There are many roads that lead to Lesotho but here's why the Sani Pass is most special
The Sani Pass between South Africa and Lesotho, known as the mother of all mountain passes in Southern Africa, snakes up the Drakensberg mountains, into Lesotho, climbing 1 332 vertical meters to an altitude of 2 876m at the top.
Recently featured onCNN International's Africa Insider, it showcased a number of varying perspectives of this incredible part of Southern Africa, that has become a massive driving force for travel and tourism to Lesotho.
Employee of the Mokhotlong Mountain Transport company (M-M-T), Mike Clark shares how business first started on the pass and has since grown, “In the very beginning it was purely a freight operation to try and speed up the transfer of food from Natal into the Mokhotlong and they're in the mule trains - it took them two days to cover the 50 miles… the invention of the motorized transport meant there was a building boom in Mokhotlong, people are able to build up… a lot of cement and stuff taken up quite relatively easily, relatively fast, and they were able to build a lot of houses.
Owner and operator of Sani Lodge backpackers Russell Suchet says the South African road is so iconic because it has some much appeal, purely by consequence, “The Sani Pass, I think was one of the most amazing roads in southern Africa. Certainly, in that it was never sort of meant to be. It was really a bridle trail for pack animals, which became a road. I think if anyone had planned to build a road pass they probably would never have done that. But as a consequence, it has an amazing charm.
"And it's really, beautiful and it has, you know, what I think came to be called a sense of place that's really quite unique and of course, it's also the gateway to Lesotho. It's the only road from the Kwazulu-Natal up through the Drakensberg escarpment and into the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.”
READ: Quick Guide to Lesotho: Visa-free travel for South Africans
True wilderness makes it so special
Although there are many different routes from South Africa into Lesotho, Suchet explains why the Sani Pass is unique for hikers, “I think the fact that it's so pristine… The Drakensberg is wilderness. People ask me ‘are there no signs on the trails?’ There are no signs on the trails because that's against the wilderness ethic of the place. And I think that sense of wilderness is what makes it so very special… In our crazy paced world, I think humans increasingly need to have this type of experience to allow them to heal and go back to that world.”
While breathtaking in its beauty, the Sani Pass is also known for its often dangerous weather conditions. Tour guide David Peo tells people to embrace the unpredictable: “When they say, you can have four seasons in the 'Burg, they are talking about this place. It could be beautiful, next minute windy, over 100 kilometres per hour, the wind speeds and next minute you can start snowing and I've had many incidences like that.”
One group of people living atop of the Sani Pass are the Basotho shepherds who have been travelling on the pass for decades.
Mapaseka Nakoe, a young Basotho woman who runs a tourism operation explains how important visitors are to her village. She says, "My village is a small village that is in between two rivers… we are still holding on our culture. We are not like modernized people… we have only three people to say they are educated, they've been to the college. It [tourism] is very important on my side. Since I've started working as a tour guide. I have seen many different changes to my small village - the kids are learning to adapt, to know that people that come in here are not here to give us something like sweet or money they just going to learn about our culture and the other stuff.”
On the pass, the mountain border between KwaZulu-Natal South Africa and Lesotho has become a unique destination for adventure enthusiasts. Josiah Skeats, a young Englishman, has been cycling across the globe and is now heading up the pass into Lesotho.
He says, “I've been on the bike for nearly three and a half years I cycled from England all the way to Australia, through Europe, Asia, and then through the outback of Australia. And then I've just hitched a ride on a boat from Australia to Durban, South Africa and now I'm cycling across South Africa and back to England and currently going up the Sani Pass.”
However, the future of the site is unpredictable as the KwaZulu-Natal Transport Department has approved tarring the Sani Pass to improve trade between the two countries.
Mike Clark explains how this may have an impact on tourism saying, “The thing we really didn't like about the future of the pass is the fact that it's been upgraded [and] widened. It's going to be tarred up to the border post and they say they're going to put concrete on to the top - it wouldn't last one winter… it's taking the whole atmosphere of the pass away. The people come to see the dirt. This is all going to be destroyed it's just going to become another road, which anybody can drive up and down.”
Mapaseka Nakoae also explains how tarred roads will effect tourism, “I love nature myself. and if they try to extend anything like tarring the road [it] will be really terrible because they just going to affect the plants, tourists come for it. There's going to be a great loss even for us.
Tours coming up from South Africa to Lesotho [are] going to be boring. They won't see what they see now.”