Strictly speaking, Sani Pass is in South Africa and not in Lesotho but I’ve included it here as it provides the only access for vehicles into Lesotho from KwaZulu-Natal. Also, driving up the pass means passing through the South African border control before reaching the pass itself. The official border runs alongs the edge of the escarpment about 8km away and more than 1000m higher up. The Lesotho border control is just beyond the summit.
“Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. Statistically and in every sense, it out distances, out climbs, and out performs all its competitors with consummate ease to have become the most iconic gravel pass in SA.” – Mountain Passes South Africa
I’ve driven either up or down Sani Pass quite a number of times and every time the experience has been different. The word “experience” is indeed a fitting verb for this pass. One cannot just “drive” it, or “walk” it or “ride” it. No! Whatever locomotion you use to traverse this iconic pass, it always remains an experience. The first time we precariously slid our way down the semi-frozen hairpin bends. Another time we felt as if the howling wind was going to blow us off the edge, car and all. Sometimes the road was freshly repaired making for an easy drive. Other times, damage by severe weather and tardy maintenance left little room for error in choosing the right lines and maintaining momentum up the steep inclines.
This time, as I made my way from Himeville I had to negotiate a confused muddle of roadworks where the authorities were rebuilding and tarring the road to the lower border post. One day the excitement and drama that is the current Sani Pass will also be replaced by a modern road. Although that will be a sad day for adventure-seekers, it will be a blessing for those who live and work here. Being the quickest access between eastern Lesotho and the nearest large city and sea port at Durban, this route is vital for Lesotho.
Once through the quick and friendly border control, I left the roadworks behind and, in perfect weather, drove towards the summit. The road was rougher than I’d seen it in a long time but the capabilities of my Ford Ranger made easy work of even the roughest sections and soon I stopped at the Lesotho border control. It was another quick and friendly border formality before I was on my way again.
Kotisephola Pass (Black Mountain Pass)
In days gone by, I’d always considered the road beyond Sani Pass into Lesotho to be a bigger challenge than Sani itself but this has all changed. Now, a newly-built black line of asphalt has replaced the narrow track. This was my first drive on this new road and I was impressed. The landscape is still as beautiful as ever and now I could admire the scenery instead of focusing on the road.
Leaving the border, the road climbs steadily over Kotisephola Pass to a highest point of 3240m. From there it descends towards Mokhotlong following the course of the Sehonghong River as it flows through a picturesque valley.
Although Kotisephola Pass is not the highest in Lesotho, it does have the biggest altitude variance (1066m) of all Lesotho’s passes. It is also about 10km away from the highest peak in Southern Africa with the rather inauspicious name of Thaba Ntlenyana (Little Mountain).
Although I had driven less than 100km since re-fuelling at Underberg I decided to re-fill again at Mokhotlong. From here it was going to be a few days before I would see a fuel stop again.
Mokhotlong is pretty much the only commercial centre in the east of Lesotho and it’s a bustling place, the narrow main street teeming with minibus taxi’s, cars, trucks, horses and pedestrians. I was so busy negotiating my way through all this commotion that I failed to see the filling station that my GPS was trying to direct me to. Realising that I’d have to make a u-turn, I decided to drive on a bit and see more of the town.
After a few kilometres I’d seen enough of Mokhotlong and turned around. I stopped next to two young men chatting next to their car at the roadside and asked for directions to a filling station. Without hesitation the chap broke off his chat and told me to follow him. After about 3 kilometres he pointed to his left, directing me to the pumps hidden from sight up a short ramp. With a beep of his hooter he drove on. Such is the spontaneous friendliness that is so common in Africa!
St James Mission and Lodge
My destination for the evening was the St James Mission and Lodge, about 11km south of Mokhotlong. To get there one has to backtrack on the A1 for a bit before turning right onto the A3. The road immediately descends abruptly to cross the Sehonghong River over a pretty steel-girder bridge before climbing steeply up the other side. St James Mission is situated just at the top of the steep climb, about 2.5km after crossing the river.
The “lodge” has sweeping views overlooking the rest of the establishment comprising a large church, primary and high schools, playing fields and boarding houses for the students. Beyond the schools are the staff houses. The entire scene is framed by rolling hills dotted with sheep. A lovely place to sit on the verandah and relax after the adventures of the day.
Accommodation is very basic, consisting of either a dorm room in the old sandstone main building or in adjacent Basotho-style rondavels. I chose the room as it was closer to the communal living areas and bathrooms.
After a warm dinner prepared in the communal kitchen, I headed for bed. Tomorrow was going to be another long day as I made my way along unfamiliar roads from Molumong to Sehlabathebe.