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Expert Reviews – Sani Top
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
An Afro-alpine Paradise atop the Drakensberg’s Wildest Road Pass
The most popular tourism focus in Lesotho, Sani Top stands on the border with South Africa at the summit of the region’s most famous road pass. It is a popular goal for day-trippers from South Africa, both local 4x4 enthusiasts and international tour groups. Arriving in the middle of the day from elsewhere in Lesotho, as I did on my most recent visit, it is the one place in the kingdom that comes across as slightly touristy. Stay overnight, however, and you’ll find that tourist activity peaks around lunch time. Either side of this, Sani Top, like the rest of Lesotho, tends to feel blissfully remote and quiet.
The main attraction is the ascent of Sani Pass, a rough and rocky 4x4-only road that navigates switchback after increasingly beautiful switchback as it climbs into the mountains from the South African town of Himeville. The drive is given added poignancy by the realisation that you are on the one and only motorable track to breach the 200km/125mi length of the Drakensberg escarpment that divides Lesotho from the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.
A small lodge lies at the pass’s 2,874m/9,430ft summit. Here, the highest-altitude pub in Africa offers hearty lunches and piping hot coffee or glühwein, while overnight accommodation is in half a dozen unpretentious Basotho-style stone rondavels (round huts). The views back along the pass from the lodge are incredible, especially in the early morning, with the sun rising to the east above multilayered clouds.
The cross-border birding site comprising Sani Pass and Sani Top is one of the best in southern Africa for high-altitude regional endemics. The lodge garden at Sani Top is an excellent place to start, with the likes of Drakensberg rockjumper, sickle-winged chat, sentinel rock-thrush and Drakensberg siskin all likely to be seen within the space of 30 minutes. Another endemic critter found in the lodge garden is Sloggett’s ice rat, a cute burrowing rodent usually seen close to boulders.
Some great hikes can be undertaken from Sani Top. We did the four-hour round hike to the 3,256m/10,680ft Hodgson’s Peaks, which offered some mind-blowing views over the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg escarpment, and stopped at a photogenic rock window. A more ambitious option is the nine-hour round hike to Thabana Ntlenyana (literally ‘Beautiful Little Mountain’), whose 3,482m/11,420ft peak is the highest in Africa south of Kilimanjaro.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
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Below Southern Africa’s highest peaks
A visit to Sani Top is as much about the journey as the destination. Most visitors arrive via the famous Sani Pass, a rough 4x4-only mountain pass between Underberg in South Africa and Lesotho. The drive with its countless hairpin bends and switchbacks isn’t for the fainthearted but will stay with you forever. At the 2876m-high summit most people stop for lunch or just a hot drink at Sani Mountain Escape, home of the highest pub in Africa. For several hours a day, the place gets quite crowded, but peace is restored once the day-trippers are on their way back down. The experience is even better when you stay the night (or a couple of nights) as we did. Highlights were watching the sun rise over the pass and the surrounding mountains and a visit to a traditional Basotho village. You can hike or ride a horse in every direction from the lodge and be overwhelmed by breathtaking scenery. But if you want a real challenge, you can climb Thabana Ntlenyana (3482m) – the highest peak in Southern Africa.
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