Talk, as they say, is cheap but money buys the whiskey. Which is exactly what Ford did when they put together an adventure into Lesotho with their Ranger Raptor that would cover some very treacherous and difficult terrain.
Manufacturers often trumpet their 4x4 ability, but on a track under controlled conditions with instructors to hold your hand around every corner and obstacle is very different to going “freestyle” over a level five route.
And no, this would not be Sani Pass, I’ve driven that many times and apart from the final bend towards the lodge it’s really not that difficult.
Leaving the Silverton plant early, six Raptors including my driving partner and I in our long term SE crossed the border at Caledonspoort, drove towards Katze Dam and then headed off to Semonkong via a “road” used by Basotho ponies and donkeys.
We have driven the Ford Ranger Raptor at speed on tar and dirt roads where its prowess with its specially designed Fox suspension, chassis and 35-inch tyres have proved it to be in a class of its own, but now we would be doing low range 4x4 with diff locks engaged in clay mud and over boulders and mountains.
Our overnight spot was at the edge of a mielie field overlooking the dam via a winding road. In Lesotho, as the crow flies distances aren’t far, but because of the topography roads wind around mountains, add to that recent heavy rains that have left dirt roads washed away and muddy and a 20km trip can easily take an hour (watch the highlights video at the bottom of the story).
There would be no lodges with fresh linen and a warm bed, we would be wild camping in the elements which fortunately for us on the first night, provided a ceiling of magnificent stars where the Milky Way was the last thing you saw before crawling into your sleeping bag.
It’s always a good break on a 4x4 trip with like minded people so for four journalists, two social media guys that have a special talent with a camera, Gideo Basson, expedition leader extraordinaire, Bertus the medic, Ford CEO Neale Hill, Sales and Marketing Director Conrad Groenewald and Communications Director Minesh Bhagaloo, swapping stories and jokes while eating meat prepared on a fire (where else) provided a welcome break from the daily grind.
Early morning and the dam was a magnificent backdrop as we reloaded the bakkies, repacked the fridge plugged into the 12 volt socket with water and sports drinks and headed to the dam wall.
The Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme is an engineering marvel with a labyrinth of tunnels, dams and hydroelectric schemes that beggars belief.
The second phase is finally underway which will increase water supply to South Africa significantly and thankfully the South African government hasn’t been put in charge of the funding because we know what the likely outcome of that will be. The dam wall is 185 metres high and is Africa's second largest double-curvature arch dam. It is also a good place for a bathroom break and snack stop.
The sun was out and things were looking good for our overnight stop next to the Mantsonyane River. But in Lesotho this time of the year things change quickly and as we headed off the tar along another one of the country’s many passes and were about to slap a slice of cheese and ham onto a bread roll, the heavens opened.
From here things started to get into the realm of real Raptor territory. While most of the tar roads are in good condition, keeping the country’s gravel roads away from the bigger settlements passable is nigh impossible. Throw in record amounts of rain and roads get washed away creating large dongas and exposed rocks to keep you on your toes leaving the locals with bemused expressions as we forged ahead.
Basson warned us over the radios that there’s the likelihood of mud ahead. He wasn’t joking.
With low range and mud mode selected the Raptors made their way forward without too much fuss until a short stretch of black cotton mud-like road sent one of them sideways into the edge of a miele field.
After laughing hysterically at the passenger’s face plant in the mud when he climbed out, it was time for a recovery.
It’s here again that the Raptor stands out above any of the competition. When they designed it, it was built from the ground up as an off-road vehicle and that included proper recovery points. Nothing aftermarket by dodgy guys welding them to the chassis or bolting them on with inferior bolts.
With two Raptors connected by recovery ropes onto the stranded vehicle, a decent tug or two saw them pull the stranded vehicle out. We were mobile again. In conditions like this though mobile is relative.
The next stretch would see us cover 400 metres in four hours as the mud took its toll. Even leaning against the Raptor when standing still it would slide. Foot by foot using sand tracks the convoy inched forward.
I was fortunate to be towards the back of the convoy and had time to deflate my tyres more and choose a line that had my left track high up on a muddy incline and the right side wedged in the tracks that the other vehicles had made.
Using only the ECU to propel me forward I managed to get to the flat spot where the convoy was gathered. With conditions as they were and the sun starting to fade it was clear that it was too dangerous to proceed to our original overnight spot.
Two of the tour members had meanwhile asked one of the locals if they knew where we could camp out of the wind for the night. Turns out he was the headmaster of the local school and in typical Lesotho kindness and hospitality offered us his two small classrooms as shelter for nothing in return.
Stretchers were unpacked, food prepared in front of the local kids sitting as though they were watching a sporting event and a few guys even had a bush shower attached to Basson’s kitted Raptor.
Thankfully when the sun rose it was a clear sky but the weather Apps showed afternoon showers and you don’t want to be climbing a rocky pass in the wet with a mountain on one side and 200 metres of nothing on the other.
There’s no official name for the pass that we drove but on the Tracks4africa map fitted as standard on the Sync3 infotainment system it showed your GPS position, Semokong as the route and that 4WD was required. Who knew!
This was as good as it gets when you’re in a 4x4.
Narrow turns, packing rocks to improve the line and even hitching an almost two ton boulder to the Raptor to clear the way for safe passage may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but for us this was better than a night on the town in a tuxedo and a five star hotel.
Getting to what would have been our overnight stop we crossed the river not having to test the full 850mm fording depth but at least able to let the water wash away some of the mud on the undercarriage.
A Jerry can of diesel for each Raptor and the really tough part lay ahead. When you look up at the mountain and there’s a bit of a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach as you play the route through your mind, you know it’s going to be one to remember.
Also, going down in relatively good conditions the weight of the car provides momentum, not so much up a rocky mountain track when you’re battling gravity with very little traction.
Switching to rock mode this time, the pass got tougher and tougher as various lines were discussed and analysed.
With diff locks engaged all the time, large boulders and loose rocks trying to trip us up as we inched forward, packing more rocks to make the line passable and guiding each other the Raptors showed that they were truly incredibly capable in a situation that very few people would ever attempt.
Sitting on the grass at the final bend munching a curry lamb wrap and downing another cold drink while looking down on what we had just driven, gave us an immense feeling of accomplishment.
There were a number of butt-clinching moments but nothing had broken save for a few rock rash scratches on the rims and underbody protection all done in a stock standard Ford Raptor straight off the showroom floor.
I have driven a number of very difficult passes in Lesotho over the years including Baboons Pass which is what many set as the standard.
What we drove is right up there.
From there the washed away road to the Semonkong Lodge proved positively smooth as we headed back to a flush toilet and a clean bed.
That night over dinner as we reflected on the past few days, each member of the party was given a turn to speak and the overall feeling was that Lesotho is a place of great beauty, much of it untamed and magnificent people right within our borders.
And with continuous changing protocols of international travel making things difficult, we should be spending more time visiting our neighbours, not necessarily driving almost impossible passes, but if you’re in a Ford Ranger Raptor, just do it.
- Special thanks to Justin Jacobs for the pictures and video. Follow him on Instagram: