Lesotho | Through the valley of death
Push your luck and you may come to a sticky end. This is what Malan van Zyl and eight of his friends learned when they tackled three of the most remote and challenging mountain passes in Lesotho – in winter.
Mike’s Landy is balanced precariously on the edge of the Jockstrap Pass, its nose jutting into the air and its rear suspended over the precipice. In the rear-view mirror Mike can see the thin silver line of the river meandering through the valley, 500 metres below. When he leans forward, the nose dips down; when he leans back, it lifts up. Instinctively he removes his safety belt.
He sits motionless, foot hard on the brake, the engine still idling. He opens his door to jump out if all else fails. Next he moves the gear lever into parking mode, but this small movement dislodges the last stone holding the Landy and it flips backwards and starts falling down the slope.
There’s no chance of jumping now, so Mike slips under the steering wheel, holding on to the rod and pedals for dear life. The Landy freefalls for the first three metres before the rear hits the ground. Then it starts tumbling down the mountain, front over back, going higher and faster as it picks up momentum. The ground, blue sky and river far below flash by in a crazy rollercoaster ride…
Planning, planning and more planning
Five months earlier an accident was the last thing on our minds. Our plan was to cross the Sani Pass into Lesotho and then to travel over the breadth of the country until we reached three of the roughest, most remote, difficult and nigh impassable mountain passes in Lesotho – mostly used by donkeys and motorcycles – which we wanted to conquer in 4×4 vehicles. In winter.
We had selected three challenging passes based on their degree of difficulty: Bobbejaans Pass (near Ramabanta) which scores eight out of 10 on a scale of difficulty; Letele Pass (direction Pitseng, north of the Katse Dam), scoring nine out of 10; and for relaxation and fun we would cross the Rampai Pass (four out of 10, also near Pitseng). On the way we would also go up the Sani Pass, just for fun. We researched all possible routes, gathering information from whoever we could. (An Internet search revealed few records of previous attempts.)
We heard stories of groups who had taken three days to reach the top of the 22 km Bobbejaans Pass; others struggled for two days to complete the 7 km Letele Pass. We heard about fearsome precipices, rock falls, vehicles breaking down, and drivers abandoning all hope.
Sudden snowstorms and helicopter rescue operations are all part of the modern legends of these mountains. The more we heard about the dangers, the more we felt compelled to take on the challenge…
It is possible for vehicles to cross these passes, but they are mainly used by donkeys and pedestrians, since these roads are seldom, if ever, maintained.
“Impassable to only just do-able” – that was our friends’ advice when we told them of our plan to cover the three passes in the week set aside for this adventure.
Cruisers, Landys, everything…
Our group consisted of Gary and Denise Bauer in a 1996 Land Rover Defender Tdi, Mike Porter and Brian Hogg in “Yellow Car” (a purpose-built 1992 yellow Land Rover Defender with a short wheel base and super extreme suspension) and three Land Cruisers: Geoff Russell and Garth Clarkson in a 1996 Land Cruiser 4.5 GX, Martin and Sonia van Jaarsveld in a 1995 Land Cruiser 4.5 GXL, and me in my 1997 Land Cruiser 4.5 GX.
The vehicles were meticulously examined and thoroughly serviced beforehand. Radiators were filled with anti-freeze to withstand temperatures of -20˚C; steel rock-sliders were bought to protect the more vulnerable undercarriages; large, deep-tread tyres would provide extra-strong grip where necessary, aided by vacuum-driven diff locks.
We packed GPSs, medical supplies, a satellite phone, snow chains for the wheels; a 20 kg hammer and crowbar to break rocks, tied to the bull bar; high-lift jacks, chains, towing ropes and all possible spare parts and tools were loaded in preparation for the great unknown. Special clothes, beanies and gloves were added for Lesotho’s coldest and wettest nights.
Pg 2: Day 1 – 2
DAY 1: 12 hours, 300 km
We left a crisp, frost-ridden Underberg for Sani Pass. Outside the mercury dropped to -6˚C. Passing through the border post to Lesotho, we spot a signboard warning that only 4×4 vehicles are allowed to make the journey. Soon we started the ascent to a breathtaking 2 873 metres above sea level, where all waterfalls are frozen, vehicles take strain and drivers gasp for breath.
Twelve hours and 300 km later we arrived at the Trading Post Guesthouse in Roma. That it took so long to complete a relatively short distance on so-called “good roads” gave credence to the rumours about it taking three days to complete the 22 km of “bad” road on the Bobbejaans Pass…
After the traditional sherry at the Sani Top Chalet’s “highest pub in Africa” at the top of the pass, our adventure had begun in earnest. The route from Sani Pass to the guesthouse winds its way along undulating golden hills and mountain slopes. The roads are in a reasonable to good condition and are clearly being maintained. The traffic consists mostly of people leading heavily laden donkeys and cattle herders minding their colourful herds.
The road rises and falls: over the Senqu River (as the Orange River is known here) at 1 800 m, up and over the Makhoabong Pass (3 000 m), past Mantsonyane and Likaleng, over the Thaba Putsoa (Blue Mountain) Pass and down Molima Nthuse (God Help Me Pass) where – in only 10 minutes – we descend by more than 700 m.
At last we arrive at the guesthouse. Here we obtain our final bits of information on the Bobbejaans Pass from our host, Ashley Thorn. He warns us that a group of vehicles left early on the previous day, but only managed to return after 18 hours on the pass.
Secretly we were relieved to learn that they were off the pass – at least we wouldn’t be blocked by vehicles that had broken down or were stuck along the route.
DAY 2: Goliath and the baboons
Some way up the pass, our radio crackles: “Vehicles on Bobbejaans Pass, please answer.” It’s one of the drivers who had navigated the pass the day before. He warns us not to tackle the pass so late in the day; apparently the last 7 km of the route would keep us busy for at least 12 hours. We assure him that we are well equipped and quite prepared to spend the night on the mountain, if need be, and tell him not to worry – we’d be seeing him later for a beer!
We’d set off with a huge sense of expectation and a touch of uncertainty earlier that day. From Roma the road is tarred up to the turn-off to Ramabanta, about 50 km on. Here, in the valley with the Makhaleng River flowing through it is the Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge. We agree that after crossing the pass, we’ll return to the lodge via a short circular route over Ha Mantsa.
At 10 am we hit the road again, this time half sliding down the banks of the Makhaleng River before eventually crossing it. Half an hour later we’re at the foot of the Bobbejaans Pass. Large letters painted on a huge rock warn travellers: “Welcome B
aboons. Terrible Sh*t! No W*nkers allowed!”
The fun starts almost immediately. Stones as big as soccer balls and rocks the size of armchairs lie strewn across the road and are, in fact, the road; it looks more like a dry, boulder-strewn riverbed. Here and there curious cattle herders in blankets gather with their dogs to gaze at the spectacle and to discuss the sight of heavy vehicles negotiating piles of rocks.
Gradually the pass becomes narrower and the precipice on our left steeper. Just one mishap and you can bend a steering rod, knock a hole in the diff or drive off the mountain. The driver has to read every metre and stone and carefully plan the course of the front wheels, the diffs, the undercarriage and the back wheels.
“Guys, should one wear a safety belt on a pass like this, or not?” someone asks over the radio. No-one in the other vehicles bothers to answer, presumably because each of them has just been contemplating the same question.
Halfway up the mountain we encounter “Little Goliath”. This mega-rock blocks about half the pass; the wider vehicles such as the Cruisers can just pass, but only if the drivers run the outer wheels along the stones on the edge of the precipice. In this way they strain around Little Goliath, all the while intently watching the guide’s agitated gestures. Two hours later we’ve conquered the first 15 km. We feel good.
Then suddenly the Defender comes to a grinding halt; the alternator is red hot and burnt out. The three ton vehicle is now just a lump of steel. Our meticulous preparations pay off: a whole workshop’s worth of tools emerges from the various vehicles and minutes later the alternator has been taken out and a diagnosis made: a roller bearing is kaput. A new alternator is found, but unfortunately it doesn’t fit onto the Defender’s engine, it’s only good for Yellow Car.
Still, no problem for guys like us. In the vice on the bull bar of the Defender we strip the alternator to its bare essentials – revealing the faulty bearing where it’s been welded to the axle. But removing it is not that simple, because no-one had thought of bringing a hydraulic press (but then, we can’t be expected to think of everything).
Next attempt: using a jack and galvanised wire an instant press is devised, but still the bearing refuses to budge. Time to take out the big guns now: two gas welders later and the bearing bites the dust.
Then, in a final, dramatic coup, Gary fetches a new ball bearing from the Defender’s toolbox; it’s the right bearing, neatly wrapped in a tiny piece of paper.
Three hours later the Defender’s engine is roaring away – as good as new.
By this time the sun is low, the mountains are beautiful and we’re on a flat area, perfect for camping. We form a laager and light the fire.
The Milky Way seen from these mountains is an awesome sight. We’re soon convinced that there are more stars above Lesotho than anywhere else; I catch myself ducking every time a satellite zooms by.
Pg 3: Day 3 – 4
DAY 3: Beauty spots and waterfalls
At dawn we scrape ice off the windows before setting out to conquer the last, notorious 7 km – the stretch that would supposedly keep us busy for 12 hours.
From this point on the pass consists of nothing more than a collection of rocks of all shapes and sizes, scattered in all directions and stacked one on top of the other. We start moving rocks, rolling away stones – building a road. The crowbars are hard at work and constantly in use; it’s the passengers’ job to point out obstacles.
A little further up the steeply winding pass we manage to scrape past “Big Goliath” and two hours later the Bobbejaans Pass has been conquered. Sure, the vehicles did acquire some extra beauty spots along the way, but that adds character.
Breakfast on the other side of the kloof within view of the Maletsunyane Waterfall near Semonkong is out of this world. The 192 m high waterfall, also known as Le Bihan, is one of the highest free-falling waterfalls in South Africa. And when it’s partially frozen, as it is this morning, it’s even more impressive.
Breakfast finished, we follow the circular route past the top of the Bobbejaans Pass, past Ha Mantsa, back to the Ramabanta Trading Post Lodge and a warm bed.
DAY 4: Little did we know
We decide to take it easy for a day – some of us are keen to look at the Food for Work road-building projects run by the Lesotho government and the UN. Once again we take the road to Ha Mantsa, then turn left, in a northerly direction. Barely off the main road we’re brought to a halt by the first of a series of mishaps which nearly end in disaster: a shock absorber on the rear axle of the Defender has snapped in two. Tools are brought out and Gary starts to remove the broken part and stabilise the axle with chains.
We decide that Mike and Yellow Car will fetch a shock absorber in Roma or Maseru, about 70 km away. He’ll also pick up Ashley (a friend who knows the area and speaks the language) in Roma to accompany us over the Letele Pass.
We agree to meet up with him later on the tar road past Fusi.
As Yellow Car only has room for two, Brian, Mike’s navigator, has to stay behind. It’s 9 am when Mike and Yellow Car disappear over the hill.
An hour later the Defender’s axle is operational again, stabilised by chains and pipe clamps. We dare to venture onto the Jockstrap Pass in the direction of Makhaleng.
We’d been told that any normal vehicle can manage the 4 km stretch, but it’s so narrow and steep that we have to stay in low ratio first gear, clinging to the steering wheel with whitened knuckles (and sweaty palms).
Nervously navigating three-point-turns, the nose of the vehicle too often suspended over the precipice, we remain uncomfortably aware of the Makhaleng River sparkling seductively in the valley hundreds of metres below us.
In this fashion we make our slow descent down a picturesque route, past small groups of thatched huts and their colourfully clad inhabitants until we finally pass the hamlet of Ha Tsokotsa, at the bottom of the pass.
But when we arrive at our rendezvous point at 12 pm, as agreed, there is no sign of Yellow Car. Neither can Mike be reached by phone or radio. It is now three hours since he disappeared over the hill in the direction of the Jockstrap Pass, and a nagging sense of disaster begins to take hold of us. Eventually we decide to rush to Roma and the Trading Post, about 20 km on, where we pick up Ashley and a long-distance HF-radio.
The group splits in two: Gary, with the crippled Defender, and Martin stay at the Trading Post to ensure good communication, while Geoff, Ashley and I set off in the direction of the Jockstrap Pass, this time via Nyakosoba and St Bernard.
The roads are difficult and time passes inexorably slowly. A short distance off the main road at Nyakosoba we spot a state vehicle. Our fears are confirmed: there had been an accident – Yellow Car had driven off the pass and plunged down towards the river. The driver is said to be alive and currently in the settlement of Ha Tsokotsa at the bottom of the Jockstrap Pass.
We eventually reach Mike at 2.30 pm, lying on the road, surrounded by the inhabitants of the village, and with everything that had been in his car packed out around him.
Pg 4: Trouble, really big …
Trouble, really big trouble…
Later on Mike relates his story: he went over the Jockstrap Pass to Ha Tsokotsa where hi
s GPS showed two possible routes. One was the normal dirt road past St Bernard to Roma and the other a shorter route which would cut out the detour to St Bernard.
Mike chose the shorter route, partly because it looked rough and therefore more interesting! (Later we found out that this route had been part of the Roof of Africa motorbike rally the year before, which was why it had GPS co-ordinates.)
What was supposed to be a road turned out to be a very steep decline of about 600m with lots of large, loose stones and deep washaways. Mike realised he was in trouble – he couldn’t turn back. He had to press ahead, along a hand-hewn track that steadily became narrower; with a precipice on the left and rock overhangs on the right. A little further on the track became so narrow and washed away that it was impossible to continue. Clearly this was territory for donkeys and motorcycles only.
Mike had to turn back along the almost 1 km he’d travelled from Ha Tsokotsa. As turning around was out of the question, he started reversing, head out of the window. Yellow Car’s left-hand drive complicated matters – with Mike sitting on the side of the mountain. And then the back wheel slipped off the edge…
The mad roll down the mountain caused the roof to be plucked off and Mike flew out of the car, landing on his back in the bushes. Yellow Car cavorted further down the mountain. But the slope was so steep that Mike’s fall didn’t break his speed. He continued rolling down the mountain alongside the car. He remembers seeing the Landy tumbling down near him, fortunately a little further ahead. Finally he lost consciousness.
Minutes later he opened his eyes. He checked if all his limbs still worked; everything responded normally. He got up to look for his wallet, passport and jacket in the Yellow Car. The Landy lay on the edge of the next precipice, 150 m below the road. The passenger’s side was demolished. Although the roll cage had protected the driver’s side, a huge rock had lodged in the driver’s seat…
His adrenaline rush subsided, Mike became aware of an intense pain in his back. An old man urged him to climb back up to the path immediately, while he still could. The two helped each other get back to the road, where Mike collapsed. Here a young herder explained that the other vehicles had passed there minutes before, on the other road. A school teacher organised that everything portable be removed from the Landy and carried to where Mike was lying.
And this is where we find him five hours after the accident, surrounded by the villagers, the teacher, the old man, and Mike’s earthly belongings. He’s in agony. We suspect it might be a fractured spine.
What now? The sun is about to set and it might be too late to get a helicopter. Mike assures us that he’s still relatively OK; we load him into the back of my Land Cruiser where he can stretch out flat on his back.
Now it’s down the mountain, and up more mountains, over ditches and stones and painful bumps until we’re at last on the tar road again, past Maseru, all the way to the border post.
Once there I jump a long queue of astonished faces, mumbling an excuse and holding two passports in my hand. Three minutes later we’re back on the road again. At 7 pm we’re in Bloemfontein where Mike is handed over to the medical staff, 10 hours after the accident. Within an hour we receive the incredible news: apart from serious bruising, Mike has come away apparently unscathed. (A check-up six months later showed though that he had broken a vertebra, something the initial X-rays did not pick up. Fortunately it healed by itself.)
We thought our Big Plan included all possible scenarios, but there were lessons to be learned, as usual: expect the unexpected and never drive off on your own.
And the real moral of the story: if you push your luck often enough, you’ll get caught out.
To this day the yellow Landy lies at the bottom of the berg. Recovery was impossible, even for the professionals. The rest of the trip across Letele and Rampai will have to wait. But the planning has already begun…
Pg 5: Quick facts
What to take
Your checklist for going up the Lesotho mountains is rather different from the one for your holiday in Margate. Apart from all the usual stuff, pack the following:
- A crowbar;
- pick axe and spade;
- welding kit; vice;
- equipment to fix tyres;
- extra tubes;
- engine oil;
- gearbox oil;
- hydraulic fluid;
- brake fluid;
- fan belts;
- water pipes;
- satellite phone;
- an extra spare wheel;
- Pratley Steel glue;
- snow chains;
- emergency medical supplies;
- recovery equipment;
- gloves (used to lift and move rocks);
- easy, readymade foods (it can be impossible to braai, and gas is not that effective at low temperatures).
- If you’re using a Landy, consider taking drive shafts; brake pipes; side shafts; an alternator; and ball bearings.
No, you don’t qualify for this expedition because you’ve once driven your Suzuki Vitara along a dirt road to your cousin’s farm in the bushveld.
Rock is hard! Your vehicle must be tough and suited to this terrain. You need to have decent rock-sliders that can take the weight of your vehicle, a high ground clearance, especially a high undercarriage clearance, fixed front axles, diff locks (preferably at the front and back), decent tyres, good suspension movement, and recovery equipment and recovery points on all four sides of your vehicle.
What about an engine? Take spare parts specifically for your vehicle’s weak points (find out from your friendly mechanic where you are likely to encounter problems).
Leave mother-in-law at home. Cut down on weight inside the vehicle and leave the roof rack clear.
Breaker, Breaker, come in. All the vehicles must be in radio contact with each another. In the mountains the range of 29MHz radios is only as far as you can see, which is not always far enough. VHF radios offer a decent range for use in convoys, but their range is too limited to contact the outside world. Consider taking at least one HF radio and a satellite phone in case of emergencies.
Is Malelane near Maseru? Take proper paper and electronic maps.
What does this 4WD button mean? Know your own abilities (get enough experience before you go driving around here); know what your group’s capabilities are, and use them.
A clutch isn’t only a nest of eggs. Make sure there are people in the group who have good mechanical knowledge and skills.
Doctor, doctor. Make sure someone in the group has knowledge of, and training in, first aid.
Like Heidi and Peter. Take enough food and water in case you get stuck. Be ready to overnight on the berg, even for longer stays, in case the weather or circumstances dictate.
Take off your sunglasses. Don’t drive in the dark. Drive slowly and don’t ride the clutch. Never drive alone, but limit the size of the group to between three and six vehicles.
Enjoy panicking. When something does go w
rong, stop, think and plan ahead, but enjoy it all the same – it’s part of the adventure!