Off-roading in the Kingdom of the Clouds
Robb Pritchard drives a new Isuzu D-Max around Lesotho. Part 3 of 3
It was nearly six in the evening when knackered and starving I arrived at the Sehlabathele Lodge… which in the pouring rain was closed. Fortunately I had the assistance of Peete the National Park Ranger who unlocked the staff hut for me then took me shopping in the local 'town'. I cooked up some rice and tinned curry in the staffroom and spent the evening listening to the wind howl and the rain dripping off the thatch. The books of the National Park he gave me had some very enticing photos of the local hikes but the next morning the rain still hadn't let up and the fog was thick so no walking. Instead I headed off to my next stop at Mashai, which was 40km away on the most glorious off-road route ever. With four days of almost unabated rain the rivers were a little swollen, to say the least. A few off-roading rules were broken such as driving alone and not wading across without testing the depth first, but in my defence this road is actually called the A4.
Over lips of bedrock, deep holes and through puddles, the biggest issue was that some recent massive storm had created run-offs so strong that the water had washed away all of the road surface so on tight turns there was nothing but wet bedrock, invariably sloping towards the abyss, to get across. A couple of times I had to get out to check and work out a way over. Fortunately the rock was granite so afforded pretty good grip and a three-point turn every now and again to make sure the back wheel wouldn't go to close to the edge and it was onwards, higher and higher into the dense fog. The climax was a series of steep hairpins up to the top of the pass which was over 3000m where I finally broke through the clouds, to see more billowing up a long way below with a tiny little muddy track winding down into them. It was another stunning sight, even though pretty much everywhere in Lesotho is a stunning sight!
Down the other side of the pass the river got deeper and deeper again until a couple of times it had burst its banks to submerge the track. That was OK, until I had to cross it… The brown torrent, the colour my mum likes her tea, was raging… but it was a full two-day drive to go around and my destination was only 8km away. I decided to go for it as if I got swept away it would make a good story. I was a little nervous so went a little too far upstream so I guess I missed the concrete roadway and bounced over unseen rocks… And of course every time the car bounced up the water pushed it slightly downstream. It was all right though. When the car moves a mere few inches it always feels much worse than it is and like everything else I put the D-Max through over the 10 days it took it in its stride and drove straight out the other side sending some soggy kids running off in terror.
I had hoped to stay at the Mashai Lodge but it wasn't quite ready to receive guests and the 'manager' didn't quite have the mental faculties to understand that I didn't want to stay in a hut with a leaking roof and puddles on the floor… So an extra 50km I carried on back to Molumong, where I knew there would be good food and a hot bath. The 'main' road that clung to the curves and crevasses of the mountain was fine but as soon as I turned off onto the smaller one the surface was absolute mush and with the slushy mud with stones and ruts cut into it I just couldn't keep the car in a straight line. For 30km. A couple of times it handled so badly I had to get out and check that all the tyres were still inflated.
Over-steering into corners and sliding left and right either to the ditch or the edge kept me alert but there was one rough section I remember coming down the other way a few days earlier and a Land Cruiser driver flagged me down to tell me it would be impossible to get up. It was very rough, very muddy and the cross-axling holes were deep enough to catch the rigid mud flaps, but in first high the D-Max went up with out issue. Not even any wheelspin. I was impressed with this car and the feeling wasn't diminished when I pulled over for a Hi-Ace to make its way down. Windows steamed up, rammed full of passengers watching the minibus inch down the extreme section I'd just come up seemed to defy the natural order of physics. Over the other side I saw his tyre tracks snaking up the road and a couple of times they had slid perilously close to the edge. Rather them than me! The roughest road of the day was reserved for the drive down to the Momulong Lodge where a hot bath was indeed waiting.
As it turned out the hardest off-roading of the whole trip was the very last bit. The GPS showed a road down the hill instead of the rough track back up… The girl from the Lodge, Mahopelang, who I was taking to the big town, said it was OK, but crawling over fair sized rocks that scraped against the plastic mud flaps, inching up banks testing the tip-over angle to avoid the washed out parts of the track, three pointing around a daft tight hairpin, which was a little hard seeing as the reverse camera was completely full of mud, we got almost to the end. The last part was the worst. This track hadn't seen any car down it for a very long time and the end was no track at all, just a soft bank covered in mud and it was so slippery I couldn't even stand up on it properly. The big rock got pushed out of the way, but the angle of the slope was forcing me off the edge down into the rocky stream. Some gas got me around and down towards the road the D-Max turned into a very expensive sledge as we slid off the bank completely sideways. Unfortunately the mud and sheep poop on the tyres meant that we kept sliding, right to the edge of a concrete slab with the little stream on it dropping down into the gully. A mad stab of revs to spin the tyres and the mud cleaned enough to give some grip and we made it by mere inches. Mahopelang was the best off-road co-driver ever though as she wasn't fazed in the slightest and looked down into the gully with the blank expression of the unconcerned. I guess riding in the local Hi-Ace taxis makes you a pretty hard-core off-roader!
Back to the Sani Pass for a coffee and then it was down into the hairpins again… and after a week on trails much harder than this I hardly noticed it at all and it was back to the gloriously green, chloroform scented summer of the Drakenburg. The motorway heads straight to Johannesburg but a turnoff leads up to the Cathedral Peak hotel which is an absolute paradise, a perfect place to wind down and relax after a hard trip. Apart from Semonkong Lodge the food in Lesotho is not that wonderful, in general, but at Cathedral Peak it's an absolute gourmet feast.
Lesotho is desolate, bleak and pretty inhospitable but it's constantly breathtaking, the people are incredibly friendly (unless you are a sheep or a donkey) and if you are a good driver with a moderately capable 4x4 it is paradise. Lesotho is now one of my favourite places in the world. As long as I never have to take public transport!