What a special couple of days – the first tour through a South African national park with scenery very reminiscent of the Pilbara or more-so the Kimberley in Western Australia, and kangaroos or emus being replaced by zebra, gibbon, eland and other creatures.
Long day of tarmac driving and we arrived after dark at Mt Zebra National Park. The guy on the gate, an African man, headed to me as the Westerner to seek directions on our group. I told him who our leader was and directed him away. This happened several times during the trip
I talked to my fellow adventurers about this – about the inherent assumptions that the sole westerner on the group was the leader. It didn’t bother them that this happened to me, they know I wasn’t chasing attention, but in broader terms they say they just deal with it. It’s racism they live with every day. We talked long into the evening about these things, possibly aided by someone producing some nice Black Label, and something else that should have been used an injector cleaner.
A few crests were covered, but generally we were heading down. At one stage just after leaving the ski lodge, we dropped some 500m in only a few kilometres. It would have been awful climbing up, but of course, it’s difficult going down too. Someone has made two concrete tracks to aid traction and avoid losing valuable tourists into the precipice.
Tents were set up again, this time in a proper campground with toilets and a campers kitchen. We set up the lights – four LEDs each on tripods that are excellent to light a large area. With two of those going, setting up in the dark is easy. Lee and I got the tent and our stretcher beds up in no time, leaving me to my other duty of lighting the fire. This gained admiration from the Malaysians who generally have to resort to pouring petrol onto some poorly assembled sticks and mostly something happens.
The gate guy had given us a sheet listing a whole lot of animals that we might see – tomorrow was going to be exciting.
Resting up, washing, attending to the needs of the vehicles, loose bolts etc. Someones tailshaft was loose. I showed our driver the air filter he contributed to filling with dust. A new one appeared and it was changed.
Indeed the view was nice across the valley when we woke. I lit the fire – a task allocated to me as the Malaysians recognise they are no good at this.
Hot water for coffee was brought to our hut at 7:30am and breakfast was a bit after 8. It was pleasant inside.
Full cooked breakfast was served in the restaurant – fruits, cereals yoghurt, then a woman asked me how I liked my eggs, and before long I had a plate of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans. I’m eating well.
After bouncing our way past the adjacent Semonkong village, with it’s rough stone/concrete block huts, dusty stony tracks, we found our way to the famous Maletsunyane Falls. It’s a 192m straight drop, and it’s famous because they do abseiling off the cliffs and hold the Guinness Book of Records record for a commercial abseil. For just over 1000 Rand – about A$100 you have a day of training then abseiling. We didn’t have time for this!
Swinging back to the south, the mountains remain completely huge and vast. Many passes means climbs in second and third gear, sometimes first if we encounter a speed bump on the highway next to a village. When these are on a hill, which they frequently are, first gear is needed which is then hard to get out of with a sick engine. We stop when the temp gauge shows signs of water loss, which equates to perhaps three or four times a day and is often timed with a pee stop or lunch break so we don’t hold people up too much.
Once over the crest, then the windy steep descent also means third, and sometimes second gear to hold the bit heavy vehicle at a safe speed without overheating the brakes. I’m a bit over coaching our driver on how to do all this well. A friend of mine used to say – “the teacher will come when the student is ready”. This one is not ready!
The idea is not difficult to me. You have an old style turbo diesel engine with a blown head gasket. This means gently application of power – accelerator – as this adds heat and pressure inside the already compromised combustion chamber and forces more gasses out the leaky head gasket. So, it is not sensible to push it much more than 2000rpm with gentle throttle, ie not foot to the floor. However, the engine has limited power below 1500rpm, just because it’s a diesel, so there is not much room to play with and frequent gear changing is required. It’s okay to have the engine run faster than 2000rpm especially on a long down hill descent, as there is no fuel going in and this normally helps cool the system down. It’s also okay to drive at less than 1500rpm, but only on very light throttle as your under no load and just puddling along not needing any power.
But when you see the road ahead is rising, the idea is to preselect a lower gear as soon as load comes onto the engine and the revs drop to 1700rpm, and in the lower gear the engine is happy at around 2000rpm and with a light throttle the turbo boost assists carry over the obstacle. If not, then a change back to second is needed and using the revs of the engine rather than just plonking the foot on the pedal is the way to go.
So I become disheartened when a driver doesn’t change gear until 1000 rpm, which if on a hill, means as soon as the clutch is disengaged, the vehicle essentially stops and you need to go down two or three gears to build the revs for the turbo to work and forward momentum to be rediscovered. I also become alarmed when the brakes are used on long downhills and no downshift is made to use the compression of the engine for braking. I don’t think this is a personal preference or style, I think it’s the right way to drive with the engine in the condition it is, in fact anytime really in a big vehicle. Awareness is coming, especially for the downhill. The teacher will come when the student is ready…..
A border crossing was processed. Easy exit of Lesotho. Stamp passport, carnet’s checked for the vehicles. Then a short drive to the South Africa border at Qacha’s Nek. Same process, but this took an hour. A cursory check inside the vehicle, much less than entering Russia three years ago.
More rough roads, very stony, and down onto the plain for refuelling at Matatiele. Dusk turned into night and we headed south on the R56 highway at a good speed until turning off at an ‘adventurous short cut’. This dusty road at night was no fun for me. It was slow going, and our driver took a lot of convincing to drop back several hundred metres from the car in front, instead of sitting 20m and collecting all the dust and being in a white out most of the time due to him using the high roof top lights. Eventually we got him to back off 500m or so. The track deteriorated, with low range used on my insistence at times. What I did notice was that on the highway, the radiator did not boil as easy, because we were at lower altitude. It was also cold outside, so the radiator carried away more heat – a good temporary fix.
High mountain passes, rocks and a track that was hardly discernible in the night. Fortunately we followed our leader, and I had accurate mapping too, so this gave confidence as the hours went by.
It was certainly an adventurous route that tested the vehicles and the drivers. One car, a stock standard but completely overloaded nice Landcruiser Sahara – kept it’s city weight springs and every small undulation had the rear axle hitting the bump stops – an awful experience for the passengers. Yes, Landcruisers are strong but they don’t come from the factory to be ready for expeditions like this – soft springs, soft tyres….. Just doesn’t cut it.
We arrived at 11:30pm with no dinner, and a closed reception. I eventually went to bed around 1:00am and there is a promise of a second nights stay here tomorrow.
Breakfast of mushroom soup and bread, more visitors this time on donkeys. I came across a couple of young men carting sticks for firewood. Not sure what time they had started work but their village was at least two kms away and they had a full trailer of sticks and wood. One spoke reasonable English and after I took his photo, he asked for a copy of the photo to be sent to him. He wrote his name and address, no email here, and I intend to do so. He was 20. He told me he had learnt English at school but the school had closed as there was no money.
Lunch was cooked up and carried to be eaten later. Eventually Thaba-Tseka appeared. An outpost rambling town. A fuel stop appeared with a queue of twenty cars for petrol. Fortunately the diesel queue was shorter. Taxi’s had appeared on the road. Toyota Corollas, traversing the same roads our big Landcruisers. I wonder if Toyota do product testing with a Corolla loaded with five people climbing steep mountain passes and negotiating pothole the size of a wheel.
Lunch was had after driving off the road near a farmers pen. Our arrival brought all the dogs out, pups galore. All skinny and seeking food. And herders arrived from somewhere on donkeys, watching from a distance. Food was shared with them to take away, and the dogs. They use a sheet of kitchen paper on a plate to minimise washing up. Neat idea.
After Thaba-Tseka the road was bitumen as we headed towards the capital Maseru. Up and down through the ranges, climbing to 2800 or 3000m then down to 2300m for a little bit, but then up again for the next pass, one of which was called ‘God help me pass’. Sometimes we followed the Senqunyane River as it looped around. Eventually we came to the edge of the plateau and flatlands laid our in front of us. Road speeds increased, but so did the danger of people and cars. A turn off at Mafikeng and through the National University of Lesotho. I wonder if my 20 year old friend up in mountains knows about this place. On the road to Semongkong, our destination for the night with plenty of driving in the dark, climbing back into the mountains. Herders with 100 sheep or goats on the road in the darkness and no lights. One goat was hit, not sure by who.
So here we are at Semongkong. Chalets built onto the side of the hills, should be nice views in the morning. Today was Thursday 20th April