reader Adventure DAIHATSU TERIOS TACKLES LESOTHO
Readers Clive and Gill George’s 40th wedding anniversary was looming, and the couple decided to celebrate this milestone by spending some time at the Sani Top Chalets, in Lesotho, along with son Craig and his young family. But Mother Nature snowed on their party, forcing a change in plan and adding a good dollop of adventure to proceedings!
Text: Clive George
Photography: The George family
The booking at Sani Top Chalets in Lesotho was made for 20 August. We would celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary there, along with our son Craig, his wife Julie and their two-year old daughter, Amy Rose.
However, Mother Nature had a few different ideas. A massive cold front hit the KwaZulu-Natal area in the week leading up to our departure for Lesotho. Heavy snow covered the mountains, including Sani Pass – our intended point of entry to Lesotho.
Quite understandably, my wife and daughter, especially with toddler Amy Rose in mind, decided that the conditions would be too stressful, so they opted out.
But we had a paid-for reservation at Sani Top and Craig pondered whether the two of us should have a go, using an alternative route. He suggested that, instead of using the snowed-under Sani Pass, we enter Lesotho via the Ramatsiliso border post near Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. From there we would go via Matabeng Pass along the Thaba-Tseka road, and then tackle the Black Mountain Pass to finally reach Sani Top Chalets.
I was particularly keen on Craig’s suggestion. I wanted to put my Daihatsu Terios, with its all-terrain tyres but no low-range, to the test, and this sounded just the ticket. However, we decided that Craig should drive his own Mitsubishi Colt 2.8Tdi 4×4 – with a proper low-range transfer case – as “back-up vehicle”. Just in case.
Before setting off, Craig contacted Jonathan Aldous, owner of Sani Top Chalets, who lives in the hamlet of Himeville, on his views.
Jonathan said we would be mad to try reaching Sani Top via the Matabeng Pass or the Sani Pass since most of Lesotho was covered in snow and the country had effectively ground to a halt.
Craig was not ready to give up yet, so next day he phoned Roger Aldous – Jonathan’s brother – who is manager at Sani Top Chalets. Roger said conditions had improved, with the snow melting. If we travelled via the Ramatsiliso border, it should take us around 10 hours to do the 200km journey from the border to Sani Top.
We left Durban at the crack of dawn with mixed feelings and the Colt and the Terios laden with shovels, two-way radios, snatch straps, snow chains and jerry cans with fuel.
Port Shepstone, Kokstad and Matatiele followed – but in the distance the clearly snow-capped Lesotho mountains had us just a trifle worried.
Anyway, we reached the border just after 1pm, after the little Terios had managed the dirt road to this post with ease. However, at the border post it was clear that the snow was not limited to the mountain peaks – it was all over the place.
From a local farmer, who had spent the previous night stuck on the Matabeng Pass in his Toyota Hilux, we heard that the roads would be impassable “for five to ten days”. After coming all this way from Durban, it seemed as if our adventure was over before it had even really begun. Furthermore, we had planned on reaching Jonathan’s Lodge, set in the Sehlabathebe National Park, by nightfall, but this relatively short leg seemed like mission impossible.
Craig and I held a bosberaad, and decided to at least try to reach Jonathan’s Lodge, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the border post. The next day we would see about this business of the snow-covered Matabeng Pass.
We made good ground and time, with the Daihatsu bravely following the Colt’s tracks. I found that, in these rugged and rocky conditions, the Terios was only a pleasure to drive, and I could keep the engine ticking over at less than 2000r/min. I kept the centre diff lock engaged for a 50/50 power distribution between the front and rear wheels.
After about two hours of incident-free driving, possible disaster loomed – a slight climb and a corner, covered in snow. Oh dear. I can’t say I was looking forward to Craig’s contingency plan of sleeping in a tent next to the road!
Craig was nevertheless upbeat. We were only 4km from the lodge! So we proceeded to clear a two-spoor track in the snow with our shovels, all around the corner, too. The road after the corner didn’t seem as bad as it had initially appeared to be.
We put the chains on the Colt’s wheels, and Craig started up – and easily made it through. I followed in his tracks. Not too fast, and not too slow, and sticking to the compacted tracks as if the Terios was a slot car. The Terios made it too!
By 4:30pm we’d rolled into the majestic Jonathan’s Lodge. This used to be the holiday home of a former Lesotho prime minister, and has eight exquisite rooms.
We duly went for a run in the snow, followed by a braai and couple of beers. What a day!
The next morning we hit the tracks at 5.20am. We had about 200km to cover to Sani Top Chalets, and as Roger Aldous had said, it would take us about 10 hours to cover this distance.
By first light we were officially on Matabeng Pass, with the Colt leading the way and the Terios hot on its heels. Even though the snow was clearly getting thicker and more abundant, and the gradient of the pass ever steeper, we carried on without incident. But about halfway up the pass our progress was halted by a minibus taxi, stuck in the snow just before a corner.
While Craig went to see if he and the Colt could assist the taxi, a Toyota Hilux came around the corner, heading down the pass – and he too became stuck, close to the taxi. Craig then helped in extricating both vehicles.
We put the snow chains on the Colt, and continued upwards. In the tricky parts, where the snow was exceptionally thick, Craig would go through with his chains, then stop and guide me through. Slowly we made headway up the pass.
Make no mistake, this was a most stressful experience in the Terios, which had to make do without chains. It was vital to keep up a fair amount of momentum. The trick, though, was to stay in the Colt’s compacted tracks.
I managed to combine relative speed and precision driving pretty well, although there was one occasion when the Terios jumped out of the tracks, and Craig had to assist in getting the Daihatsu back, er… in track again.
The biggest revelation on this drive, though, was the difference in traction and stability the snow chains made. I should have had a set for the Terios, too.
That said, the fact that the Colt had low-range gearing, a rear differential lock, an experienced driver and the snow chains obviously helped a lot. But the experience also emphasised the ability of the little Terios that had to make do with only a centre diff lock and the addition of all-terrain rubber (the latter a vital ingredient!)
About halfway between the Matabeng and Black Mountain passes we came across a group of Land Rover enthusiasts, parked next to the track, seated in their camping chairs and taking in the spectacular landscape.
They had come from Sani Top, and the news was that the Black Mountain Pass would pose no problems. When they heard where we had come from, especially the part about the Matabeng Pass, they all looked at the Terios, well, rather sceptically.
“That’s a Bull-Terios,” I said, proudly. “Although it doesn’t have low range gearing it made the pass, assisted by good driving skills.”
We arrived at Sani Top Chalets at about 4.30pm, after 11 hours of driving. The place was covered in snow, and a howling wind was blowing. The scene was the epitome of a winter wonderland. We’d made it!
The little Daihatsu Terios Off-road, with its 255mm ground clearance but no low-range transfer case, had put in a heroic performance.
Much to the disbelief of fellow Sani Top residents, Craig and I donned our running shoes and shorts, and went for our daily run amidst the fairytale surroundings, followed by a splash-bath from a bucket – all the water pipes were frozen.
Our 4×4 success coincided with the Springboks’ Tri-Nations win over the All Blacks, and the victories (ours and that of the Boks) were duly celebrated in the Sani Top’s bar and diningroom, along with a delicious three-course, home-made meal.
It was a fitting end to a spectacular adventure.
Memories – and a few lessons
Driving skill, we reckon, was one of the main reasons we were successful in reaching Sani Top Chalets. And for this we had to thank a 4×4 training course we attended earlier in the year at John Rich’s Stoney Ridge Academy.
But above all, the success of this adventure included the enjoyment that Craig and I derived from it – the comradeship in good and trying times in the magnificent kingdom of Lesotho.
However, if we ever had to undertake a trip like this again, I would most certainly invest in a set of snow chains for the Terios.
Further, to fellow adventurers who may be thinking of taking that route, a few notes:
Do a proper 4×4 course beforehand. It helps a lot! When travelling in Lesotho, you can effectively double the time you would normally take to travel a certain distance. In Lesotho, taking four hours to cover 35km is not an exception.
All terrain tyres are an absolute must.