Despite the early loss of the oldest Series I in the convoy, the intrepid expedition continues towards central Lesotho, using only rough remote mountain tracks
The mood in the convoy is subdued. Leaving behind the oldest vehicle in the convoy, Graham Kenrick-Cooke’s 1949 Series I 80in, is not an easy thing to do. It has already gone through two fuel pumps and we don’t really have a choice as no one has another spare. It will be safe at the Sani Stone Lodge, which is where we camped last night. Graham has already ordered a new pump and hopefully DHL will deliver it before we pass here again in a few days time.
Our convoy of ten Series Is is now down to nine. Graham and his partner Bianca Ladds take the press truck, a 1955 Series I 107in. It belongs to Graham anyway and there are enough other Series Is and Land Rovers for the press to jump into. The show must go on. I hop into Jenny, a 1956 Series I 88in owned by Kenneth Jones. Lesotho literally lies in Kenneth’s backyard and he has done many a trip here in one of his several Land Rovers. In fact, he informs me that he is currently looking at setting up classic Land Rover self-drive tours in Lesotho. Once it is up and running clients will be able to fly into South Africa from anywhere in the world and join him on a guided self-drive experience through the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho.
Despite the fact that it is a bright sunny morning, I’m wearing a jacket and a beanie as we are at an altitude of around 3000 metres. The Series I was definitely not designed with the comfort and warmth of passengers in mind. We are still on the Chinese built tar road that will take us towards Mokhotlong. To the east of us is Thabana-Ntlenyana, at 3482 m, it’s the highest peak south of Mount Kilimanjaro. To the many herd boys at the top of these mountains we must look like a mobile museum passing through their mountainous country. For some it might be the first time that they have seen a Series I, not so for their parents and grandparents, as Series Is played an important role in the early vehicular exploration of Lesotho. We were recreating history. Some kids celebrate the occasion by running down towards the road from their huts and schools. Many wear only a blanket, gumboots and a beanie.
In Lesotho the blanket is not only used to keep warm, it’s also an important status symbol. Often in Africa local tribes use animal skins to cover and warm themselves. This used to be the case in Lesotho until European traders presented King Moshoeshoe I with a blanket, the Basotho people loved it and today it is an important part of their being. A Lesotho blanket is not cheap, though as with most things today, a cheaper Chinese version is available.
Just as we’ve all about had enough tar road we turn left off onto the A3 just before Mokhotlong, the unofficial capital of eastern Lesotho. It is nothing more than a town with fuel and a few shops. Fortunately we have enough supplies and fuel to see us through another day or two and so we can instead head towards Thaba-Tseka. We’re not far from the source of the mighty Senqu River, one of the longest rivers in southern Africa. It flows into the cold Atlantic Ocean at Alexander Bay, over 2000 km away. That makes the river several hundred kilometres longer than Great Britain. Due to its mountainous nature Lesotho is off-roading heaven and if you avoid some of the touristy areas you really do feel a little like Dr Livingstone as you wander into one of the many traditional villages. The Basotho people are friendly and more often than not we are greeted with beaming white smiles as we meander through the magnificent mountains.
At the top of one of the seemingly endless passes Bruce Leslie, the camp commandant and driver of the Defender 130 that is loaded with the expedition grog and vittles, calls a halt. We drive a short distance off the main road for our lunch stop. It is like taking a break on the Sound of Music set; green mountains in every direction. Pity my throat is sore or else I might have given Edelweiss a go. While some crack open a cold drink others crack open the toolboxes. Graham needs to adjust the carbs on the 107” to help it cope with the altitude. Hopefully it will run better after lunch.
The fun continues after lunch as we continue to make our way over the towering mountains. Incredibly the Series Is just take it all in their stride, or so it looks like from afar, when sitting in one they do at times sound a little asthmatic on the tougher climbs. Ross Holgate, the son of Kingsley, only purchased his 1957 Series I 88in a few months prior to the trip. He recently snapped the rear propshaft and broke the universals and so as a result only has front wheel drive. His vehicle, Sir Mount, struggles to do its name justice on some of the long technical climbs. Ross has to make a plan and so he reverses up several of the nasty climbs. As he does bicep curls with several full jerry cans at a time, the lack of power steering poses absolutely no significant challenge for him as he masterfully manoeuvres Sir Mount up the inclines in reverse. Every expedition needs a Ross Holgate.
As the shadows lengthen in the late afternoon we drop to a more acceptable 2500 metres above sea level. Last night we stayed in a formal campsite, but tonight we are looking for something a little more authentic, after crossing a river at the bottom of a valley we find a flat, large open piece of grass. A runner is dispatched to ask the local chief’s permission to camp in this perfect sitting. He gives us the green light. We were wild camping African-style. Obviously we have to share it with the sheep and cattle that are more interested in the tasty long, green grass than our old Land Rovers. Locals pass by on Basotho ponies, some stop to see what we are up to. A young boy, who we would later find out is related to the chief, comes and plays for us on his homemade guitar. This is what I love about African travel, it is just like watching the Discovery channel from your home in the UK, except you get to climb into the TV and you are part of the programme.
After two full days of driving, some of the Series Is need to refuel. Fortunately Thaba-Tseka, a remote town on the edge of the Central Range, is only about 40 miles away. In Lesotho nothing is a million miles away, but that does not mean it does not take long to cover a couple miles. As we are in the mountains driving in a straight line is a no go, we have to follow the road that normally takes the line of least resistance. Plus, there are certain things you cannot plan for. As we turn off the main road to take the old bridge across the Senqu, some locals run over, they need our help. A cow is stuck in the muddy riverbank and they have been trying all morning to free it. We cannot just drive past and so the convoy takes a detour along the river. The cow is in a serious state of distress, I can see where the locals have been trying to dig it out using big spades. We use a winch and straps, but soon realise that we could break the poor animals back using this tactic. Ross and David Visagie jump into the black mud and start digging like mad men, suddenly the suction of the mud breaks and the cow literally pops out. The drama is not over and the rest of the team grabs the ropes and drags the poor cow out. It is so tired that it does not get up at first. After a minute or two it realises that it is free and runs off in the direction of the bloody black mud again. Someone herds it away from the river. The drama is over. Those that were involved in the rescue take a dip in the river to clean off the black mud.
By the time we eventually get to Thaba-Tseka the morning is all but gone. It does not matter because we rescued a cow and we are all richer for the experience. Also you won’t find a cow rescue on any scheduled or package tour through Lesotho. Thaba-Tseka is nothing more than a bustling junction with shops and much-needed fuel. On some of my previous trips here the town has been dry and without fuel, which is why you always fill up when you can find in some remote parts of Africa.
From here one can either head west to the capital Maseru or north towards Katse, we opt for the latter. Katse was purposefully built as a base for the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. In Lesotho, they refer to water as white gold, as it’s the countries biggest export. The man-made dam at Katse is the highest in Africa (185 m). There is a visitor’s centre at the dam but we don’t have time to stop there and instead just enjoy the long and winding road that runs alongside this impressive feat of engineering. Once the project is finished Lesotho will have several impressive dams and over 200 kms of water tunnels. I stop at one of the lookout points, it is incredible how they can dam up the valleys and fill a mountain with water.
The bustling town of Lejone lies at the northern point of the lake, here we leave the tar and take a gravel track east towards Kao mine. It will be dark in an hour and so we start looking for a campsite. Graham’s 107in is not firing on all cylinders and one of the Defenders has to tow him the last few miles to the campsite. While setting up our tents some locals come and inform us that the track ahead had been washed away. This throws a serious spanner in the works as all the journalists (including myself) on the trip are supposed to be flying out from Pietermaritzburg the next day. We will have to backtrack the next morning and seek an alternative route instead. This sort of thing is pretty common when travelling along off the beaten tracks of Lesotho. Many a Land Rover has had to turn around to find an alternative route, repair the existing route or just wait for a swollen river to subside until it is safe to cross. The main thing is that all the vehicles are more or less still going and that we still have a steady supply of cold beers to enjoy around the campfire.
To make our flights we get up at 04.00 am in the press Defender and leave the convoy of Series Is behind. They were in no hurry, time is on your side when you own a Series I. About six hours later our Defender safely deposits us at the airport and we all make our flights. As I have made some friends for life on the trip I cannot help but wonder how the Series Is have fared on the rest of the trip? Did they all make it safely back to South Africa? Fortunately the next day Kenneth kindly sends me an email containing the following message: “After you guys left, a couple of us took a drive to see the collapsed bridge. On inspection, it turned out that the bridge itself was absolutely fine but a mile further the road had collapsed – apparently this happened in a flash flood a week before our trip.
We backtracked to Lejone where Graham got a bit of a scare when smoke started coming from under the bonnet of his 107in – the fuel pump wire had shorted. Luckily I had extra automotive wire handy to fix it. At Seshote we took a very pleasant gravel short cut which took us close to Moklothong, from here we pushed on Sani Top for the last evening. We naturally had a party till the early hours of the morning. Before travelling back to South Africa via Sani Pass, Graham managed to repair his 1949 Series I 80in. So, all the Series Is made it back.”
I have been lucky enough to drive Land Rovers all over the world, but nothing comes close to being part of a convoy of ten Series Is going up the legendary soon-to-be-tarred Sani Pass. Just like the Marines don’t leave any soldiers behind, we did not leave any Series Is behind. Yes, one or two did need the odd bit of running repairs but they all handled the towering tracks of the Mountain Kingdom with dignity and determination. The humble Series I is the foundation on which the Land Rover empire was built, after spending a few days with ten of them in Lesotho, it is easy to see why.