Driving on Top of the World

Often dangerous, certainly spectacular

Sani Pass, Drakensberg

Adventure awaits around every corner of our country, but one sure way to discover new heights is to explore SA’s many mountain passes. Navigate the sometimes narrow, often dangerous, and certainly spectacularly scenic roads and be rewarded with a driving experience of a lifetime!



Adventure awaits around every corner of our country, but one sure way to discover new heights is to explore SA’s many mountain passes. Navigate the sometimes narrow, often dangerous, and certainly spectacularly scenic roads and be rewarded with a driving experience of a lifetime!

The Swartberg Pass between Oudtshoorn and Prince Albert in the Karoo is considered by many as the Rubicon of gravel road passes. There is an alluring mystique around this old pass, coupled with its status as a national monument, which elevates this pass to the very top of the list. It was Thomas Bain's final and best piece of road building and took him three years to build (from 1883 to 1886) with the help of some 250-convict labourers. In these early pioneering days, the tools consisted primarily of picks, shovels, sledgehammers, gunpowder, and hard labour. It would be a shame if these roads were ever tarred, as their core charm would be lost forever.

There’s plenty see and some mind boggling geology too! Navigating the pass can get tricky as the road is narrow in certain sections and sometimes reversing might be required to get past an oncoming vehicle. Etiquette is to give way to the ascending vehicle. There are no heavy vehicles or caravans allowed. Drive at the speed limit or slower as this road can be dangerous in bad weather. From Die Top, which is a natural saddle in the mountain, you will have expansive views to the south of most of the Klein Karoo, with its patchwork of green farmlands, while the northern vista is entirely different, displaying much drier mountains with a massive gorge splitting the upper mountain plateau in two. If you are lucky enough to be at the summit alone, switch your car's engine off and listen to the incredible silence or the wind whistling past the rocks. This is truly a master pass!

Elevation Summit: 1 575 m

Distance: 23.8 km

Time Required: 100 minutes

Speed Limit: 40 – 60 km/h

Surface: Gravel (R328)

Nearest Town: Prince Albert (20 km)



Sani Pass is the mother of all South African mountain passes. Statistically and in every sense, it out distances, out climbs, and outperforms all its competitors to have become the most iconic gravel pass in the country. Situated between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, the pass was built circa 1950 and remains a challenging drive in 4x4 vehicles. Sani Pass comes with all the drama, scenery, bad weather and treacherous conditions expected of a pass with a summit altitude of 2 876 metres! This is high altitude stuff - just to give you a better idea, it equates to 9 400 feet, and at 10 000 feet aircraft need pressurised cabins.

The first half of the pass is just a casual drive, compared to what awaits higher up when the adrenaline part of the trip begins. Go prepared for bad weather at any time and expect snowfalls as late as October. Most of the hairpin bends are 180 degrees and the large numbers of car wrecks down the ravines bear silent testimony to the dangers. It’s quite common to see donkeys lugging their loads up the narrow pass roads, so please be patient and give way to the animals.

The lower reaches of the pass has several hotels and a wide range of guest farms, B & Bs, lodges and other self-catering accommodation on offer. Always check with authorities or local business owners to find out about conditions on the pass before attempting it. But, once you have successfully negotiated the Sani Pass, you can give yourself a pat on the back. It will leave you feeling like a child for its sheer size and scope. 

Elevation Summit: 2 876 m

Distance: 26.9 km

Time Required: 60 minutes

Speed Limit: Self-limiting

Surface: Gravel

Nearest Town: Underberg (20 km)



This is undoubtedly the most famous pass in Mpumalanga - and with good reason. It’s 22.2 kilometres long (and even longer depending on where one starts measuring), plus it loses 682 vertical metres of altitude through a complex network of curves as it descends the Drakensberg escarpment, through some magnificent mountain scenery. This pass is part of the Mpumalanga Panoramic Route and carries appropriately heavy traffic, both tourist and commercial. The upper part of the escarpment is prone to heavy mist and can be dangerous for motorists in low visibility conditions. 

As you make your way down, look to your left to find the stunning serried ravines, known as the ‘Devils Knuckles’ and with a little imagination, it's easy to see how it got this name. When the clouds swirl up between the ‘knuckles’, it makes for an outstanding photo opportunity. The sharpest corner will reveal the well-marked Long Tom Monument; the pass is named after the famous Long Tom Cannon. It’s the perfect spot to stop and digest the history of the pioneers, who conquered this huge and difficult landscape.

Elevation Summit: 2 138 m

Distance: 22.2 km

Time Required: 30 minutes

Speed Limit: 70 km/h

Surface: Tar (R37)

Nearest Town: Sabie (25 km)


Northern Cape

Adventure travellers will love the Ouberg Pass! It offers an impressive non-stop climb through multiple twists and turns as the road slogs up the mountain. The ascent includes eight hairpins and finally summits at 1 401 metres on the upper plateau of the Karoo, where you will be treated to amazing views over the Tankwa Karoo and beyond!

This was the first main route leading hunters, explorers, and fortune seekers from the Cape of Good Hope to the interior and the great north. With the advent of tarred highways, the route was largely forgotten until 4x4 enthusiasts led the charge to explore its extensive unpaved sections and started calling it ‘The Forgotten Highway’.

Most routes are on farms, each with unique scenery and a variety of plant and animal life. Temperatures plummet to well below freezing at night, but it’s worth bearing as Sutherland is world famous for its celestial wonderland! Long before the modern road and rail system, getting to Sutherland called for plenty of grit - today The Ouberg Pass makes it much easier. It’s simply one of those gravel pilgrimages you have to do.

Elevation Summit: 1 401 m

Distance: 10.4 km

Time Required: 40 minutes

Speed Limit: 70 - 60 km/h

Surface: Gravel

Nearest Town: Sutherland (40 km)

Mountain Passes South Africa is a website dedicated to the research, documentation, photographing and filming of the mountain passes of South Africa. Passes are classified according to provinces. They feature a description, fact file including GPS data, a fully interactive dual-view map, and a narrated YouTube video.

Content & Images Courtesy of www.mountainpassessouthafrica.co.za