Sani Pass

Sani Pass

The Monster Shot

It’s not often that you have a weekend worthy of a trip report…this was one such weekend.

Friday night was spent at home packing the necessary jackets, sleeping bags and any other warmth we could muster. A cold front was fast approaching Lesotho and we were definitely going to be ready for it. Part of this packing (thankfully) included a gas heater which Sharon had bought during the week. In retrospect this might have been the most valuable item on the trip – without it we would’ve been lost.

We got up early on Saturday morning and by 7am were at the regular coffee stop with Nick and Tarryn. The plan was to reach Underberg by 9am so that we could watch the Sharks take on the Crusaders in the first of the Super 15 knock out games.

The drive to Underberg felt long (as per usual) but was aided by the hot cappuccino and rusk, which the Wild Bean Cafe had accidentally labeled a doughnut. We pulled into Underberg with just enough time spare to fill up the cars and gas bottles.

Warren And Nick Enjoying A Beer On Sani Pass

The reason for filling up in Underberg was to “hopefully” get winter grade diesel for the below zero temperatures we were expecting up the pass. Sadly the attendant was unsure as to whether what they had was winter grade diesel, so I guess we’ll never really know.

We then met up with Caron at the Underberg Country Club and munched on toasted sandwiches, coffee, and the mandatory beer while the Sharks got themselves completely outplayed by the Crusaders. Clearly we should’ve skipped the match and headed straight up the pass, but then I suppose hindsight is 20/20. I do still have to pass comment (judgment) on the ref who blew his whistle against the Beast when he moved his foot prior to the scrum engaging. Dangerous my ass!

With the disastrous rugby behind us, and needing a little joy, we climbed into the Jeep and Terios and headed for the border. The dirt stretch from Himeville to the Sani Pass Hotel is still in the process of being tarred. It’s in great condition with a lot of people working on it, and yet has made no progress in the last three years. From the hotel to the border the road condition starts to deteriorate but is still in relatively good condition.

Sharon’s Captain Pose

As we’ve come to expect the South African border post was fast and efficient. Chatting to the officer on duty we discovered that over 40 cars had gone up the pass that day. Clearly the condition couldn’t be that bad.

We left the border post and began the 8km stretch which leads up the infamous switchbacks to the Sani Top Chalets. We did stop at one of the two picnic spots for a quick lunch (of the world’s best egg mayo rolls) and to enjoy an ice cold beer (coolerbox not required). The view was as spectacular as ever but the wind was howling and cut right through us. None the less we took shelter behind the cars and enjoyed what felt like the beginning of a great weekend away.

And then the real fun began…the last stretch of a kilometer or two up the switchbacks. I took the lead in the Jeep and must say that that vehicle is incredible. The additional clearance over the Pajero took all my old worries out of play and the ride comfort made the pass feel like it had already been tarred. Nick followed close behind with a worried look on his face which has since been forgotten (everyone has this look the first time they drive up).

I climbed the pass slowly watching Nick take it on in the three legged Terios (one of the shocks had seized and had pushed through the mounting – the agents were unable to fix it in time). It did amazingly well and only struggled a little on one of the tougher corners (which will be mentioned again later in regard to an X Trail). Thankfully this corner allowed for the use of a little momentum and the Terios passed through relatively trouble free.

The condition of the pass was excellent. In fact, out of all the trips I’ve done up it, it was in the second best condition I’ve experienced. There was a lot of ice around but amazingly there was nothing on the road, not even on the standard icy corner near the top.

Terios Through Some Water

Once on top we stopped for the compulsory photos at the world’s most photographed sign and then continued on to the Lesotho border post. It too was as quick and painless as usual with the added benefit that they seem to have updated all the paperwork making it feel far more official than the old photocopied forms. For anyone travelling up the car toll is currently sitting at an official R15.

While at the border post Nick and Tarryn did a little shopping to support the local community. Clearly the temperature at lunchtime had warned them of things to come and they took the opportunity to purchases a few locally produced beanies (complete with gay pom poms).

Now officially in Lesotho our first stop was at the pub, and this is where things took a turn for the worse. Amazingly they had completely run out of Malutis. FAIL! So there we sat, in Lesotho, girls enjoying a glass of hot gluwein while Nick and I sipped on cans of Hansa. What a pity.

The Jeep And Terios Up Sani Pass
Friends At The Top Of Sani Pass

From the bar we headed over to the backpackers to claim our rooms. Thankfully, despite 40 cars having come up the pass, the backpackers was relatively empty. We took two double rooms and unpacked a few items into the room to claim them. It is worth noting that although the website mentions gas heaters in the rooms, there were none to be found.

And then it was time for some fun…

We hopped back into the cars and headed out to the middle of nowhere (ie no roads were harmed in the making of this blog). The plan was to drive to the nearby river (for fishing inspection purposes) and what looked like a small dam on Google earth. Sadly the dam turned out to be a giant pit filled with what appeared to be all the rubbish from the chalets. Oh how misleading a satellite photo can be?

The river itself was also smaller than expected but probably still holds the odd small trout. It was also almost completely frozen over. We took the opportunity to do a small river crossing in the cars. Nick braved it first. He drove carefully onto the ice which cracked and broke under the weight of his Terios. He then reached the far bank which had a small step needing to be climbed…and that’s when the car came to a stop and the wheels began spinning and throwing mud everywhere. He rocked the car back and forwards but it went nowhere.

The Cars At The Top Of Sani
Nick’s Locally Bought Beanie

I started driving upstream looking for another area to cross so that I could tow him out. Amazingly when I turned around the Terios was on the other side of the stream and Nick was smiling proudly. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I think his pride got the better of him and he got out of the car, lifted it up, and placed it onto the bank. That would probably explain all the mud on his pants.

I drove back to the place where he had crossed and drove through to meet him on the other side. Realising there was no point in driving any further we got out and spent some time playing on a huge sheet of ice. We then all went for a walk down the stream which also lived up to the catch phrase of the holiday, “Never a dull moment”.

While walking downstream we found a particularly thick section of ice which Nick and I stood on an had our photo taken. In true Nick fashion he suddenly began jumping up and down. This was my queue to leave and barely had I made it off the ice when I heard an almighty crack and turned to see Nick standing in a hole in the ice, knee deep in water. At least it cleaned his pants.

On route back to the car we even had a quick game of Curling on a long frozen stretch of river using rocks as “bowls”. Ah, good times.

Back in the cars Nick spotted the section of ice on the side of the hill. Ever adventurous he drove slowly towards it and began the interesting experience of driving up the frozen hill. Not surprisingly the wheels spun and the car moved from side to side, but climb it did not. Four or five attempts later he gave up, pointed to me, and told me it was my turn.

Terios Crossing A Stream

I drove slowly towards the icy hill not expecting things to turn out any differently, but amazingly they did. The Jeep climbed effortlessly up the hill and I was left with a giant grin on my face at the top. Nick looked unimpressed to say the least. A few more tries, and one giant run-up later, and he too was at the top. Ah, what pride does to men?

By this stage the sun had dropped and it was clearly beer o clock. Sharon and I headed to the pub while Nick and Tarryn went back to their room to get Nick some dry clothes.

We decided to head out for a quick walk along the cliff line since it was glowing brightly under the setting sun. The temperature was dropping as quickly as the sun and Sharon had wrapped herself tightly in her ski jacket. Having spent long enough admiring the view we spent half an hour making use of the glowing light to take some funky photos of shadows and us “flying” over the berg before we headed back to the warmth of the pub.

The next few hours were spent in front of the fire defrosting, meeting new people, and enjoying warm cups of gluwein and hot rum (overrated – I’ll stick to Captain and Coke thanks). We then all gathered in the dining hall for their famous dinner where we were treated to homemade bread and vegetable soup, followed by pork chops with roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, butternut and rice. And for dessert, malva pudding served with custard. We did however make once mistake with dinner…we were too slow to the pudding. By the time we got to the tray all that was left was a little burnt crust. But my word, what good burnt crust it was.

Fun In The Ice

Dinner was followed by a few more drinks around the fire. Eventually even the fire seemed to be cooling so we decided to head back to the backpackers for a good night’s sleep. By the time we left the pub the temperature had dropped to a chilly -12 degrees Celsius (with wind chill).

Thankfully for Sharon and I we had our newly acquired gas heater in the room. Nick and Tarryn weren’t so lucky and spent the next half an hour trying to heat the room using a cooker top (bloody mechanics and their ingenuity). Amazingly, despite the extreme cold I actually started sweating in my sleeping bag. Technology is amazing!

We arose to a very chilling morning with no showers or toilets thanks to frozen pipes. Luckily we could revert to the standard Mozambican strategy of a bucket and some water.

Fun With Shadows
Sani Top Pub – The Highest Pub In Africa
Skottling At The Sani Top Backpackers

But on to more important things…would the Jeep start? Or had the diesel gelled? Nick went first and much to his delight his petrol engine started first time. Then it was my turn. I slide the key into the ignition, turned it slowly, and nothing happened. Nick sniggered.

We headed over to the pub so that the girls could make use of the non frozen toilets (and to give the Jeep some time to defrost). While there we took some photos on the frost covered deck and enjoyed a few cups of the hot coffee on offer. Eventually we headed back to the backpackers but the car was still gelled up. Clearly I should’ve put in more “winter grade” diesel in Underberg.

The original plan was to Skottle on top of Black Mountain but sadly this plan had to be abandoned. Instead we Skottled bacon and egg rolls at the backpackers while the sun slowly melted the ice off of the vehicles. Things were not looking good and Nick wasn’t letting me forget it.

After breakfast the Jeep still wasn’t starting. As such we decided to head for Black Mountain in the Terios (much to Nicks joy). But first we free-wheeled the Jeep down the hill so that the bonnet was pointing into the sun. Sadly momentum wasn’t enough to get it all the way around. Nick quickly volunteered to tow me all of a meter so that the Jeep would face directly into the sun. I kindly declined much to his dismay. No Terios should ever tow a Jeep.

Sharon Prior In The Snow
Nick’s Version Of The Luge

The pass (Black Mountain) was in roughly the same condition as Sani with views just as breathtaking. As we climbed higher we were soon surrounded by glistening snow. Sadly the snow was rather icy, but then I suppose icy snow is better than no snow at all.

We spent a while playing in the snow while Nick headed off for a snow boskak. I meanwhile took the opportunity to write my name in the snow…and not with my finger. Never a dull moment!

On our way home we found a massive slick of ice running down the side of the mountain. Clearly it was time for some homemade luge. We pulled the lid off the coolerbox and took turns at rushing down the iced mountain. My only complaint…next time we need something faster than a coolerbox lid.

After we’d all eaten some ice on the luge we headed back to the backpackers to get ready for the descent back into South Africa. It was the moment of truth – would the car start? The quick answer, NO. Uber FAIL! Now what? It was time to be hardcore and Sharon’s gas heater stepped up to the plate. Never a dull moment!

We lifted the bonnet, lit the heater and ran it for a few minutes over the gelled fuel filter. I inserted the key, turned it again, and the engine spluttered to life. The good news was that the car was running, the bad news was that it was hugely underpowered thanks to the diesel still being partly gelled. At least we were going down the pass and not up.

Before heading down the pass we stopped in at the pub to settle the bill. We also took the opportunity to head out for another walk along the ridgeline to take some photos and to enjoy the view down onto the pass. We ended up sitting for what felt like half an hour watching an X-Trail struggle on one of the tougher corners. He would enter the corner and, even from our height above him, we could see dust flying and hear wheels screaming as they slipped on the rock. Eventually he would reverse down and try again. On several occasions he even had to let cars past him.

Sani Top Backpackers
Nick Dealing With Gelled Diesel

I can only imagine this was a 2×4 X-Trail since there were several others at the top which seemed to have had very little trouble getting up. It really is people like this who destroy the road for the rest of us.

Thankfully when we got back into the Jeep the diesel seemed to have returned to normal and the power was back. We headed back through the Lesotho border and began our descent into South Africa. I was amazed by how well the Jeep held in low 1st considering it’s an automatic. In fact, I think I actually slowed Nick down while experimenting with just how slowly the Jeep would let me go.

A big thank you to the Subaru Forester driver behind us who thought it was a race down the pass. It really was fun holding you up while I actually bothered to take in the view, the sights and the smells. Idiot! It’s also worth mentioning the deep ruts that the X-Trail had created as well as the long black skid marks on the road. I’m glad to see there are so many nature lovers up the pass.

Sani Top Cultural Village

We arrived back in Underberg at around 2:30pm after having driven the very dusty 30kms from the SA border back onto the tar road. Nick and Tarryn stopped in to see Caron while Sharon and I headed back home to sort out the usual admin before the week started again.

What a fantastic weekend. Never a dull moment! And what a pleasure to be able to unpack so quickly without all the usual camping equipment.

Where will the next adventure take place?

A Frozen Sani Top River

A Panorama Of Sani Pass