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Lesotho | South Africa
Travel - Leisure | Economy - Development | Environment - Nature

Tarring scenic Lesotho-SA mountain pass causes protest

Sani Pass between South Africa and Lesotho

© fiverlocker/flickr
afrol News, 4 February
- Over the Sani Pass, a spectacular dirt road connects South Africa and eastern Lesotho attracting a growing number of tourists driven in 4x4 vehicles. Tarring the pass would alienate tourists, the industry, locals and environmentalists hold.

In an unusual step, even a Facebook group to "help save the Sani Pass from being tarred" has been established by members of the tourism industry located in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa. The internet action to conserve the Sani Pass dirt road is gaining international support.

The Facebook group - which already has 6.300 members, was started by Rudi Botha, owner of Kingdom In The Sky Mountain Adventures. His small company offers 4x4 trips from South Africa, up the pass and into Lesotho. Mr Botha holds that the scenic and "naturally rough" aesthetics of the pass will be spoiled by tarring it.

But even worse, he holds, road safety will worsen. The current Sani Pass "has a reputation of being one of the safest roads in the world for tourist," Mr Botha says. Tarring it would make the road in need of constant repair as the climate - with occasional snowfall - will cause potholes. There is little trust in local authorities to provide funds for maintenance when the road first has been tarred.

There are indeed big investments planned for this famous road. Government plans to spend rand 490 million to "upgrade" it. A new - tarred and improved - road should open up the south-eastern mountainous region of Lesotho to tourism and commerce. But also to lorries and buses, which are now mostly defined to the Maseru entrance to Lesotho in the north-west.

The potential of commercial development, trade and more tourism thus should engage the local population positively, one should believe. But also villagers on both side of the border are protesting, agreeing with the tourism industry and environmentalists. Tarring the road would destroy the scenery, endanger biodiversity and make the road less safe.

Road safety, locals, tourists and tour organisers agree, would decrease if the Sani Pass is opened for non-4x4 vehicles - maybe even lorries and buses. "How are those lorries going to get around some of those corners - even a landrover doesn't always have a tight enough turning circle to get round the first time," asks for example Vanessa Hobson in one of the many blogs raising the question about the Sani Pass.

The environmental aspect is also increasingly mentioned. The road runs through the Unesco World Heritage site uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park on the South African side. The park houses many fragile and endangered species, and environmentalists see a threat to this both by the construction works and by increased traffic.

But the most pressing argument remains the scenic quality of the pass, where the dirt road is an integrated part of the "rough and natural" experience for tourists. "Why will tourist come from all over the world to come and see our great Sani Pass if it is no different than any other tarmac pass in Europe," asks Mr Botha.

Despite its poor infrastructure, indeed a great number of tourists visit the 2685 m high pass. On the top, the Sani Top Chalet's pub - claiming to be Africa's highest pub on 2874 m - boasts of between 20 and 30.000 visitors annually.

And the visitors agree that the rough road is part of the delight. The South African Wildlife and Environment Society in 2007-08 surveyed visitors about their experience. A majority of tourists made it clear they would not return if the Sanu Pass road was tarred. The experience would be spoilt, they held.

Nevertheless, works have already started tarring the road.

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