Enveloped in the heart of South Africa sits a region known by locals as the Mountain Kingdom and to travellers as the Switzerland of Africa. As the nicknames suggest, the Kingdom of Lesotho is mainly made up of breath-taking highlands and dramatic peaks, making much of its landscape all but impassable. It is, therefore, not surprising that Lesotho boasts some of the most impressive off-roading trails in Southern Africa, which offers an ideal playground for 4×4 enthusiasts. While Sani Pass remains to be Lesotho’s iconic 4×4 trail, tucked away high in the Maseru district lies one of the most remote, challenging and unrelenting “roads” Lesotho has to offer, Baboons Pass. Often referred to as the “car breaker”, and for good reason, the 26-kilometre pass has gained great 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 arduous journey up the mountain pass was a 6-month tip in the planning. A team of off-roading gurus, and a few enthusiastic tagalongs, was put together, a route mapped out and vehicles were serviced and modified. 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, called Lily, and two Jeep Wranglers known as Bumblebee and Carlos. Other than Lily’s failed, and quickly repaired, clutch with just two weeks to go and Nomad’s slightly delayed lifter kit, plans seemed to go ahead without a hitch. However, as one might expect, chaos only occurred the evening before. The first of a series of unfortunate events was the arrival of Nomad’s desperately need lifter kit. Now faced with a dilemma, a decision had to be made whether to let sleeping dogs lie and risk seriously damaging Nomad later on Baboon’s pass or take a chance and do a full 100mm lift only hours before the scheduled time of departure. The temptation of the kit’s arrival proved too great and 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 managed to be raised. Nomad had to drive for reinforcements in full squat dazzling passing motorist with its headlamps that were now better suited for spotting air raids. 4 am on D-Day, which just so happened to be Friday the 13th, matters went from bad to worse. With only 2 hours of sleep for the drivers who managed to sort out Nomad’s rear suspension, we had just set off for Lesotho before receiving the second call for aid. This time it came from team Carlos who, as it turns out, had also spent all night tinkering with the gearing in his differential with dire consequences. Unfortunately, the repairs were too great for our tight schedule and we, therefore, sent a rescue party 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. We had arrived at the border thinking that the worst was over only to find that there were no car registration papers for Lily and that one of the passengers had brought his son’s passport. While it was feasible to organise a copy of the registration papers for Lily in a town nearby, we thought it was slightly optimistic for a fully grown man to pass off as his teenage son. It was therefore 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 turned back earlier would arrive in time.
A well-rested team awoke the next day to a welcoming sight. The members that had turned back earlier had arrived and, a now reunited group, assembled in the restaurant for breakfast and a quick debriefing. The plan was for the team leader, Andries, to head the convoy in Trapsuutjie, followed by the other three Jimnys, and the Jeep and Land Rover bringing up the rear. Since the Jeep and Land Rover were the only two vehicles who had the adequate weight and power to pull each other out if need be, without having to lash together all four Jimnys like sledge dogs, this seemingly Axis vs Allied arrangement was essential. With good wishes from the staff at Ramabanta, we set off for Baboons Pass, savouring the last few kilometres of tarred road. We stop 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 we manoeuvred with relative ease, only having to stop on occasion to pack some rocks and shift some 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. Their expertise proved effective as we reached the halfway point for day one in a matter of hours, where we stopped for a quick 10 am beer. As the day wore on, the battering from the dirt-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 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, immediately telling us that something was wrong. A broken-hearted Andries informed us that Trapsuutjie had lost it footing and landed heavily on one of its radial arms, shearing it right off. Anyone who knows anything about vehicles will know that 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 come 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 its correct positioning. A beaten a battered Trapsuutjie then re-joined the rest of the group at the campsite.
With light fading and the 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 removes the metal cover from his spare wheel, which turned out to be a custom-made braai grid. He proceeds to unfasten a latch on 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 2689m 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 some considerable spice, and discussing the performance of each of their vehicles. The affectionate way in which each of these gentlemen would talk about their cars, anyone would 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 all the way down to where the younger members were seated.
To say that we awoke the next morning implies that we did in fact sleep. In actuality, 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. With an incessant rustle 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 on the team member’s clothing bag, which contained his wallet, complete with bank cards and drivers’ licence, were amongst the unaccountable 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 and some discrete wandering offs into nearby bushes, armed with toilet, we set off for round two.
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. As such, 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 that we had encountered on our trip, bearing in mind that we just witnessed Nomad having to be pinned down by several men after its all but vertical take-off during the ascent. Placed deliberately on a rock in the middle of our route was the entire content 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. Shell shocked by this humbling 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 that the vehicles were as eager as we were to successfully complete Baboons pass. It certainly seemed that we would all reach the end without anyone having to be towed, right up until the moment Lilly slipped into a protruding rock that wedges itself into the rim and punctured the valve. Miraculously, the rock had completely missed the tyre wall, but, nevertheless left Lilly 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 Afrikaans gene, to temporarily fix Lily’s tyre. The rock that caused all the chaos in the first place then needed 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 hitch up to Jack Russel. With a quick but a decisive tug, the dying soldier managed to free its wounded comrade. The team that had fallen behind to rescue Lily, caught up with the rest of the convoy at the appropriately named Goliaths Rock. With bated breath, Lily tried to manoeuvre into position to tackle the obstacle. Tried being the imperative word as, ironically, it was not the actual rock, but the tight left-hander that proved troublesome from the Landy’s infamous turning circle. It was, however, Bumblebee that really stole the show at Goliath’s Rock. Its unbelievable power and torque allowed it to just sort of drive 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.
All things considered, the entire convoy managed to successfully scale the mountain pass out of their own steam, while having their egos humbled along the way. Baboons 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. That being said, it is indeed not for the inexperience off-roader nor for the faint of hearted. It takes a great deal of skill and ingenuity to undertake such a challenge and no shortage of patience and a good sense of humour. 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 that made our trip just that much more enjoyable. With a heartfelt farewell, we departed from Ramabanta and set a course home…Except for Trapsuutjie who managed to schedule in one last break down before entering South Africa.
Written by Stephanie Alcock