Thursday 23rd April
We got the Kombi packed, dogs sorted out, doors locked, windows closed and a hundred other things done and left Wellington at about 12 o’clock on Thursday 23rd April. We were going to meet up with our Syncro buddies in Maseru on Saturday and travel through Lesotho together. That was the original plan! What changed our plans slightly was that we had just bought a new (to us) T5 Kombi 4motion which doesn’t have the kind of ground clearance that the older T3 Syncro has. The fleet of T3 Syncro’s we were going to meet up with were going to do an off-road excursion through unmarked territory which the 4motion T5, although four wheel drive, is not capable of doing because it is too low. So our “old” Syncro was parked in the shed with its nose all out of joint and we left in the “new” Kombi with plans to meet up with the guys but to go our own way when they headed off into the wide blue yonder, or should I say into mountain goat territory.
We drove through the amazing Bainskloof Pass which is on our doorstep and it was the perfect appetiser to our journey when we looked back after the trip reminiscing over what we had experienced in the Mountain Kingdom. Instead of turning right for Worcester and the N1, we carried on straight and drove through Mitchells Pass and Ceres. We were driving up Theronsberg Pass when the heavens opened and it started pouring with rain. We actually carried on straight on the R355 with the intention of going up via Sutherland but we had to slow down to walking speed as visibility was almost zero and when the road changed to gravel we decided to turn around after a few kilometres as conditions were quite ridiculous and we didn’t want to end our holiday so soon. I was very worried about turning around because you couldn’t see whether anyone was coming from either direction so we took quite a risk there. We actually filmed the rain pelting down on the windscreen with the video camera while going through Die Venster because it was so unbelievably hard. We joined the N1 and went past Touwsriver and Rooikoppies and stopped in a freezing Matjiesfontein for a lovely toasted sandwich and coffee while we watched the staff trying to light a fire in the kaggel in the Coffee Shop. By the time we left they still had not managed to light it.
The rain had slowed down a bit but it came back strong again as we approached Laingsburg. There were torrents of water forming rivers and rapids that was mind boggling and images of The Floods in January 1981 came to mind. We stopped at a Wilgerhout bridge as you enter town and the water was just below bridge at that stage.
The Buffels River which was the river that flooded the town that time was also huge and flowing fast.
We had not thought of where we were going to stay yet and as we approached Beaufort West I suddenly remembered about the Karoo National Park and I was glad that we hadn’t gone via Sutherland. We found this park to be stunning, well run and clean with a lovely camp site and lots to do and see. We definitely want to visit here again for a longer stay when the weather is better.
Karoo National Park
Karoo National Park
We booked in and went down to the camp site and found ourselves a good spot under some trees near the ablution block. I lit a fire in the rain and had to lower one side of the awning to let the rain run off the roof. We had a lekker wet braai and turned in early.
lekker wet braai and turned in early
We decided to have breakfast in the restaurant the next morning and what a scrumptious meal that was with steak, eggs, wors, bacon and everything else that a proper breakfast should have. Definitely recommended.
We went for a drive around the park and went up a beautiful pass to the Rooivalle waterfall but after all the rain this waterfall was strangely dry. We did the fossil trail and only got ½ way around when we had to run for cover because we were caught out in the open when the heavens opened again. Looking like drowned rats we thought that was about enough of that and we hit the road again.
At Colesberg we turned off the maddening N1 and went through Bethulie and then onto Smithfield thinking we would sleep over in Smithfield but we drove around there and really couldn’t find anywhere that looked even half ok to sleep in. We took the wet R701 gravel road to Wepener in more rain and saw on the map that the Caledon Nature Reserve was on that road and our spirits rose as we thought that would be a nice place to overnight.
There was a Parks board sign on the road so we turned off for the Caledon Reserve and after about 5kms I saw a bakkie travelling behind me so I stopped and flagged him down to find out if he knew about the reserve. He turned out to be the manager of the reserve but told us there is absolutely no accommodation there. I hinted about camping there but he wasn’t the brightest smartie in the pack and didn’t fall for it. He obviously was hungry for conversation though and kept me standing in the rain while trying to advise us on where to stay. By what he mentioned, there didn’t seem to be much in the line of accommodation in the area. After we managed to get away we turned around and headed back to the R701 gravel road and then right when it turned to tar for Wepener. After a short way we realised that Wepener was still another 14kms from there so we turned around and rather carried on the R26 as that was at least in the right direction. The Caledon manager had said that there was a place along that road that he had been to and that it could be a place to stay but we missed it somehow and eventually ended up in the buzzing metropolis of Hobhouse.
There were well posted caravan park signs guiding us all around town to a caravan park that was no longer. All that remained of what used to be a recreation park, caravan park and sports club was the pub. The owner/barman Trevor told us to go and see Francois up at the big house as he has a B & B and had a big back yard where people sometimes camp. We went to see Francois who has to be the friendliest guy around and he offered us a spot in his back yard with a power point nogal too. He rents out his rooms to the Telkom and Eskom guys that work in the area. When I asked him how much he said don’t worry, he won’t charge us anything as he is a B & B and not a camp site. I crossed his palm with a few notes when we left the next morning anyway to show our appreciation. We then decided to head back down to the pub as there were not a lot of other options in Hobhouse.
After an entertaining night at Trevor’s pub with some of the local characters we went back to Francois place and bedded down for the night after a snack and nightcap.
Saturday 25th April
Saturday dawned and we took one last drive around town to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and then headed for Ladybrand for breakfast and to stock up on supplies before heading into Lesotho to meet the Syncronauts. We got through the border post quickly and we were early so we drove around Maseru a bit and then went to the Maseru Sun Hotel for a cup of coffee and Verine found what was to be our best map and info brochure of Lesotho.
We then went to meet up with the Syncronauts and after all the greetings and waiting for the stragglers we left Maseru in convoy for Ramabantha, our first overnight stop. One of the Syncro’s coming from Pretoria was having problems on the road and they agreed that they would join us later at Ramabantha after fixing their problem. That brought the total to 17 Syncro’s.
Here at Ramabantha, some people braaied, some people had dinner at the restaurant and some people had ready made food. Needless to say it was quite cold.
Ramabantha proved to be a very nice spot with camping and chalets and a pub and dining room with lovely lawns and a magnificent view. The ablutions were a bit small for a group our size let alone a group of BMW GS bikes that were there as well.
We chose the perfect spot right on the edge of an amphi-theatre type camping layout with the very best view as you can see in the above picture.
Sunday 26th April
Some of us weren’t too happy with our Saamtrek co-ordinator wanting to leave the next morning at 6.00 and eventually the time was set for 7.00am for our departure which we all managed to achieve after everyone abluted, ate and packed tents, chairs, tables etc. and we were off bound for Semonkong or should I say the Maletsunyane waterfalls.
17 Kombi’s pulled out of Ramabantha with the temp at around 3 degrees and we started the long trek. Down valleys and up the other side, over and over.
On the way we were hauling up a hill when I saw steam bellowing out of the red Kombi and we all ground to a halt. A water pipe had burst and so running repairs were carried on the hill with everyone helping out, either with tools, verbally, a helping hand, or coffee. The local shepherds and their dogs seem to appear out of nowhere and we were their form of entertainment for a while. Eventually the red Doka (double cab in German) was fixed and we were on or way again. We went past the entrance to Baboons Pass and you can see that this pass is for the serious okes. The highest point on the GPS on this trip was 2760 meters above sea level.
We turned off the A5 main road and went past the Catholic Mission Station, through a couple of sludgy drifts where the road had been washed away and then across a field and then there it was in all its glory in front of us. The highest waterfall in Southern Africa at 192m and also the highest recorded abseil in the world. The Maletsunyane Falls.
The Maletsunyane Falls
The Maletsunyane Falls
This is where we bid our fellow syncronauts farewell as they were going back through Semonkong and into mountain goat country and we were going back to Ramabantha.
When we got back to Ramabantha, we picked the same camp site that we had camped at the night before with the best view in the world and we had a lovely braai.
Monday 27th April
We retraced our tracks back up to Roma and turned right onto the A3 heading East. We saw a sign to the left about Bushman paintings and took a detour to have a look.
Although it took a long to walk down to the paintings and a rather lengthy drawn out presentation it was a worthwhile stop.
The A3 at this stage is tar and really a lovely drive over some wonderful passes. The views and scenery is stunning and we also saw the Mohale Dam from the top of one of the passes. The Mohale is Lesotho’s newest dam.
Road to Mohale Dam
At the very top of this pass (2900m) pictured above this most beautiful brand new modern tar road stops suddenly and becomes a track. From there on it is rough going with lots of road works as well. The roads are being upgraded for the new water scheme at Mohale and apparently another hydro-electric plant is in the pipeline (no pun intended).
We went through Mantsonyane and got stuck in the centre of town in rush hour. Taxis, goats, donkeys, trucks etc. all over the place. I was supposed to turn left and miss the town but I didn’t see the little track on my left. Three Free State 4×4 bakkies all kitted out with rooftop tents and gas bottles also missed the turning and we all had to navigate our way out of there again. This is where the Syncro mountain goats will join “civilisation” again after their excursion through the mountains. We eventually got to Thaba Tseka in the late afternoon and started looking for a camp site or accommodation but to no avail. Eventually we did find a fairly nice Hotel on the way out of town after searching for ages only to be told that they were fully booked after we had to wait for more than half an hour while they sorted out three guys who arrived just before us. The place didn’t look half full and we could see quite a few open rooms from the car park. The super helpful receptionist also couldn’t advise us on any other accommodation in the area and didn’t know whether there were any other places further on. She also didn’t know whether Katse Dam had any form of accommodation at all.
By now it was dusk and getting dark quickly so we headed for Katse. The itinery for the Syncro crowd was to overnight at Katse so I was pretty sure there would be some form of camp area there. We were also hoping to meet them there but I estimated that we were about a day ahead of them.
We arrived at Katse in the dark and saw lights on and someone in an office in a big building. This turned out to be the main building and office block for the dam. The guy came down from his office and directed us to the “camp site”.
The camp site or visitors area was a fenced off area and a prefab building which comprised of a hall for presentations for people visiting the dam and a kitchen and a seperate ablution block which was also prefab. The security guard let us in and said we could park anywhere. It was pitch dark and we couldn’t see a thing so we just parked next to the prefab building to overnight. We then found that there were two other couples also staying there. They were hikers and had pitched their tents around the other side of the building and were camping out in the kitchen because it was freezing outside. The security guard had rigged himself a heater / stove which I believe would take top honours if he entered a design / creative innovation competition!!!!!
heater / stove
We chatted with the hikers for a while and found out that there was not a drop of water in the entire place! The toilets, showers, urinals, kitchen sink taps, everything was dry.
The hikers had already had supper and were sitting around chatting so we joined them and shared some stories about what we had encountered.
Tuesday 28th April
We turned in early for the night and were greeted with this amazing picture in the morning.
They have a row of lights along the top of the dam wall which are on at night. That was all we could see the previous night when we arrived and we had no idea where we were and that we would be greeting with such an awesome view in the morning.
We left early and drove around and found the lodge by accident. I think it could the building in the top left of the picture. They had water and we were able to sneak in and ablute there. While we were admiring the view from the front porch area an elderly gent came and asked me how the roads were to Thaba Tseka and beyond to Maseru as he had come in via Ficksburg. I explained as best I could and he said he wants to go that way because he is writing an article on the Basuto pony and wanted to do some research work along that route. I had seen an old BMW R80 motorbike with sidecar parked outside but I had no idea that this was what he was riding. I would probably have been a bit more specific if I’d known that.
After we left Katse and about 5kms on the way back to Thaba Tseka we came across this BMW bike in the middle of the road with the bike and the sidecar obviously not going in the same direction anymore. We stopped to help and it was the same gent that we had spoken to. Two of the four mountings holding the sidecar to the bike had sheared off completely. The only thing we could do was to undo the other two mountings and ride the bike as a bike.
BMW bike with sidecar
Luckily a police bakkie came past who were very reluctant to stop and assist at first but we managed to persuade them to load up the sidecar and take it back to Ficksburg with Ken riding the bike back. He was pretty shaken up and quite shocked at what had happened and I hope he made it back ok.
When you approach Thaba Tseka from the north you see their dump site and we were amazed to see that they have a very active waste separation programme going on there. We found the local petrol station; a tank above the ground perched on a slope on some rocks, and filled up with diesel.
We also saw this strange looking vehicle below as we approached Thaba Tseka.
Strange looking vehicle
From Thaba Tseka it is a long lovely road east towards Sani Pass and the Border Post. You ride along next to and eventually cross the Senqu River at a drift which could probably become tricky or impassable in the rainy season. The Senqu is actually the Orange River in its early stages.
After the valley of the Senqu the road climbs up and circles around a hill and you then look down on the valley that you have just been through. You then climb steadily higher and higher past little villages and unbelievable landscapes and right on top of the mountain is a little settlement and a fork in the road. It was quite unexpected and we hadn’t checked out the GPS or map books yet when we saw some people sitting outside a little shop and we asked them which way to Sani. There were five of them, three girls and two guys and they swarmed us. The one girl was like the main spokes person. She was well spoken and dressed to the nines up there in the middle of nowhere. They were extremely jovial and friendly and we had a nice chat with them after they told us which way to go. They also told us they were members of the band Mofutsana and went to fetch one of their CD’s which we listened to and bought from them. This became our preferred music for the rest of our trip.
After many more mountain passes you get to Mokhotlong which was the highest point indicated on the GPS at just over 3000m. In the south facing shady slopes next to the road there were little pockets of snow to be seen. Many more mountain passes and some wash-a-aways later we saw the Sani Pass sign and then the most important place in Lesotho!
Highest Pub in Africa
We had a beer with the boss man and went outside and took some photos from the deck looking down the pass. When we left I asked him if I could take my empty Maluti beer can with me and he grabbed it, chucked it in the bin and gave me a full, sealed beer and said, “Rather put this full one in your bar”. It now resides with some of my other collection in my booze rack.
We crawled down the legendary mountain pass and it was a great feeling to fulfil one of my dreams. It took a long time coming. They are definitely starting with the preparation work to tar the pass and this poor machine had a breakdown.
Broken down grader
We cleared the border post and then Verine saw the Sani Pass Hotel on the left and I was duly instructed that I must turn in here and not look for a campsite for tonight! Many South African Rands changed hands (actually they swiped my card which made the pain a little more bearable) and we had a lovely time with good food for dinner and breakfast in a very nice setting even though the Hotel is showing signs of a bit of wear and tear.
Sani Pass Hotel
Wednesday 29th April
We took the back “kronkel pad” hugging the eastern foothills of the very impressive Drakensberg Mountains all the way around to Giant’s Castle and then on to the magnificent Cathedral Peak. The Park is well kept and very neat and has a lovely reception / restaurant / curio shop and is geared up for the tourist and hiker. We booked in and camped in a very nice campsite with ok ablutions and a backdrop of note behind us.
The only problem with this spot is the braai set-up. They are the same design as the ones in the Karoo National Park outside Beaufort West but they are obviously intended for hikers and are tiny. You cannot make a decent fire in them but we persevered and eventually had a nice supper. Verine experimented with a selection of pots inside each other and made a “potbrood” on the gas stove which turned out beautifully.
Thursday 30th April
On the way to the Royal Natal National Park we went over the Woodstock Dam and I remember hearing on the radio a few days later that an Airforce helicopter had crashed into the dam. The views approaching and climbing up again after the dam are amazing.
We wanted a good view of the Amphi Theatre without hiking up the mountain for half the day and we managed to sneak into Tendele a “Residents Only” area which goes up the mountain to beautiful thatched chalets in the Royal Natal National Park. They certainly have the best view from up here for which I’m sure they pay handsomely. It was also at this park that I eventually found a Basuto hat which I had been looking for throughout the whole of Lesotho.
Royal Natal National Park
On the way around to Witsieshoek through Kwakwa we saw this strange stormy cloud formation called Mammatus clouds.
True to their ominous appearance, mammatus clouds are often harbingers of a coming storm or other extreme weather system. Typically composed primarily of ice, they can extend for hundreds of miles in each direction and individual formations can remain visibly static for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. While they may appear foreboding they are merely the messengers – appearing around, before or even after severe weather. (This is an extract from Rare Wonders of Nature)
Coincidently the Amphi Theatre which is said to be one of the best displays of basalt erosion on the planet is also noted in the Rare Wonders of Nature.
After a very long crawl up the mountain past the Witsieshoek Mountain Resort we arrived at the starting point of the hike to the top. It was freezing cold with a rip roaring wind and we only went as far as the view point in the photo below. In the distance on the left slope right down at the bottom of the valley is the Tendele Resort which is not visible in this shot but I could make it out on the video camera. I am sure I took a photo of the Devil’s Tooth from up here but I must have been mistaken. We got off the mountain and back into the car as quick as possible. On the way down we met two hikers who were walking down to their car which couldn’t get any further on their way up. They had walked up to the end of the road and then still hiked up the mountain and the girl slipped and sprained her ankle about 200 meters from their car on their way back. She was hobbling along with her boyfriend trying to help her. Needless to say we gave them a lift down to the car.
Wind our way down the mountain
We again had to wind our way down the mountain and back through the hustle and bustle of Phuthaditjhaba and then into the glorious Golden Gate National Park.
Golden Gate National Park
The view below is from the campsite in the Park. One couldn’t ask for much more.
The view from the campsite in the Park
We bought some things from the café opposite the campsite and found out that there was a very nice restaurant at the Kiara Lodge a few kms outside the park on the road to Clarens. So off we went.
We had the most amazing lamb curry dinner in The Trout and Mallard and enjoyed a little of the local hospitality of the proprietor, Mac in his typical English style Pub/Restaurant.
Pub at The Trout and Mallard
We had a nightcap back at the campsite and turned in early. Tomorrow was going to be a long drive.
Friday 1st May
We were up very early this morning and after a trip to the ablutions we were on the road straight away because we hadn’t set up camp. We stopped and took a photo of the Brandwag Buttress which I would like to add here but there are so many pictures already. Ok just a little one then. Note the sun just behind the ridge.
And then off to Clarens. Along the way it was 1 degree at about 7.00am. Not really funny.
Verine had visited Clarens once before on her trip to Port Alfred from Gauteng with Cecile and she said I must see this quaint dorp. Well it certainly has a lot of character and the most delectable bakery/pantry/coffee shop which was thankfully open at that ridiculous hour of the morning. We got two delicious pies, some pastries and hot coffee and we were on the road again bound for Graaff Reinet.
We decided to go up to Bethlehem, fill up there and travel on the N5 and onto the N1 at Bloemfontein and turn off at Colesberg for Graaff Reinet instead of taking the back roads which is how we normally travel, but time was few and distance was many. I was quite amazed to be charged a toll fee on the N5 for a road that was under major construction!
We stopped at Noupoort for fuel and I remember seeing this church many years ago when repping the area with Brian Farnham.
Church at Noupoort
We arrived in the magnificent town of Graaff Reinet in the late afternoon. We were in phone contact with John and Cecile who were coming up from Bathurst and they arrived a short while after us.
Church at Graaff Reinet
This is such a lovely little town and no wonder it is called the Gem of the Karoo. While we were waiting for the Bathursters to arrive we checked out the town and the caravan park and we had already picked our spot. When they arrived we set up camp and had a lekker braai.
Our Camp at Graaff Reinet
Saturday 2nd May
Saturday was the main event for me. I had wanted to see the Valley of Desolation before I even knew about the Sani Pass so I was very excited and I was also not disappointed. After a pleasant drive through the Park the road starts climbing and magnificent views appear around each corner. When you get to the Toposcope you get the first hint of what’s to come.
Valley of Desolation
The road goes up some more to a parking area and then a short walk armed with cameras and video cameras, binoculars, bird books and what ever else,,,, and then you’re there.
Valley of Desolation
I got totally trigger happy and took lots and lots of photos (thanks to digital cameras, what did we do in the old days?) and then John spotted two Black Eagles which were being harassed by three or four crows. The eagles were perched on top of one of the columns (to the right of this picture) and the crows were dive-bombing them and trying to unsettle them to leave. The eagles weren’t fazed though and the crows eventually left them alone. John verified that they were Black Eagles with his huge bird book which had been painstakingly covered in denim with a shoulder strap and all by a previous girlfriend. Needless to say he was ragged to shreds about this book.
On the way down the mountain we spotted a paraglider about to do a tandem flight from where the Toposcope is and stopped to watch the takeoff. They hung in the air right in front of us and slowly disappeared into the Karoo landscape as they descended on the thermals. It was an inspiring experience just watching them, I can’t even imagine how incredibly inspiring it must have been for them.
We drove around the dam area and around the town, exploring and sightseeing and then we went into the museum Huis Graaff Reinet where Andrew Murray used to live. He who watches over Wellington at the foot of Church Street. He was the minister of the church seen above and was very influential in Wellington and it was his son George who laid the corner stone in 1909 and who was the first minister of the very impressive church in De Hoop outside Oudtshoorn on the road to Calitzdorp. See my story “Port Alfred” at http://www.africatrips.co.za/port-alfred
Andrew Murray was also influential in the congregation and the building of the also hugely impressive church in Aberdeen which can seat 2000 people. See photo later in this story.
We then went for a bite to eat right opposite the church at a lovely restaurant in a wing of the Graaff Reinet Club building. We didn’t know about the club at the time and we may have missed a very special part of this town if I hadn’t read the story in the cover of the menu. The story relates that a British battalion from Cold Stream was based here during the Anglo-Boer War and that they shot up the bar when they heard the news that the war was over and that they were going home. The story also says that the gun shot scars were still evident in the bar counter. Naturally I had to investigate and I found the bar and a lot more.
Restaurant at Graaff Reinet Club building
I started chatting to the locals and they told me some stories and explained some of the photos in the bar. One guy even took me into another section of the club to show me some of the other old photos of years gone by. Then someone said, “Have you seen the snooker room?” and I could not believe what I saw.
Snooker room chair
I had to go call Verine and Cecile to come and see. They in the mean time had thought that I had eloped with the waitress but their jaws also hung open when they saw this lot. One of the Davis snooker players’ world record for the highest score from the break still stands and was set on the table closest to the camera. The spectator seats are leather and super comfortable and the place is an icon for nostalgia and classic memorabilia. Of course we then had to go back to the bar so that the girls could see what I was so excited about and so that I could explain where I had been all the time. We crawled out of there many hours later and in front of me was this picture that I couldn’t help taking.
Church at Graaff Reinet
I have got another photo of the girls when we got back to the camp but I won’t add it to this story. J
Sunday 3rd May
Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. Today was Sunday and I had to be back at work the next day. We had breakfast, packed up and bid John and Cecile farewell and we were on our way home, via Aberdeen of course to see the other very impressive church. An interesting thing about this church is that the spire is a few centimetres off centre at the top. It is difficult to see it on this picture but it is noticeable with the naked eye when standing in front of the church. We found an interesting bric-a-brac place called “Moer Toe” with Koffie and Skottel TV. They saw us looking and taking photos and came running after us as we pulled away shouting, “Ons is oop, ons is oop”. No doubt hungry for business.
That was the end of one of the best times and trips that I have.
A special thanks to Verine for helping make it happen.
Church at Aberdeen
“Moer Toe” sign