Taming the Baboon
Lesotho: Baboon’s Pass
Battling extreme elements, reader Willem van der Putte experienced first-hand why Lesotho’s Baboon’s Pass is considered one of the most punishing 4x4 trails in Africa.
Like most Land Rover owners, reader Willem van de Putte is not someone to back down from a tough challenge. In fact, he relishes the opportunity. However, as Lesotho’s daunting Baboon’s Pass lay before him, even Willem was left feeling he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
Ever since I put my bum behind the wheel of a 4x4, I have always wanted to take on Lesotho’s Baboon’s Pass. As with most things of this nature, it took a back seat to the daily grind that is life. This was until recently, when a friend e-mailed me while I was sitting around a braai, under a thorn tree, with a drink in hand.
“A group of us are doing Baboon’s, want in?” or words to that effect flashed on my phone, and within 24 hours, I had cancelled all previous engagements and arranged the necessary leave. My excitement was palpable.
Most of us in the group – which included a Land Rover Defender 110, Land Rover Defender 90, Land Rover Discovery 1, an old Range Rover, a Land Rover Discovery 3 (and a trailer!) and two Mitsubishi Tritons – have known each other for a while and have done several trails together. None of our vehicles are standard, feature lots of modifications, such as suspension and tyre upgrades, and extensive protection, such as rocksliders and diff protectors as well as heavy duty recovery points. Moreover, all of us belong to the 4x4 Community Forum (www.4x4community. co.za).
Baboon’s Pass is no playground. One of the most remote, roughest and impassable passes on the African continent, Baboon’s Pass is where drivers have to brave jumbo rock falls, dizzying precipices and snow storms simultaneously. It is considered one of the most difficult and uncompromising mountain passes in South Africa. Well, technically it’s in Lesotho, but you get the picture.
Out of a difficulty factor of five, most of Baboon’s Pass hovers at about four and five – and that’s if the weather plays along. It’s revered for its tales of suffering, broken and destroyed vehicles and legendary twists and turns. Basically, it’s 26 km of unrelenting rocks and boulders, which, on a good day, you can rush in under 10 hours, but when it gets hectic, you’ll be hard-pressed to complete it in less than two days. We knew things were going to be slightly different when we gathered at one of the petrol stations along the N3 and the Discovery 3 arrived towing an Angel off-road trailer with a rooftop tent. It’s a hardcore trailer, no doubt, but it would add a twist to an already tough expedition.
It’s 26 km of unrelenting rocks and boulders, which, on a good day, you can rush in under 10 hours, but when it gets hectic, you’ll be hardpressed to complete it in less than two days.
Getting through the Lesotho border post is a breeze. Our overnight stop was at Ramabanta Lodge, where almost every Baboon’s Pass trip and the Roof of Africa Bike Rally starts.
The camping area is well maintained and the bathrooms clean with warm showers. It was necessary, because from Maseru to the lodge we experienced rainfall. Not just a slight drizzle, but a continuous downpour that set the trend for the duration of our time on the pass.
In the grips of the Baboon
The path up Baboon’s Pass is difficult at the best of times. Add torrential rain to the mix and parts of the pass will give you a good kick in the teeth just to remind you that nature has its own way of letting you know who’s boss!
Only one of us had done the pass before, so the Defender 110 drove the lead car and the Discovery 3 with the trailer was at the back. Why the trailer, though? Those of us who didn’t sleep high and dry had a few reasons and suggestions – all of them unprintable – but there’s nothing like an extra challenge on an already tough route, and apart from one or two hairy situations, the driver had everything under control and the Discovery behaved impeccably throughout the trip. At the bottom of the pass a big rock greets you and painted on it are the words: “Welcome Baboons. Terrible Sh*t! No W*nkers allowed!”
The first few kilometres of the route have – unfortunately for us – been scraped to allow for easier access to a school and the power cables. However, the rain caused a sticky mudslide that had wheels spinning and drivers struggling to find the right lines. At one stage I hit a rock so hard that I thought I had taken the tyre off the rim or at least smashed a wheel bearing. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case, and soon the mud gave way to a combination of boulders, more boulders and thousands of their smaller friends, all wet and slippery. Before we left, a final item in the e-mail list sent out said: “Bring your sense of humour, no one is going to help you find it on Baboon’s Pass.” So true. At times you’re clutching at the wheel and your vehicle again slides into a rut, you’re stuck and you have to climb out in the rain and pack
more rocks to build a road. It’s your sense of humour and the guys you’re with that get you through it.
There was one unfortunate mishap at an obstacle where the heavily modified Discovery 1 snapped a drive-shaft, a sickening noise at the best of times and even more so when you find yourself miles from nowhere.
Up ahead lay a twisty, rocky track with a sheer fall to the one side and the cliff face on the other. Streams were running off the mountain and taking bits of the road with it. We had to make a call and, unfortunately, the worst was still to come. We decided to turn back. Our weeks and weeks of planning and anticipation was cut to nothing in a split second.
My co-driver took one look at where we were headed, turned to me and cussed with a mixture of exasperation, terror and resignation. And when we had to get out twice using the high-lift jack to prevent serious body damage to one of the Tritons and the trailer, he was, in the South African sense, gatvol verby!
By the time we found a flat spot to overnight a few kilometres further, it was bucketing down and just in case it wasn’t miserable enough, the wind had picked up as well. Tents were pitched on the wet bog (how we wished we were in the trailer’s tent), a fire made under a gazebo and the canopy attached to the back of my vehicle.
The original idea was to have a braai under the African sky. Being true South Africans, we had our braai, except it was under a gazebo with no niceties. It was too cold for ice, so glasses were dispensed with and your preferred hard tack was thrown directly into the can of mix.
The roof of Lesotho
We started day two in the very early hours of the morning, courtesy of a howling wind and – surprise, surprise – more rain. The gazebo, I think, landed somewhere in Maseru and the colourful language could be heard throughout the land. When it was light, it became apparent why it was so cold. All around us the mountains were capped with snow.
It’s not only the difficulty of the pass, it’s the fact that the weather can change overnight. It’s the relentless rocks and dangerous twists and turns and, more importantly, you have to concentrate all the time. One wrong move and you could end up going over the edge, or at least damaging your vehicle or sliding into a rut that requires recovery, more rock-packing or winching.
Halfway through day two we stopped to make coffee and to allow a herdsman to
squeeze past the convoy with his goats and sheep. It’s a difficult enough task on gas when you’re more than 3000 m above sea level; even more difficult when you’re pelted in the face with icy rain.
By now the final major obstacle, Goliath’s Rock, was all we could think of, but not without a few more hair-raising stories to add to the saga. With about a kilometre to go there was one particularly tight bend to the left. At times like these, you have to completely rely on the person guiding you. He guided my right front wheel to the edge of the cliff with a sheer drop on my side, and very little space on the passenger side.
“That’s it,” said my co-driver and squeezed out of the passenger seat horrified at the thought of tumbling down the mountain with my unshaven face being the last thing he sees before the angels take him away.
A hard left on the steering wheel and some belching diesel smoke and all that was left was a wet and slippery Goliath’s Rock.
That’s it, said my co-driver and squeezed out of the passenger seat horrified at the thought of tumbling down the mountain with my unshaven face being the last thing he sees before the angels take him away.
It’s a huge rock that the road curves into, which means failure isn’t an option because losing control going up, there is a strong likelihood of finishing your trip upside down at the bottom of the mountain.
As the convoy was inching its way up the face one by one, Madam Earth threw us one last curve ball – more snow! Having grown up in England, my co-driver reckoned that three hours of that would have seen about a foot of snow, so just as well that we had wrapped up an epic trip and were heading down the muddy tracks back to Ramabanta.
The first suggestion over the radio was to see whether there were enough chalets and, quite frankly, even if they had only two, 13 of us would have crammed in there with a smile. Warmth, a hot shower and clean linen when you’ve spent 48 hours battling the elements is a priceless commodity. Fortunately, there were enough chalets, and that night, sitting around the braai fire (with ice and a glass!), we were already planning the next excursion to another mystical pass.
Adriaan and Rachel in the red Range Rover testing the rollover point.
The Defender 90 needed some manpower to ensure that it didn’t end up at the bottom of the valley.
Simon Gerber in his Defender, battling up a river that was once a road.
Mud, glorious mud. The Disco ploughs through the sticky stuff with the off-road trailer.
The Disco 3 driving over boulders, which later became a large mountain stream.