There are a few mishaps as a bunch of Jimnys tackle one of Lesotho’s premier off-road challenges, Baboon’s Pass
Story & pictures Adam Alcock
Call it the Mountain Kingdom, or the Switzerland of Africa. These are all well-earned nicknames for Lesotho, as its dramatic peaks and remote highlands are difficult to traverse on foot, let alone by wheeled transport. So it’s no surprise Lesotho offers some of southern Africa’s most impressive off-roading trails.
The still untarred Sani Pass is perhaps the best known. But tucked away high in the Maseru district is Baboon’s Pass, another of Lesotho’s especially demanding ‘roads’. It’s known as a car breaker for good reason. (Just ask Anton Willemse, who drove it and reported on his experience in our June 2019 issue. – Ed) This 26-kilometre pass has gained notoriety for pushing both driver and 4×4 to the limit. Nevertheless, in a series of events that can only be described as an epic adventure, a group of 13 adrenaline junkies attempted to conquer this beast of a challenge. The difference this time was that most of the convoy would be made up of little Suzuki Jimnys.
Six months of planning went into this arduous journey up the mountain pass. The first steps were to put together a team of off-roading gurus, and a few enthusiastic tagalongs, map out a route and get the vehicles properly serviced and modified to cope with the conditions.
Altogether, the convoy was to be made up of four Suzuki Jimnys (dubbed Trapsuutjie, Kerneels, Jack Russel, and Nomad), a Suzuki motocross bike (codenamed II), a Land Rover Defender (Lily), and two Jeep Wranglers (known as Bumblebee and Carlos).
Plans seemed to be on schedule, apart from Lily’s clutch failing and being quickly repaired just two weeks before the event. There was also the problem of Nomad’s much-needed lifter kit, which of course did not arrive until the night before departure.
The team now faced a dilemma: let sleeping dogs lie and risk seriously damaging Nomad later on Baboon’s Pass or take a chance and do a full-body lift only hours before the convoy hit the road? The temptation of the kit proved too great, so it was all hands on deck to give Nomad a boost. Several hours and countless profanities later a distress signal went out that only the front of Nomad had been raised. Nomad had to drive for reinforcements in full squat mode, dazzling passing motorists with its headlamps that were now better suited for spotting air raids. This was 04:00 on D-Day, Friday the 13th as it so happened.
With only two hours sleep for the drivers who had managed to sort out Nomad’s rear suspension, the group seemed all set – until a second call for aid from team Carlos. He, as it turned out, had also spent all night tinkering with the gearing in the Jeep Wrangler’s differential. With dire consequences. Unfortunately, the repairs were too great for our tight schedule and a rescue party was sent to pick up the stranded drivers.
We bid farewell to our fallen soldier as we continued onwards to the border where the third and fourth unfortunate events were waiting for us.
Thinking the worst was over, at the border we discovered there were no registration papers for Lily the Landy and one of the passengers had brought his son’s passport instead of his own. While it was feasible to organise a copy of the registration papers for Lily in a town nearby, we thought it slightly optimistic for a fully-grown man to pass off as his teenage son.
It was agreed that a team would peel off to retrieve the passport and meet up with the rest of the convoy the next morning. We finally made it to Ramabanta Trading Post in time for sundowners, a quick braai, and then straight to bed. With no cell phone signal, all we could do was hope that the team who had turned back earlier would arrive in time.
Out of Ramabanta
A rested team woke the next day to a welcome sight – the members who had turned back earlier had arrived and the reunited group assembled in the restaurant for breakfast and a quick debriefing.
The plan was for team leader, Andries, to head the convoy in Trapsuutjie, followed by the other three Jimnys, with the Jeep and Land Rover bringing up the rear. This Axis vs Allied arrangement was deemed essential as the heavier vehicles, we figured, had the power to pull each other out of trouble if need be, without having to lash together all four Jimnys like sledge dogs. [
With well wishes from the staff at Ramabanta, we set off for Baboon’s Pass, savouring the last few kilometres of tarred road. We stopped on the bridge just before the official start of the trail to do some last-minute cross-checks and to deflate our tyres to more appropriate rock-climbing pressures.
The first leg of the trail was manoeuvred with relative ease, only having to stop on occasion to pack rocks and shift boulders. You could tell that both drivers and passengers were in their element as even when the slightest of obstacles had presented itself, each was eager to give a detailed breakdown of what the problem was and how to solve it.
This level of expertise proved effective as we reached the halfway point for day one in a matter of hours, where we stopped for a quick 10:00 refreshment. That said, as the day wore on, the battering from the track began to take its toll on the cars, especially Jack Russel whose already knackered clutch was, to put it lightly, “Beginning to go.”
However, the slow deterioration of Jack Russel’s clutch was nothing compared to the disaster that had occurred up ahead. We caught up to the head of the pack and found a stationary Trapsuutjie with Andries’ two legs poking out from underneath. Not a good sign.
A broken-hearted Andries informed us that Trapsuutjie had lost its footing and landed heavily on one of the radial arms, shearing it right off. Anyone with a bit of mechanical knowledge will know this is a serious fix, even more so in less-than-ideal circumstances.
While the rest of the team went ahead to make camp, those left attending to Trapsuutjie came up with an ingenious solution to fix the broken radial arm. In the true spirit of ‘tis but a scratch’ the team used a ratchet strap to draw the radial arm back and secure it in the correct position. A battered, but not beaten, Trapsuutjie then re-joined the rest of the group at the campsite.
With light fading and temperatures dropping fast, it was a scramble to set up the tents, start a fire, and get dinner on the go. Our team leader-turned-braai master had some more tricks up his sleeve. He removed the metal cover from his spare wheel, which turned out to be a custom-made braai grid. He then unlatched a hidden cabinet mounted on Trapsuutjie’s rear door to reveal a drop-down cutting board and spice rack that would rival any gourmet kitchen. Clearly, not even an isolated mountain pass 2 689m above sea level was going to get in the way of Andries and his braai.
With the crisis of Trapsuutjie’s radial arm quickly put behind us, the mood around the campfire turned festive. The group was relaying events of the day, adding considerable spice, and discussing the performance of each of their vehicles. The affectionate way each of these gentlemen talked about their cars would make any listener think they had brought along their wives or girlfriends (if only their vehicles were as practical). A two-litre bottle of sherry was cracked open and served as the camper’s version of antifreeze. The bottle seemed to have sprung a leak in the hands of the more senior off-roaders because it seemed to never quite make it all the way down to where the younger members were seated.
To say that we woke the next morning implies that we did in fact sleep. In reality, a single sleeping bag beneath a measly nylon layer of tent didn’t quite cut it when it came to keeping the cold out. Most of us were up well before sunrise, huddling around the remaining embers from the previous night’s fire. Hearing an incessant rustling sound in the background, it was hard not to notice Andries emerging from his tent sporting some extremely fashionable plastic bags on his feet. What was first assumed to be a survival hack for keeping feet warm, turned out to be a poor substitute for his absent shoes. A quick inspection of the campsite revealed that Andries’ shoes were not the only items missing from the campsite. A gas bottle and one of the team member’s clothing bags – which contained his wallet, complete with bank cards and driver’s licence – were amongst the missing items. As unfortunate as this situation was, the team didn’t let it put a damper on the remainder of the trip. After a quick pack up of camp, we set off for round two.
Toughing it out
The second leg of the pass proved to be significantly tougher and more strenuous than the first. The 4x4s, drivers, and spotters were all put through their paces in an effort to navigate large boulders and sheer rock faces that offered little traction.
Progress was extremely slow, especially at one notoriously difficult gully, which took most of the morning to conquer. When we reached the top of the gully, we were met with one of the most bizarre sights we had encountered on our trip – bearing in mind we just witnessed Nomad having to be pinned down by several men after an all but vertical take-off during the ascent.
Placed deliberately on a rock in the middle of our route was the entire contents of the wallet that had been taken the night before. No-one could quite believe that the person who had taken basic equipment at the campsite had made the effort to return items that were useless to them but hugely important to the owner, rather than thoughtlessly discarding them. Humbled by this gesture, it was onwards and upwards.
Despite all the battering the 4x4s had taken over the past day and a half they showed no sign of tiring. You could sense the vehicles were as eager as we were to successfully complete the Baboon’s Pass challenge. It certainly seemed that we would all reach the end without anyone having to be towed, right up until the moment Lily slipped into a protruding rock that wedged itself into the rim and punctured the valve. . Miraculously, the rock had completely missed the tyre wall but nevertheless left Lily sitting on her rim.
In a situation where failure is not an option, teams Lily, Jack Russel, and Bumblebee used the three most important tools in any bush mechanic’s arsenal (duct tape, cable ties, and a potent Afrikaner gene) to temporarily fix Lily’s tyre.
The rock that had caused all the trouble in the first place then had to be tactfully removed to prevent it from slashing the tyre wall. Unable to lift the rock using manpower, a snatch rope was wrapped around the rock and hitched up to Jack Russel. With a quick but decisive tug, Lily was free to move.
The team that had fallen behind to rescue Lily, caught up with the rest of the convoy at the appropriately-named Goliath’s Rock. With bated breath, Lily tried to manoeuvre into position to tackle the obstacle. Tried being the operative word as, ironically, it was not the actual rock, but the tight left-hander that proved tighter than the Landy’s infamously-wide turning circle. It was Bumblebee, however, who really stole the show at Goliath’s Rock. Its unbelievable power and torque allowed it to just amble over what was, quite frankly, a small cliff. One last push and we made it to the highest point of the pass where the spectacular 360-degree view provided an excellent backdrop for a victory team photo. .
Not quite over
All things considered, the vehicles in the convoy managed to successfully scale the mountain pass on their own steam, albeit while having a few egos humbled along the way. Baboon’s Pass had not only lived up to its reputation but exceeded our expectations. I think I speak for everyone when I say that this was, hands down, one of the most incredible and unforgettable trips we had been on.
That being said, it is indeed not for the inexperienced off-roader nor for the faint of heart. It takes a great deal of skill and ingenuity to undertake such a challenge, a good sense of humour, and no shortage of patience.
The success or failure of such a trip is also largely determined by the people you are with, especially since it’s not a question of if but rather when and where problems will occur. Our team consisted of a group of truly great, fun-loving lads who made the trip that much more enjoyable.
After a heartfelt farewell, we departed from Ramabanta and set a course home. Except for Trapsuutjie, who scheduled one last breakdown before entering South Africa. In the middle of a rural village, Kerneels, from Zooke spares had to whip out an extra differential – as one does – and he did a record-breaking repair.