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Lesotho - 2011
Created by Craig Parsons in 6/11/2011 6:55:54 PM

 Lesotho 2011


During the club’s long weekend trip to Vleesbaai (18 – 21 March 2011) newcomer Salome Visagie (with new Toyota Fortuner D4D auto) mentioned her plans to “do Lesotho” over the Easter festive season. Only Troy & Adele (also with a new ‘Tuner) and the Schmidt family showed any interest. At the “good-bye stop” at a fuel station on the N1 this was discussed a bit more – decision made: Troy & Adele, no! – Mike, Liz, Anya and Salome, we’re going!

Many phone calls and E-mails, a couple of EFT’s, a long detailed route discussion over pizzas and we were ready. The 12 year old 230,000km Land Rover Disco 2 TD5 was given a thorough check and all niggles (some 3 years old) were sorted expertly and pleasantly cost effectively by Elrico Motors.

Good Friday 22 April the unlikely couple (2011 Fortuner  & 1999 Disco) met at 05:10 at the Panorama Shell fuel station and set off down the N1 to Beaufort West with somewhat sleep deprived, yet excited occupants.

After refueling in Beaufort West we drove the R61 & N9 via Graaff-Reinet with a short picnic stop and 2 road works stops along the way and turned into the Mountain Zebra National Park at about 3pm (800km in 10 hours). Knowing that we had to be in and out of reception before gates close at 6pm, we immediately made for one of the park’s 3 4x4 tracks (all grade 3 – soft-roaders need not apply as they will be damaged!) and a bit of game-viewing (Red Hartebeest, Kudu, Mountain Zebra, Springbok and Black Wildebeest).  

Having cleared reception with few minutes to spare we enjoyed our private (illegal, but condoned) night drive on the way to the 4x2 mountain cottage. Happy, but exhausted after 14 hours of driving, we enjoyed the luxury and warmth of the braai in the lounge.

Next day, a magnificent scenic mountain drive, a bit of game viewing (Ostrich, Jackal and Ground-Squirrel added to the tally, but alas no sight of Cheetah or Rhino) and the 2nd 4x4 track, saw us exiting the park and heading to Cradock for refueling at about 3pm.

On we drove through Tarkastad, Queenstown, Lady Frere and Eliot (all very un-lady-like). The plan for the day having been “let’s see how far we get and what accommodation we can find” resulted in some exciting local search, including accidentally being locked in a pub (the door handle on the inside was missing). Eventually on top of Barkly Pass we found Mountain Shadow Hotel. It was excellent, however having arrived late we chose to ‘picnic’ in the bedroom.

On the advice of the hotel’s very friendly owner we took a return trip de-tour of a rough pass, then drove past Tiffindel (closed and in liquidation) to Rhodes (definitely worth visiting, but Lesotho was beckoning, so we only ‘stopped for tea’) and over SA’s highest pass, Naude’s Nek, which was  rough and to add excitement to the sense of adventure, the icy wind did its best to blow us off the mountain.

After driving through Mount Fletcher and Matatiele (both in the ‘juck’ category), Cedarville looked good, but there was no accommodation in sight; light was fading fast and dodging potholes (more like bomb craters), although an exciting sport, was becoming a bit tiresome. So we were very happy to find the 4 star (sans 4 star prices) Old Orchard Resort & Golf Course just outside Kokstad. Again too late to order dinner resulted in another self catering in the bedroom deal, followed by an impromptu Easter-egg hunt.

Next morning (day 4) after a 1st class breakfast we travelled through Kokstad (spotless!) to Underberg where we replenished some supplies and filled the fuel tanks, then through Himeville (should have filled up, there, their diesel is a lot cheaper) to the SA border post where formalities were dispatched in about 1 minute. From there it’s 10km of ‘no-man’s land’ up Sani Pass.

In the ideal conditions we experienced, cruising in high range 2nd and 3rd was easy – initially. Then it got a lot steeper. For the last 4km, low range 2nd was the sensible choice. At the top we met 2 super-fit and obviously insane cyclists; they had left their car and girlfriends at the SA border post and cycled to the top of Sani, only to turn around directly before the Lesotho border post and head back down.  

The Lesotho Border formalities were super fast, the wind icy, the Sani Top Hotel Backpackers’ accommodation rustic, it hailed and rained, so we made a nice braai on the stoep in sub-zero conditions. Note miniature braai and Weber fire-starter in picture. This works very well and fits into a standard ammo-box. Another ammo-box filled with brickets is sufficient for 10 braais; no need to schlep big bundles of firewood.

Next morning, after a glass of sherry in the highest pub in Africa, we headed into the wild countryside of Lesotho. The “road”, which took us to an altitude of 3249m was, well, typical of Lesotho – 5 hours for about 50km.

We reached Molumong Lodge(near Mokhotlong), which we had pre-booked for 2 nights, in the early afternoon, then played a civilized game of scrabble with some other adventurers  - after 5 days of hard driving it was time for a break!

Day 6 dawned with the wind was still howling and icy, Liz and Salome were both feeling “a bit under the weather” (or was it the altitude?) and decided to just chill (bad choice of terminology for these conditions!) for the day. Anya and I, feeling fit and adventurous swopped seats for saddles.

Day 7, forget about showers or coffee – there is no water as the pipes are frozen solid – and the vehicles are covered in frost; before driving, first remove ice from windscreen.

Everyone we had spoken to along the way about our intended route to Katse Dam had different opinions ranging from “it’s an easy 4 hour drive” to “it’s impossible, the bridge was washed away”. Well, humbug, the 160km gravel road was OK and it took about 7 hours including stopping lunch at a hotel and crossing the Orange River. According to Tracks-For-Africa and other info sources, children demanding sweets and throwing stones at cars causing serious damage is a major problem in Lesotho, particularly on the Mokhotlong to Katse section. We did not experience any problems, but the tension was sometimes palpable.

For the construction of Katse Dam, to accommodate the crews of 5 international construction companies a small town had been built. This has been converted into a tourist resort and we stayed in one of the comfortable, 2 bedroom houses. The next morning, after a very informative guided tour (deep inside and on top of the 2nd highest dam wall in Africa) and comprehensive explanation of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (noting that only the 1st of 6 phases has been completed, and that construction of phase 2 is about to start; this will result in Sani Pass being tarred, so, if you want to tick off this icon of 4x4 adventure, you’d better do it now!), we could have headed north on a good tar road toward Lejone, but being adventurous, opted for the alternative 4x4 track, which turned out to be a pretty decent and very scenic dirt road. According to the Lesotho Tourism website  map the road linking the A25 to the A1 past the Kao mine requires the use of “extreme 4x4 vehicles”. Well, if that is so then stock standard ‘Tuners and Discos are extreme 4x4’s. Actually it turned out to be a good dirt road, though narrow in places, with several rocky, knee-deep river crossings.

At the mine we lost about 2 hours in the process of Salome playing the damsel in distress to ‘bum’ some 15L of diesel for fear that her ‘Tuner might not make it to Butha-Buthe on the remaining supply in the tank. As it turned out, it would have made it, but only just (lesson: carry a jerry-can and be gentle with the loud pedal). Shortly after sunset we reached the top of Southern Africa’s highest pass (3251m according to the sign, 3270 according to the maps and my GPS reckoned 3266m) before finding accommodation at Oxbow Lodge (next to Afri-Ski), which astonishingly was full (we got the 2nd last remaining room). Having arrived late (again!) we snuck our supplies and gas cookers into the double room and the ladies prepared a sumptuous pasta dish – at an altitude of about 3000m.

After breakfast  (also self-catering in the room) on day 9 we headed down a smooth winding tar road to Butha-Buthe and , having passed through the 3rd police road-block (they were always courteous to me and only asked to see my driver’s licence, but always seemed to view Salome with suspicion – because she was travelling alone, or was it her red hair?), we headed into town (which like most African towns was overrun and filthy – no comparison to rural villages) for one reason, and 1 reason only; the Fortuner needed fuel! We then drove through the same road-block, before turning onto a very rough track along the Caledon River toward the Monantsa Border Pass.

Problem: although the border is open and the SA officials stamped our passports ‘re-entry’ to SA,  the Lesotho office has been closed for 2 years; so, as far as SA is concerned our passports are in order, but we only have a Lesotho entrance stamp with a 14 day visa, but no exit stamp – wat nou? On the advice of the SA officials we cruised through Golden Gate National Park and Clarens to Ficksburg, proceeded through another SA border post to the Lesotho border control office in order to request exit stamps. Alas, the situation rapidly became hostile. Their attempt to intimidate us by plunging the building into darkness failed because I was armed! – with a torch; grab passports, blind officials with torch, then disappear!  Back through the SA control point, the friendly official there suggested “try Maseru”. So we drove on into the night, reached Ladybrand and searched for accommodation. After an hour’s search (driving around and making phone-calls) and refueling the vehicles (the Disco had made it from Underberg right through Lesotho, all the way to Ladybrand on its 92 L tank!) we pulled into Ladybrand Guest House (excellent choice) and enjoyed dinner at the only pizzeria in town. Next morning we headed straight for the Maseru Border post in search of intelligent life. Salome saved the day by playing a combination of damsel in distress and dumb blonde; result, all 4 passports stamped, chop-chop. Celebratory liquer chocolates!  Then via Wepener, Zastron, Aliwal North, Burgersdorp and Hofmeyer to Cradock, where fuel tanks were topped up, before entering Mountain Zebra NP. Yup!, you guessed it, we immediately did the last of the 3 4x4 trails and drove the scenic mountain plateau section at sunset.

Day 11: End of the adventure! Well, sort of. We had great weather until we reached the fuel station at the N1 side of Beaufort West, then a massive thunder-storm opened its sluice-gates. Whilst refueling the Fortuner, Salome, because she was sad that the trip’s end was nigh and gatvol because not everything keeps going right, Toyota (the aircon had failed because the gas pipes had chafed through against the gearbox), called it quits and stayed in town for 2 nights whilst the Toyota dealership sorted out the factory fault. The Disco of the Schmidt family with Tarzan at the helm sailed on and shrugged off the rain for the entire 450km to Cape Town harbor, never missing a beat.

To conclude, South Africa’s and southern Africa’s highest passes as well as Sani have been conquered and Lesotho’s highest mountain ranges in its remote northern area have been traversed. The Lesotho Adventure Trip was a resounding success, but the story need not end here. In the southern region awaits southern Africa’s highest single drop waterfall (192m), the world’s highest commercial absail (204m), Baboons Pass and the Senqu River. According to the latest editions of SA 4x4 and Drive Out, be afraid, be very afraid! …..anyone considering The Lesotho Extreme Trip, anyone?....

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