Larger-than-life explorer Kingsley Holgate leads a convoy of Series Is up the soon-to-be-tarred Sani Pass and into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
It’s a cold and wet January day in the UK. I’m sitting in our Northamptonshire offices, typing away at a feature, a deadline looms but I just about feel in control. The postman throws a formal-looking envelope onto my desk. It looks like something from the taxman and so I let it lie for an hour or two before curiosity gets the better of me. Inside is a hand-scribbled bush note.
It reads: “Dear Friend in Adventure – Here with a personal invite to join one of the last historic Land Rover Series I humanitarian expeditions deep into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho – an odyssey that marks the ‘end of an era’ tarring of the famous Sani Pass and that pays tribute to the grand old Landies that opened up Africa. It all promises to be a good old fashioned frozen in time Land Rover Adventure – Siyabonga & Best Regards, Kingsley Holgate and the Expedition Team.”
Kingsley is a friend, humanitarian, adventurer, explorer and, like me, an African. When he invites you on an adventure, you can bet your last dollar that it will be like nothing else you have ever experienced. He has done more miles in a Land Rover than the most experienced Solihull test driver. Best of all, most of these miles have been in the pursuit of various world firsts, such as the Outside Edge of Africa, the Tropic of Capricorn and most recently the Geographical Centre of Africa.
The latter was featured in the Winter 2016 issue of LRM. Now, in a fitting tribute to the recent end of Defender production, he was taking things back to where it all began for Land Rover, the humble, yet ever-reliable Series I.
Why a Series adventure to Lesotho to take on the mighty Maluti Mountains, you ask? This southern Africa country is not called Kingdom in the Sky for nothing; each grain of sand, blade of grass, pile of rocks and drop of water in Lesotho is located more than 1000 metres above sea level.
No other country in the world shares this remarkable feat. So to go there in a 4x4 is like off-roading in the sky. The only way to reach the landlocked Lesotho is via South Africa, and the most popular and scenic route is Sani Pass. This historic pass is the only reliable road into Lesotho via the Drakensberg Mountain Range of the KwaZulu Natal province. It links South Africa with the eastern part
The altitude at the bottom of Sani Pass is 1544 metres, a few hundred metres higher than Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK. By the time we reach the top of Sani Pass we will be at an incredible 2876 metres above sea level. This is the same height at which they start to pressurise the cabins of commercial aircraft, yet we are going to attempt it in Land Rovers that are over 50 years old.
I take an overnight British Airways flight from London to Johannesburg before hopping onto an internal flight to Pietermaritzburg. The thick, humid air almost stops me in my tracks as I disembark from the plane. I have gone from a frozen UK into the back end of an African summer.
I meet up with several other journalists including Anton Pretorius from Land Rover Africa magazine. Also with us is Rory Beattie, the Customer Services Director of Land Rover South Africa and Sub-Sahara Africa. While he might be the most technically-qualified person in all of Africa when it comes to the newer Land Rover products, he is quick to admit that Series Is are not his field of expertise.
Land Rover South Africa have kindly left a new Defender 110 for us at the Pietermaritzburg Airport and soon we are heading eastwards in it towards the Khahlamba Drakensberg National Park. After leaving the highway we start the climb up towards the Drakensberg escarpment. It’s a Sunday evening and all the locals seem to be in a good mood. Maybe they have consumed too much Utshwala, the local beer. Out here the sun sets about an hour earlier than on the west coast of South Africa and so we have to do the last hour to the Splashy Fen campsite, the expedition meet-up point, in the dark.
“Welcome to Africa, Land Rover’s beating heart,” says a voice in the dark as we disembark from our Defender. I see his long white beard long before his impressive frame. It’s Kingsley Holgate, the expedition leader. In addition to our Defender, there are two more Defenders plus a Discovery 3 that will be acting as support and logistical vehicles.
The most important of these is a Defender 130 called Ndhlovukazi – in Zulu this means The Great She Elephant. An apt name considering it’s carrying the expedition grog and vittles. Bruce Leslie, the camp commandant, is the lucky driver. He has seen it all and the only time he ever gets flustered is when the expedition is over because then he has nothing left to do. He hands us all an ice-cold beer and we stand around the campfire. It’s a clear night and the stars are out, in the dark distance the upper peaks of the Drakensberg black out the horizon.
That is where our little convoy will be heading tomorrow. Time to hit the sack; I can inspect the Series Is in the morning.
I can’t think of a better sight to wake up to: ten Series Is and their proud owners, all raring to go. Traditional farmer and Series I Land Rover collector Graham Kenrick–Cooke has kindly provided three of the Series Is for the expedition.
He and partner Bianca Ladds are in Huff n’ Puff, the oldest Series I in the convoy, a 1949 80in. Graham hands me the keys to his blue 1955 107in, the official press car for the trip. Can life get any better? The convoy pulls away, after what seems like an eternity I find first gear and join them. I forget to double de-clutch when moving onto second. Is there a worse sound in the world than crunching gears? The 107 feels sluggish and so I pull over – it was in low range! Soon I am changing gears like Maurice Wilks and the 2.0-litre engine is surprisingly perky as we cruise along at a comfortable speed.
Kingsley Holgate expeditions are not just about the drive; you get to engage with the local communities that you are travelling through. Before heading up Sani Pass we stop at the self-funding school Faithway College in Himeville. The plan is to introduce the kids to Rhino Art, a joint initiative Project Rhino KZN and the Kingsley Holgate Foundation.
It began in 2013 when Kingsley was in the Lubombo Mountain Range, home to the largest concentration of wild rhino in the world. As the name suggests art is used to educate the children about the serious crisis currently facing rhino. Today in Southern Africa the number of rhinos that are killed and poached exceeds the number of natural rhino births. If this trend continues, soon they will be extinct. With us is the enthusiastic Sheelagh Antrobus, the Project Rhino KZN Coordinator. I ask her about the impact of Rhino Art in schools. “There is no conservation education in schools. Rhino Art has given us the passport to go into schools. In the three years that we have been doing this our volunteers have delivered the Rhino message to over 250,000 children.”
Each child at the Himeville school is given a picture of a rhino to colour in; the page with the picture contains information about the challenges facing Rhino in Southern Africa. There is also a space for them to write a personal stop rhino poaching message. The volunteers then go through them and pick out the best ones, prizes are handed out in a colourful ceremony. Rhino Art might be a simple concept but its delivering powerful results. Nokulungisa Mncuoabe wins a shiny red bicycle for her drawing and message. It reads: "In the news today. See a rhino shed a tear. White flag upon a hill. Poachers do as you will. You better start to fear. Justice is drawing near. Run rhino run. From the man with the gun. Hear the sound of the gun. I see you stumble and fall."“When it snows the pass can be busier than the M25 before a bank holiday
From what I have seen and experienced it’s clear that Rhino Art is succeeding where politicians and conservationists have failed, it’s igniting a youth movement against rhino poaching. After that moving experience the convoy is a little subdued as we make our way towards Sani Pass.
When it snows on the Drakensberg Mountains or in Lesotho, Sani Pass can be busier than the M25 before a Bank Holiday weekend. Fortunately for us, today is a beautiful summer’s day and with all the kids in school, our ascent of the pass should be without traffic congestion. Our only concern is how will these old Land Rovers cope with the altitude? Once we enter the Mhkomazana Valley, the enormity of what we are about to do truly hits home. All I can see is a wall of mountain in front of me with no sign of a road or pass in the distance. This is the attraction of Sani Pass; people come here to literally drive up a mountain. A South African police car coming from the opposite direction stops next to me, the driver opens his window. “You are driving a beautiful, old Jeep,” he quips. When I tell him that this is a 1955 Series I Land Rover he gives me the biggest smile ever before waving us on.
The first part of the pass before the South African border post is fairly easy going, the gravel track is wide and the climb fairly gentle, I stay in high range and the 107in obediently chugs along. It does not take us long to get through the South African border post formalities and soon the convoy is moving upwards again. The Lesotho border post lies at the top of the pass, just over six miles away. In this part of the world it rains between October and April, so we are slap bang in the middle of the rainy season. The mountain is bright green thanks to all the life-giving water that seems to be running down every mountain gully that I can see.
The convoy spreads out and things soon start to get more serious. Time for low range I think. I grab my jacket and beanie as the sun has been replaced with the mountain mist. It actually feels as if we are driving in the clouds. At times I feel alone on the mountain until I see the small, round yellow lights of a Series I behind me. The final part of the pass is the best as it consists of switchback after switchback with several dramatic drop-offs. On a clear day you can actually see several car wrecks at the bottom of these drop-offs. Today I was just concentrating on keeping the 107in on the now narrow mountain track.
Gerry Edmond, a former RAF Spitfire pilot, was the first person to drive a vehicle up the pass – in a Willys Jeep with a team of locals carrying gear on ponies to support him. The first Land Rover to climb the track was driven by a chap called Alwyn Bisschoff. Alwyn served as an aircraft technician with the South African Air force during the World War II. After being demobbed, he served as an Agricultural Officer in Basutoland as Lesotho was called in those days. After a two year posting in Maseru he was transferred to Mokhotlong in 1952, where he was given a Land Rover to test at altitude to “see if he could break it”. Alwyn was required to send quarterly reports on the vehicle’s performance, but first he had to get the vehicle to Mokhotlong. The trouble was there was no vehicular access between Maseru and the latter. So it was that the historic drive up Sani Pass was undertaken. Now, over 60 years later we were following in his tracks.
Just before the top of the pass I notice that Graham has stopped. I pull up next to him. His inline fuel pump has failed, fortunately somebody else has an electrical one and so after replacing it we are able to join all the others at the Lesotho border post at the summit of the pass. Once again the border post provides no dramas, everyone just seems to be so in awe of our Series Is that they just wave us through after stamping our passports.
One of the must-stop spots in Lesotho is the Sani Mountain Lodge, home to the highest pub in Africa. They had been expecting us and had prepared a feast in our honour, but not before we fulfilled the expedition motto which is "Improving lives through adventure". Kingsley’s wife Gill, who is sadly no longer with us, began a project several years ago called Rite to Sight, whereby older people with fading eyesight are given a pair of reading glasses after a simple eye test. Bruce hauls out the boxes of glasses while Kingsley begins with the tests. Seeing the smiles on the recipients faces was more special than driving a Series I to the top of Sani Pass.
None of us want to leave the lodge but we have to get to our campsite at Sani Stone Lodge. About five miles from the top of the pass we turn off the main tar road and take a dirt track to where we are staying. The campsite has decent ablution facilities and a few traditional-style huts for those that don’t like a tent.
The setting could not be more perfect and not long after Bruce gets a decent fire going, the full moon rises from behind one of the nearby peaks. Our expedition is made up of a rather motley crew and some are given a chance to tell a tale or two around the fire. First up is the humble duo of Mike Nixon and Andre Bredenkamp, both have submitted Everest, in fact Andre has done it twice. Hearing them talk of the death zone and climbers dying makes our little trundle up Sani Pass seem so tame in comparison.
Mike and his group have accompanied Kingsley on several expeditions and instead of using Land Rover horsepower they use bicycles and pedal power. Lesotho is not the most cycle friendly place on the planet because of the thin air and mountains. Only time will tell how they do, though they did manage the crazy climb up Sani Pass. As its been a while since my last visit to these parts I only manage to pry myself away from the fireside tales in the wee hours of the morning.
Not long after waking up and exiting my tent a group of young herd boys and their dogs walk through the camp. They are a common sight in the mountains: they wear gumboots, a blanket and beanie. The Lesotho economy depends heavily on mining and water (also known as white gold). One of their biggest exports to South Africa is labour – most of these workers are employed in the mining sector. As this industry has shrunk in the last few decades many of these workers have been forced to return to Lesotho. The unemployment rate in Lesotho is currently around 45 per cent so it’s a relatively poor country by Western standards.
After packing up our special convoy is ready to go again. I’ve done a mile or two on the African continent and have come to realise that no decent road trip is complete without travelling along a Chinese-built road. Not long after re-joining the tar road to Mokhotlong we are faced with the imposing Chinese built Khamoqana Pass. From its base it looks worse than a Tour de France stage in the Pyrenees. I’m near the front of the convoy and after about 20 minutes of climbing we reach the summit of this crazy climb that just does not want to end. We pull over so that the rest of the convoy can catch up. After waiting for about 15 minutes we realise something must be up with Graeme and Huff n’ Puff. The newly-installed electrical fuel pump has given up the ghost and it cannot be repaired. Huff n’ Puff will have to be towed back to where we camped the night before and wait for a new fuel pump. Hardly ideal with three days of exploring and humanitarian work ahead of.
As the show must go, he takes over my 107. Fortunately we will be going down Sani Pass when we exit Lesotho. Will the new pump reach us in time so he can finish the trip with us? Find out in the next edition of LRM.