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Isuzu in Lesotho

16 May 2017

Welsh 4×4 journalist Robb Pritchard has travelled the world. From deserts to jungles to the Russian steppe to volcanoes in South America – he’s seen it all. But despite all his travel experience, nothing could quite prepare him for Lesotho. This is what happened.

The pristine tarmac road I’d been powering along on for a couple of hours went over a dip, and suddenly I had about 20 metres to scrub off 80km/h before hitting the deep potholes at the start of the gravel. The impact was so hard I was sure I’d just ripped all the wheels off but a cursory inspection of linkages and ball joints on the front end revealed that everything was still properly attached. It seemed that the new Isuzu was a lot tougher than I thought. Another screech of tyres and a bang behind told me I wasn’t the first or the last to make that mistake…

I’d heard a lot about the Sani Pass but it’s nothing too hard, just a few patches of mud that would stop any 2WD vehicle. The views were incredible, though, and became more breathtaking the higher I went. The switchback hairpins at the top, with the sheer drops behind, are no place to make a mistake and I got to the surprisingly pristine tarmac road on the plateau with a big smile on my face.

Into the clouds
After the perfunctory border crossing, you have to stop at the famous Sani Top Café/restaurant/hotel overlooking the cliffs. It’s just the done thing. The pass opened in the ’50s and there’s some fascinating history plastered all over the hotel walls. I was quite taken with the legend of the guy in the VW Beetle who made it up in the 1950s. In the snow. At 2 876 metres, the pub is the highest in Africa so that evening a Castle milk stout just had to be consumed. Just the done thing. The huts are amazingly cosy. Round walls, thatched roofs, a big bed in the middle and a coal fire stove to take the high altitude chill off. A great little excursion here is a 4×4 drive (or about an hour’s walk) to a cleft in the mountains called the Saddle. After a long drive in the Isuzu the day before, I chose to stretch my legs and walk. The surrounding mountains are so immense that they create the sensation that no matter how much trudging through the soggy moorland you do, they won’t get any closer. The view from the Saddle is well worth the hike. It’s seldom I have stood taking in a view utterly untouched by the hand of man. In the rocks, untold millions of years of sedimentation, tectonic upheaval and erosion was written into the landscape, all creased and wrinkled like the crows feet of a happy old man. I spent a couple of hours up there, just me and the wind thinking about what adjectives other than ‘stunning’, ‘breathtaking’ or ‘magic’ I could use for the country I’d be exploring for the next week and a half.

With the devastating illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn, I understand why the Chinese are not exactly the most popular nation in Southern Africa, but it has to be said that they make damn good roads. Apart from the Armco barrier supports on the hairpins being made of wood, the one from Sani over the Black Mountain Pass to Mokhotlong is picture-perfect, although the only ones using it are local sheep and donkey herders.  In their boots, ski masks, big sticks and blanket capes, I couldn’t help thinking that they look like they’re on their way to a Third World Darth Vader convention. After driving a while, I encountered a guy hitchhiking. Well, I say ‘hitchhiking’, but it was more like standing in the middle of the road waving his arms and stick until I stopped. I helped him put his seatbelt on, which seemed like a new experience, especially as he couldn’t work out how not to get his stick caught in it. We got it fastened, but I couldn’t stop laughing when he cried out in shock when the GPS loudly announced out of the speakers: “In 100 metres turn…”

This is Africa
Being from a Western country, I am rather conditioned to expect clear warnings for any life-threatening hazards ahead, such as a hairpin on a gravel road with no barrier or concrete blocks to catch wayward vehicles. I caught it just in time, thanks mainly to the sideways grip of the General Grabber tyres, but it was close. And, still having palpitations, on the very next corner I almost got forced off the edge again by a minibus driver on completely the wrong side of the road. Lesotho is definitely not for beginners. Tranquillity was restored when I eventually found Molumong Lodge, though. The house is a 100-year-old trading post built by a Scotsman, so was cosy, had gloriously squeaky floorboards, a bed covered in thick blankets and a big steaming bath. And a wood burning stove in the corner. Perfect! The host, Noma, is also a great person to talk with about the local culture, so while the rain fell on the tin roof, we had tea and chatted about blankets and thatching skills. To really experience just what a rugged and remote place this country is, you need to get off the tarmac. From behind Molumong Lodge, the road heads up over a couple of passes, the clusters of round huts clinging to the hillside all the way up to 3 000m above sea level.

The road I was on, winding up and up, constantly coming down to second gear to crawl over patches of holes, rocks, ruts and even the spoil of old landslides, was 60km of pure off-roading heaven… yet in Lesotho this was the main road and I kept passing Toyota minivans packed with people. You wouldn’t catch me in a packed Hi-Ace, though. Bouncing along at walking pace on rough, muddy roads on worn road tyres next to hundred metre drops is a bit too extreme for me. It was only 38km to Katse Dam in a straight line according to the GPS, but the route calculation was 166km, all with a grand total of 2km of tarmac! A mistake I made was not taking a packed lunch with me, as during the whole day of driving there was nothing apart from a few corrugated iron shacks on a crossroads perched high up on a windswept ridge. At late afternoon, I was very grateful to crawl into the comfy lounge of the Katse Lodge.

The next day it was time to get fuel. Lucky 7 was the name of the shop I was looking for in Katse village, which sounded like a proper and trustworthy franchise. Local shopkeepers don’t really score too highly on a customer service scale, and after I’d coughed demonstrably and waved my arms to make sure I wasn’t invisible, I was led out the back to a shed where a stooped old man blew the dirt off a plastic container and wiped a funnel with a filthy rag. Whatever it was in the bottle, it wasn’t going in the Isuzu’s tank. Luckily Thaba-Tseka had a nicer set-up – a big tank on breeze blocks that you drive in four-wheel drive just to get to.

The beautiful road
The road after Thaba-Tseka was tarmac all the way, but it was still one of the best driving routes I’ve ever tried. Forget all the posts on DriveTribe about the Stelvio Pass or the Transfăgărășan in Romania. With constant corners, gear changes and stunning vistas, the road from Thaba-Tseka to Roma is 150km of pure joy. But it was also another seven-hour drive of constant corners, killer speed bumps and hordes of school- children crowding the sides of the road, so I was properly exhausted as I inched through the chaotic market on the road down to the next rest stop. But the drive was worth it as Semonkong Lodge is the sweetest little oasis. From a certain angle, with the rough stone houses covered in thatched roofs and mature trees lining the river bank, it has the feel of old England.

I took a hut on the top of the hill, which required some decent off-roading to get to. With the rain outside and the fire crackling, it was the cosiest hut in the world. The dinner here was also by far the best in Lesotho. I saw that the couple at the next table had what I thought was a rather diminutive portion of lamb stew, so I asked if I could perhaps have a portion better suited to my physical stature. The waitress needed two hands to set the plate on the table. And when a Welshman says that the lamb stew was good you know it’s good. I waddled back up the steps to the hut that evening!

On the road again
After a while, constant curves on tarmac all fade into one another, but after 40 or so kilometres, the asphalt ended and I was back to where I am happiest; on the dirt. The compacted earth had a sheen of mud on it, and I loved the feeling of the car moving under me. I think I was the first to come across a rockslide and had to spend a few minutes moving stones that the Isuzu’s rear differential wasn’t going to clear before inching through, brimming with the sense of adventure. Concentration levels were so high, I even had to turn Motörhead down a little. The higher I got, the thicker the fog became until I couldn’t see more than a few metres ahead and needed to check the GPS to get an idea of what was in front. The clouds cleared up at one point enough for me to make out strange black lines in the turf where the top soil was slipping down the mountain face.

I didn’t think much of it at first, but after a tight hairpin there was a stretch of clean rockface next to the track, and the very soft earth on the road was different to the rocks around the corner. A few metres on, I realised it was because the road had slipped down a few metres and they’d laid a new surface. I was driving on top of a landslide that was waiting to happen. I could see only about five metres ahead, so inched along nervously. Most of it was off-camber, which angled the car towards the edge, the back wheel sliding out at one point. Like I said, Lesotho is not for the novice off-roader. I made it across, so it wasn’t quite a near-death experience… it just felt like one.

Water everywhere
It was nearly six in the evening when, knackered and starving, I arrived at the Sehlabathebe Lodge, which turned out to be closed. Fortunately, I had the assistance of Piet, the National Park ranger, who unlocked the staff hut for me, then took me shopping in the local town. I cooked up some rice and tinned curry in the staffroom and spent the evening listening to the wind howl and the rain dripping off the thatch. The books of the National Park he gave me had some very enticing photos of the local hikes, but the next morning the rain still hadn’t let up and the fog was thick. So, instead, I headed off to my next stop at Mashai, which was 40km away on the most glorious off-road route ever.  With four days of almost unabated rain, the rivers were more than a little swollen. A few off-roading rules were broken, such as driving alone and not wading across without testing the depth first, but in my defence, this road is actually called the A4.

A recent massive storm had created run-offs so strong that the water had washed away all of the road surface, so on tight turns there was nothing but wet bedrock, invariably sloping towards the abyss. A couple of times, I had to get out to check and work out a way over. Fortunately the rock was granite, so it afforded pretty good grip. The climax was a series of steep hairpins up to the top of the pass, which was over 3 000m, where I finally broke through the clouds. I saw more clouds billowing up a long way below, with a tiny little muddy track winding down into them. It was another stunning sight. Down the other side of the pass the river got deeper and deeper again, until a couple of times it had burst its banks to submerge the track. That was okay, until I had to cross it. The brown torrent was raging, but it was a full two-day drive to go around and my destination was only 8km away. I decided to go for it, but I was nervous. Every time the car bounced over rocks, the stream shoved it slightly downstream. It was fine, though, and I managed to get through.

I had hoped to stay at the Mashai Lodge but it wasn’t quite ready to receive guests and the ‘manager’ didn’t quite understand why I didn’t want to stay in a hut with a leaking roof and puddles on the floor. An extra 50km carried me back to Molumong, where I knew there would be good food and a hot bath. The main road was decent enough, but as soon as I turned off onto a smaller road, the surface was absolute mush. Over-steering into corners and sliding left and right, either towards the ditch or the edge of the cliff, kept me alert. There was one rough section I remembered coming down the other way a few days earlier. A Land Cruiser driver had flagged me down to tell me it would be impossible to get up. It was very rough, very muddy and the cross-axling holes were deep enough to catch the mud flaps. Amazingly, the Isuzu went up without issue. There was hardly any wheelspin.

A fitting end
As it turned out, the hardest off-roading of the whole trip was the very last bit. The GPS showed a road down the hill, but this track hadn’t seen any car down it for a very long time. It was no track at all, just a soft bank covered in mud. It was so slippery, I couldn’t stand up on it properly. The angle of the slope was forcing me down into the rocky stream. Some extra gas got me back on track, but the mud and sheep crap on the tyres meant that I kept sliding, right to the edge of a concrete slab. I revved the vehicle to throw the mud off the tyres and managed to miss the slab by inches. Lesotho is desolate, bleak and pretty inhospitable but it’s also breathtaking. The people are incredibly friendly (unless you’re a sheep or a donkey), and if you’re a good driver with a moderately capable 4×4, it is paradise. It is now one of my favourite places in the world.

Isuzu KB300 D-TEQ LX 4×4

Engine 2 999cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power 130kW @ 3 600r/min
Torque 380Nm @ 1 800r/min
Gearbox Five-speed manual
4WD system Part-time (2H, 4H & 4LOW)
Traction aids Traction and stability control, rear differential lock
Ground clearance (claimed) 220mm
Wading depth (claimed) 600mm
Safety ABS, six airbags
Price R549 800
Service plan Five-year/90 000km

Text and photos: Robb Pritchard