So you want to take a self drive trip around Africa, but you have little idea as to what is the best or most suitable vehicle for the job. Perhaps you want to be able to drive some of the most famous routes such as the Sani Pass in The Drakensberg Mountains. Now there is no shortage of choice of vehicles, and truth be told, you can drive the length of Africa in almost anything. Such vehicles that have been driven from Cairo to Cape Town include a double decker London bus, a tractor and a moped scooter.
Sani Pass self drive – The Road to The Roof of Africa
Now of course there are places you won’t be able to go with certain vehicles, and you will be limited as to how much stuff you can take with you, such as on a motorbike, or your own feet, but for the most part you will be ok with almost anything on an average trip through Africa. However, if you want to able to go almost anywhere and to take a fair amount of gear with you, your choice of vehicle is now that much more important.
What I think most people will agree with is that the most iconic and versatile vehicle in Africa is the Landrover Defender, followed closely by the Toyota Landcruiser. The older the model with the least amount of electronic controls, the better, as few ‘garages’ in the deepest parts of Africa will have the computer neccessary to change a faulty fuel injector or a fan belt, simple things you can otherwise do on the side of the road with basic tools.
Our vehicle of choice is a 1998 model Landrover Defender TDi 90 (short wheel base) There are absolutely no electronic controls and we still have a fuel consumption of 10L per 100km, all while weighing in at just under 2 metric tons fully loaded.
As soon as we got the Landy we were ready for our first trip. We started off with an easy cruise through Kruger National Park.
But then we thought it’s time to test our trusty steed on something a bit more challenging.
Self driving Sani Pass Lesotho
One route I have always been wanting to drive since I was a small boy was the Sani Pass. It is probably one of the most well known mountain passes in Africa, and for a number of reasons. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, all year round, with snow in the winter and green grass and thunderstorms in the summer. But most importantly, it needs to be done in a high clearance 4×4 with low range gears. However, you can also do it on a bicycle or your own feet, if you feel fit enough. Walking and cycling the pass is done on a regular basis, you can walk up and down again in the same day as the pass is only about 9km long.
As of writing this article, the pass is still well graded gravel, however, there are plans to tar the pass in the near future. A lot of people are arguing that tarring the pass will attract too many inexperinced drivers in all types of vehicles, but I am sure they will put measures in place to prevent accidents.
I must admit that I was a little nervous when we started up as I had heard a few horror stories of how dangerous the pass can be, especially when it is wet or under snow. We had neither, so the drive up was ‘easy’, for me anyway. The key to a safe passage either up or down is to take it slow. Both to be able to enjoy the scenery and to basically not drive over the edge as some of the hairpin bends are really steep and sharp. I used low range 1st gear most of the way up. Should I have used high 1st, I would have gone too fast and over the edge, or I would have had to ride the clutch, which is never a good thing if I want it to last, which I do. The gradient of the pass is about 1:10.
Also be sure your brakes are working well, both for going up or down. When going up you may want to stop for photos. Having brakes on such an occasion is a very good thing. It is maybe a better idea to keep your foot on the brakes and let someone else take the photos, or take them from your seat, unless you trust your hand-brake implicitly. I didn’t, not on such a steep slope.
As mentioned above, the pass itself is only about 9km long, so it shouldn’t take too long to drive up. You will first pass through the South African border post at the bottom only reaching the Lesotho border post at the very top. In other words, you need a valid passport to drive the Sani Pass. They didn’t ask me for my car papers, they seem to be very lax on this, but have them with you anyway, just in case. You will need to pay ZAR 30 toll upon entering Lesotho. On the other hand, if you are not confident enough to drive it yourself or you don’t have a suitable vehicle, you can arrange a trip up with one of the many local tour operators. You will still need a passport.
There is accommodation at: The Sani Pass Hotel and Sani Lodge Backpackers Hostel, both near the bottom of the pass in South Africa. Then there is Sani Mountain Lodge at the top in Lesotho. You can arrange guided tours at any of those establishments.
The cherry on the top, or shall we say pub, is the highest pub in Africa at 2874 meters above sea level. They have a big window and an outside deck looking straight down the pass. You will quickly forget the price you paid for a beer or gluwein (they take credit cards) as you sip it by a roaring log fire while enjoying some of the best scenery this great continent has to offer.
For more information about travelling further into Lesotho: 13 Interesting Facts About Lesotho
Take a look at a short video of our 1st trip up Sani Pass:
What was your most memorable mountain pass experience?
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