A tale of two passes

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Words by Roy Laming Pictures by Glenn Twiggs

Lesotho: Baboons’ Pass and Made in China Pass

Lesotho: Baboons’ Pass and Made in China Pass. Reader Roy Laming is not a man to back down from a challenge, but even he was left feeling he’d bitten off more than he could chew when he and his mates tackled two tough Lesotho passes in succession.

We take up the story after an eventful trip from Durban, which saw the convoy lose two vehicles en route due to breakdown and illness. Those that remained were Arthur and Dinky in a Hilux 2.2 DC, Brad and Andy in a Defender 90 Puma and Glenn and the author in a Defender 90 TDI. We arrived at the Roma Trading Post at 20h30 after a long day’s drive; even at that late hour we were greeted with a substantial hot dinner which we devoured with gusto. After supper, as we sat chatting over some cold beers, we asked our host about a shorter route back to Durban.

I’d seen a road that runs from Semonkong, south to the Senqu and Senqunyane rivers, and, on the other side of the rivers, another road would take us to Qacha’s Nek border post, on to Matatiele and then home – saving us a long and boring route home. The only problem was crossing the rivers, or so I thought. We were told that the Chinese had built bridges over both rivers and a road up the pass – hence our name for the Pass. Apparently, a couple of months earlier, someone had travelled down the pass and found one corner washed away; but had got through. After a lot of discussion we decided to take a chance on this new Chinese road for our return trip; after all, on the map it was only about 60 kilometres from Semonkong to the new bridges.

After a hearty breakfast on Saturday morning, we headed off to tackle Baboons Pass. We arrived at the bottom of Baboons at around 09h30 and each added a rock to the pile that represents the other loony souls who’d attempted the Pass. After just 50 metres we understood why this 22 kilometre route has such a reputation. The first boulder we came across was so steep that we had to ‘attack’ it with a bit of speed. We bounced up that one with no damage, and thought to ourselves that it could only get better. It was not to be! We had to do a bit of road building, but were very fortunate not to have any punctures or mechanical problems, and so arrived safely at the top of Baboons at 16h30, after taking 7 hours to complete the pass.

We had planned to spend the night on the Pass, but as we’d finished early, we decided to push on to Semonkong. There we found a lovely, reasonably priced lodge on the banks of the river, and booked in for the night. This turned out to be a good decision because there was a massive storm that night, and I am sure we would have been very unhappy campers if we had camped on the Pass in that driving rain and lightning. The following day we set off to find the Made in China Pass at 07h30, our spirits high. Well, the ‘road’ only lasted for about four kilometres before it disappeared, so I set my GPS to compass and navigated towards the rivers. The terrain deteriorated badly; getting down one mountain made us think we were back on Baboons. We arrived at the Made in China Pass at about 12h00, after taking four and half hours to travel 50 kilometres!

Entering the Pass we were met with an eroded corner, but it was not too bad, and after a quick look we managed an easy climb over the rocks and pushed on. The next corner we arrived at was worse than the last, and so it continued.

Baboons Pass was challenging, but this Pass was just damned scary. It was in a really bad condition: there were huge craters where the road used to be; but the worst part was that we had a cliff face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. Needless to say, during the descent the jokes and banter faded away, and there was just serious concentration from the drivers and a whole bunch of prayers from the co-drivers. Happily, we all made it safely to the bottom of the pass, although feeling as though we had shed a few kilograms in the process. After passing through a small village we found the new road, which was almost like a newly-built highway. I am not sure what they had in mind for this road, because it stops at the back of a little hut in the village. We drove around the hut and onto the new road and crossed the two bridges, which were in beautiful condition. Immediately after the second bridge, the Chinese struck again. As abruptly as the tarred road had started, it ended; and so it was back onto dirt roads and on to Qacha’s Nek border post. It took just five minutes to get through the border post, and we arrived back in Durban at about 17h00, tired but undeterred, even after having had more of an adventure than we’d bargained for.

Ed: We’re told that the Made in China Pass is in much better condition these days, making for a relatively easy drive from Qacha’s Nek to Semonkong. However, one big storm in Lesotho can undo months of work; so if you’re planning on driving this Pass, talk to someone on the ground first. Similarly, Baboons’ Pass can change dramatically after heavy weather, and you underestimate this trail at your peril. Make sure you are well-equipped and experienced.

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