Ts'ehlanyane National Park is a National Park in Lesotho. It is located in the Maloti Mountains in Leribe District and is part of the larger Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area. This Lesotho northern park protects a high-altitude, 2,600-metre (8,500 ft) patch of rugged wilderness, including one of Lesotho’s only stands of indigenous forest with a number of rare undergrowth plants that are unique to this woodland habitat.
The Drakensberg is part of the Great Escarpment and separates the extensive high plateaus of the South African interior from the lower lands along the coast, It rises to more than 11,400 feet (3,475 metres) and for 700 miles (1,125 km).
The plan today was to leave Maliba Lodge and head to the far eastern side of Lesotho where we would spend the night on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment before heading down the infamous Sani Pass into South Africa.
We had a quick breakfast in our room and hit the road as we had a longish journey and were not sure how long it would take on the unpredictable roads of Lesotho. We travelled back along the valley road and re-joined the A1 going northeast. The road was awful, despite being tarmacked but the good news was that the rain had stopped. To reach our next stop at the head of the Sani Pass we knew we’d be climbing up into the Drakensberg Mountains. The A1 had been built largely to carry large trucks to the diamond mines up in the mountains, but it was the very trucks that had caused the damage to the road.
After about an hour and a half of driving, we reached the base of the Moteng Pass which is located between the town of Kala in the west and the Afriski Resort in the north in the northern quartile of Lesotho. It has a huge altitude gain of 896m that stretches over a distance of 15.3 km which converts into an average gradient of 1:17, but don’t be fooled by that figure as it includes the descent. Most of the ascent from the Western approach is between 1:5 and 1:8.
The 91 bends, corners and curves will require your full concentration. Amongst those, there are 4 extreme hairpin bends and one full horseshoe. The A1 is a major route and as such carries a fair volume of traffic including some very large trucks. These need the full width of the road to negotiate the hairpin bends, so be fully aware of this as you proceed along this pass.
This pass has been the scene of numerous accidents, mostly involving trucks and buses. All the passes in Lesotho are above the snow line, so driving here in winter invariably means having to deal with snow and ice, which is to be avoided if possible – and especially so if you are not in a 4WD vehicle.
Luckily, we did not have snow to deal with but there were plenty of trucks, which were travelling up the mountain so slowly that I ended up stalling a few times following them as the car could not go as slowly as they were! The only good thing was that they were so slow you could pass them on the occasionally straightish bit of the road. To make things worse a couple of trucks had actually broken down on the road. Finally, we reach the summit and began our descent downward – well I say downwards we were running across the top of the mountains, so the elevation was still high! After a mile or two, a man flagged up down and made us pull over and join other cars and trucks parked by the road. There was an abnormally large load coming towards us. This truck’s load was so wide it nearly covered both lanes. Somehow this truck was going up and down the crazy, curvy road we’d just come up. We have no idea how this was going to turn out but were just glad we were heading in the opposite direction.
Our journey carried onwards. We made a brief stop at the Afriski Resort to see if we could get a coffee, but it was closed for the season.
The weather was a bit iffy, but we could still appreciate the incredible scenery. In fact, things did start to brighten up, so we were able to make a few stops to get some pictures from various viewpoints.
By mid-afternoon, we reached the turning for our hotel, the Sani Stone Lodge. The road was very rough with potholes, rocks and the occasional stream to cross. After about 4km we reached a set of about 10 buildings and pulled up outside the one that looked like the main one. The setting was beautiful but bleak and at around 2800m (9200 feet) it was quite chilly. The glass door of the building was broken – not a good sign. A minute or two later a man turned up and let up inside the main lodge, which looked a bit abandoned. We asked about eating, and he told us that the chef was sick (we later learned that they hadn’t had a chef for a while) but we could eat at the Sani Resort about 15km away. By this time, we were not feeling great about staying, but when we were shown our room, we finally made up our mind come what may we were not staying there. The room was very scabby, and our heating was a propane tank with a burner attached to the top. If the cold didn’t get us the carbon monoxide would. We jumped in the car saying we were off to get something to eat and would be back later – but we had no intention of returning, despite not knowing where we would spend the night. We had already paid so we didn’t feel bad about leaving.
We pulled into the Sani Resort, which sits right on the border post with Lesotho and at the summit of the infamous Sani Pass. We prayed they had a room for the night. We were in luck, they had one room left – which we think was the honeymoon suite. It was a very cosy rondavel with a little iron stove. The room was pricey, but it included dinner and breakfast, and to be honest, we didn’t care! Once we were checked in, we went across to the pub, which is the highest in Africa. From the pub’s deck you could stare down onto the road which heads down the Sani Pass, which we’d be taking the next morning. It looked a bit hairy standing there looking at it – but that was tomorrow’s problem!
Sitting in the bar drinking beer made the whole day feel a lot better. After dinner, which was excellent, we headed back to our room. Someone had come in and lit our fire, so it was nice and toasty. So, we went to bed happy – but also knowing we had an early start in the morning.
The Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. Statistically and in every sense, it out distances, out climbs and outperforms all its competitors with consummate ease to have become the most iconic gravel pass in Southern Africa. The Sani Pass starts at its western end at an altitude of 2876m close to the Lesotho border post and descends 1332 vertical metres to end on the tarred road to Underberg at 1544m. The Sani’s average gradient is only 1:20, thanks to the long easy gradient section in the foothills of the Drakensberg, but certain sections are as steep as 1:4 and it is here that most drivers come unstuck when the going gets slippery. The large number of car wrecks down the ravines bear mute testimony to the dangers.
We had decided to set out early to minimise the chance of meeting cars coming in the other direction. It took no time at all to clear the Lesotho immigration post and we make our entrance onto the Sani Pass Road. It was a gloriously sunny morning, and the views were stunning. The road is gravel, but luckily the recent rains had not left any standing water, but the first section of the road is the steeping and scariest. The bends are very tight, with several of them being hairpins. If you don’t get your angles right, you could end up having to do three-point turns. We were going very slowly, but Karen was extremely nervous about the precipitous drops at the road edge. Slowly we navigated our way down. As we reached the valley floor the road got a lot less curvy and steep so we could finally relax a bit and enjoy the views. We made a couple of stops at pull-ins to take pictures. It took over an hour for us to cover the 11km to the South African border post.
Entering back into South Africa we were now in KwaZulu Natal, and the roads were noticeably better. It was lovely to drive through the green rolling hills on a sunny day. We made a brief stop at the small town of Underberg for a cup of coffee and cake – to finally calm our nerves.
Planning your visit to Sani Mountain Lodge
At the top of the legendary Sani Pass, the lodge and backpackers is a definite bucket-list experience and an iconic destination for more than 50 years.
High on the Drakensberg escarpment just inside the border of Lesotho, Sani Mountain Escape offers comfortable accommodation beneath a sea of stars at night and breathtaking landscapes by day. It is also home to The Highest Pub in Africa.
Best time to visit Lesotho
Lesotho is a small mountainous country, an enclave of South Africa, by which is entirely surrounded. Here, the climate varies essentially with altitude: it is temperate at the lowest elevations, which don’t go, however, below 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above sea level, while it gets colder with increasing altitude.
The capital, Maseru, is located at 1,600 meters (5,250 feet) above sea level, but most of the country is crossed by the Drakensberg range and lies above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet); the highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, with its 3,482 meters (11,424 feet).
In Lesotho, the weather is often unstable, with rapid changes in wind and temperature from day to day. Winter is the driest season, while summer is the rainiest. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, it obviously has reversed seasons in comparison with Europe and North America.
Snow is more common at high altitudes, above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet), where rainfall is more abundant as well.