Seeing a convoy of black families doing the overlanding thing is a “Hawu!” moment for most of us, well, not-so-black explorers. Until recently, 4x4ing has been a predominantly “white” addiction. The Stapelfeldts and two other families from KwaZulu-Natal really got noticed on their 2011 trip to Lesotho – for more reasons than one! This is Noel Stapelfeldt’s story.
Text and photography: Noel Stapelfeldt
“When life throws snow at you, you must learn to flow with the flakes”
The beginning of August saw many off-roaders and their families heading off to Lesotho to get a glimpse of the snow.
We didn’t want to miss out. Considering ourselves as one of the most active, adventurous 4×4-loving groups of “darkies” from Mzansi, we got together at a meeting point, and off we went.
The glimpse of snow we had bargained for turned into the adventure of a lifetime! Our convoy comprised three vehicles – Dr Sbu Kleinbooi and his family in their black Pajero, Nhlanhla Zondo and his family in their white Range Rover and my family and me in our gold Discovery 2 TD5.
Along the way we would meet our two friends from Gauteng, Chris Gatsheni Ndlovu in his Td5 Defender 90 and Tommy Mahlare in his Grand Cherokee 5.7L Jeep. We savoured a last cup of coffee with carrot-flavoured muffins and hit the road.
We passed through sleepy Himeville and turned left along the Sani Pass road, which is under construction. We drove along the wide, freshly laid gravel road, which became notably narrower as we approached the Sani Pass Hotel.
Soon the fresh gravel disappeared in the distance and the snow-capped mountains appeared ahead of us, covered with mist and grey clouds. We stopped along the road for “happy snappies”, shared some good bantering and waved kindly to the clearly surprised motorist passing us by.
As we left Mzansi behind with great excitement, the temperature started dropping. Driving very cautiously, we allowed faster moving vehicles to pass. We braced ourselves against the occasional stare and didn’t allow it to intimidate our progress.
The thermometer registered 3 degrees Celsius. At midday it started snowing again, and didn’t take long to affect our visibility. As we crawled up the pass, the interesting bends became narrower and narrower – demanding extreme caution by all drivers. We were heading for Black Mountain where we planned to picnic, but after a serious lekgotla, it was decided to find a suitable spot along the road for lunch.
Rose, my wife, served us hot coffee while Mrs Zondo and Mrs Kleinbooi set the table. We had a wonderful meal of bread rolls, Woolworths chicken and a scrumptious meatball stew that we heated up on the Discovery’s TD5 engine (and they say ’n boer maak ’n plan!).
The kids played and jumped for joy in the snow, and soon the adults joined in as we attempted to construct our BEE version of a snowman.
The sky suddenly became dark and ominous. We hurriedly packed up and turned the vehicles around to head back home.
The long convoy of vehicles at the Lesotho border slowed our progress. At last it was our turn to move. The thermometer registered minus 30C.
As we approached the first tight bend, a V8 Defender appeared with approximately seven vehicles in convoy behind it. My vehicle came to a halt almost nose to nose with the Defender. A message was relayed to the other vehicles in the convoy, so they pulled to the side. The Range Rover and Pajero were able to reverse but my vehicle had lost traction. We had to dig the ice out from under the wheels to regain traction, but it didn’t help. I was stuck. Another lekgotla ensued and it was agreed that the only way to get me out was with a winch. But our vehicles had not been equipped with a winch.
Fortunately, a gentleman came along with his fully kitted Defender and assisted us in a jiffy. At last we were on our way again, but as the weather worsened, we increased our following distances. It was 15:30. The South African border would be closing shortly.
Suddenly my vehicle began to slide unexpectedly. I gently applied the accelerator and counter-steered at the same time. As I looked up into the rear-view mirror, I saw the Range Rover approaching at a deadly pace.
It was also sliding. Before I could react, the Rangy struck my right rear fender, causing the Discovery to slither sideways. The sheer size of the Range Rover added to its momentum and it collided into me again – hitting the Discovery on the right front door. We were now blocking the road completely.
For a few moments there was silence. I’m sure everyone was praying! Then the screaming and cries followed. The children were petrified – our wives were shaken. I could not get out of my vehicle since the Range Rover was resting against the driver’s side door. Rose, frozen with fear, was unable to move. I was trapped.
Nhlanhla made an attempt to reverse, but the ice caused the vehicle to slide sideways. I couldn’t reverse or go forward.
A few men who were driving some way behind us were alerted by the screams of the children. In a scrum-like manoeuvre, they pushed us back onto the road, facing in the right direction.
As our convoy proceeded, I tried to reassure my family that all was going to be okay. My words of comfort were hardly out than we were sliding again. At the same moment a taxi, travelling up the pass, lost traction a short distance from us. The road was now blocked completely. It was clear that we were stuck in Lesotho for the night.
Eish, sisenkingeni (here comes trouble)! We decided to abandon our vehicles and hike back into Lesotho. The South African border post was much farther away. It was now minus four degrees.
We gathered all we could carry. The Pep blankets, which were purchased in Underberg, got first prize.
As we shongololoed up the pass, we encountered seven abandoned vehicles. The owners had obviously been wise enough to leave them earlier, after witnessing our ordeal from higher up the pass.
The hike took almost an hour. We met total strangers along the way, in a similar predicament. While some families argued among themselves, trying to shift the blame for their fate, some walked along silently.
One man I struck up a conversation with said that despite all the people he knew on the trip, he had never felt such loneliness as he walked up the pass. We soon realised this was a life and death situation.
When the Lesotho border post came into view, a sense of hope filled the air. Each weary traveller had to explain their dilemma to the border officials, who were kept warm by the fire in the room they occupied.
We soon made our way to the highest pub in Africa. From afar we must have resembled a scene from Happy Feet, when the penguins walked in single file on their long journey to the sea, facing the same elements as we did!
The only difference was that we were not happy.
We could hear the generator in the distance. The lit-up buildings resembled a deserted science research centre somewhere in the Arctic Circle.
Relieved and emotional, we embraced each other as we reached the pub. As we entered, we did a quick roll call. The numbers balanced out.
To our surprise, Tommy and Chris, our friends from Gauteng, were in the pub too. Chris told us how his Defender slid and collided with an Isuzu. The right front side shaft had snapped, so they didn’t want to take any chances. Tommy and his family simply abandoned their Jeep along the pass when it became too difficult to drive.
Fellow adventures went into survival mode. While some people were accommodated in the pub area, we were housed in the television room. The friendly staff lit the fireplace and provided us with soup and bread – and mattresses. We huddled around the fire. Wet socks and gloves were removed and placed near the fire, together with an array of different coloured shoes and boots.
Firewood soon became more valuable than gold. It was going to be a long night. The three men manned the fire. We could not sleep. Our conversations ranged from politics, finance and engineering to family and sport.
At long last the dawn broke. I grabbed my camera and rushed outside to capture the miracle of a new day. I was not alone. Fellow photographers resembled paparazzi in training as we captured the first rays of the sun against the freshly fallen snow. In some places the snow was knee-deep.
After a great indaba, we decided that the men should start walking down the pass. The wives and children would follow later. Our intention was to recover our vehicles and get the cabins warm for our families.
We thanked the kind staff and were on our way. When we passed through the border, the officials handed us a bag of rough salt for the frozen road. We met other travellers who were on foot as well.
We were all equally anxious to inspect our vehicles and examine the road conditions… and the damage.
Chris’s Defender was the first vehicle in sight. It was still covered in snow. We huddled around as Chris inspected the various fluid levels. However, the vehicle would not start. We decided to return to the Defender once we knew the status of the other vehicles.
We passed a Discovery 2, Defender, a Land Cruiser, a Fortuner, an Isuzu, a Tucson, a Discovery 4 and a Pajero (which had a flat battery).
The Range Rover started at the first turn, bringing a smug grin from Nhlanhla. After a few turns, my Disco started as well. It was minus 5 degrees C.
Soon afterwards, our wives and kids caught up with us. Rose and Jaz, my 10-year-old son, decided to walk all the way to the South African border.
The taxi blocking us got going and moved to the side. A grader eventually arrived. Work on the road started immediately and layers of ice and snow were scraped away. As we prepared to proceed, vehicles suddenly appeared – all with the intention of driving up the pass! We passed more than 120 vehicles along the pass. Some people built snowmen, others had their skottel braais out and others just stared at our dinged up gold Discovery. Ashley and I began betting on which of the onlookers would stare the longest.
Some drivers were wise enough to turn back as the queue lengthened at every corner, while others argued about “the law of the pass”.
At 14:00 we reached the South African border post, where Rose and Jaz were waiting for us.
As we drove home, we began planning our next trip. East Africa was top of the list – maybe Tanzania, a visit to Lake Tanganyika. Mmm. We’d survived this, so a new adventure would be awesome.
Looking back, the weekend was a priceless experience for all of those who had been stuck in the Mountain Kingdom. We were given a small reminder of how harsh the elements can be. The ordeal strengthened my bond with my family and our group of friends is now even tighter than before.
If nothing else, this adventure taught us that when life throws snow at you, you learn to flow with the flakes.
*Noel Stapelfeldt is a panel beater by trade and an independent motor insurance assessor who hails from a teaching background. He and Rose operate Impilo4x4 Driver Training in KwaZulu-Natal.