak to the next, clinging to cracks in rockfaces, taking hold in basalt gravels, or floating in shallow rock pools on the summit’, writes Dr Pooley, who has studied the flora of Sani Pass since the 1960s, and has been leading specialist botanical tours up the pass and into Lesotho since 1994.
- She further points out that the vegetation of the Sani Pass Valley is unique. ‘No other valley in the park has such diversity of plant species. Because of its exceptional diversity, Sani Pass has an international reputation as one of the top, alpine, botanical-tour destinations in Africa, and certainly in Southern Africa’.
- The summit plateau is of considerable interest too. “The vegetation on or near the summit comprises a very restricted area in South Africa, just inside the Lesotho border post,” says Dr Pooley. And while the area appears eroded and overgrazed, it is in fact a highly sensitive habitat that contains a number of species endemic to the high altitude areas of Lesotho. Most of the plants are low-growing and some like Romulea thodei, Haplocarpha nervosa, Limosella vesiculosa, and Lobelia galpinii are found in seasonal seeps in eroded areas during summer.
Words and Photography Andrea Abbott