Off-roading in the Kingdom of the Clouds
Robb Pritchard drives a new Isuzu D-Max around Lesotho. Part 2 of 3
To really experience just what a rugged and remote place this country is you need to get off the tarmac. From behind Momulong Lodge the road heads up over a couple passes, the clusters of round huts clinging to the hillside all the way up to over 3000m above sea level. The road I was on, winding up and up, constantly coming down to 2nd gear to crawl over patches of holes, rocks, ruts and even the spoil of old landslides was 60km of pure off-roading heaven… yet in Lesotho this was the main road and I kept passing Toyota minivans packed with people. You wouldn't catch me in a packed Hi-Ace though. Bouncing along at walking pace on rough, muddy roads on worn out road tyres next to hundred meter drops is a bit too extreme for me.
It was only 38km to the Ketse Dam in a straight line according to the GPS but the route calculation was 166km, all with a grand total of 2km of tarmac! A mistake I made is not taking a packed lunch with me as during the whole day of driving there was nothing apart from a few corrugated iron shacks on a crossroads perched high up on a windswept ridge. Each dingy shop has lots of supplies for high altitude shepherds but nothing for a hungry traveller. And at late afternoon I was very grateful to crawl into the comfy lounge of the Ketse Lodge overlooking the big reservoir. The next day it was time to get fuel. Lucky 7 was the name of the shop I was looking for in Ketse village, which sounded like a proper and trustworthy franchise. Lesothoan shopkeepers don't really score too highly on a customer service acumen scale and after I'd coughed demonstrably and waved my arms to make sure I wasn't invisible I was led out the back to shed where a stooped old man blew the dirt off plastic container and wiped a funnel with a filthy rag. Whatever it was in the bottle it wasn't going in the Isuzu's tank. Fortunately Thaba-Tseka had nicer a much place, a big tank on breeze blocks on some wasteland that I needed to put it in 4x4 to get into!
The next day it was time to get fuel. Lucky 7 was the name of the shop I was looking for in Ketse village, which sounded like a proper and trustworthy franchise. Lesothoan shopkeepers don't really score too highly on a customer service acumen scale and after I'd coughed demonstrably and waved my arms to make sure I wasn't invisible I was led out the back to shed where a stooped old man blew the dirt off plastic container and wiped a funnel with a filthy rag. Whatever it was in the bottle it wasn't going in the Isuzu's tank. Fortunately Thaba-Tseka had nicer a much place, a big tank on breeze blocks on some wasteland that I needed to put it in 4x4 to get into!
The road after Thaba-Tseka was tarmac all the way, but even though this trip was all about off-roading it was still one of the best driving routes I've ever done. Forget all the posts on DriveTribe about the Stelvio Pass or the Transfagarasan in Romania with constant corners, gear changes and stunning vistas the road from Thaba-Tseka to Roma is 150km of pure joy. It was another seven hour drive of constant corners, killer speed bumps and hordes of school children crowding the sides of the road so I was properly exhausted as I inched through the chaotic market on the road down to the next rest stop. But the drive was worth it as Semonkong Lodge is the sweetest little oasis. From a certain angle with the rough stone houses covered in thatched roofs and mature trees lining the river bank it has the feel of old England. I took a hut on the top of the hill, which had some nice off-roading to get to, and with the rain outside and the fire crackling it was the cosiest hut in the world.
The dinner here was also by far the best in Lesotho, and not just because they had a huge Welsh flag hanging over the bar. I saw that the couple at the next table had what I thought was a rather diminutive portion of lamb stew so I asked if I could perhaps have a portion better suited to my physical stature. The waitress needed two hands to set the plate on the table. And when a Welshman says that the lamb stew was good you know it's good. I waddled back up the steps to the hut that evening!
It was raining all the next day so I stayed wrapped up with the fire crackling, pestering the cleaning lady for extra cookies, but the next morning there was a break in the clouds, so I headed out to the nearby waterfall. Following the horse and donkey track over the hill I was in a different world, one with just a muddy path winding through hand-tilled corn fields, a scattering of thatched huts here and there and villagers encouraging donkeys to carry sacks of flour to their distant settlements. It was simply magic. Jumping over a little stream a couple of girls giggled and asked me why I was wearing such a funny hat. I showed them the princess white skin of my arms and then took the hat off to show them my bald head… which they found hugely entertaining.
In the last story I met a random man walking through the desert with a suitcase. This trip the prize for the most random gentleman goes to the young guy trudging through the mud, at least 5km from any tarmac, in a dapper suit and tie. He was so hardcore he didn't even walk in boots and change at wherever he was going. He walked the whole way in his shiny office best!
The walk through the villages was the highlight but the waterfall is well worth the hike. At nearly 200m it's one of the highest in the whole of Africa and the noise it makes is incredible. I know I will come back to Lesotho one day and stay at the Semonkong Lodge again, but next time I will hike to the bottom and get soaked in the spray.
After a while constant curves on tarmac all fade into one another, but after 40 or so kilometres the asphalt ended and I was back to where I am happiest; on the dirt. In the rain the compacted earth had a sheen of mud on it and I love the feeling of a car moving under me and it was another drive of stunning vistas at every single turn. I think I was the first to come across a rockslide and had to spend a few minutes moving stones that the rear diff wasn't going to clear before inching through, brimming with the sense of adventure. Concentration levels were so high I even had to turn Motorhead down a little. But the higher I got the thicker the fog became until I couldn't see more than a few metres ahead and needed to check the GPS to get an idea of what was in front. When you can see an 500m drop just off to your side it's one thing but when you can't it's a little nerve racking.
The clouds cleared up at one point enough for me to make out strange black lines in the turf where the top soil was slipping down the mountain face. I didn't think much of it… but after tight hairpin there was a stretch of clean rockface next to the track… and the very soft earth on the road was different to the rocks around the corner. A few meters on I realised it was because the road had slipped down a few metres and they'd laid a new surface. I was driving on top of a landslide that was waiting to happen! I could only see about 5 meters ahead so inched along nervously. Most of it was off-camber which angled the car towards the edge, the back wheel sliding out at one point… At first I thought it was the whole road giving way and my insides did something that usually takes some potent bacteria to achieve. Like I said, Lesotho is not for the novice off-roader! I made it across so it wasn't a near death experience, it just felt like one.