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It can't be surpassed for thrills, terror or excitement, writes Willem van de Putte.
Ever since I put my butt behind the wheel of a 4x4, I have wanted to take on Lesotho’s Baboon’s Pass. As it is with things of this nature, it had taken a backseat to the daily grind that is life – until recently, that is, when a friend e-mailed me while I was sitting around a braai fire under a thorn tree with drink in hand.
“A group of us are doing Baboon’s, want in?” or words to that effect flashed on my phone, and within 24 hours I had cancelled all previous engagements and arranged the necessary leave.
Most of us in the group – which included a Land Rover Defender 110, Land Rover Defender 90, Land Rover Discovery 1, an old Range Rover, a Land Rover Discovery 3 (and a trailer!) and two Mitsubishi Tritons – have known each other for a while and have done several trails together.
None of our vehicles are standard, either; all feature lots of modifications, such as suspension and tyre upgrades, and extensive protection, such as rocksliders and diff protectors as well as heavy duty recovery points. Moreover, all of us belong to 4x4community.co.za.
Baboon’s Pass is considered one of the most difficult and uncompromising mountain passes in SA. Well, technically it’s in Lesotho, but you know what I mean. Don’t believe a word in the Ford Ranger television commercial about Sani Pass being the most difficult in the world; it’s an insult to Ford, Sani Pass and serious 4x4 enthusiasts.
Out of a difficulty factor of five, most of Baboon’s hovers at about four and five – and that’s if the weather plays along.
It’s revered for its tales of suffering, broken and destroyed vehicles and legendary twists and turns.
Basically, it’s 26km of unrelenting rocks and boulders which, on a good day, you can rush in under 10 hours, but when it gets hectic won’t be done in under two days.
We knew things were going to be slightly different when we gathered at one of the petrol stations along the N3 and the Discovery 3 arrived towing an Angel off-road trailer with a rooftop tent. It’s a hard-core trailer, no doubt, but it would add a twist to an already tough call.
Our overnight stop was at Ramabanta Lodge, where almost every Baboon’s trip starts from – as well as the Roof of Africa rally.
The camping area is well maintained and the bathrooms clean with warm showers. We needed that, because from almost Maseru to the lodge we had rain. Not just a slight drizzle, but continuous make-everything-wet rain that set the trend for the duration of our time on the pass.
It’s difficult at the best of times.
Add torrential rain to the mix and parts of the pass will give you a good kick in the midriff just to remind you that nature has its own way of letting you know who’s the boss.
Only one of us had done the pass before, so the Defender 110 drove as lead car and the Discovery 3 with the trailer was at the back. Why the trailer, though? Those of us that didn’t sleep high and dry had a few reasons and suggestions – all of them unprintable – but there’s nothing like an extra challenge on an already tough route, and apart from one or two hairy situations the driver had everything under control and the Discovery behaved impeccably throughout the trip.
At the bottom of the pass a big rock greets you and painted on it are the words: “Welcome Baboons. Terrible She*t! No W*nkers allowed!”
The first few kilometres of the route have – unfortunately for us – been scraped to allow for easier access to a school as well as power cables. However, add pouring rain to the equation and you have yourself a sticky mudslide that had wheels spinning and drivers struggling to find the right lines.
At one stage I hit a rock so hard that I thought I had taken the tyre off the rim, or at least smashed a wheelbearing somewhere. Fortunately not, and soon the mud gave way to a combination of boulders, more boulders and thousands of their smaller friends, all wet and slippery.
Before we left, a final e-mail to confirm all the arrangements had gone out and one of the items was: “Bring your sense of humour, no one is going to help you find it on Baboon’s”. Too true, when you’re clutching at the wheel and for the third or fourth time your vehicle slides into a rut and you’re stuck again and have to climb out in the rain and pack more rocks to build a road. At times like those, it’s your sense of humour and the guys you’re with that will ultimately get you through.
There was one unfortunate mishap at an obstacle where the heavily-modified Discovery 1 snapped a drive-shaft, a sickening noise at the best of times and, even more so, kilometres away from nowhere. They were towed to where we stopped for lunch – did I mention it was raining? – and, as sod’s luck would have it, the spare didn’t fit.
Up ahead lay a twisty, rocky track with a sheer fall to the one side and the cliff face on the other. Streams were running off the mountain and taking bits of the road with it. We had to make a call and unfortunately worse was to come so they had to turn back. Weeks of planning and anticipation all for naught, within a second.
My co-driver took one look at where we were headed, turned to me and cussed with a mixture of exasperation, terror and resignation. And when we had to get out twice to use the high lift jack to prevent serious body damage to one of the Tritons and the trailer, he was, in the SA sense, gatvol. That can happen when you’re supporting a vehicle and water runs down your arms and makes everything just a little more damp and cold.
He did comment, with typical British humour, that if it wasn’t raining and it wasn’t a sheer drop on the passenger side that would lead to certain death, he would get out and walk that part of the pass.
When we found a flat spot to overnight a few kilometres further, it was bucketing down and, just in case it wasn’t miserable enough, the wind had picked up as well. Tents were pitched on the wet bog (how we wished we were in the trailer’s tent) and a fire made under a gazebo and the canopy attached to the back of my vehicle.
The original idea was to have a braai under the African sky, so being true South Africans we had a braai, except under a gazebo with no niceties. It was too cold for ice, so glasses were dispensed with and your preferred drink thrown directly into the mixer’s can. A bit rough, I know, but you had to be there to understand.
We started day two in the early hours, courtesy of a howling gale and – surprise, surprise – more rain. The gazebo, I think, landed somewhere in Maseru and the colourful language could be heard throughout the land. When it became light, we saw why it was so cold; all around us the mountains were capped with snow.
There was no point in waiting for things to dry out, so everything was stowed drenched. Vehicle fluids were checked and we headed out to see what more surprises were in store for us.
DANGEROUS TWISTS AND TURNS
It’s not only the difficulty of the pass, it’s the fact that it can change overnight depending on the weather, it’s the relentless rocks and dangerous twists and turns and, more importantly, you have to concentrate all the time. One wrong move and you could go over the edge, damage your vehicle or slide into a rut that requires recovery, more rock-packing or winching.
Halfway through day two we stopped to make coffee and allow a herdsman with his goats and sheep to squeeze past the convoy; a difficult enough task on gas when you’re just more than 3 000m above sea level, made even more trying when you’re pelted in the face with ice rain.
By now the final major obstacle, Goliath’s Rock, was all we could think of, but not without a few more hair-raising stories to add to the saga. With about a kilometre to go there was one particularly tight bend to the left, and it’s at times like these that you have to rely on the person guiding you. He guided my right front wheel to the edge of the cliff with a sheer drop on my side, a stream of water taking mud and rocks with it to the bottom and very little space on the passenger side.
“That’s it,” said my co-driver and squeezed out of the passenger seat, aghast at the thought of tumbling down the mountain and my unshaven face being the last thing he sees before the angels take him away.
No sweat, though, a hard left on the steering wheel and some belching diesel smoke and all that was left was a wet and slippery Goliath’s. Basically it’s a huge rock that the road curves into, which means failure isn’t an option because losing control going up, there is a strong likelihood of finishing your trip upside down at the bottom of the mountain.
As the end of the convoy was inching its way up the face one by one, Madam Earth threw us one last curve ball. Snow. Not sleet. Having grown up in England, my co-driver reckoned that three hours of that would have seen about a foot (30cm) of snow, so just as well that we had wrapped up an epic trip and were heading down the muddy tracks back to Ramabanta.
The first suggestion over the radio was to see whether they had enough chalets and, quite frankly, even if they only had two, 13 of us would have crammed in there with a smile. You can’t put a price on warmth, a hot shower and clean linen when you’ve spent 48 hours battling the elements.
Fortunately, there were enough, and that night, sitting around the braai fire, with ice and a glass, we were already planning the next excursion to another mystical pass. -Saturday Star