By: André Kruse
A list I once read recommended 10 things to do in the Drakensberg. They included climbing to the top of the Amphitheatre, walking the Tugela Gorge, listening to the Drakensberg Boys Choir, staying at a camp site, climbing one of the peaks… and driving up Sani Pass. I could already tick a few on that list. And now I can tick Sani Pass too.
I had the privilege of driving the new Toyota Hilux Raider X GD-6 recently and this seemed like the ideal vehicle to use for our adventure excursion up Sani.
If you’re leaving from Gauteng it is a few hours of travel time, and for this you require comfort. Our two travelling companions were very happy with the seating comfort, legroom in the back and headrests. Although it does not have air vents in the back, the air from the front circulated to the back adequately to give them a comfortable ride on a hot and cloudless day as we headed down the N3.
With the high cost of diesel, everyone is aware of fuel consumption! It started off around 9.1 litres per 100km and later dropped to 8.6; that is with four adults and a fair amount of luggage, using the aircon and the ECO mode and travelling at an average speed of about 125km/h.
Our main aim was to stay off the ‘N’ routes and paved roads as much as possible. We took the turn off at Lion’s River/Curry’s post (Exit 114), that would take us over the R103 and to roads that this vehicle is suited to. And so we meandered to our destination.
Arriving in Himeville we learnt that the Tonneau cover, on the back, is not great at keeping dust out. Most of our luggage was covered in dust. We also learnt that the bakkie’s tailgate lock is not part of the central locking system and needs to be opened/locked manually, using the key.
The dust problem we partially solved by purchasing some large plastic bags, similar to dustbin bags. It was generally felt that the hooter’s sound does not match this rugged bakkie…
Destination: Sani Pass (and then onwards to Katse dam).
The next morning we started out early from the Himeville Arms hotel. A paved road meanders and winds up to the SA border and thereafter the climb commences and so too the gravel road. We did the first bit in two-wheel drive, but soon changed to 4WD whilst driving.
It was relatively quiet with no one ‘chasing’ us and we could take it quite easy. The power plant is a 2.4 litre turbodiesel, which produces 110 kW and 400Nm. The vehicle is fitted with 265-65-R17 all terrain tyres, ideal for conditions like these.
It was blue skies and the surface was dry. The vehicle easily rose and we managed to handle the tight switchbacks and turns towards the top with ease, without needing to first reverse or renegotiate the turns.
We were reminded of the clear and present dangers of the pass after encountering an extremely large boulder in the driving path, just after one particular tight and steep left hander. It is in the tight switchbacks where the gradient is 1:3 that the 4x4 worked its magic and got us to summit with ease. At this point I looked at the display and saw that consumption had increased somewhat, to 14 litres per 100km.
After clearing the border post we went onwards to Katse dam. Not a long way, but given the climbs, drops, twists, turns, donkeys and other animals it takes a bit longer than expected!
For most of the route the roads were in mint condition. In numerous areas along the way the roads are being upgraded and created, as phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands water project gets into full swing.
As such we were directed off the main road onto temporary bypasses; many of these were not in great condition, with exceptionally steep inclines and declines. All challenging and slow and in many cases requiring 4x4 again.
One route we thought was for the water tunnels, straight up a gulley in the mountain, turned out to be the road we were going to go up and come down again on the way back from Katse.
As we covered some of these roads we realised that we will never drive these again – the next time we travel there they are bound to be complete and tarred, so it was quite unique roaming along these detours, in the Raider.
Upon our return to South Africa and approaching the descent down the pass, dark clouds gathered on the horizon, with frequent lightning and rolling thunder.
A tangible hesitation could be felt in the car: we were about to head down one of the most difficult passes in South Africa, on a surface which is warned about when wet or icy, and it was already wet from a recent downpour, and now a serious storm was looming.
As we approached the abyss and commenced our descent, I was glad to have read up and researched a bit on how to properly navigate the pass… Drive deliberately, using 4Low, second and third gear, albeit we used first some of the time too, ensuring safe passage into the tight turns and switchbacks, passing the boulder again on the way down with water flowing strongly all down the pass given the heavy rain before we got there.
Notes on the Sani Pass
The pass is definitely a gravel, rocky road. It is not tarred and there appears to be no sign that it is going to be done anytime soon. I have also read that it is going to be paved, back in 2013 already.
When talking about Sani, as we did whilst having sundowners in Himeville – there will always be someone who knew someone who did it in a ‘flat-car’ - a term we learnt now, to describe a normal sedan.
Having done the pass, in both directions, dry and in the wet, this is not advisable at all, so beware not to get caught up in these conversations. Sani pass is well worth the excursion if you have not done it as it is. And may Sani remain in its unpaved state for years to come.
Notes on the Toyota Hilux Raider X
The look is tough with the matte black over fenders, finished off with a striking red insert at the top. Add to that the 17-inch, bi-tone, chrome and black multi-spoke alloy rims. The front end is all business, tough and focused. Inside the cabin is spacious and comfortable.
The driver’s seat can be manually adjusted up or down for the ideal drive height. The camera on the back, that is a standard now, really does help with reversing. The power is available when required and delivered adequately whether it is in H2, H4 or L4.
Incidentally, our route did not end here. On the way home we drove the lower Lotheni road, an exceptionally beautiful part of the country, hugging the ‘berg’ on our left. This road included dry, wet, muddy, steep terrain and overflowing low level bridges, before crossing the N3 close to Estcourt. The following day we continued by doing the Normandien pass too, the second highest in Kwazulu Natal, after Sani pass.
All told, this allowed us to (safely) enjoy and experience the legendary toughness (and comfort) of the Hilux Double Cab.
And so we and the Toyota Hilux Raider X definitely conquered the Roof of Africa via Sani pass.