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Rivers, rocks and recoveries

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Lesotho is one of the premier 4×4 playgrounds for South Africans, who like to make things interesting by visiting in winter when heavy snowfalls and extreme cold make the mountain kingdom both beautiful and brutal. Bush Editor Patrick Cruywagen, driving a G-Wagen, timed it just right and got his fair share of snow, mud, rain, cold, skiing, drama, donkeys and friendly Basotho people.Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and Ali Cole

The G-Wagen starts to slide sideways in the thick black mud; there’s no stopping this 2.5 ton beast as it heads off the track and down the mountainside. I’d jumped out only moments before to take photos. At least that’s what I’d told the others – the actual reason was that I don’t do side slopes and told our guide Bernie Williams that he could drive this section. Side slopes give me the heebie jeebies; it’s just not natural looking at Planet Earth from a 45° angle while seated in a 4×4. Bernie decides that we might get better traction in the bottom of the valley and expertly steers the G-Wagen downwards towards a mealie field. I shout for him to stop as the mud looks even worse further down, where there’s more water. We’re well stuck now as the G-Wagen has nestled itself nicely in some deep mud and rocks. The laws of nature tell me that the longer it stands the further it will sink into the mud, so we get cracking with the recovery. Our last resort will be to phone a friend on the sat phone, but we have a few other options to try first. The main track is about 35 metres away, but we’re wanting to get above it as there’s more grass there and that’ll give us more traction.

Rivers, rocks and recoveries

Bernie whips out an air jack but after a few minutes of trying to inflate it we realise that the funnel has a massive hole so we’re going nowhere slowly with that option. Next it’s the turn of the bright orange Maxtrax, which has been used with great success on events like the Dakar Rally when vehicles have to get unstuck from the sand. The problem is that the orange tracks are wider than the mud track the vehicle is stuck in, and as we have no spade it’s time to roll up our sleeves and play in the black mud. By now we have a gathering of two local shepherds and four dogs that have come to watch, offering moral support and labour if needed. Bernie has taken up position behind the steering wheel so extra hands are most welcome. African people are always so willing to help when a brother is in a spot of bother, and the people of Lesotho are no different I discover.
Eventually after much digging and kicking the Trax into place Bernie tries to pull away. The tyres just spin and the G-Wagen sinks even deeper. We dig some more and take our time to get the Maxtrax correctly into position. Once again the tyres just spin, giving off lots of smoke in the process, much like in street racing. Well, our brief from Mercedes was to take it somewhere rough, so I hope that this is what they had in mind. Eventually the tyre grips on the little teeth and our G-Wagen slowly starts to move forward; once the tyres bite properly on the teeth it lurches forward. The only problem is that once it drives off the other side of the Maxtrax, the G-Wagen once again grinds to a halt in the mud and so we have to repeat the process. After a while the Maxtrax is clogged with mud and we have to try and wash off some of it in a nearby cold stream. By now I can’t feel my hands but the adrenaline seems to be keeping them warm.
Rivers, rocks and recoveriesEventually after about two hours we reach the main road again and have to move some rocks to get onto it. If we take this option back then we’ll just slide again and so we decide to go up even higher to find a grassy area with some traction. This works well and eventually we’re able to make our way back onto a piece of the main road that’s drivable.
I always say to people that Lesotho is the kind of country where you can have an adventure a day. Today’s little scenario proved just that. What had begun as a simple early morning recce drive from the town of Semonkong to suss out the route we’d planned to take the next day had turned into an all-day adventure. It was dark by the time we got back to the lodge and so we’d missed the donkey pub crawl he had been hoping to do. Our aim today had been to see if one could take the road less travelled to Thaba-Tseka, via Ha Kobeli and over the Senqunyane River before heading onto Thaba-Tseka. It’s a road that hasn’t been driven by anyone in quite some time, according to the locals and the barman at the lodge. Well our guide had driven it, but in the summer, and today we’d seen that in the winter and after loads of rain it becomes a totally different beast. That’s the one thing that people need to keep in mind when visiting Lesotho: the condition of the roads, especially the remote and dirt ones, can change dramatically. Sometimes after heavy rainfall and when the Maletsanyane River is high then the guests approaching Semonkong Lodge cannot get to the lodge as the bridge is flooded. Then they have to park on the hill near the village and walk the last few hundred metres.

Rivers, rocks and recoveries

We entered Lesotho from a westerly direction via Wepener and crossed at the Van Rooyen’s Gate border post. Lesotho border crossings are some of the most chilled in Africa, both literally and figuratively. There are no hassles and dramas in the form of dodgy taxes, visas or bribes. As we approached the border post, Radio Oranje warned us of extreme cold and snow where we were heading. When the border official opened the mirrored window of her office, the hot air klapped me – it was as if they were sitting in a furnace. After paying a nominal fee the official tells me that I can open the boom myself before slamming the window shut again. Who can blame her? Why leave your cosy office when you can just ask the tourists to open the boom themselves – after all, they’re the ones who want to visit Lesotho.
Rivers, rocks and recoveriesLesotho is not a big country; in fact, it’s smaller than most of our provinces. Don’t let this fool you, and don’t ever ask how far the next town or lodge in Lesotho is. Things are not measured by kilometres in Lesotho, but rather by time, road and weather conditions. Nothing in Lesotho is far away, but it can definitely be a long way off , if that makes sense. Oft en you can see where you’re going, but it’s several passes and a river crossing away. Plus if there have been rains then the bridge might be washed away or the river too deep to cross. These are all factors to consider especially when you start to explore the gravel and off-road routes.
Our first overnight spot in Lesotho also happens to be one of my favourites, the Semonkong Lodge – more about why I rate it so highly a little later. Now from the border post we could be at the lodge in a couple of hours, but that would be predictable, easy and along the main route via Roma. We were looking for something a little more challenging and needed to see if the G-Wagen was up to the task. Our guide takes us to Matelile, where just past the Chinese shop (complete with red star) we say goodbye to the tar. We aim to meet the A5 again near Ramabanta but before then we have to negotiate some serious 4×4 tracks.
Within minutes of us hitting the track the G-Wagen starts sliding on the red mud. This could get interesting, but Bernie expertly uses the weight and momentum of the vehicle to keep us more or less on the tracks. Sometimes a little more speed is required to counteract the slide. Red mud turns to black mud and for the first time we encounter rocks. The G-Wagen just gobbles them all up. It’s early days but we’re all impressed by the vehicle. It almost seems like cheating to sit in the legendary luxury of the Merc while outside the conditions are anything but pleasant. All the vehicle’s occupants have their seat warmers on and the climate inside resembles that of a West Indian island. The thermometer tells us that outside it’s below zero.
Rivers, rocks and recoveries

The rain has washed away some sections of the track and I have been nominated to guide Bernie through these sections. I don my ski gloves and North Face jacket. Some of the streams which run down the mountainside are frozen and have formed icicles. A local on a Basotho pony comes past us but due to the language barrier we’re unable to understand him. A beer soon sorts that out and soon he’s riding off into the rain and cold with a beer in his hand. We’ve made a new friend.
As we round the corner of a pass it’s as if we’ve driven onto the set of a movie. The brown, muddy landscape has been covered in a blanket of snow. Maybe the resident giant has gone on vacation and he decided to cover his area in a big white blanket. I jumped out of the vehicle and snapped away with my camera. I’ve been to Lesotho several times in the winter but this was the first time that we timed it correctly to coincide with some snowfall. The other two in the vehicle did not share my enthusiasm and preferred to remain in the cosy cabin of the G-Wagen.
Rivers, rocks and recoveriesThe next pass had even more snow and so I had to repeat my get out of the vehicle exercise. As I climbed up the mountain to get a better position for a picture my boot sunk into the snow and before I knew it the snow was up to my knee. It was difficult to take pictures with my chubby gloved hands and so I took them off. The white landscape was impossibly beautiful; the last time I’d seen snow like this was back in ’02 when I ran the Rhodes Marathon and for the first time in the race’s history they had to shorten the route to 42 km because the snow on Naude’s Nek was hip-height.
The snow and road conditions proved too much for the abandoned Renault Scenic we passed. Eventually we reached the A5 and from there it was all good dirt tracks to the lodge. Not far past the entrance to Baboon’s Pass we see an abandoned Land Cruiser which probably got damaged while attempting the pass. Lesotho can be tough on your vehicle, so make sure it’s in tip-top condition before undertaking a trip here.
By now our white G-Wagen is a muddy brown, which makes it easier to photograph against the white snow. The town of Semonkong is abuzz. Last year during the FIFA World Cup all the little corrugated iron shops were each painted like the flag of the participating countries, giving the place much colour. Ponies and donkeys stood all over, tied to poles, while their owners drank beer at the shebeen or traded at the store. Some donkeys were overloaded with bags of mealies or crates of beer. The people living in the surrounding mountains need to eat and drink, of course.
The lodge lies on the outskirts of the village, just over the Maletsunyane River. We went straight to the fireplace in the bar and ordered a sherry to warm us up. The lodge enjoys a happy coexistence with the village as it provides employment and business opportunities to the villagers, which is why I like coming here. Plus it’s a good place to find out the latest information on track or road conditions. One of the most popular activities on offer is an abseil of over 200 metres alongside a nearby waterfall. As has been the case on all of my visits here, the weather gods were not looking favourably upon us and we couldn’t do the abseil. Still we took a drive to see the falls and with the mist and brown hills it looked very much like Scotland except they don’t make whiskey here. Why the hell not, I thought, as they have good water to make it from. After a while the mist lifts to reveal the ever-impressive falls. It was time to go and recce the route which we wanted to take tomorrow, which, as you now know, turned out to be an adventure of note.
So due to the mud and inclement weather we had to take the main roads to Katse Dam. It’s not a far drive but a long one with some pretty big climbs as we went over a series of passes including Bushman’s, Blue Mountain, Cheche’s, Jackal’s and Mokhoabong. It’s all tar though and the G-Wagen handles it just as comfortably as the tricky off-road stuff we’d done earlier. As we were headed north-east towards Afriski we decided to break the journey by overnighting at the impressive Katse Dam. Unusually for Katse there was no wind, so we could step outside the lodge and enjoy the magnificent sights. Officials are very strict about watercraft on the dam and so for now all you see is water. It’s possible to arrange a boat cruise with the lodge if you’d like to get on the water. I spotted a fisherman making his way across the water; he looked so tiny and so far away. Then the ferry which transports goods and people between the villages next to the dam made its appearance. Things were picking up on the water. The mountains behind the dam were brown in colour except for a little sprinkling of white on some of the higher peaks. It was as if the local giant had walked past with a leaking bag of flour.
Rivers, rocks and recoveriesThe Katse Lodge is under new management and this could be seen in the good quality food and upgrades to the rooms. We were told that some more developments were in the pipeline. It’s the ideal place for a 4×4 group to stop over as they also rent out houses; Lesotho is not the kind of place you want to camp in the winter as you can get decent lodging for a little more than a campsite. From the dam we headed north-east along the main routes as we had been informed that the off -road routes we wanted to take were impassable at the moment. We did however take the dirt track which goes around the dam so that we could drive alongside the water for a while. This is a popular track for those visiting the dam in a 4×4.
When you have a partner who is mad about skiing then no winter trip to Lesotho is complete without stopping at Afriski, Africa’s only ski resort and home to the highest pub in Africa. Sorry to those of you who thought that this was at Sani Top – we took GPS altitude readings at both. We were in luck, as this was the first week that the resort was operational for the ’11 season (from June to September) and the first snowfalls had occurred just before our visit. Obviously they have snow machines to help counter the unpredictability of African snowfall and when you get a white strip (made by the snow machines) and the surrounds are all brown they call this Brazilian ski conditions. We were fortunate in that we had Lesotho ski conditions as it was white everywhere!
While my partner Ali got herself kitted out and hit the slopes (that should really read slope, as they only have one), it was time for ski school for me. I spent the morning trying to master the basics but it just wasn’t happening. I was a danger to the others in the class and to the instructor. There has been much investment in Afriski of late, with a new restaurant and bar at the end of the slope plus some other developments. It was looking a lot fresher than when I stopped here a few summers ago.
I chatted to Oliver Schwankhart from Afriski about 4×4 tracks in the area and he mentioned one that goes towards the Drakensberg and the SA border. This sounded promising but when we enquired about driving it now he said that the snow up there was too thick and the tracks too muddy. It seemed that our 4×4 adventure in Lesotho was over due to the snow, mud and cold. It had more than fulfilled our expectations of what it was like during snowfalls and cold. Yes this does restrict one somewhat as to where you can drive due to swollen rivers, washed-away roads and snow of course, but it adds a whole new dimension to off -roading, one which we’re not that used to in Africa. High altitudes, temperatures well below freezing, black ice and slippery surfaces are sure to test even the best. If you get it wrong be prepared to get out of the vehicle and dig. We’re already planning another trip to Lesotho, hopefully this winter still.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class – G350 BlueTEC
R1 227 140*
The first time I laid my eyes on this vehicle at the Johannesburg airport the words ‘boxy’ and ‘understated’ came to mind; then I climbed inside and experienced that unmistakable Mercedes-Benz feel. Then we proceeded to take it on some of the roughest tracks we could find in Lesotho and it just laughed at us. While reverse cameras, heated seats and chrome are nice-to-haves, they mean nothing in the bush except that if you get stuck in a snow storm at least you can keep warm and comfortable and see if anyone or anything is approaching from the rear.
Automatic gearboxes have forever changed the way we 4×4, and the transmission of this V6, 2 987 cc engine is absolutely no different. You just point the square nose of the G-Wagen in the direction you want to go and push the pedal till it reaches the desired speed for the off-road obstacle. Then if you think it might be a pretty tough obstacle you could engage low-range with a push of a button. What makes it even better still are your three get-out-of-the-dwang buttons, one for each of the diff-locks, situated in the front, middle and rear of the vehicle. If ever attempting another trip over this type of terrain I would only change one thing on the vehicle: instead of the AT tyres I would opt for MTs, something with a little more aggressive tread pattern which will help with the rocks and the mud of course. Despite its tyres, our G-Wagen was still able to more than hold its own off-road. I’ve driven just about everything there is on the South African 4×4 market and am prepared to announce that there are few – if any – vehicles that will not only go where we went, but go with such apparent ease and class. The only thing counting against it is the hefty price tag, but for those for whom money is not an issue, and who are looking for something classy and capable but not as flashy as the Range Rover, the G350 BlueTEC is a sure winner. If I was floating in money then it would definitely be on my must-have list.

Rivers, rocks and recoveries

* This is the base price. The G350 BlueTEC we drove had the following optional extras: Chrome Package (R4 700), Comfort Package seats (R12 300), COMAND APS including DVD (R27 000), electric tilting / sliding roof (R8 000) and reversing camera (R7 000).

GPS POINTS (WGS 84)
Van Rooyen’s Border Post near Wepener
S29°45.361’
E027°06.539’
Caledonspoort Border Post
S28°41.678’
E028°14.035’
Afriski
S28°49.376’
E031°43.676’
Katse Lodge
S29° 19.830’
E028°28.856’
Semonkong Lodge
S29°50.591’
E028°02.607’

SA4x4 Route Guide

WHERE WE STAYED
Rivers, rocks and recoveriesSemonkong Lodge
A Lesotho jewel. Great bar, staff and food. More than enough activities to keep you busy, such as hikes, pony treks, waterfall tours and abseiling. Loads of 4×4 tracks to explore in the area. Try the legendary donkey pub crawl! For more details see www.placeofsmoke.co.ls or call (00) 266 620 210 21.

Rivers, rocks and recoveriesKatse Lodge
Now part of the Orion Group and under new management, and much better than our last visit. Several activities are on offer such as dam tours, village tours, pony treks and boat cruises. Rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable. For more details contact them on (00) 266 2891 0202 or
rekatse@orion-hotels.co.za.

Rivers, rocks and recoveriesAfriski
The only place to ski in Africa! You can rent all the equipment needed to ski or snowboard. They have a ski school for beginners. Accommodation ranges from backpacker-type to chalets to houses. Prices vary from R110 pppn to R450 pppn. For more details see www.afriski.net or call 058 303 6831/4/6. Equipment (boots and skis) hire prices vary from R195 for half a day to R995 for a week. A snow pass (to get on the slope) varies from R250 for a half day to R1 100 for a week.

Lord Fraser Guesthouse, Wepener, SA

Friendly staff and good food, but most importantly a warm bed to sleep in before you cross over into Lesotho. For more info go to www.lordfraser.co.za or call (051) 583 1480.

ROUTE

Routes in Lesotho are funny things. You can buy various maps, but unless you consult locals in the know or use a guide or do your research then you are either going to get lost or miss out on some of the off-the-beaten-track places.

FUEL
It’s a small country but vehicles are made to work hard and long, so know where your next fuel stop is and be aware that it might have run dry. An emergency jerry can or two has never hurt anyone.

WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
We loved our time in the north-east as here we were able to buy fresh vegetables which we used to make a curry. There are trading stores all over Lesotho and they sell everything you might need including Wellington boots, which are preferable to getting mud on your favourite shoes! These stores are found in the largish towns so if taking the back-road routes don’t expect too much.

ESSENTIAL GEAR

A GPS with Tracks4Africa is a good start as the maps available on Lesotho are not great. Even though we did not plan on camping I still packed a tent and proper winter sleeping bags, gas stove and some other emergency equipment. You never know what could happen when out on remote tracks.

CONVOY OR SOLO

We did it solo but were carrying a sat phone plus we had a guide, which is useful. The only time I wished we had another vehicle was when stuck in the mud, but there was no traction so actually that would’ve been of little use unless it had a winch. If going off the mapped roads another vehicle could be useful.

ROAD CONDITIONS
In Lesotho the roads change with the weather especially when cold, rainy and snowing. If rivers are swollen you might not be able to cross them for a couple of hours or days. Generally the main routes were in very good condition. There was a small stretch from Buthe Buthe towards Afriski that was very potholed and covered in snow.

TYRES
The Cooper Discoverer ATR is ideally suited to this kind of all-road terrain. It provides excellent on-road performance and the extensive zig-zag siping increases water evacuation and provides excellent traction in the wet. The tyre is also solid in off-road conditions with its 5-rib tread design and enhanced cut and chip resistance. Call toll free 0800 335 722 for your nearest dealer.

MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Once you start exploring this country’s remote tracks, your paper map will – more often than not – prove of limited use. Then you’ll need to chat to locals, use guides or have the latest version of T4A on your GPS. If you know of a good Lesotho map, let us know.

VEHICLE REQUIRED
You could stick on the tar and take a Mercedes C-Class to get to Afriski and Semonkong Lodge but that would just be sad. Lesotho has some of the best 4×4 tracks in southern Africa and if you have low-range and lockers as our vehicle did, then it becomes your playground.

RISK

Rivers, rocks and recoveriesCold and remote tracks have caught people out here on many occasions. Spending an unplanned night in the vehicle is not pleasant so make adequate provision for this scenario. We took along an Inmarsat sat phone from Zippisat. One of its great features is that you can SMS your GPS co-ordinates to friends so they know exactly where to come looking!

BORDER CROSSINGS
Often at Lesotho border crossings the SAPS might do a check on your vehicle to see if it’s stolen, while on the Lesotho side all they do is ask for the road tax, stamp your passport and then off you go. I still take along the vehicle papers for that one day that they ask for them. I’ve been to Lesotho about 10 times and it’s yet to happen.