It takes about an hour from our driveway to the top of Sani. The road between here and there was literally a piece of work the first few times we drove it. The Chinese had come in and were busy blasting, carving, chipping and chopping away at the mountains to make space for a decent road. We once were stopped for over an hour waiting to pass because they were blasting ahead. Before, the road was narrow and unpaved. Now, the road is smooth, wide and, although windy, easy to drive.
At the top of Sani is the Lesotho border post. It is very small and the folks who work there are almost always inside by a fire playing cards. It is very relaxed and they know us now. The top of Sani, at approximately 10,000 feet elevation, is chilly even in summer. In winter is it bitter cold. The fire inside burns nearly year round. We stamp all of our passports and pile back into Rocky. The law states that only 4X4 vehicles are allowed to travel the pass. Rocky qualifies. Jono switches the gear box into low range and puts on the difference lock. There are reasons for this which I don’t fully understand and/or don’t fully want to explain. But basically it makes Rocky safer to drive down the steep road ahead. A sign requests that right of way be given to ascending vehicles, as it’s harder to stop and go as you are traveling up. Many spots in the road are not wide enough for two cars to pass, so you must be aware of oncoming traffic.
We start down. Oftentimes you can see far into South Africa with an unobstructed view. Other times there is a layer of clouds hanging lower than the mountains, which makes it look like a big white blanket is spread across the lowlands. And occasionally there is fog which means you really can’t see anything. That doesn’t feel too good. But we really aren’t nervous. We turn on some Toby Keith to bump down so our singing voices sound like his. We figure if we go over, we go over. What can we do? We need groceries and want fast food. The hairpin turns begin immediately. I believe I've counted 14 major turns with a number of other twists and turns along the way. They have names like: Suicide Bend, Reverse Corner and Hemorrhoid Hill (gross). The rapid turning only lasts a few minutes; we drive slowly and carefully. The road is narrow and there is no guard rail. Not that it would help if there was one; it’s a long ways down. A few of the turns are a really close call and Rocky’s tires are closer to the edge than we’d like to admit. There are small water falls coming from all directions. Water is coming out of the rocks. In the wintertime, that water is frozen solid in places that never see the sun. It is then two foot long icicles.
When the quick turns are over, we wind down and around and down and around another bumpy 20 minutes to the South African border post. The road here is essentially a ton of large rocks packed hard into the dirt. It means a lot of jerking around in the car. The kids ask why the road is so bumpy. And how much longer do we have? And say things like, “Daddy, I just hit my head.” We drive through a number of streams along the way. We go fast to try to clean off Rocky. Free car wash. The border post provides a much needed bathroom break after all that bumping. If we’re lucky, we see baboons hanging around high on the rocks above the post. If we’re unlucky, they chase us. Just kidding. Although they are quite aggressive, they do keep their distance. We stamp our passports again, this time with temporary visas for South Africa, and continue on our way. There is another 30 minutes of very bumpy, windy road ahead. The lower area of the road is extremely muddy, which is so dangerous when it is raining (or just after). Just this past week, we were slip sliding all over the place trying to drive it. It’s awful. Rocky very nearly got stuck and we were a little too close to sliding off the edge for comfort. It’s still very high, even though we are way past Sani pass. Going over would be a big problem. We really wish they would pave this part of the road, but alas, it is unlikely.
Sani is a huge tourist attraction in this area of South Africa. It is known as the most precipitous (highest climb in shortest distance) pass in Africa. People pay good money to take a guided tour up and down it in one day. If you want to spend the night at the top, you can pay a hefty tourist rate to stay at the Sani Mountain Lodge. Because Sani is an attraction for tourists, thrill seekers, bikers and others, it is unlikely that much will be done to change the rugged appeal to the pass. It can be annoying to pass so many touring vehicles when we are trying to get to the grocery or a doctor’s appointment. We also know it is exactly four hours from our porch to the McDonald’s parking lot, so we’re aiming for lunch time.
We can typically accomplish Sani in about an hour. Then it’s another two hour drive to the nearest large city, Pietermaritzburg. That drive is absolutely stunning. It reminds us of Tennessee or Kentucky. Rolling hills and large dairy farms. Lots of ponds and lakes are sprinkled around. The road is smooth and the scenery is lovely. We’re over the worst of it and on our way to french fries. It feels good.