The Sani Pass - going up, coming down

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The Sani Pass - going up, coming down
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On hearing that a minibus taxi can do it, Heartland tackles the notorious Sani Pass in a 4x2 bakkie. The Sani Top Chalet is one of the best places I have ever stayed in, anywhere. Why? Location, location, location. Even though I arrived in the dead cold of the mountain’s night, it is unexpectedly cozy and cheery. Coffee and food just seem to taste so much better here, perhaps because of the effort it takes to make it to this point. Of course, the next morning the sun fills up the world with views that take your breath away.
My bed is comfortable, but I don’t sleep very well. My nightmares are predictably about falling. I’m attempting Sani Pass in a good vehicle, but it’s not a 4x4, and I don’t know what to expect from my Isuzu 4x2 double cab. Comforted by the fact that the roads have dried somewhat, that the bakkie has a diff lock to limit wheel spin, and by some expert advice (“Descend with the handbrake halfway up…”). I decide to give it a go and take it slow.

When you start down Sani Pass (at 2873 m), you’re faced with a series of sharply snaking turns, with names like Big Wind Corner and Ice Corner. There are also plenty of large rocks sitting on the road, and, on the verge of every bend, is a precipitous drop. I make a simple rule, The Pringle Rule, for myself: don’t exceed 20 km/h, don’t allow the vehicle to start skidding, because once it starts, it won’t stop.

It works, and why not go slow when you have such stunning vistas to absorb?
More than once, my tyres slosh through busy waterfalls and streams rushing over portions of the road. Had the rest of the road been even slightly wet, I would not even have tried to descend Sani. It’s simply so steep, that, once you slip, there’s no chance of stopping. Four-by-fours, especially those with low-range gearboxes, have more of a chance under those conditions. 

I use the handbrake plenty, and often have to pull it up more than halfway to break my gathering momentum. The reason not to overuse your pedal brakes is simple: they overheat. Worse, when they get wet, the icy water bites into the sizzling metal, cracking it. There are a few horror stories of people coming down Sani, riding their brakes and suddenly not having any. Now you know why. If you do Sani, use your lowest gears to hold you back, and your handbrake. After the thrill and excitement of the first few turns, the road finds some straighter lines, though I needed to remain alert throughout. I can’t get over how striking it all is.

I am blessed with a beautiful morning. Alongside some of the bigger streams. I stop and stoop to sip some water. It’s soft and sweet. I take my time going down, leaving at 08:39 and getting through the SA border control by 09:42. The border closes at 4 pm, and, if you’re not through by then, you sleep at the gate. The top closes at 5 pm for vehicles on their way up and through. 

Once on South African soil, the road tries to climb again, then gives up. Look behind you. It’s peaceful. Just the tall still cliffs, pushing hard against thin blue sky.

If you love the outdoors, this should be on your bucket list.
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Comment(Anonymous) - 24 April 2013 @ 08h10
Can you please assist with contact details of any one that can give info on going to the Sani pass in winter? We are planning to go in June and as we are first timers, we want as much info as possible to be prepared. Thank you
Commentmaartin visagie - 24 March 2013 @ 18h54
We have a mercedes-benz ML 270 diesel it is an automatic vehicle and has low-range. We want to go up sani and come back again, do you think our vehicle is suitable?
Comment(Anonymous) - 14 June 2011 @ 11h11
I have a Ford Ranger 4x2, do you recon i will make it up in winter?
Comment(Anonymous) - 26 November 2010 @ 12h46
Next time you want to trek up the Sani Pass, why don't you stay over night at the Sani Pass Hotel? It really is beautiful!
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