On a recent visit to Lesotho, we dreamed up a crazy idea to take some old Land Rover Series 1s on a ‘Mountain Kingdom’ adventure. First introduced in 1948 by the Rover Company in the UK, a number of these tough little 4x4s are still in operation around the world.
Filled with enthusiasm, we put the word out and six weeks later, ten historic Series 1 Land Rovers, full of character and aged 60 or more, sporting colourful nicknames – ‘Gogo’, ‘Gunga Din’, ‘Sir Gerry’, ‘Sir Mount’, ‘Sir Bhejane’, ‘Jenny’, ‘Madumbi’, ‘Frikkie’, ‘Old Blue’ and ‘Huff n Puff’ – meet up at Splashy Fen, below the towering mountains of Izintaba uKhahlamba , the mighty Drakensberg mountains.
The expedition’s objective is pay tribute to the end of the Defender range by taking these old Landies that date back to the birth of the brand up the historic, but soon-to-be-tarred Sani Pass, and beyond through the rough Maluti Mountain Kingdom, said to have the highest altitude of any country in the world.
In 1950, Alwyn Bisschoff responded to a call for a volunteer to serve as an Agricultural Officer in the-then Basotholand – at the time still a British Protectorate. He was presented with the opportunity to test a Land Rover Series 1 at altitude with the added invitation to, ‘See if he could break it’. Sani Pass at that time was still the preserve of mule trains and their minders, the corners and inclines carved from the rock with four-footed animals in mind, not engine-driven vehicles. His was the first Land Rover to conquer the high-altitude Sani Pass and here we are, about to relive those early days.
A journey like this is all about the wonderful people who are part of it and the Series 1 Landy owners turn out to be a delightful bunch with a keen sense of adventure and a passion and personal understanding of the foibles and funnies of their old, battered Landies.
As a practical joke around the campfire (expeditions run on good humour), we present each Series 1 driver with their own state-of-the art ‘Solihull Special’ – a big block of wood with a knotted rope attached. You see them for sale on the side of the road all over Africa, but there’s a serious reason though: miss a gear in one of these old girls or – God forbid – the brakes fail and she starts to roll backwards on the high altitude passes we’re about to face, and we’ll all be in deep trouble. That’s when the driver is supposed to shout, “Hand brake!” to the co-driver, who is then supposed to nimbly leap out and shove the ‘Solihull Special’ behind the back wheel. The driver, having (hopefully) engaged first gear, then pulls hard on the red-knobbed, low-range lever, gingerly lets out the clutch and stomps hard on the accelerator, shouting, “Pull!” The co-driver is then supposed to yank the hand-brake’s rope, fling the block of wood into the passenger foot-well (stops your feet burning from the heat of the exhaust) and simultaneously leap back on board, scraping their knees on the door frame and grabbing – white-knuckled – onto the ‘OhMyGod Bar’ above the dashboard!
It’s a wonderful sight as in first and second gear, the roar of the engines in low ratio echoing off the sheer rock faces and one behind the other, the Series 1s growl up to the start of Sani Pass. Thump! Down comes the immigration stamps and we’re out of South Africa. The thick mist closes in and for our ‘old girls’, it gets really difficult and dangerous on the high gradient bends near the summit.
All the old Landies make it to the top and the Basotho Customs officials delight in posing for photos with our colourful old 4×4 grannies of yesteryear. But this is only the beginning: ahead of us lie the even higher passes of the Malutis. We camp in the freezing moonlight and after a quick breakfast of porridge oats with peanut butter and honey, and a wake-me-up enamel mug renoster koffie, we’re off again.
The endless vistas across the ‘Roof of Africa’ are breathtaking and with them come an unimaginable sense of freedom. Many of the Basotho villages can only be reached on foot or on horseback and Lesotho’s mountain topography certainly earns it the title of Africa’s ‘Kingdom in the Sky’; it is the only country in the world to be entirely above 1,000 metres in elevation.
Day after day, our convoy grinds and roars like little matchbox toys against the seemingly endless rugged ranges of the Malutis. Basotho horsemen dressed in gumboots and woven conical hats and village people wearing colourful traditional blankets called ‘Seanamerena’ (each design has its own meaning) stop to stare in amazement at our motley, dust-covered bunch. I’m amazed that these resilient collectors’ items are, despite their vintage, still able to climb 3,000-metre mountain passes, boulder-hop across rocky rivers, and fire up at the first turn of the ignition in cold weather. However, it’s no walk in the park – we certainly have our share of challenges and running repairs are the order of the day. Luckily, these very simply designed vehicles prove easy to fix, thanks to the great camaraderie and collective technical knowledge of the expedition team, who know every squeak and movement of their elderly ‘iron horses’, and are always quick to muck-in if one of the Landies has a ‘senior moment’.
At the old causeway across the Senqu River, we hear frantic calls for help. Basotho cattle herders are struggling to extricate a cow stuck in sinking mud – it’s barely able to breathe. Dave Visagie and Ross Holgate wade in to help and using the winches from Jenny and Frikkie, together with lots of shouted advice and encouragement, we shove, push and haul the cow to safety. She gets up, shakes the mud off and wanders off, as if nothing has happened, as Ross and Dave help each other out of the muck, emerging like crazed tokoloshe beasties themselves with globs of black goo stuck head-to-toe.
Feeling the pace, we drive into the night and icy rain, hoping to reach a plateau in the highest part of the Maluti Mountains. Then we get some bad news: the only bridge ahead on our circuitous route has washed away in a recent flood – no way across. We pitch the tents and throw out our bedrolls in a kindly villager’s half-ploughed field and soon a blazing fire is beating off the cold and drizzle, the kettle is boiling and campfire stories prevail. We laugh our heads off as each expedition member, sitting on a camp chair with a battered enamel plate as an imaginary Series 1 steering wheel and a knobbed stick for the gear lever, with much ‘pumping’ of brakes and ‘double declutching’ – complete with sounds effects – goes through the hilarious motions of what it’s like to drive these old girls across some of the most challenging country in Africa.
Early the next morning we discover a challenging alternative 4×4 track, which really puts the old Series 1s to the test, as we wind slowly up in first gear, low ratio. As if it’s not tough enough, the heavens open: most of the Landies are open-sided and it’s freezing cold. The rain beats down – it’s difficult to see as the Landies descend the treacherous gradients, there’s the constant smell of smoking brakes, and the ancient windscreen wipers battle to cope as we pass southern Africa’s highest peak, the 3,482-metre Thabana Ntlenyana.
On the last day of our crazy mountain kingdom adventure, we wake to bright sunshine and the views across KwaZulu-Natal from the top of the Sani Pass are clear and endless. It’s a beautiful ending to this historic Series 1 journey as in low gear, we retrace our steps and descend the steep, winding Pass back to the village of Himeville and home. Every Series 1 Landy makes it – what an adventure!