SOUTHERN LESOTHO MARCH 2016 – THE LAND OF THE SILHOUETTE PEOPLE
7:30 am at the Hilton Rotunda saw the gathering and departure of a convoy of 5 vehicles, to Matatiele our first stop. Sgt Major Steve patrolled the ranks encouraging us to check our radios before leaving ! This first leg was an easy non-eventful ride with the usual banter on the radios. At Swartberg we took the short-cut dirt road to Matat, where we made radio contact with and were joined by the Suzuki Vitara driven by Carol and the venerable vintage Landrover, from Bishopstowe owned by Johan and Jean. Everyone was in high spirits when we refuelled and purchased last minute requirements. With the weather fine, we set off towards the Ongeluksnek Border Control post along a dirt road not far outside of Matatiele. Immediately noticeable was the colourful cosmos on either side of the road and numerous beautiful old sandstone homesteads from a bygone era. At one stage Carol appeared to be losing a piece of her Suzuki, which required some leopard crawling to retrieve it from under the vehicle!
In a short while we reached the border control post in the Southern Maluti mountains. We were pleasantly surprised and impressed at the cleanliness and efficiency which we experienced there. We were directed to proceed through two large gates, beyond which no clear road was visible.
However our fearless leader Ronnie proceeded on and in a short while we picked up the Ongeluksnek Pass track. We were particularly struck by the luminous green colour of the surrounding grasslands reaching up the flanks of the mountains.
The track quickly steepened and deteriorated to a grade 3 off-road situation. Low range was selected and those who needed lock hubs, did so. Although the going was slow, consisting of crossing numerous deep ruts and steep sections, we all proceeded successfully to the top of the pass, with a few stops along the way to admire the views.
On reaching the top we were greeted by a broad, expansive catchment area covered in short green grass with numerous flocks of sheep and angora goats. We noticed the first few Basutho shepherds in their traditional blankets and got to see their small sandstone shelters and kraals which protect them from the sometimes harsh elements. We then stopped for a short late lunch-break on the grassy banks of a man-made reservoir, in an area called Maphooaneng. Vehicles were checked and adjustments carried out as necessary and once completed we headed on and down into the river valley, following the Quithing River. Some members of the party who were dithering a tad, were almost left behind. It took a while to realise that we were in fact participating in the Roof of Africa Rally and luckily the ever patient Heather and Richard, were able sweepers and brought the stragglers into line! With the sun sliding towards the mountain tops we needed to find a suitable camping spot for the night.
After proceeding through numerous villages, thanks to our intrepid map readers Gary and Ronnie, assisted by Steve we came upon a sheltered area on the banks of the river. Tents were set up, a fire was lit and we all relaxed into the evening, enjoying the sound of the river nearby. Unusual for this part of the world, the weather was mild and dry. Looking up at the towering mountains surrounding us we noticed the presence of the silhouette people, outlined against the evening sky, the young shepherds gazing down on us inquisitively. A good start to our trip.
Refreshed after a good sleep, we were all up early on Sunday, packed and ready for the next leg. Before departing, the Landie required some clutch fluid and after a small tussle with a steep bank, we got back onto the road and continued in convoy. One of the Hiluxes appeared to be leaking ATF fluid from the power steering unit and it was decided to continue to Mount Moorosi to source some fluid and to refuel. Luckily despite it being Sunday, Ronnie and Gary managed to procure a few bottles of fluid and we were able to top off our fuel tanks. The intention for the day was to route towards Qachas Nek and then on to the bottom of the Matebeng Pass where we would camp for the night before tackling the pass the following day. On leaving Mount Moorosi, our convoy drove along the Senqu River towards Mphaki.
We started climbing out of the river valley, crossing numerous rivers and enjoyed amazing views across Southern Lesotho looking back towards the West. It was evident in this area that much road building was underway with lots of bridge construction and road repair visible.
The convoy climbed continuously to the top of the Khamokha escarpment and we were now on a fairly good tar road (thanks to the Chinese) and were able to admire colourful swaths of cosmos in bloom in the fields.
It was apparent that many of the locals were off to church as most people greeted us in their Sunday best. It was pleasing to experience the spontaneous friendliness of the local people. The children characteristically were excited to see and ever hopeful for sweetie handouts – which is something that is generally discouraged. Listening to radio comms it was apparent that the Landie was starting to experience serious clutch issues and it was decided to continue to Qachas Nek, to hopefully obtain a spare slave-cylinder kit. After receiving some directions from the locals, we located an open road-side spares outlet and Darryl was able to match a Toyota slave-cylinder seal with that of the Landrover. Optimistically we then set off for Matebeng Pass, however this was short-lived as the mechanical problem persisted. A last-ditch attempt was made to rectify the problem before Johan took the decision to return home via Qachas Nek, due to the rough terrain ahead.
With Ronnie and Gary still topping up the Hilux’s power steering fluid at regular intervals, we set off towards the Mathebeng Pass, hoping to reach Phillip’s camp, at the base of the pass, before nightfall. Back on dirt road, we were still travelling parallel to the Senqu river way down in the valley. At this stage the sun was starting to set and we were delighted to see the well shaded, lovely camp site ahead and below us. Phillip’s camp consists of a large, flat, well-shaded and grassed area right on the banks of the Matebeng river. We once again enjoyed mild, even warm weather, with no wind and some of us revelled in a refreshing bath in the fast-flowing river. The campsite is secure and equipped with a clean, long-drop toilet which the ladies enjoyed. After setting up camp, a fire was quickly lit and a pleasant social evening was enjoyed by all as we ate supper and chatted.
The morning brought another perfect day and after breakfast, Darryl assisted some locals who brought a broken generator for him to repair. We were also fortunate to locate some high pressure hose from someone’s toolbox and so were able to properly repair the Hilux’s leaky steering.
We then set off up the Matebeng Pass – headed for Ramatseliso’s Gate. The track rapidly deteriorated to grade 3 with numerous rocks and eroded channels on the road. We passed many quaint, remote villages that had been built out of the natural stone.
The countryside became more and more spectacular as the road wound its way, with many switchbacks, to the escarpment. We paused for a viewstop at the summit, before continuing down the Eastern side of the escarpment descending towards Sehlabathebe.
Here we saw a number of locals collecting the abundantly available short, coarse bushes which they use for firewood and heating. We also passed a stone-mason’s site and could see how they shape sandstone into building blocks, which seems to be a dying art. At the base of the Matebeng Pass we stopped for lunch. Some less fortunate people, were made to cook bacon and eggs !
With our tummies full, Ronnie lead us down the bank, through the river and onwards to Ramatseliso’s Gate where border control formalities were concluded without incident.
After getting back into SA we followed a short-cut to the Swartberg road. This turned out to be a rough, slow trip but we finally reached the Swartberg / Underberg road. Here we bade farewell to Carol, and with rain-threatening we continued on the final leg towards Underberg and on to Pietermaritzburg. Mention must be made of the encouragement and support offered by Ronnie and others to Carol, who travelled alone, and excelled at handling the sometimes challenging conditions, and also thanks and appreciation to Ronnie, Gary, Steve and Richard for their valuable input and care throughout the journey !!