BRAVING BABOON’S PASS
11-car expedition on the ‘Roof of Africa’
Most 4x4 enthusiasts will tell you that Baboon’s Pass is not for the faint of heart, and if you’re looking for a tough 4x4 challenge, Baboon’s Pass is most certainly one for the bucket list. No one will argue that Baboon’s Pass is the toughest public road in Southern Africa. Due to the high altitude, vehicles and passengers take serious strain, as they are up to 30 per cent down on power and run out of breath easily. In several off-roading circles, Baboon’s Pass has often been compared to ‘The Road to Hell’ in the Northern Cape , but frankly there’s no real comparison. Sure, both routes are tough, but nothing prepares you for the Baboon’s 26km of arduous terrain and hectic obstacles.
The Baboon’s hind (story)
According to Lesotho legend and motorsport acer, Ashley Thorn, Baboon’s Pass, like many routes in Lesotho, started out as a vital link and single track bridal path that was plied by donkeys and mules carrying supplies between Semonkong to Ramabanta. This path starts at 1 700m above sea level and summits at 2 700m. Semonkong is considered a frontier village that was established under remote and trying conditions in the 1800s. In the early 1970s, the Roman Catholic church commissioned a priest, Father Cassino, to widen the track for vehicle access. Amongst the early users to traverse the pass were Jeeps and Land Rovers. In its heyday the track was improved to such an extent that a 4x4 Mercedes Benz 1617 truck ferried supplies to Semonkong daily, leaving Ramabanta in the morning and returning back in the late afternoon or early evening. Apparently the wreckage of this 170 HP, 8-ton truck lies buried somewhere below Baboon’s Pass after its driver had consumed too much of the good stuff that kept him warm during the extreme cold and snowy conditions associated with this pass. A new dirt road was built some years ago to Semonkong. This same road was tarred in the last three years, thanks to the Chinese. This new road is a more indirect route and incorporates many hairpin bends. It’s a considerably longer route to Semonkong. Over the last 15 years Baboon’s Pass has been left to the elements and adventure junkies. Most of the pass is well above the snow line and the well-used track has eroded and deteriorated to what it is today.
How did we do it?
Our goal was to reach the summit with our vehicles in one piece. There are many stories of failed attempts to reach the summit due to damaged and broken-down vehicles. Most of these were mainly due to drive train and suspension component failure.) We decided not to rush, and tackled the pass in two days. But we needed to approach the route with respect, care and caution. The thought of spending the night on the trail and facing the harsh elements seemed to add an exciting element of adventure and camaraderie. More than half of the vehicles in our convoy were overland-specific vehicles. This included three Defender 130s (2.8 powerstroke,Td5 and 2.2L Puma), Discovery 2 Td5, Defender 90 Tdi, two Hilux D4D’s, Landcruiser 100 V8 petrol auto, Jeep Rubicon 3.8 Petrol SWB, 3.6 LWB Auto and a Nissan Hardbody 3L petrol. None of the vehicles were stock standard and each was modified in some way. Modifications included suspension upgrades, bigger wheels, bash plates, additional diff locks, stronger steering bars and two of the vehicles had modified transfer cases, which gave them lower low-range gearing. As with any off-road route, tyre pressure selection is critical, and even more so at Baboon’s Pass. Firm tyres will place a huge strain on the suspension, linkages and passengers, and result in less traction and a possible slip off the rocks. Too soft tyres
will place huge strain on the drive train especially CV joints, differentials and side shafts. After careful consideration, we selected a pressure of 1.1 bar for the front and 1.5 bar at the rear to compensate for our loaded vehicle. We were confident that this set up would provide a good compromise between slip and grip.
The trail starts
After climbing the Makhaleng River, the track starts a steep climb to the right with a tight hairpin bend. As the track flattens out, you’re greeted with your first rock and boulder obstacle. The track is lined with about 15m of rocks and boulders and there is no escape route. The gradient and boulders on the side leaves you with little choice but to tackle the rock field up ahead. We wondered if this was the entrance exam or whether there was worse to come? Hardly 100m out of the river, our fleet came to a standstill… One of the big boulders took its toll on one of the Defenders. The rear diff has become hung-up on our ‘entrance examination’. Anxiety set in and the lighthearted banter over the radio didn’t do much for anyone’s confidence. With the front diff-lock engaged, we reversed back, stopped, got out of the vehicle and decided on a new line adding some loose rocks to the mix – and repeated the process! Carefully, we proceeded over this boulder strewn obstacle again, taking a new line whilst the car bounced repeatedly from side to side and up and down. But nevertheless, we made it through relatively unscathed. We continued on the track that started with a gentle climb up an unfriendly rutted and boulder-strewn track. Big boulders and rocks lined our route as we inched our way forward, trying not to add any scratches and dents (character) to our vehicles. We often found it better to drive over a boulder than inching past it. Our rock sliders worked well and fended the huge boulders from the bodywork. Up ahead we saw an extended boulder field. This one looked really hairy and worse than what we’ve been through. For more than 100m ahead, the track continues to climb steadily, and the eroded slopes below meant there was no room for error. We passed the second village where locals were on hand with huge hammers. Ashley told us they are part of a local upliftment programme to help maintain the route. This road services these villages and is their only point of access. Baboon’s Pass is a public road. Yes, it’s hardly conceivable, but true. It surely must be the most difficult and highest public road ever. There are five little villages of Basotho huts along the route. The setting is pretty and peaceful and the huts are dwarfed by the towering mountain to our right. The villages have beautifully manicured lawns around the huts, of which the goats do a good job of keeping trim.
We came across a huge boulder in the track that had rolled down the mountain. It must have been at least one metre in diameter or even larger. Slowly, we inched our way up the mountain side, detouring with little Goliath on our left. Carefully, we went around it trying not to slide down the side slope or slip off the boulders. Our wheels were placed precariously on and into little Goliath. Our deflated tyres and lockers kept us on track as we eased our way past . By now we were getting used to the terrain and how to overcome its unforgiving obstacles. Eroded gullies, rock ledges, interspersed with side slopes, gradients, boulders and rocks continued to plague the way ahead. We needed to pick up the pace, but couldn’t. Somehow the easy sections seemed to be the exception and not the rule. Finally, we arrived at our campsite, situated at the foot of Yee-hah hill, for the night. Our guide, Thabo, had a brief chat with the local herdsmen and they cleared an area for us to pitch tents and make ourselves comfortable. The night fires were roaring as temperatures dropped down to well below 10 degrees.
This next four-kilometre section of Baboon’s Pass is referred to as the Bridle Pass. It’s so narrow that you can’t pass another vehicle at all. Should the lead vehicle break down, it would have to be towed in reverse all the way back to the Yee-hah summit, which requires some very skillful driving. Once we reached the summit above Yee-hah Hill, the track descended in a southerly direction through a tricky little ‘poort’ where our track snaked east to the southern side of the mountain. Here, the track narrows again. At a push, it’s in many places only wide enough to allow our long 130 Defenders with their big spaced out wheels through. How that Mercedes 1617 got through here remains a mystery… Typically, an obstacle has a start and an end point. As long as you choose your line carefully you can get through. So how do you eat an elephant? Well, one bite at a time… And this is the case with the Bridle Pass where we pushed on and persevered. Co-drivers navigated the vehicles through with the odd rock displaced and the line rebuilt for the next vehicle. Slow and steady momentum was the only way through this minefield of boulders.
The end in sight
For most, Goliath’s Steps signals the end of Baboon’s Pass, but it could also be seen as the sting in the tail or should we rather say, the ‘Baboon’s bite’. It’s undoubtedly the most hectic climb of Baboon’s Pass. The steps are a combination of a tight hairpin bend while climbing up a huge granite boulder with a hair-raising incline and slightly articulated run-up of poor traction. It is on obstacles like these where the side shaft and cv-joints of a vehicle are under enormous strain. Some would argue Baboon’s Pass is technically a grade-4 trail, however, the grading system is written for standard-production vehicles. The only standard vehicle I know that could handle Baboon’s Pass is probably a Defender or a Discovery 4. The pass has been conquered in a Discovery 4 with standard tyres, but not without body or undercarriage rash. Thus, to stay true to the trail grading system, Baboon’s Pass is beyond a grade-5. So here is a challenge: If you know of any driver with a stock standard production vehicle that has completed Baboon’s Pass and not sustained any body or undercarriage rash, please let me know about it so I can send this person a box of something or other and put the vehicle on a pedestal. Contact Bruce Jenkinson on 082 493 3377.