Sani Mountain Escape

Sani Mountain Escape, in the Kingdom in the Sky, is home to the Highest Pub in Africa at the top of the legendary Sani Pass. A definite bucket-list experience and has been an iconic destination for more than 50 years.

Although some say that the lodge may technically still be on South African soil, you will not only get a stamp in your Beer Passport, but you will also add a few stamps to your green mamba.

Listen to our podcast interview with Khapametsi Maleke.

In PART 5 of our journey we are joined by Khapametsi Maleke, owner of Sani Mountain Escape, Khapametsi shares her own story with us, then she tells us how she came to own this wonderful lodge, she gives us some travel tips and then tells us about some of the attractions in the area.

Sani Mountain Escape, situated at the top of the iconic Sani Pass, is home to the highest pub in Africa. Offering accommodation on the top of the escarpment, in Lesotho, the lodge has welcomed guests since 1964. Navigating the switchback bends of the pass on foot or by 4×4, followed by an ice-cold beer in the highest pub, is a bucket list item for most South Africans and many international visitors.

Khapametsi Maleke, lodge owner since 2010, is Lesotho born. The daughter of a teacher and nurse,
Maleke completed her MBA in Holland and worked for 15 years with the National Lesotho Development Corporation, first as a project officer and ending her time there as deputy director. She subsequently moved with her husband to South Africa. Maleke’s entrepreneurial career has spanned many diverse industries, from property development to thermal systems.

“What drove me back to Lesotho was the potential that tourism had. The corporation offered
incentives from training grants to tax breaks, and the tendency was when these were near completion, the industrialist would move to another location leaving 5000 or so people behind that would not have work. That seemed to be very ‘fruitloops’, to me. Years later when I was looking at giving back, I looked at industries that were much more stable, and that’s how tourism came into the fold because it employs people at source, and you know Lesotho is the most beautiful country.” When attending a funeral with a friend, Maleke discovered that they were both considering opportunities in the tourism sector.

“A friend of mine who worked with me, had already begun looking at the potential of tourism in Lesotho, and when we then took a trip inland, attending a funeral of a mutual friend, we were just in awe of the beauty of the country and that’s how it started,” said Maleke. The duo approached the then-owner of the lodge, who lived in Underberg. “We hustled the poor man until he said yes, four years later. Four years later, that’s how long the negotiation took. I think he just wanted to get rid of us, to be frank with you.” This has been a deeply personal journey for Maleke, who first experienced a three-hairpin bend at
Sani Pass.

“I’m a town girl and I don’t come from the mountain at all, I was brought up in Maseru. I met a girlfriend at high school who came from the highlands, and we struck up a good relationship. Funny enough, she has gone ahead to settle in London and I’m back in these mountains she introduced me to. So anyway, on one vacation she asked me to pay her a visit to the mountains. I’d never been at all to the mountains and there we went. I was in awe of the beauty of the mountains and in fact these mountains felt so alive,” says Maleke.

Her friend’s father was a general dealer in Mokhotlong and he would shop in nearby Underberg for supplies. “The parents would take a little bit of a break, and then we were sent down the mountain to get supplies from Underberg. And that is how I got to see this little house there by the border. I remember asking the driver what is that little building over there.” According to Maleke, the lodge was built for intrepid members of the Maluti Mountain Transport Company who were tasked by the United Nations with transporting essential supplies into Lesotho during the winter months. A small three roomed house was constructed at the top of Sani Pass as a ‘halfway house’ on the treacherous route to Mokhotlong.

Attractions for tourists include ‘the sheer beauty of being on top of the clouds’, the walk- or drive-up Sani Pass itself, two organized annual hikes, horse rides on Basutho ponies, historical places of interest such as Hodgson Peak and the cave where Langibele was captured, rock art sites, trout fishing in Sani River, birdwatching, sheep shearing, and the unique plant life. According to Maleke, the ‘vegetation mecca’ is home to many rare and sought-after vegetation species, which is a draw card for international organisations who study the specimens in their natural habitat. Other residents are the bearded vultures that roost on the many cliff faces. “The bearded vulture is endemic there in the whole Sani area. One of the things we are involved with is organisations that are trying to conserve the species. We worked with the lady who collects the eggs and propagates them. People come from all over the world to see this majestic bird, whose wingspan can be a whole meter, on either side. It is a lovely bird to see,” says Maleke. The lodge accommodates 33 people, and the nearby backpackers sleep 22 in dormitory-style accommodations. This building, an old trading store, is currently being upgraded and extended. Camping facilities are available, although Maleke says it can be very windy on the top of the escarpment and that there have been cases in the past of vehicle doors blowing off.
“I’m a small person and I don’t walk near the cliffs on those windy days,” she says.

Travel tips from Maleke include carrying a few liters of fuel, and warm clothes and blankets in case the route takes longer than anticipated, your vehicle gets stuck, or it snows. She recommends calling ahead to check the weather. The road is tarred all the way to the lodge now, but Maleke says don’t underestimate the travel time required for your route beyond the lodge. “One of the tips is don’t look at the app and think that two km is going to take you 20 mins, because of the quality of the road system,” says Maleke. Guests might require a VISA to enter Lesotho and access Sani Pass, depending on their nationality so it is best to find out more on the relevant websites.