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Head this way for a Sani pass massage: Part 2

There are no words to describe the Sani Pass – nine kilometres long, and perhaps South Africa’s most treacherous road.

Head this way for a Sani pass massage: Part 2

PART 2: Where we chose Apple Crumble and X-Mode route: Afriski to Himeville via Sani Pass – 171 km

There are no words to describe the Sani Pass – nine kilometres long, and perhaps South Africa’s most treacherous road. Built in the 1950s, it drops 1.3 vertical kilometres. Some might point out that the stone-encrusted hairpin bends, dipping madly between Lesotho’s Mokhotlong and the KwaZulu-Natal town of Himeville, hardly qualify as ‘road’. Down in the ravines, swallowed by underbrush in the Drakensberg’s belly, several car wrecks attest to this.

I eased our Subaru from AfriSki along the A1, 135 kilometres south-east to the Sani Pass Mountain Lodge, dodging potholes, trucks and donkey carts, past a blanket-wrapped hitchhiker with a shotgun and an imploring smile. At the Lodge we stopped for lunch, the sound of goat bells chiming in the crisp air. Seated at an outside bench spooning potato and bacon soup with fresh Lesotho bread, Trav-el Companion, the designated driver from there on, took a small sip of my wine. ‘For courage,’ he joked. He’d done the Sani Pass before. ‘Piece of cake,’ he said. We finished with hot apple crumble, watching a Landy bounce over the first stretch of the pass, toy-small below.

After lowering the tyre pressure, we set off, beginning our descent into the great beyond. Soon the car was rocking like a sea-flung ship, edging down the mountain like a goat on its haunches, centimetres from the edge. ‘It’s in need of maintenance,’ admitted Travel Companion, gesturing out the window. He had switched to the Outback’s X-Mode to limit speed next to the sheer gaping precipice, a forever panorama of mountain wilderness unfolding at our side.

Navigating the Sani Pass is patient work; it cannot be rushed – or so we thought. Gradients near the summit reach up to 1:3 – that’s a neat Pythagorean 45 degrees – with loose stones, mud, and patches of iced streams. Onward we crawled, the Subaru clinging sure and precise to that godless track, clearing calf-high rocks despite our load. Then, a yelp of surprise: ‘What the…?’ Midway down a minibus taxi was deftly pushing past us from behind, swaying and bopping. We encountered two or three other 4×4 vehicles, a packed mule and its owner, but mostly our trip was cloaked in solitude; just the sound of our breath and waterfalls rushing.

Finally approaching the South African border post – the sun setting, sandstone cliffs leaning close –our relief was premature. From here the road is a slow ramble – although less steep, it’s a succession of potholes strung together along the Umkomazi River and another hour of grind and halt.

We reached our guesthouse in Himeville after dark, exhausted and properly shook, but thrilled and filled with awe. ‘Yes,’ said our guesthouse owner. ‘The road is bad, complete disrepair. Tour operators love it, they sell it to foreigners as “the African massage”.’

In 2015 Engineering News reported that government hoped to have the pass fully tarred by 2019. At the time the estimated cost was R836 million, and there was talk of a Chinese construction company. I have my doubts.

Click here for part 3