What do you get when you take 10 historic Series 1 Land Rovers aged 60 or more, add them to a bunch of crazy characters, and mix in some of the hardest terrain and worst weather Mother Nature can throw at you? An adventure: that’s what.
On a recent visit to Lesotho, we dreamed up a crazy idea to take some old Land Rover Series 1s on a Mountain Kingdom Adventure. First introduced in 1948 by the Rover Company in Britain, a number of these tough little 4×4s are still in operation around the world.
Filled with enthusiasm, we put the word out and six weeks later, 10 historic Series 1 Land Rovers, full of character and aged 60 or more, sporting colourful nicknames: Gogo, Gunga Din, Sir Gerry, Sir Mount, Sir Bhejane, Jenny, Madumbi, Frikkie, Old Blue and Huff n Puff met up at Splashy Fen, below the towering Izintaba uKhahlamba, the mighty Drakensberg mountains. The expedition’s objective was to pay tribute to the end of the Defender range by taking these old Landies, which date back to the birth of the brand, up the historic, but soon-to-be-tarred Sani Pass, and beyond through the rough Maluti Mountain Kingdom, said to have one of the highest average altitudes of any country in the world.
In 1950, Alwyn Bisschoff responded to a call for a volunteer to serve as an agricultural officer in what was then Basotholand, a British protectorate. He was presented with the opportunity to test a Land Rover Series 1 at altitude with the added invitation to, ‘see if he could break it’. Sani Pass at that time was still the preserve of mule trains and their minders and his was the first Land Rover to conquer the high-altitude Sani Pass. Here we were, about to relive those early days. It was a wonderful sight and sound as we headed off, one behind the other, in first and second gear, the roar of the engines in low ratio echoing off the sheer rock faces as the Series 1s growled up to the start of Sani Pass. Thump! Down came the immigration stamps and we were out of South Africa. The thick mist closed in and for our ‘old girls’, it got really difficult and dangerous on the high gradient bends near the summit.
All the old Landies made it to the top and the Basotho customs officials delighted in posing for photos with our colourful old 4×4 grannies of yesteryear. But this was only the beginning: ahead of us lay the even higher passes of the Malutis. We camped in the freezing moonlight and after a quick breakfast of porridge oats with peanut butter and honey, and a wake-me-up enamel mug of renoster koffie, we were off again. The endless vistas across the ‘Roof of Africa’ are breathtaking and with them come an unimaginable sense of freedom. Many of the Basotho villages can only be reached on foot or on horseback and Lesotho’s mountain topography certainly earns it the title of Africa’s Kingdom in the Sky; it is the only country in the world to be entirely above 1 000 metres in elevation.
Day after day, our convoy grinded and roared like little matchbox toys against the seemingly endless rugged ranges of the Malutis. Basotho horsemen dressed in gumboots and woven conical hats and village people wearing colourful traditional blankets called seanamerena (each design has its own meaning) stop to stare in amazement at our motley, dust-covered bunch. I was amazed that these resilient collectors’ items are, despite their vintage, still able to climb 3 000-metre mountain passes, boulder-hop across rocky rivers, and fire up at the first turn of the ignition in cold weather. However, it was no walk in the park, we certainly had our share of challenges and running repairs were the order of the day. Luckily, these very simply designed vehicles proved easy to fix, thanks to the great camaraderie and collective technical knowledge of the expedition team, who know every squeak and movement of their elderly iron horses, and were always quick to muck-in if one of the Landies had a senior moment.
At the old causeway across the Senqu River, we heard frantic calls for help. Basotho cattle herders were struggling to extricate a cow stuck in sinking mud, barely able to breathe. Dave Visagie and Ross Holgate waded in to help and, using the winches from Jenny and Frikkie, together with lots of shouted advice and encouragement, we shoved, pushed and hauled the cow to safety. She got up, shook the mud off and wandered off, as if nothing had happened. Ross and Dave then helped each other out of the muck, emerging like crazed beasts covered head to toe in goo. Feeling the pace, we drove into the night and icy rain, hoping to reach a plateau in the highest part of the Maluti Mountains. Then we got some bad news: the only bridge ahead on our circuitous route had been washed away in a recent flood: no way across. We pitched the tents and threw out our bedrolls in a kindly villager’s half-ploughed field and soon a blazing fire was beating off the cold and drizzle, the kettle was boiling and campfire stories prevailed.
We laughed our heads off as each expedition member, sitting on a camp chair with a battered enamel plate as an imaginary Series 1 steering wheel and a knobbed stick for the gear lever, with much ‘pumping’ of brakes and ‘double declutching’ – complete with sounds effects – went through the hilarious motions of what it’s like to drive these old girls across some of the most challenging terrain in Africa. Early the next morning, we discovered a challenging alternative 4×4 track, which really put the old Series 1s to the test, as we made our way slowly up in first gear, low ratio. As if that wasn’t tough enough, the heavens opened: most of the Landies are open-sided and it was freezing. The rain beat down and it was difficult to see as the Landies descended the treacherous gradients, there was the constant smell of smoking brakes, and the ancient windscreen wipers battled to cope as we passed southern Africa’s highest peak, the 3 482-metre Thabana Ntlenyana.
On the last day of our crazy Mountain Kingdom Adventure, we woke to bright sunshine and the views across KwaZulu-Natal from the top of the Sani Pass were clear and endless. It was a beautiful ending to this historic Series 1 journey as in low gear, we retraced our steps and descended the steep, winding pass back to the village of Himeville and home. Every Series 1 Landy made it: what an adventure.