A LITTLE OFF THE TOP
This secret detour across the top of Lesotho is a perfect mix of 4x4 magic and high-altitude fun. TYSON JOPSON drove it in a Toyota Fortuner
A CRISP MORNING. A GRAND IDEA. ALL WE NEED NOW IS COFFEE...
The idea goes: see if we can add a bit of gravel travel to a drive across Lesotho’s north. Its main artery, the A1, is a spectacular ribbon of road. But it’s all tar now and, with Toyota’s top-of-the-range Fortuner 4x4 at my disposal, I’m looking for an offroad route that’ll ask it some tougher questions. The coffee comes: bottomless from a top-shelf buffet breakfast at Afriski Mountain Resort. Outside, snow canons fire fun powder onto the slopes and groggy ski instructors shuffle around looking for their luminous 8am flocks. I pour milk and my driving partner, Glenn Jones, pores over a map. On it, somewhere between two of the Maloti’s northernmost folds is a little marker that reads ‘Chalets in the Sky’. So that’s where we head. Snowfall the previous evening means we hit the first challenge before we even hit dirt. Black ice on Tlaeeng Pass. There’s a delivery truck already in the ditch ahead of us. ‘Locked up and slipped off,’ is the word on the street. We put the Fortuner into L4 (low-range, four-wheel-drive), engage the DAC (Downhill Assist Control) and let the engine crawl us down the pass, keeping off the brakes to avoid a similar situation. Past Letseng Diamond Mine, we turn left onto a gravel road, prompted by a sign that reads ‘Maloraneng Chalets & Camp Site - 9km’. It’s an easy half-hour drive before we reach the village of Maloraneng and, just past it, Maloraneng Chalets, or ‘Chalets in the Sky’. They’re remote, simple and beautiful, but we learn the campsite, ‘not far away’ is even better. We steer back past the village, through a shallow river and onto a 4x4 track that cuts its way along steep mountainsides, over rocks and into golden dry valleys. For every obstacle, the Fortuner has an answer. It’s comfortable, sure-footed in H4 and L4 and gives feedback through the steering wheel that makes creeping over loose rocks and along steep precipices more exhilarating than harrowing. Turns out ‘not far away,’ in Sotho means ‘more than an hour’ and finally we reach a spectacular campsite on a bend on the Khubelu River. Aside from the river’s gently gurgle, it’s so quiet here, it might as well be in outer space. With a note of its location (S28° 58.827’, E28° 55.522’) and a sigh that we can’t stay, we track back into the bright sunshine to complete the loop to Tlokoeng. And my what a loop it is. First we criss-cross
the Khubelu River (seven times), then climb and descend a slew of splendidly unkempt mountain roads, past herdboys and cowbells, over rocks that crunch and tumble to the earth below. Five hours later, we emerged onto the A1 and stretch the Fortuner’s legs to Mokhotlong. At cruising speed, it’s a dream: a long, relaxed gait, quiet engine and power when you need it. We tip the wheel south, onto Kotsisephala Pass and past Thaba Ntlenyana, the highest peak south of Kilimanjaro, to Sani Mountain Lodge for a hearty meal beside a roaring fire on a crisp, cold Lesotho night.
CLOCKWISE, FROM ABOVE Stone-clad ‘Chalets in the Sky’; hit the slopes at Afriski; the road to Maloraneng; the Fortuner’s climate-controlled cubbyhole keeping my inverter cool.
FROM TOP One of the Khubela River crossings; this is the turn off to Maloraneng. Keep your eyes peeled for the blue sign. Its coordinates are: S29° 1.358’ E28° 51.385’.