Tourists enjoy 'horror' of gravel Sani Pass

The Underberg community is divided by the R160-million tarring of the Sani Pass—touted by Transport Minister Jeff Radebe as the southern Drakensberg’s gateway to tourism.

“They [tourists] enjoy the horror of the trip. That’s why they come,” a local tour operator said on condition of anonymity.

However, Himeville Arms Hotel owner Charlie Burness said he would be happy as long as the environmental impact study was done properly. “Economically it will be a good thing.”

Launching the project on Tuesday, Radebe said that, at the moment, the Sani Pass had a hard to negotiate, gravel road used almost exclusively by 4x4 vehicles.

Upgrading it to a sealed and smooth, rideable surface accessible to ordinary vehicles would bring development to not only Himeville and Underberg, but to Mokhotlong in Lesotho, he said.

It would also promote tourism by providing access to the Maloti Transfrontier Park and World Heritage Site.

“I’m not happy with it.
I took 6 000 tourists up there last year—80% of them foreigners. Ask any one of them what makes Sani Pass. The road is the key factor,” said Charlie Major, owner of the Underberg Inn and Major Adventures Tour company.

Peter Ferraz, the founder of the popular Splashy Fenn Music Festival, said: “Our tourism does quite well because of the pass. I would prefer it to stay the same. It’s a pity, but I think it might even benefit us. People will come for the festival and then carry on up the pass.”

All agree that the road should be tarred as far as the Sani Pass Hotel. While there has been some opposition to the tarring of the stretch of road from the hotel to the new border post, it is the tarring of the road to the top of the pass and into Lesotho that has been most strongly objected to.

The project is scheduled for completion within three years.

“People are just going to go up in their cars, come down and go home. There won’t be any need for them to stay overnight. Sani Pass is going to lose its name, its legend,” said Ray Watt, the owner of Thaba Tours.

Watt believed the government should first have built a road linking the northern, southern and central Drakensberg, enabling more tourists from Johannesburg and Durban to visit the area.

Major was concerned at the likelihood of accidents on the new road as motorists sped along the smooth tarred upper sections of the pass in icy weather.

Tour company drivers were worried that the project would cost them their jobs.

Twalimbiza “Four Feet” Ndlovu, who has been taking tourists up the pass since 1960 asked: “The pass was three metres wide then. But the road is all right now. Why do you want to change it?

“There is going to be less jobs for us. They [the government] cut us down. The tourists are happy. I don’t like this.”

“I tell them it’s [Sani Pass] going to be tarred and they [the tourists] don’t like it. This is what they enjoy,” said Lucky Shezi, a driver for Major Adventures Tour Company.

“We will be with out jobs and there will be at least one accident a week up there. People are going to speed on the new road when it is icy.”

Tour operators had to adapt, said tourism co-ordinator for the region, Chery Santini.

“My impression is that this will be of real economic value. They [the tour operators] will have to deal with it. It’s going to happen and they have to be prepared to adapt.” - Sapa

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