Through one of the off-road forums, I heard that Maliba Lodge wanted to investigate the 4×4 trails in their area and offered my assistance. All was set up and pretty soon I headed for Ts’ehlanyane National Park to boldly go where no vehicle has gone before. At the time I did not know how true those words would be!
The original plan was to explore the tracks in two vehicles, but due to an unfortunate mishap, the second vehicle had to be withdrawn. This meant taking extra care not to get into trouble on these trails, as there was no vehicle to assist should there be a recovery situation. It has been an extraordinary wet season and rained almost every night during my stay at Maliba. It made for some interesting off-road driving the next few days, but the driving conditions were probably at its worse and should only improve in dryer conditions.
Rusks, a flask of coffee and lunch were packed and my guide and Maliba River Lodge manager, Sam Tsotse, pointed me in the direction of St. Dennis Village. Nineteen kilometres from Maliba’s Gate the tyres hit gravel on the track past the St Dennis primary school, a soccer field and to St Dennis Mission.
The track was obviously well-travelled by other vehicles and no-one seemed surprised to see us. We left the mission and Sam pointed me back in the direction of tar. Mmmm…. The Pajero (and it’s owner!) enjoys off-road trails more than tar and I asked Sam what lays in the other direction. Only a village, he says, but “the road is not good”. That sounded good to me, so we headed in the other direction and soon found a lovely viewpoint over St Dennis Village. A note was made on the GPS and we continued on our adventure. Down a rocky section, crossed a small stream and up the other side before the track ended at some private homes. A very interesting track, not extremely technical but enough obstacles to keep you on your toes.
We turned back to the tar and towards Maliba. Shortly Sam asked me to turn right. Indicators on, I slowed down for a speed bump and kept my eyes open but could not see the turn. “Where?” I asked. “There” said Sam and pointed calmly. I was frowning but turned anyway – a short but steep, very muddy incline was in front of me. It did not look like the entrance to a track, but it was. The incline was very short, only about one car length, but extremely muddy and steep. I cut back on the power too soon and with tyres spinning, we stopped halfway up the incline. Taking care not to do damage the track that is used daily by the villagers, either on foot or with scotch-carts and donkeys, I reversed to make another attempt. Sam pointed out another entrance and to avoid damaging the original track by too much wheel spin in the mud, we used the alternative entrance and we were up and away.
A sharp right turn found us at the bottom of a long, steady rise with rocks and mud. It was our first real technical challenge and I climbed out and assessed the track for the best route to follow to avoid damaging the track and damage to the vehicle. Low range and diff lock engaged, we set off but did not get far. The tyres kept slipping on the mud and the vehicle kept falling out of the track I was trying to direct it onto. Sam decided it was time to turn around – this track was obviously meant for donkeys only! Not one to give up that easily, I said we would try again. I stayed more left and hugged the mountainside and this time we were up and away! Sam’s eyes got bigger and bigger but by the time we reached the top of the incline, his smile was as big as his eyes! This was a short track into Sakalefubelu village and this obstacle turned out to be the most challenging part of the track.
Back on the tar we shortly turned onto another track to Ha Khojane village. Besides some muddy sections and a few rocks, the track produced no difficulty. We turned back and before we got to the tar, Sam pointed to the right. I followed the track and passed St. Dominic’s school where the kids were very excited to see us and I spent a lot of time waving and shouting “dumela’s” to everybody. Past the school, the track narrowed and we descended down towards a small stream. A slippery crossing but we were through and away.
Shortly after the stream, Sam said that we had to turn around as the track now continued to Ha Lenkoane village and was very bad. How bad? I asked. Very, very bad – it would take us the whole day to get there. Now that sounded like something that I wanted to explore, but Sam was not keen. The road was too bad he said. Reluctantly I turned around and we headed back to tar and Maliba Lodge for the evening. But I made a mental note and on day 4 asked Sam to take me there.
Sam mentioned that there were a few tracks further away from the lodge and we set off to Ha Maruoatona village. A winding gravel road took us across a small stream, past a cemetery and to Sakaleholo village. This is an easy track and is well travelled by vehicles, although in sections it is completely washed away by the rain. Back on the tar we shortly turned into Kramele village. A lovely view over the village, a few muddy crossings and we passed through Lentsoaneng village before the road ended.
Turning back the way we came there was a trail leading off to the left. Sam said he has never travelled this road before but it would lead to Ha Ntholi village and then round and back to Lentsoaneng village – but the road was “not good”. I was determined to find out how bad it was and we set off across a stream, a bridge and mud, plenty of mud! Each time Sam thought that we would have to push, the automatic gearbox would drop a gear, the engine would growl a little louder and we were through. The Pajero loved it and Sam started to believe there was no trail we could not do.
This trail turned out to be extremely muddy and we had to be extra careful. Twice slipped into a ditch in a muddy obstacle and had to reverse about 50 meters to get out of the track and further left before we crossed. This was real off-road stuff but came to an end a while before Lentsoaneng village as the track was completely washed away and not even the Pajero would cross here.
Disappointed we turned around and found a short track to the left. It leads to a viewpoint over Menkhoaneng village, but there was no turn around point and we reversed 500 meters back – in low range and over rocky obstacles – before we could turn around and head back to the main track. The next track to the left started with a long, extremely muddy incline and one could see where cattle and donkeys have slipped in the mud. A short inspection and we decided to keep more to the right as the left side of the track again had a deep ditch that we could slip into.
The track also sloped steeply to the left and the right-hand side of the track seemed dryer. Within a few meters, we were spinning in the mud and soon lost forward momentum. I stopped and reversed to try again, but the mud was so slippery that the vehicle wanted to turn sideways on the slope. Not a good idea! Keeping the momentum up backwards, the right-hand side tyres found grip on the grass and we stopped the skid. Another inspection of the track and we decided that forward and upward was not a good idea. The incline was about 150 meters long, sloped sharply left and covered with mud all the way to the top. It had the potential for getting into serious trouble and we turned back. We were smiling all the way back to Maliba that day. The trails were more challenging and we were enjoying ourselves!
We set off for Butha-Buthe for some much-needed shopping and fuel. Heading back to Maliba we turned left at Konkotia village. We passed the brick-making facility on the left, cross over a bridge over the Hlotse River, passed some mud huts with interesting designs carved into them and travelled through Mokoallong village.
Some very muddy sections took us to a stunning viewpoint over the area and then to Ha Leqele village where Sam suggested we turned around. I saw a track leading out of the village and we continued on this track, although Sam advised that the road was “very bad” but that we could try. The track narrowed considerably and we kept hugging the mountainside to stay clear from the cliff on the left. The mud made it interesting as we needed to keep the momentum going, but needed to go slowly to avoid losing control in the slippery conditions. We passed several villagers on horse-back and after greeting, Sam said they were astonished to see us as no vehicle has ever travelled this far up the track.
We found some potholes carved into the rocks by a small stream and passed the Ha Pentsi School and then were faced with a long descent with an extremely muddy stream at the bottom. I spent some time assessing the conditions and planning the best route through the mud and up the other side when a villager on his horse came by. It looked a lot easier on the horse-back and I was wondering if this was not the best way to do it! But the Pajero proved to have the equal horsepower under the bonnet and soon we were up on the other side and nearing Ha Pentsi village. The villagers were pretty excited and shouting at us. Sam advised that they were saying we should not come into the village and respecting their wishes, we turned around. Going back the track proofed equally exciting as travelling to Ha Pentsi. It was a long trail and the many obstacles made it slow going, so we headed back to Maliba Lodge for the evening.
Today we focused on the trails closer to Maliba and turned into Ha Sebaka village. The trail leads through a rather large village called Ha Lesala and ended in a “suburb” called Sakalefubelu – this was the village where the chief of the area lives and I looked around with interest. Unfortunately, we could not see the chief’s residence and pretty soon we were back on the tar.
Within a few hundred meters we turned into Ha Tabutle village and a short technical section took us to Ha Khojane village. We stopped to take some pictures of the scenery before the road ended and we turned back. Just before the tar, we headed off to the right to St Dominics school again. Today I wanted to travel to Ha Lenkoane village on the “very, very bad road” and pretty soon we were past the school and the track narrowed considerably. I kept an eye out for a possible turn around points as it was clear that the road was indeed “very, very bad” and we walked and assessed each obstacle, as well as walked ahead to see if the track was passable once we crossed an obstacle. This was serious 4×4 stuff and we were having a lot of fun, even though Sam’s eyes once again grew very big when we crossed one obstacle at about a 20-degree slope. Not my favourite part of off-road trails either!
Eventually, we found a long, narrow descent that was badly eroded away. Although descending would not be a problem, I was worried about ascending on the return. There was more rain at Maliba the night before and though the mud was not very deep, there was a thin layer of mud on top of a hard surface and it made for very slippery conditions as well as a technical ascend with deep ditches and rocks barring the way. As there was no vehicle to assist in a recovery if we had trouble coming back, I suggested to Sam that we turn back. In drier conditions and with at least one more vehicle with us, we would one day come back and try again.
On the way back Sam asked me to stop in Terashareng village, where I was shown a traditional hut with items used in traditional Lesotho villages. I was fascinated and honoured to then be taken to visit a local villager’s home, where pots were steaming on the fire, the chickens were scratching at our feet, the donkeys were trying to steal cabbage out of the vegetable patch and villagers were busy slaughtering a sheep for a feast. I was invited to try out their sorghum wine which was a lot more potent than the Stein I am used to! I insisted on a small sip only as I was driving and was surprised that it tasted a lot like wine as the consistency and colour were more that of full cream milk.
Soon we were back on tar and took the turn off to Moeling village. The entrance was a long, gradual uphill climb. Assessing it from the bottom it was very muddy, but nothing too deep and we ascended without any problems. The kids from Mohana Puso village were especially friendly and endlessly posed for pictures in front of their houses.
Just before Moeling village, we encountered some very deep mud. Halfway through, the Pajero came to a standstill and I climbed out to take a look. Almost to my knees in the mud, this was going to get interesting. We were literally in a deep pool of mud and to go forward, had to climb up a 50cm high muddy wall, and the mud made the vehicle slide back and out of the track half way up and we had to start again. Going backwards was not a problem but we wanted to get to Moeling village. We found some rocks and got our hands (and pretty much everything else!) covered in mud, but soon we were up and away and arrived in Moeling village where there was a lovely view over the village. We walked down to a water point where I managed to get the worst of the mud off my shoes and hands.
Sadly our explorations had come to an end, but a cup of hot chocolate and a fire place now seemed like a good idea – but first we washed off the worst mud off the Pajero in a “traditional” Lesotho car wash. I was wet up to my knees and the temperature has dropped considerably – at the time I did not know it yet, but that night the first snow of the season fell on the mountains around Maliba Lodge.