Like the hallmark signs of the African leg of our expedition – when we headed up Sani Pass, things got hectic quickly.
Lesotho is a landlocked country that sits at high altitude within the borders of South Africa. I have wanted to go there ever since I first visited the country 5-years ago. Gareth thought it looked exciting and remote. The mysteriousness led us there.
We departed Durban and hiked in the Drakensberg Mountains. After we got our fix of aching muscles we pointed the Troopy towards the notorious Sani Pass. The pass originated in 1913 as a mule track and we followed at a similarly slow pace. It is famous for being hard, zigzaggy and attracting hardened 4×4’ers that declare it to be ‘not that bad’. Unfortunately we are hardcore travellers and our 4X4 skills are still in development so the pass was always going to be a challenge. The sheer cliffs and the fact our vehicle is 25-years old and hates climbing hills made it all the more daunting.
It began with ease. A quick border crossing helped by a nonchalant immigration officer with an AK47 slung over his chair. We meandered up the road feeling confident. That feeling was quickly smashed by looking at the temperature gauge creeping up and realising our rig was under serious heat. At that point we were only half way up. Looking at how much steeper it became made us feel ill.
^ The very, very top of the pass is right in the middle there
Onwards we roared sideways along hairpin bends. We crossed back on ourselves and went up 15 metres a piece. At one point a hiker stood in our path. The 50 year old woman waved merrily as I yelled at her to move and Gareth wandered what to do, ‘Run her over?’
He had to choose, and as all his cells were focused on getting up the mountain he just decided to just her down. JUST KIDDING. Instead, the Troopy roared up at the worst possible angle and stalled.
Stalling at incline felt life threatening and we both envisaged ourselves rolling backwards towards the cliff behind us. Dramatic if you a in a movie, a bit bloody scary in real life.
G was stuck behind the brakes and wheel. So, I jumped out and lifted the heaviest looking rocks I couldto chock the rear wheels. I was slipping on smaller rocks underfoot and it was easy to feel why Troopy had also faltered.
We tried to see if we could go forward, but there was no hope. It was time to reverse – even though letting the foot off the brake felt absolutely insane. The moment we got hori (horizontal) was such a relief.
^ The switchback we got caught on
The next switchbacks got tighter and tighter. G’s foot was flat to the floor and all revs were bottoming out of the engine. It was equal parts exciting and goddam scary. We reached the summit with our hearts were in our guts and our guts were in our mouths. We cheered and rushed to the front of the Troopy to celebrate.
Unfortunately the moment faded fast and was captured by our GoPro on the bull bar as we watched our coolant spill from the engine. ‘WHAT IS THAT?’ I asked, ‘The radiators boiling’ G replied grimly.
We are not too proud to say that, in that exact moment, we didn’t know what to do. Where the hell are we? What are we doing here? Why isn’t the Troopy purring along perfectly like it was in Australia? It was a real moment. With shaking hands it was remarkable what our frazzled brains worked out within minutes. It went a bit like this: Motor hot. Time to cool off. Proceed through border. Nicely ask border control to cut their price in half. Laugh at ridiculousness of immigartion and customs officials paying music and smoking as they stamp our Carnet. Cool down. Drink. All will be OK. A man appeared and asked if we had it in low range… we hand’t even thought of it.
We had reached the highest pub in Africa and although it was 11am we both ordered a stiff drink.
^ The view from the top! (And if you don’t think its looks too steep, multiply what you think the steepness in the photo is by about 50%!)
The rain and mud set in over night and messed up the roads leading into the country. We slept at nearly 3000 metres above sea level and temperatures dropped below ten degrees. The next day we get bogged in mud by 7am. We shift into low range thanking our lucky stars that man yesterday had reminded us of this ingenious 4WD gizmo and the Troopy ate the mud for breakfast.
An hour later we encountered our next big obstacle: a Chinese road worker guiding us past two massive yellow road excavators. We were flippantly waved through the thickest mud we have ever driven… only to be yelled at for going the wrong way. A stand-off soon ensued. We were being told (with excavators zooming around) to do a 3-point turn in deep mud next to a sheer cliff. No friggen way – I hopped out of the car told them as much and showed them that we were actually humans inside the 4WD they were happy to shove off the edge of a cliff. Low and behold within a few minutes a road was created before our very eyes! The scooper scooped and the roller rolled. Off we went with waves, one apologetic Chinese roller operator, one very grumpy Chinese scooper and smiling locals. It was the most surreal travel moment of my entire life. I just remember thinking, Where the hell are we?!… only weeks before we had been sitting on a couch back in Australia
^ Basotho shepherds on horseback dotted the countryside
^ Wet and foggy, but luckily the roads had a lot of crushed rock so it wasn’t too slippery
^ Road works, no need to stop, just roll on through
^ Liphofung Caves Campground, just $4 a night
** We will write more about our journey through Lesotho in the next edition of the Australian magazine Pat Callinan’s 4X4 Adventures. If you are in Aus Keep your eye out.