BA­BOONS PASS

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.

Go! Camp & Drive - - Contents - Text and pho­tos Kyle Kock

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...

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