The Sani Pass: Is this the end of our best bad road?

The Sani Pass between South Africa and Lesotho is an international tourism icon. But if, as many claim, the attraction lies in the poor state of the road, a proposed upgrade could destroy Sani’s eco-tourism industry. By Alison Westwood.

The Sani Pass has never been a good road. Running through the southern Drakensberg and linking eastern Lesotho with KwaZulu-Natal, it’s not one pass but a series of eight passes rising over 3,000 metres. In many places, it’s too narrow for two vehicles to pass and some of the hairpin bends require three-point turns. In winter, it’s covered with snow and ice and summer rains cause mudslides. The adventure of driving this road is the main reason people travel it.

In July 2006, the Department of Transport announced plans to upgrade the Sani Pass. Work has started on tarring the approach, but the controversial part of the project is Phase 2: the 19 kilometres from the new border post to the summit. Tourists, tour operators and local communities are unhappy about the possibility that this part of the pass might also be tarred.

They have good reason to be. A standard tarred road in such extreme conditions will quickly deteriorate to the point where it has to be closed, unless expensive maintenance is constantly carried out. ‘It’s better to have a bad dirt road than a bad tarred road and our track record for road maintenance is abysmal,’ says Di Dold, environmental co-ordinator for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa in KZN.

Ironically, it’s precisely because the road is so bad that there are scarcely any accidents on the Sani Pass. ‘The uneven road results in motorists travelling with extreme caution at very low speeds,’ says Russell Suchet, owner of Sani Lodge. ‘If the road is tarred, I foresee a large number of serious accidents caused by inexperienced drivers.’ The dirt surface also provides traction when the road is covered in snow and ice. A smooth surface would form sheets of ice and create potential death traps.

But the greatest concern is that tarring the Sani Pass will destroy the very thing thousands of tourists travel there to find: the sense of isolation and achievement. ‘The Sani Pass is a brand,’ says Gerrit Rautenbach, editor of Mooiloop. ‘It’s an incredible tourist attraction.’ But that could depend on the road staying rough.

‘The first thing people ask me is, “How’s the road?”’ says Charles Major, a tour operator. ‘That’s the big attraction.’ The economy of the Himeville-Underberg region largely depends on tourism, but  ‘if you tar the Sani Pass, the tourism industry could collapse,’ says Dold.

Tar is not the only option

Fortunately, nothing’s final yet. ‘Everyone who hears about it immediately assumes the thing is going to be tarred from top to bottom,’ says Russell Stow of Arcus Gibb, the consultants preparing the EIA. ‘But it’s intended to be an all-weather road and that could be a number of other surfaces – paving, cobblestones, rocks.’ A probable solution is a combination of surfaces to suit each section’s characteristics.

It’s obvious something needs to be done. Even for a bad road, the Sani Pass is in a terrible state. ‘Half the reason to upgrade the road is to protect it from collapse,’ says Stow. ‘The section called the switchbacks is particularly unstable. Any heavy weather or floods and it will slide down the valley.’

The road is in such a state of disrepair it’s damaging the environment in a World Heritage Site. When it was built, there was no proper drainage installed and no consideration of run-off. ‘There are places where the erosion caused by the road is severe,’ says Prof Steven Piper, a tour operator. ‘I’m talking dongas 10 to 15 metres deep.’  Silt is deposited in the river below, obstructing its flow.

However, an upgrade could also negatively affect the environment. Construction will destroy vegetation for several metres on either side. Ease of access will bring travellers who don’t value the pristine state of the pass. Deprived of the thrills of the old dirt track, 4x4s and quad-bikes might resort to uncontrolled off-road driving.

The decision to upgrade the Sani Pass was made without consulting the people it would affect. But public participation in the EIA will correct that. ‘We’re getting everyone’s ideas,’ says Sanusha Govender, an environmental scientist at Arcus Gibb. ‘We’re asking them to tell us how we can do it better.’

The answer will probably be ‘do what you must, but don’t tar!’

‘It’s the romance of the thing,’ says Rautenbach. ‘If they tar it, I won’t go there again.’

‘My visitors take away a sense that this has been their most spectacular day in South Africa,’ says Prof Piper. ‘I want as little change as possible.’

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3 thoughts on “The Sani Pass: Is this the end of our best bad road?

  1. I know this ancient but as a construction manager I find it hard to believe you when you say that Tar would not last on the road. Unless you are a civil engineer I don’t think you have any expertise to state that vague idea…. Rather angle the article at the eco tourism and lose the high maintenance high cost tar issue….

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