Heine's Ramblings and Rumblings

Koos’ Baboon’s Pass Trip Report

Baboons Pass Lesotho – Trip from Hell!!

20 to 23 March 2003

What follows below is a personal travel diary of tackling Baboons Pass in

Lesotho with Grizelda, my long suffering 1979 blue Land Cruiser FJ43. It was

done part of a group organized by Michel Zimmerman over the long weekend of

20 to 23 March 2003. If you do nothing else, please page down to the Lessons

Learnt paragraph at the bottom and it would not all have been in vain.

Preparations.

Since going to Lesotho for the first time many years ago, I have been

enthralled with the place. So much opportunity for serious 4×4’ing and so

much natural beauty that it is truly a Mecca for 4×4 enthusiasts keen on

it’s particular call. And since I seconded for motorcycle friends taking

part in the Roof of Africa race many years ago when I first heard about the

perils of Letele Pass, I have always wanted to conquer it in my 4×4. Then I

came across an article published by Michel Zimmerman that outlined how they

had done it and I was hooked, I simply had to do it. So we set up a trip two

years ago to try, but sadly we rained out completely. We could not even

reach the foot of the pass due to flooded rivers, so we took an easy trip

around Lesotho for the scenery, came home and I strengthened my resolve, it

simply had to be done!

Enter Michel left stage. I phoned him in the latter half of 2002 and

suggested that I join one of his regular trips to the badlands of Lesotho,

preferably Letele Pass. However, he was only planning a trip there late in

2003, but I could join them on the next scheduled trip to Baboons Pass if I

wanted. The date was set for the long weekend in March 2003, I committed and

that was how it began.

The first order of business for me was to find a suitable person to join me

on this trip. In the end, my old friend At Davel, adrenalin junky of note,

agreed to fill the co-driver’s seat. This single act of brilliantly clear

thinking on my part would eventually prove to be the smartest thing I did

during the whole endeavour. At is dedicated, fit, loves a challenge, is

totally organized, and has what we Afrikaans people call “vasbyt”, loosely

translated as perseverance. I promptly put him in charge of all our

sustenance for the trip, which turned out to be the second smartest thing I

did! He packed absolutely everything we needed into one big steel trunk that

we simply strapped on top of the spare wheel in the back of Grizelda. But I

digress.

As far as my part of preparations for the trip is concerned, let me tell you

that I raced Grizelda in a 4×4 Challenge the previous weekend, rolled the

old girl onto her side in the first obstacle, shattered the rear diff spider

gears in the 6th obstacle and fixed that, drove back home on Sunday and

licked my wounds, took a Dutch friend out to supper on Monday night and was

helped by my friend Hagen that joined me on the original aborted Letele trip

on Tuesday night to fit a Lock Right to the rear axle. Wednesday morning I

received a call from a very worried At that asked me if I had been watching

the weather lately? After some frantic searching on the internet, we

ascertained that much rain was scheduled for Lesotho for the coming days. I

called Michel in a panic because scenes from our first aborted Letele trip

popped into my head, but he calmly assured me that the whole group was still

committed to go and in any case, there was no river to cross and also, they

had already done it in the rain before. I actually believed him and made the

decision to go, regardless of my personal reservations. I rounded off my

preparations by going out to supper with some Swedish colleagues on

Wednesday night and only got home just before 12 o’clock.

The first day – Getting there.

On Thursday morning I got up at 06h30, packed my stuff, hooked Grizelda up

to the back of my Land Cruiser FJ80 station wagon and set off for Lesotho at

08h30. On the way there I realized that I had forgotten socks and

underpants, so I bought these in Bethlehem (yes, there is such a place in

SA) and met At in Clarens at 12h30. We enjoyed a quick lunch, packed all his

stuff into my Cruiser and set off for the border post at Peka Bridge. There

we met Michel and his beloved Gelandewagen called Mufetta, as well as some

other members of the party. During the whole course of the day we had been

driving in and out of rain, so my anxiety levels were quite high.

>From Peka we followed Michel in a leisurely fashion in convoy all the way to

Ashley Thorn’s place at Roma, just east of the capital Maseru. There we

stopped and settled in for the night, some camping, some taking the easy way

out and staying in Ashley’s ample chalets. At and I took the easy way out

and settled into our chalet, got Grizelda ready for the next day’s

activities and set off for the bar. The rest of the group joined us in drips

and drabs, and we all had a great supper and drinks till it was bedtime. It

was still raining on and off during the night, making me wonder what had

possessed me to undertake this trip in an open vehicle!

The group that gathered consisted of the following:

Group leader Michel & Verena Zimmerman in their much modified Gelandewagen

GD240 Mufetta with standard front and rear diff locks.

Koos Zietsman and At Davel in my much modified Land Cruiser FJ43 called

Grizelda with newly fitted Lock Right in the rear.

Niel Nielson in his immaculate Hilux 2,4 diesel with front and rear ARB

lockers.

Heine & Michele de Villiers in their 2,8i BMW Land Rover 110 with rear ARB

locker.

Barry and long suffering wife Hanna Beecher in their Land Rover 110 diesel

with no diff locks.

Graham and his wife Tanya Wild in their Land Rover 90 Tdi with no diff

locks.

Paul Gosselin in his Land Rover 110 V8 with ARB lockers front and rear.

Dirk Wentzel in his very stock Gelandewagen 300GD LWB with small 225/70 R16

tyres (needed due to serious lack of power) and standard diff locks front

and rear.

The group was rounded out by the addition of Ashley Thorn, the local trade

post owner in Roma who accompanied us as a passenger, interpreter, guide and

general rock packer of note.

The second day – Getting it up into the Mountain.

On Friday morning we got up at 06h00 amidst persistant bouts of rain. We

packed the trunk with all our rations in Grizelda, found a place in Dirk’s

car for our ruck sacks packed with clothes and sleeping bags, joined the

others for breakfast and were ready to set off on time at 07h00. It was a

cold morning and the air was crisp in Grizelda, helped in no small way by

the occasional light rain that fell in places. We traveled south for just

over an hour past a town called Ramabantha where the bottom of Baboons pass

splits off from the main road. My fears of experiencing a repeat of the

Letele washout were immediately re-awakened when a washed away bridge just

off the main road and the river absolutely raging past met us. I was really

desperate to see if a crossing was possible, so I stripped down to gumboots

and underpants and got into the raging water. It seemed OK for most of the

way, never reaching up to my knees, but it was flowing very fast and I came

across a piece that was simply too treacherously narrow to seriously

contemplate taking a convoy across for a fun weekend. So we had a quick

discussion and it was decided to rather tackle the pass from the top and

work our way down. As we had put two days aside for completing the pass, the

idea was that we would travel down as far as prudent on the first day, pitch

camp and then, depending on the weather, decide whether to chance crossing a

subsiding river or simply backtracking up the pass again and back to warm

beds in Roma.

After another half hour in convoy on the winding road to Semonkong, we

turned off onto the Baboons pass top road and the real fun began. Because

Grizelda is so much a competition vehicle (she has been steadily modified

for this very purpose over the last 3 years), it was decided that we would

be the hare to Michell’s tortoise. I was absolutely ecstatic because I had

really waited long for this adventure, so At and I set of with pace. After

waiting for the others at one or two of the more difficult sections, it

became clear that there was a fundamental difference between the way the

group was behaving and the way we were tackling things. To me it was a case

of honour not to pack rocks and take the pass as it was, to the others it

was more a case of getting the group through safely, so lots of rock work

was involved. In any case, we also helped packing rocks for the others once

we had passed, so it was not like we were shirking our group duties. Things

were progressing slowly but surely and we all had a bite to eat at 1

o’clock, about an hour after crossing over the high point of the pass.

At about 2 o’clock we passed our intended camp site for the night, all

scraped past Goliath, a mammoth rock that blocks most of the treacherous

road and takes some serious navigation to get past. Just past Goliath there

is a last dash up the hill to the crest into the next valley where we all

stopped for a breather. Because of on and off rain during the whole day that

made the route into a queasy river and even more difficult than usual, it

was decided that we would travel down the valley for about an hour, then

turn around and pitch camp ready for the back tracking trip the next day out

of the pass. However, things turned nasty real quickly on the way down. We

were leading the others in Grizelda by some distance when it became patently

clear that some of the vehicles in the group would simply not be able to

follow us down, let alone backtrack up the hill again afterwards. A decision

was taken to laugh it off and the whole convoy had to turn around more or

less where they were and return to the campsite.

Upon reaching the others, Graham told me that Ashley had spoken to the local

mountain sheep herders and heard that the previous group that had passed

through had used a slightly different route to us and would I be interested

to try it? Well, there was daylight left, there was adventure to be had and

I would never say no to that. Graham asked if he could join us on the

vehicle and there went the three of us down the hill. Turning off the road

was treacherous, but then things evened out and we were able to follow the

previous trail. At one point At jumped out to direct me over a difficult

patch, but we got stuck anyway. I tried to go forward and back, all to no

avail. Closer inspection proved that the rear leave spring was seriously

parked on top of a flat rock with that wheel uselessly hanging in the air. I

got back in Grizelda and tried something that had borne good results for me

in past Challenges, I revved the engine up a bit and dropped the clutch in

an effort to dislodge the old girl. Grizelda is not a refined and quiet

vehicle, but the loud bang that came from under the vehicle when I did this

spelled serious trouble. I stopped and gingerly let out the clutch again,

watching if the wheels were turning. None did, not this side, not that side,

nowhere were any wheels turning! I made sure the old girl was still in gear

with the same result, the wheels refused to turn!

Our first diagnosis was that maybe the transfer case had jumped into neutral

or one of the selector levers had come loose. After a thorough inspection,

this theory was disproved. What the hell now? The transfer case on this

model Cruiser has a lid on the side where a power take-off can be mounted,

so we removed that and I peered inside. What I saw sent a shiver down my

back that felt like someone had thrust a shard of ragged ice through my

spine, wreaking total havoc on my nervous system and turning the saliva in

my mouth into instant chalk dust. I saw that the intermediate gear that

passes torque from the gearbox down the transfer case was completely void of

teeth! Only short ragged little steel ridges stood testimony to the once

proud gear teeth that powered the beast. Even now while writing this, I can

still feel that follow feeling of utter despair that came over me then. Here

we were in the furthest, virtually most difficult to reach spot in the whole

of Lesotho without any motive power. Towing the old girl out with one of the

other vehicles was simply and absolutely not possible, and leaving the old

girl unattended to fetch a replacement back in remote South Africa would

surely only mean that we would arrive back only to find that crucial parts

had been stripped off by local chop shop agents. Even in the remotest part

of Lesotho people travel by foot and pony faster than a Western mind can

comprehend, and in such a poor country, any vehicle spares of value will be

liberated sooner rather than later. It was very apparent that we had to fix

Grizelda right there and that it had to be done very quickly or the old girl

would be lost forever!

Fortunately, Graham proved to be a solid fellow and came down the path with

his Landy, we loaded all our loose stuff into his vehicle and then he pulled

Grizelda off the rock and onto a more or less level piece of ground with his

winch. Michel also proved a great leader and waited patiently back on the

main route in case Graham could not manage the last couple of meters on his

own, and so it happened! Furious winching, snatch strapping, high lift

jacking, rock packing and winching again followed before we eventually got

Graham’s vehicle back on the main path. From there it was still heavy going

before we eventually got back to the intended campsite (a stretch of

reasonably level path) where the others had already set up camp.

By now it was getting dark very fast and At and I pitched his small tent

that was being blown about by the sharp mountain wind right there in the wet

road. No peg could be forced into the rocky ground, so we packed rocks all

around and tied the flimsy little contraption down to that as best we could.

We had just finished this job when the heavens opened up and the usually

soft intermittent rain changed into a deluge. We were soaked to the bone,

huddling under the awning of Barry’s Landy while the little life that the

braai fire had gathered was fiercely beaten out of it by the downpour. The

heavy rain carried on for some time and served to further deepen the gloom

that was hanging over me.

My mind was working furiously to come up with a recovery plan, but

everything seemed totally hopeless. Then I remembered that I had seen a

decrepit old stripped Land Cruiser in Ashley’s yard back in Roma the

previous day. I cowered from awning to awning (believe me, these guys we

traveled with were kitted to the gills!) until I found Ashley having a much

needed drink away from the rain. We talked about it and he was reasonably

sure that the transfer case was still in the wreck, and I was welcome to

fetch it if it could be of any use. We talked about model years because

Toyota changed gearboxes and transfer cases in the FJ45 at some stage, and

the faintest glimmer of hope sprang up in me. Just maybe….. Also, Ashley

told us that he had spoken to the local sheep herders while we were

recovering Graham’s vehicle and instructed them to guard my precious

Grizelda while we were away. Even if this was not a sure fire thing, it did

help a bit to calm the fears of returning to a stripped Grizelda.

That night is one of those that I will never forget in my entire life. Wind,

rain and despair engulfed me and neither At nor I had any measure of sleep

throughout the night. Fortunately, the job we did in tying down the tent

proved sufficient and the tent also proved to be quite water tight, so not

everything was a disaster, it just felt like it. What would the new day

bring?

The third day – Making a plan.

Saturday in the mountains dawned misty and cold but at least no rain was

falling. There was a definite measure of lethargy in getting up and we only

stirred at 7 o’clock, bone tired and feeling very sorry for ourselves. This

feeling was not lightened at all when we had to don our wet clothes and

boots from the previous day! Slowly the rest of the camp woke up and we

eventually got going just after eight. My friend At found a place in Niel’s

Hilux while I managed to squeeze into a front seat dominated by a plethora

of two way radios in Paul’s Landy.

Because of all the road building we had done the previous day, we made very

good progress and were out of the worst of it by about 11 o’clock. On the

way out we found two guys, one with a Landy and one with a Hilux planning to

go down. This was making everything even more complicated for me, because if

they got in our way when we did find Ashley’s old transfer case suitable and

returned later that day, there might just be no way of getting past them.

This added more fuel to the angst that was raging inside me.

Once we hit the main road, the group decided that they wanted to do some

more 4×4 stuff, but fortunately Dirk had a suspect front CV joint so he

agreed to take At and I back to Roma. We packed all our stuff in his willing

Gelandewagen, and said our good byes. Michel’s wife Verena gave me a parting

hug that was so filled with compassion that it brought a lump to my throat!

We left the group and slowly winded our way back and arrived at Roma at just

before 1 o’clock to find that, not only was the transfer case still in the

wreck, but it looked like it was the right model as well! Unfortunately, the

axles had been removed some years previously, so the whole wreck was lying

on it’s chassis in tall grass and there was no way of getting to the

transfer case. This problem was quickly solved by Dirk and we simply threw

my Land Cruiser station wagon’s winch cable over the roll cage, tied it to

the rusted chassis and rolled the wreck on its side with the aid of the

winch. We propped the whole lot up with an old axle tube that was lying

around and Dirk and I started working furiously to remove the transfer case

while At busied himself with re-packing our stuff for the new circumstances.

It did not take long for Dirk and I to come up against a very aggravating

reality of Cruiser design. You don’t simply strip the transfer case off the

gearbox, no sirree! There are bolts fastening the front casing of the

transfer case to the gearbox that can only be reached if the transfer case

is split into two! What were we to do but simply strip the whole thing into

parts, take the gears out, strip the casing from the gearbox, pack the whole

lot into an ammo case, lower the wreck back onto it’s resting place in the

tall grass, load all our stuff into the Cruiser and At and I hit the road

again. We had only gone about a kilometer when I realized that we had

forgotten to get oil! It was now past two on a Saturday afternoon so

everything was closed! I drove back to Ashley’s place, found his lovely wife

Jennifer and asked her if she could possibly help. She duly unlocked the

trading post for me and I helped myself to the golden fluid, paid her and we

were off again! Hope was flickering in our tortured souls, but a lot of ifs

still stood in our path.

We made good going on the winding mountain roads and got to the turnoff

around half past four. We deflated the tyres a bit, selected low range and

off we went. Apprehension about the two guys we had met going down earlier

was gnawing at me, but there was nothing for it but to press on. One thing

that I had not bargained on gave me quite a scare early on, and that is that

your standard Land Cruiser is a bit wider than the other vehicles that we

had been traveling in. I gave the front bull bar a nasty knock on the left

hand side going through the first tight bit. After that we were more careful

and it didn’t happen again. We stopped at the top of the really rocky

section of the pass just above the switch back for a breather and were

greeted by a truly beautiful sight. The two guys we were worried about were

making the last yards back up the trail and within minutes were standing

talking to us about their ordeal. We nodded sagely, said our good-byes and

set of again.

We tried to be careful without wasting time and finally got to the previous

night’s campsite as dusk fell over the mountains. We had some time to marvel

at the beautiful sunset, made fire with the charcoal we had brought along,

dragged out our camping chairs and sat around the fire in the crisp mountain

air. After one or two beers At conjured up a bottle of Cabernet red wine

which I promptly uncorked, pouring generous helpings for each of us. We sat

around the little fire talking about our prospects for the next day for a

while till there was no more wine, then we got into the front of my Cruiser,

let the seats down, got into our sleeping bags and fell into a well deserved

but fitful sleep.

The final day – Getting it back.

Sleeping in the front seat of my Cruiser that night, I had the best sleep in

days and woke at 6 o’clock feeling refreshed and ready for the day’s

activities. We got up, made a nice pot of fresh coffee, had a snack to eat

(neither of us had eaten anything of note for the last couple of days) and

packed two kitbags with all the tools, oil, food and water we thought we

might need for the day. We locked the car with apprehension, grabbed the

ammo box filled with the transfer case, one on each side and set off up the

mountain. From where we parked the Cruiser, it was a good 500 meters to the

top of the mountain, and then another 500 meters down the other side to

where Grizelda stood. That bloody ammo crate was heavy, so we took it in

short little distances till our lungs were screaming for air and our hands

could hold on no more. Then we would put it down, change sides and wait for

our rasping breaths to return to some sort of normality. Then on and up

again.

When we got to the top of the mountain, the herders that had been guarding

Grizelda met us, grabbed the ammo case and set of like mountain goats. At

and I had trouble keeping up with them and it was absolutely amazing to see

how fit, strong and sure-footed these guys were. In short shrift we arrived

at Grizelda and did a quick inspection to see if all was well but my worst

fears were immediately realized when we found that the battery had been

stolen! The herders looked just as surprised as we were, but this did not

help us in the least, we had to make a plan. Fortunately, my Cruiser is

equipped with a dual battery system, so it fell on At to go back over the

mountain and fetch the spare battery. He set off with the necessary tools

and two of the herders to help carry, while I started taking out the wrecked

transfer case. We made a bed of brushes under the old girl, I drained the

precious oil out of the transfer case and the gearbox into an empty 5 liter

can we had brought along, and started removing bolts.

By the time I had done all this and taken off the rear prop shaft, At

returned with the battery. It was bigger than the stolen one, so At had to

make a plan to keep it firmly in place for the trip out. Once he had

finished, we tried to start the engine but were only met with a hollow click

from the starter solenoid! We checked for power by shorting out the poles

with a spanner and found that the battery was absolutely flat! What the hell

now? Nothing for it but At and his men set off over the mountain again to

fetch the main battery out of the Cruiser. When he returned this time he was

absolutely bushed and we prayed that he would not have to do the trip again!

I was making good progress under the old girl and soon we had transplanted

fresh gears into the old transfer case and were fastening things up again.

With the new battery in place we soon heard the beautiful sound of

Grizelda’s engine roaring back into life. A while later I had finished all

the work underneath, we packed everything as best we could and it was time

for the acid test. I started the old girl, selected the right gear and we

were mobile again! I turned the car around and we headed back up the

mountain to the part where Graham had had so much trouble getting out two

days ago. The first attempt was unsuccessful, but At had a plan and directed

me onto a slightly different trajectory for the second try. We had no winch

on Grizelda and nobody to snatch us, so it was crucial to make this work. I

took a second stab at it with more gusto than the first time and bounced it

over the rocks and into the main path!

We drove back over the ridge to where my Cruiser was parked without any

battery and maneuvered Grizelda into the bushes off the road. We took out

the battery, put it in the Cruiser, fitted the dead battery to Grizelda,

maneuvered the Cruiser into a suitable position and jump started Grizelda.

We made sure she was charging properly, then we took out the stove and

started brewing coffee. After we had had a mug full of delicious coffee with

Grizelda still charging in the background, I checked the condition of

Grizelda’s battery and found that it was now strong enough to start the old

girl.

The plan was now for At do drive on ahead in Grizelda and for me to follow

in the Cruiser. We thought that, if At came across any bits of road that he

felt unsafe to drive, I would first take Grizelda through and then return to

take the Cruiser through. We also thought that, if the Cruiser got stuck, we

could either tow or snatch it out with Grizelda or otherwise use the winch

on the Cruiser with Grizelda as anchor. Fortunately, At is made of stern

stuff and I only had to get into Grizelda once to get it over the nasty

switch back in the top part of the route. Once or twice we had to pack rocks

to get the Cruiser through, but in the end we made it all the way from the

campsite to the main road in just one hour!

At the main road we swapped cars ( At was very scared of Grizelda’s strange

behaviour on the road) and we set off for Roma. After an eventful trip where

each of us came very close to throwing the whole plot away on the winding

roads, we arrived at Roma, hitched Grizelda to the back of the Cruiser,

washed our hands and were off again.

The trip home was done in pouring rain, but I had my Grizelda behind me and

life was good once again. Eventually, I got home at 11 o’clock that night,

thanks to a couple of Red Bulls on the way to keep me awake. At also made it

all right back to Maritzburg, so the whole thing ended OK for both of us.

The whole thing and how close I got to losing Grizelda was still haunting

me, so I slept very fitfully that night, but by Tuesday I was feeling much

better and able to breath normally again!

I have already spoken to Michel about that long anticipated trip to tackle

Letele Pass. Next year…..

Lessons learnt

* When planning a trip into the wilderness of Africa, make sure you do it

with the best people you possibly can find! When the chips are down, you

will have to rely on them, sometimes for your life. There were a number of

people that really helped on this trip, but if I did not have At with me, I

would have lost Grizelda, and that’s for sure.

* When you are really into the wilderness and very far from recovery, do not

play silly buggers like me! The route is challenge enough, don’t go looking

for more trouble, you are sure to find it!

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