The infamous Baboons Pass in the Lesotho Highveld is on the bucket list drives of many local off-road enthusiasts. We ride shotgun while attempting a sub seven-hour trip.
This is a first for him too, admits Riaan Kotzee from behind the wheel of his Toyota Hilux 2.4 diesel manual double cab 4x4 while we’re en route to the Mountain Kingdom for the next few days. Riaan is a salesman at Halfway Toyota’s Fourways branch and part of the dealer network’s off-road experience team. We’re driving in convoy with two other bakkies from the same brand and dealership. We’re on our way to scout the Baboons Pass as a possible location for customers to experience just how capable their bakkie or SUV is. Crossing the border at Peka Bridge goes off without incident and we hit the road south through the town of Roma. We’re headed to the Ramabanta Trading Post, a lodge that serves as the ideal base camp for those looking to tackle the pass or explore the region’s many trails on foot or on horseback. We’re hoping to get there before sunset – where the other half of the Halfway team from KwaZulu-Natal will meet us. The prospect of 21 km of the toughest off-road terrain in Africa is daunting. A quick YouTube search doesn’t exactly help to reassure you. There are endless failures and trips that ended in tears. There’s definitely a high attrition rate if conditions aren’t favourable, and depending on the weather and condition of the road those taking on the trail have to be prepared to take two days to finish the route as a precaution.
RAMABANTA TRADING POST
We reach Ramabanta Trading Post after 4 pm and meet up with the guys from the coast. All in, we’ll be trying to get six vehicles through the pass: four Hiluxes, a Land Cruiser 76 and a 2002 model short-wheelbase Jeep Wrangler. From the terraced stand you can make out Baboons Pass in the distance on the mountainside. The snaking route starts just a few kilometres from Ramabanta and threads through some of the country’s most treacherous terrain. The guys are optimistic about tackling the mountain. The last time they were here, about a year ago, they were snowed in and had to wait out the storm for more than a week before driving home with their tow bars between their tailgates. >
It’s cold, but at least this time there’s no snow and ice, which would definitely be pretty but wouldn’t bode well for off-road driving without tyre chains. Our late arrival means that we start losing light fast. Fortunately, these guys abide by the first rule of camping and they start pitching tents and pumping up air mattresses for a decent night’s rest. Also, there are strict instructions from Gerald O’Brien, de facto leader of the excursion and most senior off-roader here, to not get boozed up. Misbehaviour that could lead to failure to perform the next morning will not be tolerated. Ramabanta looks like one of those alpine resorts you see in Hollywood films. There’s cabin-style accommodation for those seeking more private stays and little cottage-like chalets. We’re here right at the end of winter so the valley Ramabanta falls in is still in the grip of a cold snap – which means one sleeping bag under the cover of a nylon tent just isn’t enough. Temperatures overnight this high up in the mountains easily drops below freezing, so you need to make sure you are adequately prepared.
NO FAULT FACILITIES
Because the lodge caters mainly to those who want to sleep under roof, some of the cabins have their own hot shower facilities. Those who opt for chalet accommodation and tent camping use a rustic old ablution block, about 30 to 40 metres away depending on which terrace you’re parked on. It’s a simple affair. The door on the men’s side opens up to reveal a raw concrete table that serves as a bench for your clothes or toiletries. A narrow door leads to the showers and toilets to the left and right, with a single basin and mirror at either end. Interestingly, the zinc dishwashing basins aren’t located at the ablution block but closer to the campsites, with a double zinc basin perched right next to two deeper zinc basins for washing your clothes. The facilities are very well kept. The grass is short and though not green at this time of the year, very neat and tidy. Benches hewn from different materials like old bath tubs, wood and rock can be found all over the ground. The restaurant has an outdoor eating area on a wooden deck that overlooks the region’s valley. A children’s jungle gym can be found on the far northern end, complete with three swings, a climbing rope, tyre obstacles and raised wooden deck. The braai areas are also scattered all over the Trading Post’s grounds. Some are flat and round so you can attend to your meat from the comfort of your chair, while others are more table-like where you will need to stand and grill. There are two separate braai areas housed under the same structure that hosts the wash basins. These also have a large work surface for preparing your food and drinks and are also under cover.
ON TO THE PASS
With daybreak the team starts getting out the gas bottles and soon breakfast is ready. Ten minutes before the agreedupon departure time of 8 am the group
assembles and Gerald doles out the day’s instructions. Driving what is arguably the most capable vehicle of the bunch, a Land Cruiser 76, Gerald will take the lead. We’re riding shotgun with him, at least for the first stretch. The South Coast guys have the start of the pass mapped out beforehand on their GPS units – because signage from the highway isn’t all that clear. On the way we come across a rather large group of hikers who seem to be headed in the same direction we are – except that they look prepared to spend a night or two in the mountains somewhere. Just before the official start of the trail the convoy slows to a halt for final preparations. Looking up at the slit of road that appears to be the start of the arduous course, the atmosphere around us erupts into what sounds like the hissing of a pit of poisonous snakes. The source of this fear-inducing sound is nothing more than the simultaneous and rapid deflation of the vehicles’ tyres to a pressure more suited to rock-hopping later on – around 1.5 bar. At about an hour in we have already covered the first three and a half kilometres. The going is easy and the only times we have to stop is when we have traffic in the opposite direction in the form of packed donkeys. Obviously that means they are followed by the occasional shepherd or guide who looks to be carrying supplies to the various villages and homesteads dotted around the pass. In the first two hours it’s possible to make ground quickly, even though Riaan’s GPS system shows that we have already passed two sections in the first quarter that showed that the path would need to be built with rocks. A previous group must have already done that for us because we get through without a fuss. The only hiccups are that the Hiluxes seem to miss their step on one or two sections, possibly because of an incorrect line, or possibly due to insufficient momentum. We’re able to drive the route in sections, with Gerald occasionally stopping to inspect an obstacle. A couple of times the road has to be packed with rocks, but the work isn’t backbreaking because the packing takes no more than a few minutes each time. With a fairly high average speed the convoy reaches the halfway point in two and a half hours. And the drivers pose >
for a photograph and enjoy a short break. At this point we’re riding with Jaco Hanekom from Fourways whose 2.8 manual Hilux is still sporting its standard plastic bumpers. He points out that the first thing he advises new customers to do is add rock sliders and bash plates if they plan on doing any serious off-road work. Seconds after he completes that sentence, the Hilux lands heavily onto the underside of the front bumper. Luckily the damage is limited to a few scrapes and a small dent in the bumper. The second half is significantly rougher, with larger boulders and bare rock faces with little grip that can give 4x4 vehicles a hard time – one example of the latter is the infamous Goliath’s Rock, which requires traction and torque to get up. It’s also located on a tight lefthander, which is impossible for the likes of a modern double cab to get up in the same motion. We did encounter one particularly difficult section in the third quarter of the pass that we were forewarned about. Gerald had gone up the steep and rocky incline first with the Land Cruiser. In 4 low, Gerald faces the wall of rocks and dives right in without locking any of the differentials. The axles start to spin and he simply reaches left of the steering wheel, switches on the front and rear diff locks and the Land Cruiser climbs up. Easy as pie. Ryan Otto, also from Fourways, in his automatic 2.8 Hilux was right behind and attempted it too but only got up about halfway. And he tried two more times before choosing to back out. The rest of the Toyotas went up the other side while the Jeep Wrangler managed it on the second attempt. The highest point is reached on the second half: 2 689 metres above sea level. While the human element is huffing and puffing up here, the vehicles are enjoying the cool air. Some of the older local children who lined up to watch these strange folk driving up the mountain are running around with little ones on their backs, laughing at us. It turned out to be a perfect trip. No vehicles were badly damaged or were forced to turn back or stop. And no recoveries had to be performed. We didn’t know who had been there before us but surely as a group passes through
The road has to be packed with rocks in certain rough sections, but fortunately the work isn’t backbreaking.
or there’s a big storm the trail changes – making no two attempts exactly the same. Perhaps lady luck was on our side, as conditions were ideal enough to enable the convoy to finish the pass in six hours and 30 minutes. The end of winter isn’t a bad time of the year to come if the trail isn’t snowed in. Baboons Pass may have gained notoriety over the years but barely showed us its fangs this time around.
NO WRONG IN SEMONKONG
Seemingly popular, not just among local adventurists but international clientele as well, Semonkong Lodge is an outdoor lover’s haven. It’s located in a ravine on the edge of Semonkong, with some of the chalets and lodgings on the hill on the other side of the river. To reach it from the A5 you drive through town and down a steep gravel road and across a single vehicle bridge. Coming in under the sign there’s a post that reminds you of the plethora of things to do from the lodge. The nearby Maletsunyane Falls boasts the world’s longest commercially operated single drop abseil (a dizzying 204 m) – and >
is Guinness-certified. You can arrange horseback rides or simply rent a mountain bike for under R90 and explore the variety of jeep tracks and horse trails to your heart’s content – provided you’re fit enough to pedal at an altitude in excess of 2 200 m above sea level. The area features rock climbing ranging from novice to expert level, though you’ll bring your own climbing equipment. You can swim in the river and you’re also allowed to fly-fish in it. If you’re a fan of racing, the local horse and pony owners organise one every week. The lodge also offers guests and tourists a donkey pub crawl where you get to explore the local taverns (on the back of a donkey) and are entertained by the Basotho locals. Obviously, you pay for your own beverages.
ENJOY YOUR STAY
Because there’s a large variety of lodging at Semonkong, including chalets, rooms and two dormitories for backpackers, the campsite is slightly more modest. There are only five stands, located right next to the river through a boom that separates the stands from the general parking area. The stands have electricity points and share a bin and braai area right on the riverbank. The ground is flat and is sparsely covered in grass but is at least firm and the barren trees are large enough for a sprinkling of shade. The camping area itself is rather small, so caravans are frowned up, unless you have the smaller off-road trailer variety. There’s a restaurant at the lodge that also caters for vegetarians, and the Duck & Donkey Pub is only 50 m from the campsite, behind reception. This is also the area where you are most likely to pick up a wi-fi signal, which is available for a small fee. The ablution facility at Semonkong is also tiny but has guesthouse-like fittings and style. From the campsite you go up a set of steps onto a terrace into a cottage-styled building. There are two showers, two urinal basins, a toilet and single hand basin. Because the campsite is so small, you expect these facilities to be kept clean, and you won’t be disappointed. There’s hot water all the time and between the men’s and women’s sections there’s a double zinc basin where you can wash your dishes and clothes.
It turned out to be a perfect trip, with no recoveries required and no significant vehicle damage.
EASY DOES IT. The consequences will be severe if you get it wrong in certain places. Building the road with rocks is part and parcel of attempting the pass. Drivers will definitely have to call upon spotters or assistance when the bonnets are pointing...
EASY CROSSING. Going through the border at the Peka Bridge post was an effortless affair. The vehicles are inspected for any contraband and passports are stamped without any drama. Driving from any one of the major cities in South Africa will require a...
WELL-EARNED REST. The Semonkong Lodge campsite is small but was a welcome sight after a day’s off-roading on one of the most notorious mountain passes in Southern Africa. There’s plenty to do in this area of Lesotho, and the lodge is popular with...