We were given the new Renault Duster for a week, and surmised that there are few better places to get a thorough look at the little crossover’s abilities than the lofty kingdom of Lesotho
Our destinaiton is Semonkong, a sleepy little village in Lesotho. Our ride is the new Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique. Our port of entry: None other than the iconic mother of all mountain passes – Sani Pass. Our objective? To test the Duster on some of Africa’s toughest and steepest tracks.
Arriving at the foot of the famous cork-screw pass, we get out to stretch our legs. A burly man behind the wheel of a Toyota Land Cruiser stops and – in a classic window-down, elbow-out pose – asks us if we need help. We explain that we’re just taking a quick break before tackling Sani. ‘Are you sure you want to head into Lesotho in that?’ he asks, with a dubious glance at the Duster. ‘Is it even a 4×4?’
The Duster’s diminutive size has fooled many into thinking it’s not rugged enough for certain topographies, but so far it’s only served up delicious humble pie to its doubters. The 1.5 L turbo diesel is not only great in terms of its fuel consumption, but generates 80 kW of power and a solid 260 Nm of torque which, together with the ‘efficient dual clutch’ (EDC) and smooth six-speed transmission, mean it gobbles up hilly ground in seamless shifts. Speaking of steep courses, the handy hill start assist and hill descent control make them a doddle. It can also be toggled between three modes: 2WD, Auto and 4WD, and a 4×4 monitor even allows you to check the pitch and roll angles at any time. Lastly, for those still doubting its off-road credentials, it may surprise you to learn that it has 210 mm of ground clearance, an approach angle of 30° and a departure angle of 34°.
Not too bad for a crossover.
Ultimately, we weren’t in the least bit worried, and assured the big smirking oom in his Cruiser that, yes, it is a 4×4, and no thanks, we probably won’t call him when we ‘eventually need a tow from a proper machine’.
The last time I drove up Sani Pass was with my old man in his 1996 Land Rover Defender, a vehicle decidedly void of any frivolous bells and whistles, and in stark contrast to the Duster’s sleek interior. The touchscreen infotainment system has both smartphone mirroring and satnav, and caters for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The multi-view camera allows you to monitor terrain in front, behind and alongside the Duster – something that would come in particularly useful on the vertiginous passes of Lesotho, and something that might even have saved a few Defenders from toppling over in their time.
When we eventually start crawling up the snaking bends of Sani, the Duster takes the sudden and extreme incline in its stride, and seems almost eager. A little way up we engage 4WD, after which the little SUV makes even shorter work of the precipitous task. It does get rather treacherous nearer the top as the gradient steepens and the hairpins become more unforgiving – evident in my partner’s much paler complexion and white knuckles. She opts to keep her eyes closed around the last bend as we negotiate the loose rock on a precarious track, not to mention the 2 876 m of sheer mountainside that cascades off to our left. Of course, upon cresting the last slope and having reached the safety of level ground, she asks (ghostly white, and somewhat breathlessly): ‘So what’s the big deal?’
We take a moment at the top to savour the staggeringly beautiful vistas of the verdant Khomazana Valley, and marvel at just how high we had climbed. After breathing in the astonishing view (and waiting for the adrenaline to subside) we drive on to Sani Mountain Lodge to reward ourselves for conquering South Africa’s highest pass with a beer at the highest pub in Africa. We stay the night in one of the lodge’s cosy rondavels (sanimountain.co.za/accommodation), and light the fireplace to combat the altitude’s bite.
The next day we have a lot of driving to do. The A1 takes us in a 450 km loop of the kingdom, but bad roads, steep passes, wayward cattle and sheep, and other factors mean the journey takes us more than seven hours. And we enjoy every second of it.
There is an undulating, raw beauty here that is unique to the Mountain Kingdom and, as village after village flashes by, one gets the feeling that nothing much has changed here over the last few millennia. Huts, blanketed young shepherd boys, sheep, ponies, crops, donkeys, more sheep. It’s a simple way of life, and yet, I find myself envious of the beautifully content, uncomplicated existence.
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. We stop at a couple yellow flags where my partner samples some of the local brew while I, Designated Dave, refrain somewhat grumpily. And so we wend our way though the peaceful little country towards Semonkong, stopping here and there at viewpoints, stalls and other points of interest, marvelling at the spectacular Tolkienesque scenery around every bend.
We finally arrive at the legendary Maletsunyane Falls late afternoon, and the view of the thunderous waterfall is nothing short of magnificent. 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 after a long day of driving, we were bushed and keen to get to Semonkong Lodge (semonkonglodge.com), our charming abode for the night.
The lodge is built on the banks of the Maletsunyane River and blends seamlessly into the landscape, with only stone and thatch used in the construction of their array of inviting accommodation options. We tuck into a delicious supper at the Duck and Donkey Tavern and Restaurant, play some pool against a couple of Aussie tourists, and then hit the hay.
The next day we spend the morning fly fishing in the Maletsunyane River, which meanders lazily past the lodge, and we take a hike right up to Maletsun-yane Falls in the afternoon (it’s even more staggering from up close).
One really gets to switch off here; it is off-grid, far from any sense of civilisation, and unfathomably beautiful.
Lesotho really is quite undersold, and criminally undervisited. With this much adventure and raw beauty right in our backyard, you’d think that more South Africans would take advantage of it. We had a spectacular few days in the Kingdom in the Sky, and the Renault Duster was an able companion. It handled all that Lesotho could throw at it with aplomb and proved, irrefutably, that it’s as rugged as they come.
• Make sure you have all the appropriate vehicle documents and permits (including passport) when self-driving into Lesotho.
• Don’t attempt Sani or any of Lesotho’s treacherous passes without some level of experience and confidence.
• Make sure your vehicle is up to the task (4×4s only, and high clearance).
Where to stay
• Sani Mountain Lodge
+27 78 634 7496
• Semonkong Lodge
062 700 6037
• We reviewed the Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4×4
• Book a test drive at renault.co.za/booktestdrive.html or call 0861 736 2858