Above the clouds
A 4x4 EXPEDITION INTO THE KINGDOM IN THE SKY IS EQUAL MEASURES TOUGH, TERRIFYING AND EXHILARATING, BUT IT'S EVERY 4x4 OWNER'S DREAM, AND THE LESOTHO VISTAS ARE TO DIE FOR
‘Right, gentlemen, engage your low-range and let’s tackle this pass,’ crackled the thick Afrikaans accent of André de Villiers over the two-way radio. Expert in all things 4x4 and tour leader of our 10-car convoy into the breathtaking and vertiginous heights of Lesotho, André slowly rolled his vehicle upwards, leading the caravan of 2.0 L BiTDi Amarok bakkies up the notorious and ominous-sounding Ongeluksnek Pass – our first of many gruelling, mettle-testing challenges to occur over the following days.
I was one of the fortunate few to have been invited on the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier 4x4 Expedition. The main aim of which was to create awareness and help endorse the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier Programme (MDTP), which is a collaborative initiative between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa to sustainably manage the natural and cultural resources of the Drakensberg and Maloti Mountain regions. The programme also aspires to help boost the region’s economy through the promotion of nature-based tourism – it is almost criminal how undersold and under-visited this picture-perfect part of the world is.
I had been in the northern reaches of the little kingdom before, but had always dreamt of one day conquering the series of infamous mountain passes that dot the map further south. So, when the invitation came, I was first to reserve a driver’s seat on this bumpy ride.
After an early morning arrival at King Shaka airport, our gaggle of journalists was carted to the VW dealership in Ballito, where we received some instruction from tour guide André on the silver steeds that would carry us over mountains high and valleys low. A smooth four-hour drive later, the fleet of Amaroks arrived in the sleepy little town of Matatiele – or Matat, as it’s lovingly referred to by locals.
If you ever find yourself in Matatiele, and are looking for comfortable accommodation before you cross the border into Lesotho, try Resthaven Guesthouse. An added bonus is that proprietor Philip Rawlins will be able to tell you all you need to know before your journey into the kingdom – he is a veritable fountain of Lesotho knowledge. We were also fortunate to have him accompany us on our trip, and no question was left unanswered.
Well rested and fed, we left Resthaven and Matatiele in our rear-view mirrors and headed to Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve, where a small ceremony was held – complete with traditional prayer by the region’s chief, music and a ribbon cutting – before we set off to the lonely border post and into the mountains proper.
‘Car number five! Let go of your clutch, or you’ll burn it out!’ came André’s shouted instructions over the radio halfway up Ongeluksnek Pass. I was in car number seven, and had been smelling the noxious odour of abused clutch for a while, but couldn’t pinpoint from whose Amarok it wafted. The convoy was completely enshrouded by a dense fog, so that I could only just about see the vehicle ahead of me. It also meant that we had no view of the valley as we ascended – probably for the best, as the sheer drop is enough to unsettle the hardiest of off-roaders.
Fortunately, Ongeluksnek was dry, and although going was tough, the Amarok’s low-range capability and high clearance meant we crawled up the boulder-strewn pass steadily and without too many hitches. I wouldn’t have the nerve to attempt it in rainy or snowy conditions, mind.
After further patient direction from André, the clutch culprits in car number five (I won’t mention any names) finally managed to get their vehicle in low range and let go of their clutch, and no rescue efforts were required. Suddenly we emerged from the cloud and, as we crested the pass (the altimeter reading 2 555 m above sea level), the sun smiled down at us. It had been a crisp 5°C when we crossed the border, but on top of Ongeluksnek, where we each placed a stone on the cairn in the spirit of tradition, it was warm enough to remove jackets and jerseys.
Somewhat relieved to have survived our first obstacle, we happily coasted down the lush, sheep-dotted valley towards lovely Lake Letsie, where we stopped for a quick photo and a snack. Then it was onwards to Mphaki and on to the tarred Hloahloeng Pass. Village after village wizzed by, and one gets the feeling that nothing much has changed here in the last few centuries. Huts, sheep, blanketed young shepherd boys, ponies, crops, donkeys, more sheep. It is a simple way of life, and yet I found myself envying the beautifully content, uncomplicated existence in this marvellous mountain realm.
In every little village, a few huts are demarcated with coloured flags flying from tall poles. A white flag indicates that joala (traditional Sesotho sorghum beer) is sold there; a yellow flag means maize beer; a red flag means meat; a green flag means vegetables, and so on. Naturally, the thirstier among us were eager to stop off at a white or yellow flag to sample the local brew, but we were on a tight schedule and were assured that we’d have an abundance of the local sauce at the homestay on the following night. So we wended our way towards Semonkong, around endless bends and crooks, dodging the odd pothole or wayward sheep, and marvelling at the spectacular Middle Earth-like scenery.
A stop at legendary Maletsunyane Falls is mandatory if you’re in this part of the world, and we certainly weren’t going to pass it up. A dizzying drop of 192 m means the plunging water creates a smoky haze in the gorge below, which is how Semonkong got its name – ‘the place of smoke’. One could also abseil Maletsunyane if one were so inclined, but it was already late afternoon, and our tired and dusty bodies were ready for a scrub and a beer at Semonkong Lodge, our charming abode for the night.
The lodge is built on the banks of the Maletsunyane River (bring your fly rod!) and blends seamlessly into the landscape, with only stone and thatch used in the construction of their array of inviting accommodation options. After a delicious supper at the Duck and Donkey Tavern and Restaurant, some wonderful local musical entertainment, and probably a glass of wine too many, we hit the hay.
Fasts were broken with scrummy bacon and eggs the next morning, before we set off on one of the most strenuous days of driving I’ve ever done.
First stop was the Christ the King Mission viewing point, which looks out over a horseshoe canyon with the Senqu River snaking far below. It’s enough to take your breath away, and simply a must-see if you’re in the region. Then we were back on 4x4 terrain (the two-way radios were crucial and regularly blared with instructions from André on when to engage 4WD, low-range, or how to negotiate difficult sections) on our way towards Melikane Pass. We took a quick break at the old suspension bridge that crosses the Tsoelike River at the base of Melikane. Luckily for us, there is a newly built bridge too, as the suspension did not look like it could carry my weight, let alone the Amarok.
Nevertheless, over Melikane Pass we went, winding back and fourth for hours and climbing precipitous inclines, until we were down the other side and pulled over for a well-deserved rest and lunch at the Bob Phillips campsite. Around the corner, we stopped and marvelled at some of the best preserved Bushman rock paintings I’ve ever seen. But we couldn’t linger long, as the sternest test was still to come. Menacing Matebeng Pass loomed ahead.
With a summit of 2 960 m above sea level, Matebeng can only be conquered in low-range enabled 4x4 vehicles or off-road motorbikes. Again, I wouldn’t even consider it in the wet, but it’s doable in dry conditions. Doable, but no doddle.
It has similarities to Sani Pass in the north of the country, but is far more challenging. The road curves and corkscrews ever heavenwards, and is bestrewn with seemingly insurmountable boulders, but somehow our ever trusty Amaroks managed to power us up the acclivitous road. We finally reached the summit, exhausted but elated, internal organs jostled to the point of rearrangement, but the views more than made up for it. We took a minute at the top and stared out across the valley, amazed at what we’d accomplished.
We descended on the other side, and then it was the final stretch to Thamatu Village – our homestay for the night. A homestay isn’t for everyone, but if you’d like to immerse yourself in Basotho culture and find out exactly how Lesotho villagers live, opt for Thamatu. We were welcomed like kings, and the little village pulled out all the stops for a feast that night – from ‘smileys’ (sheep heads) and ‘walky talkies’ (chicken feet), to tripe, pap and locally brewed beer. It was dinner and a show, as the village’s girls performed some traditional dances. But after a long day’s driving, we didn’t last long. Satiated and sleepy, we bunked down in various dung-floored huts with warm and woolly Basotho blankets.
We bade farewell to our gracious hosts the next day, and travelled to Sehlabathebe National Park, where we did a short hike to more rock paintings, natural pools and a series of caves. If we hadn’t been on a schedule, I could have whiled away many more hours in the 6 500 ha park. Alas, soon we were behind the wheel once more and on we drove, back across the border to our last stop – a closing function for the expedition at the Wilfred Bower Nature Reserve, where we ate and drank to our hearts’ content.
Our last night was spent at the lovely Mehloding Community Chalets just outside Matatiele, where we all stayed up well into the wee hours, swapping stories and celebrating the epic journey we’d just completed. Lesotho had shown off her best side, and we had not been disappointed. I’ll certainly be back, but the journey will be spread out over at least a week, rather than just a few hurried days – and next time I won’t forget to pack the fishing rod.
WHERE TO STAY
– Resthaven Guesthouse
77 Main Street, Matatiele, 039 737 4067, resthaven.co.za
– Semonkong Lodge
1 Riverside Road, Semonkong, +26 62 700 6037, semonkonglodge.com
– Thamathu Homestay
– Mehloding Adventure Trail & Chalets
Just outside Matatiele, 039 737 3289, mehloding.co.za
– Double cab
– 2.0 ℓ bi-turbo diesel 132 KW and 400 Nm
– 4Motion Highline
– 6-speed manual
– Low-range capabilities
– Off-road ABS
– Hill-descent assist
– The right vehicle is vital. Make sure you have a 4X4 when you visit this part of the world, and preferably one with low-range capabilities. 2WD and sedans are a definite no-no.
– Pack warm gear, as the temperatures can drop below freezing. Beanies, gloves, scarves, wind-resistant jackets, fleece layers and sturdy walking shoes.
– Make sure to have all necessary documents, including passport, ID and necessary vehicle docs.
– Bring a repair kit, and enough fuel. When you know you’re going to be driving far, bring jerry-can for fuel, and water bottles.