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OFF-ROAD TEST

OFF – ROAD TEST: Lesotho passes, unlocked





8 January 2017


Embedded in the Maloti mountain range, the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is the only independent state on the planet that lies, in its entirety, higher than 1 000m above sea level. And, where there are mountains that are up to 3 400m high, there are mountain passes. We drove three of the best in Toyota’s new Fortuner and Hilux, both fitted with Bridgestone’s Dueler 693III all-terrain tyres.

In Lesotho, the old saying ‘it’s not so far but it is quite a distance’ rings very true; to travel a distance of just over 200km on good tar roads can take up to 12 hours. And it’s not a case of horrible dirt roads that slow you down either. Thanks to Chinese road-building initiatives, all of Lesotho’s main road arteries are covered in beautiful new tar. In theory, these spectacular roads, snaking through amazing vistas, should be the ideal playground of a Porsche 911 Turbo, a Noble M400 or even a Yamaha R1. But despite the condition of the tarred roads, the average speed is less than 60km/h. It’s the donkeys, cattle and children on the roads, the fact that many local drivers cut the corners and land up on a wrong side of the road around a blind corner, combined with some oversized speed bumps, that keep the speeds down. So that 500 horsepower Noble is not quite the ticket either.

Ask a local driver how far it is to so-and-so, and he will not quote kilometres, but time. It’s just the way it is. If you have time though, Lesotho offers some delectably remote, as well as more tourist-friendly, mountain passes. They are the famous Sani Pass, the lesser-known Ongeluksnek Pass, and the highest driveable mountain pass in Africa, the Black Mountain (Kotisephola) Pass.

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Sani Pass – pretty, but not so tough
This pass started its life as a rough track for donkeys and people. Essentially, it was a bridle pass established to connect the town of Mokhotlong in Lesotho and Underberg in South Africa, to facilitate trading. Donkey trains would frequent the pass, heading down with wool and other goods, only to return later to the Mountain Kingdom with maize meal and other goods impossible to source in Lesotho. Back then, the trek between Underberg and Mokhotlong was about 80km, and took a considerable amount of time on foot. It all changed in 1948, in part thanks to the World War II. In 1943, the American Army created the Jeep, a lightweight 4×4 that proved to be reliable with the ability to go anywhere.

Godfrey Edmond had been an RAF fighter pilot in the war, burnt almost to death after his Spitfire was shot down in flames. He survived though, and landed up selling cars at Stanley Motors in Kokstad. Since transporting goods between South Africa and Lesotho was a major challenge at the time, and since Godfrey was in the business of selling the then- new Willy’s Jeep, a plan was hatched to drive the Jeep from Underberg to Mokhotlong. It proved to be one heck of an ordeal. At times the corners were too tight for the Jeep to make the turn, so the Jeep had to be bounced around the corner by hand. But 14 hours after departing Underberg, the party reached Mokhotlong, and the Jeep became the first automobile to ride into town. The proverbial ice had been broken, and although it took a few years for the idea to catch on fleets of Jeeps and Land Rovers soon started rumbling up and down the treacherous pass.

Make no mistake: today the pass is in no way as tough as it was in the 1950s. And nowadays the 80km drive from Underberg to Mokhotlong can be completed in about two hours, if you don’t stop to take in the sights and sounds. However, it is still as breathtakingly beautiful as back in those early days, and pictures just don’t do the scale of the views justice. From Underberg, one turns left towards the pass on a beautiful new tar road, winding its way to the foothills of the Moloti Mountains. The road turns to gravel and it’s the section before the South African border post, which is about 13km in length, that can be the most treacherous when wet (according to the locals). After the SA border post (a distance of about 7km to the summit) the conditions are good, but the last few hundred metres before the summit are steep – up to 1:20. The pass winds through formerly notorious corners such as Haemorrhoid Hill, Ice
Corner, Suicide Bend and Reverse Corner.

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Those are just names of sections that used to be challenging, though. The pass is kept in pretty good shape these days, and it’s much wider than it used to be. So reaching the summit (at 2 873 metres) presents no great 4×4 hardship when it is dry. If it rains or snows (or heavy mist descends onto the pass), it takes a brisk turn for the worse. In extreme cases, the South African border post is closed for safety reasons. We did the pass in the dry and it was hardly a challenge for the Hilux or Fortuner. And no visit to the pass is complete without a visit to the Sani Mountain Lodge, and the highest pub in Africa. It’s probably not a good idea to have an alcoholic beverage if you still have to head down the pass, though – it’s really not one of those places where ‘hold my beer and check this move!’ will have a happy ending.

Ongeluksnek Pass – old school is good school
The origin of this pass is said to date back to 1861. That’s when Griqua leader Adam Kok led the Griqua people from Philippolis in the Free State through Lesotho, and on to the Eastern Cape, where they eventually settled in what became known as Griqualand East. The headquarters of the new ‘homeland’ was named Kokstad – after the man who guided the 3 000 people, 300 wagons, 20 000 head of cattle and 200 000 sheep for nearly two years to their new home. Interestingly, the pass is said to have been called Ongeluksnek Pass (directly translated as accident neck pass) after one of the members of the Kok party accidentally shot himself while on the pass. The pass is so remote, there is no Lesotho border post (the remains of the old Lesotho post are still visible). From the South African town of Matatiele, or Matat, as the locals refer to it, you head west on the R56 for a few kilometres until you reach the turn-off to the Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve, on the right. You follow this gravel road, which is in pretty decent shape, for about 35km, driving past the magnificent Mariazell Mission Station on the right.

After entering the nature reserve (there is no charge), the track is reduced to a twee-spoor track until you reach the South African border post. After the paperwork, you move onto the pass. The track winds through the mountains until you reach the summit (at about 2 400m). Along the way there are some deep ruts, but since the veld was dry when we made the ascent, we never required a rear differential lock. According to the locals, this very same track, based in some steep sections on ominously dark soil, poses a huge challenge when wet. And judging by the amount of ruts and detours and obvious places of recovery, it sure is an unpleasant place to hang out on a rainy day. The pass itself is less than seven kilometres long, but it will take you about an hour to reach the summit as the going is pretty slow, in low range. The last few hundred metres are the steepest (said to be 1:7), and there are a few right switchbacks. This section, in wet conditions, could add a few grey hairs. Unlike most tough Lesotho passes, this one is not so rocky, and there certainly aren’t any big boulders to conquer. But when it rains, this relatively ‘easy’ pass in the dry can turn into a major headache.

As mentioned, the Fortuners and Hilux bakkies conquered the pass with the rear diff locks on the reserve bench. After summiting, and after you’ve marvelled at the view, you have two options: you can turn around and head down the pass, or you can continue onwards to the Malekgonyane Pass, which is much less of a pass and more of a stunning twee-spoor road to the Lesotho inland, and eventually the town of Mphaki. We opted for the latter and the next day left Lesotho through the Qacha’s Nek post, albeit with some slightly raised eyebrows because we had not officially checked into the country.

Kotisephola Pass – getting high
At 3 200m above sea level, it’s said to be the highest driveable pass in Africa, winding its way across and over the peaks of the infamous Black Mountain. And nowadays, it’s covered in some of the best Chinese bitumen, making for a unique, enthralling drive. Up to a few years ago, this breathtaking pass was a slow, ponderous and dangerous business. The narrow gravel track, combined with the high altitude, tested many 4×4’s gradient-climbing ability to the limits, sometimes requiring low range not because of a lack of grip, but because of the steep gradient. At its peak of 3 240m, vehicles with naturally aspirated engines tend to run out of steam on the steep incline, sometimes requiring the lowest gear just to maintain momentum. And if you drive an old Land Rover Series 1, you may have to drive up the worst sections in reverse (because of the low gear and to maintain fuel flow to the carburettor). Modern turbocharged engines, like the 2.8-litre four-cylinder in the Hilux and Fortuner, fare much better, even though they feel the effects of the high altitude just a wee bit, too.

So the pass is a driver’s dream, featuring spectacular switchbacks, more corners than the legendary Nordschleife Nürburgring in Germany and a tar surface smoother than a baby’s bottom. It’s also 31km long, and only ends near the town of Mokhotlong. But even though it may sound like it in theory, it’s still no Subaru Impreza WRX STi hunting ground. There are just too many people, animals, speed bumps and lane-challenged locals on the beautiful road. It’s best to rather to savour the absolutely spectacular views at a slow, reasonable speed, stop a lot (at the viewpoints) and take snaps, and be cautious of all the dangers on the road.

To get to the pass, you simply continue straight after clearing the Sani Pass Lesotho border. The road is tarred from this point onwards, all the way to Mokhotlong, and eventually, Maseru. Or, you can cover the 31km pass, make a U-turn, and head straight back to the Sani Mountain Lodge and stay for the night.

Bridgestone 693III all-terrain, but different
As vehicles evolve, so does the technology associated with them. With an ever-increasing focus on fuel efficiency, Toyota has further refined its 2.8GD-6 four-cylinder turbodiesel engine to drink less fuel than the previous generation 3.0D4-D Hilux and Fortuner ever did. Part and parcel of this focus on efficiency is the unassuming tyre. In this case, they are Bridgestone Dueler 693III, fitted standard to all new top-end Hiluxes and Fortuners. This new-generation all-terrain tyre may not look as rugged as the previous generation Dueler 694 all-terrains fitted to the Hilux and Fortuner, but it can still handle some off-road punch while providing very high levels of comfort and grip on the black stuff – and that’s where most new Hilux and Fortuner vehicles spend most of their time.

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Featuring a more modern compound than the familiar Dueler 694, the Dueler 693III has more silica in its compound. Although the Dueler 693III is said to provide more than acceptable grip and protection in an off-road environment, it excels on the road. However, in the rolling resistance test – surely not a criterion many all-terrain tyres were subjected to in the recent past – the Dueler 693III outperformed its Dueler 694 cousin and two of the top-selling all-terrain products from other brands by a substantial margin. In turn, low rolling resistance equals less fuel burnt, and improved fuel consumption. For example, after 1 788km of driving at highway speeds, tackling a variety of city conditions and B-roads, conquering the passes (sometimes in low-range), and driving enthusiastically on Lesotho’s beautiful new roads, one Hilux boasted average con-sumption of just 8.5 litres/100km.

At the same time, handling proved car-like, with plenty of grip available on all surfaces including tar, gravel and rock. Ride comfort was also exemplary. The popular Dueler 694 may not be completely dead just yet, but long live the new Dueler 693III, anyway.

Hilux and Fortuner – like the (trusty) boy next door
The Hilux and Fortuner are part of Toyota’s so-called innovative inter-national multi-purpose vehicle (IMV) project, launched in 2004 when the Hilux (Vigo) made its debut in single cab, cab-and-a-half and double cab formats. Bridgestone’s 17-inch 694 all-terrain tyre became standard fitment on the Hilux following a major facelift and specification upgrade. The latest Hilux and Fortuner share the same platform, engine and drivetrain. The vehicles used in Lesotho were powered by Toyota’s 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel engine, which delivers 130kW and 420Nm of torque at a low 1 400r/min when coupled to the manual six-speed gearbox. When mated to the automatic six-speed gearbox though, power stays the same but torque increases to 450Nm at 1 600r/min. But numbers are numbers are numbers; it’s on the road that this drive-train stands up, ready to be counted. There is virtually no turbolag at lower revolutions, yet the mill is not scared of being chased to the red line. On the contrary, it likes that a lot.

Comfort- and handling-wise, the latest Hilux and Fortuner are in a different league to the bakkie and SUV they replaced, and they get the job done in a confidence-inspiring way. We encountered a few unplanned ‘cattle and donkey tests’ of our own, although we didn’t experience any two-wheeled emergency situations. For the record, the Hilux shown to nearly tip over in the controversial moose test was fitted with 18-inch tyres of undisclosed origin. One aspect that many punters seem to overlook is the fact that the latest Fortuner no longer features permanent four-wheel drive, as its predecessor did. Instead, it makes do with the same part-time system used in the Hilux. However, with its four-link independent rear suspension and all the refinements of the new drivetrain, you hardly notice it. Where the older Fortuner’s stability and traction control system used to be quite invasive in its intervention, the new vehicle stability control (VSC) and active traction control (ATRC) are much more subtle and discreet, keeping the Fortuner (and Hilux for that matter) tracking stable and true on rough roads.

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For serious off-road driving (and both the Hilux and Fortuner can tick that box) there is also 225mm ground clearance, the transfer case (2H, 4HIGH and 4LOW) that is activated via a dial in the centre console, traction control, hill assist control (HAC), downhill assist control (DAC) and a rear differential lock. Slightly gimmicky is the iMt system, as fitted to the six-speed manual models. This system ostensibly blips the throttle on downshifts. Frankly though, it may be better suited to a Lexus LFA sports car than a double cab diesel bakkie. What does work really well is the ‘Power’ button. While it starts in default ‘Eco’ mode, when you hit that ‘Power’ button the throttle inputs are sharper, and it certainly feels as if the 2.8GD-6 engine means plenty more business. The latest Fortuner and Hilux cabins are now more car-like than ever before, putting them very close to the best in the respective classes.

If there is one blip, it is the LCD screen stuck onto the Hilux’s centre stack. In the Fortuner, the LCD screen is much better integrated into the design. After spending 1 200km in these vehicles, it is clear why Toyota can hardly keep up with the demand. Although they are not particularly great at any one thing, it’s the sum of all parts which they do so very, very well that sets them apart from most of their competitors.

Text: Danie Botha Photographs: Halden Krog