Local community says the R490-million upgrade will adversely affect tourism
A plan to tar one of South Africa’s most famous dirt roads has sparked a bitter row. The R490-million upgrade of the 33km Sani Pass, which links Himeville in KwaZuklu Natal and the eastern highlands of Lesotho, has upset environmentalists, tourists, tour operators – and the local community. Opponents claim tarring the road in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, which is popular with 4×4 drivers, will destroy the spectacular scenery and sense of wilderness at Sani Pass and chase away tourists.
Between 20 000 and 30 000 tourists visit the 2874m Sani Top Chalet’s pub every year – the highest pub in Africa. The SA and Lesotho governments say the upgrade will stimulate economic growth in both countries – and it is not environmentally unfriendly. But a survey conducted by the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA of tourists traveling on the pass between 2007 and 2008 revealed most were opposed to the tarring.
Of the 685 tourists polled, the majority, who visit Sani Pass regularly, said they would not come again if the road was tarred. Greg Atkins, general manager at the Sani Top Chalet, said a tarred road would pose a greater safety risk for motorists than a dirt road. “The amount of ice that collects on the road is dangerous, and ice on a tarred road is a lot more dangerous than on a dirt road,” he said.
Russel Suchet, the owner of Sani Lodge Backpackers in the Southern Drakensberg, said the area would lose out if the road was tarred. “A vast number of our guests have made it clear that they come here for the experience of going up Sani Pass and for the cultural life in Lesotho.” He added that the Sani Top Chalet community, which benefits from tourism, would also be seriously affected. “If it’s tarred it’s going to be like the N3 to Johannesburg and people won’t be interested in stopping and spending money along the way,” said Suchet.
Alina Sebilo, 26, an unemployed mother of five from Sekering village across the Lesotho border post, said that tarring the road would seriously affect there livelihoods. “It would kill us. We benefit from the tourists. They buy our craft, help us with food and blankets and often give us some money,” she said.
Rudi Botha, the owner of the Kingdom In The Sky Mountain Adventures, who has started a Facebook group with 6200 members to protest the tarring, said the road had a reputation for being one of the safest. “The last accident on this road was in 2002,” he said, “Tarring it will increase the number accidents. Why will tourists come to Sani Pass if it’s the same as any other pass in Europe?” Tourists questioned by the Sunday Times were opposed to the road being tarred. Said Belgian Luc Ceulehans: “Keep Sani Pass the way it is. I like the natural way it is and it’s nicer that way.” Andrew Smith from San Francisco, California, who had just hiked up Sani Pass, said: “Tarring the road will take away the sense of achievement you get when you reach the top.”
Dr Bandile Mkhize, CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, said an environmental impact assessment study had to be done. Having a tarred road did not mitigate against the world heritage status of an area, he added. “Even in big parks in the world there are tarred roads and those are environmental area. It doesn’t mean that if you’ve got a tarred road the area ceases to be environmentally friendly,” he said.
Sam Monareng, a spokesman for the national Department of Transport, said upgrading the road would improve trade and economic ties between SA and Lesotho.
“The current state of the road potentially poses a threat to the area’s world heritage status as continues to do damage to the Ukhahlamba Park. The upgraded road will improve its status.” Phase one – a 14km stretch from Himeville – will be completed by May 2011. The rest of the road will be tarred in further places. Mphos Moeketsi, Lesothos’ director of tourism, said a tarred road would enhance commerce and tourism. She said many people wanted to build accommodation facilities, including hotels, to promote tourism.