Letele Pass - Fear and Courage
Words Ronald Hairbottle, pics Pierre Botha
In October 2013, Leisure Wheels published an article written by the aptly named Letele Crazy Group. They had unsuccessfully tackled the Letele Pass in Lesotho, and labelled it as impassable. Another group of adventurers read the article and were inspired to take on the epic challenge.
Having last successfully completed Lesotho's infamous Letele Pass in 2003, and knowing full well that it had always been much more daunting than Baboons Pass at its worst, it was with fear and respect that we decided to tackle the pass again in January this year.
To give credit where it is due, another group had beaten us to it, completing the crossing in October 2013 in some heavily modified Land Rovers, but nobody knew how much further the rainy season had damaged the pass since then.
Many people said they wanted to join us, but when it came to the push, the group was restricted to Gert Redelinghuys and myself in a 1991 Toyota 4Runner (the Rooi Gevaarte) and Pierre Botha partnered by Hannes Pienaar in a 2012 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited JK.
Both our vehicles had been modified to the hilt (see attached list). Suffice to say that we were fully prepared when it came to the vehicles. Mental preparation was a different matter altogether.
We teamed up for the first night in Fouriesburg and stayed over at a totally forgettable establishment, unworthy of mention. Early next morning we reported at the Caledonspoort border post, where Pierre promptly demolished the gate boom. (That Jeep is high and the boom was just not visible, he said.) Fortunately the Lesotho border officials were very forgiving, but one could only wonder, with a start like this, whether it was going to be an interesting trip. Border formalities concluded, we were off to conquer the mountains.
It took us a good two hours to get to the trail head. Driving behind a mid-nineties Toyota Corolla for a good stretch of the way, one was reminded just how well these Lesotho drivers can pilot even an ordinary sedan over these treacherous roads.
On our arrival at the trail head, Pierre remarked that “Dit lyk glad nie so erg nie”.
I just smiled, knowingly…
About 500m farther on, at our first river crossing, we were faced by one of the surprises Letele had in store for us. The road had been completely washed away. All that remained was a roaring, pumping river filled with boulders. The exit on the other side was nowhere to be seen.
We elicited the help of some locals to find any new road that might have been built, and they showed us a route, some 200m away. In 2003, the Letele River crossings were fairly narrow affairs, about 10m wide, although strewn with boulders. Now, 10 years later, the road was all but gone.
Pierre asked whether we were going to proceed through this broken mess of water and rock. “Of course!” I replied. “This is what we've been dreaming about for such a long time!”
We avoided an immediate crossing, and the rest of the day was spent systematically working our way up the trail, forever climbing higher and higher, not knowing what to expect around the next corner.
Late afternoon, and close to our first major obstacle, we looked for a camping site. This was an arduous task in itself, given the rocky, uneven terrain.
A late afternoon bath in the river and any and all germs were frozen solid, along with some strategic body parts. Around the campfire we discussed the day's events and filled our tummies to prepare us for what was sure to be a very eventful day. The famous Lesotho fireflies entertained us, thousands of them lighting up the mountainsides against an incredibly brilliant night sky.
I got up early next morning to record some photographic evidence of our campsite. Walking down to the river to freshen up, I decided to walk the proposed route through the riverbed. This was to be one of the big challenges of the trip.
A steep entry down into the riverbed, followed by an immediate sharp right turn, necessitated a couple of three-point turns to avoid the Fiat 500-sized boulders on the way. Then we would have to go through a tight boulder-strewn gully, turning left over a boulder outcrop and finally down into the frigid water.
Pierre’s big JK struggled to fit through this gully, and after battling and spinning for a while, we concluded that his rear ARB air locker wasn’t functioning.
Gert was assigned as Mr Fixit. He crawled underneath, to discover a pinched ARB airline supply hose, right at the brass fitting on the centre portion. There was a ferule fitting that wasn't really reusable. We had no spare, so I battled for about 30 minutes to “stretch” the ferule so that we could reuse it. With the help of some PTFE tape, we got the locker operational again. We also deflated the high flotation big 40-inch tyres on the JK some more, to assist in getting some grip on the menacing rocks.
To cross the river, there was only one line to follow, with the left wheel on the edge of a small waterfall, one big rock underbelly and some deep pools lurking on the right. Here I got stuck for a good 30 minutes, missing the line by 10cm and being punished by a pointy rock between the transfer case and fuel tank. Some careful rock packing did the trick, and we were mobile again, leaving some battle scars on the rocks.
The last piece of the puzzle was a steep, rocky, off-camber, slippery exit out of the river. Here we once again enlisted one of the local herdsmen to assist in reducing the camber of the side hill, as there was a big rock to the right, which would have pitched the vehicle dangerously to the left and possibly over the waterfall.
Everybody stood at the top and supported the 4Runner’s nose with a pull strap attached to the bull bar. This was to stop the vehicle from sliding sideways.
One well-timed stomp on the accelerator, some wheel spin and we were up and out of the river. I stayed in the 4x4 for a while until my knees stopped attacking each other!
Pierre got through the water just fine, but got stuck on the exit hill. A quick pull from the winch, connected to my 4x4, and he was out.
There were a couple of near death experiences along the way, but then we got to the worst river crossing of all. Spanning around 60m, with a dangerously steep entry, it was a boulder-filled crossing with another steep exit to a centre gully and a long off-camber side slope.
Here Hannes was appointed driver of the Jeep, as Pierre quite eloquently stated, “Ek gaan ‘n f….n hartaanval kry met die bleddie klippe!”
The big Jeep slid down the entry into the river and after battling for a while, couldn’t get up the centre boulder field. We winched one big boulder from his path, all the way from the edge of the bank using the 4Runner's winch. After several attempts, we winched the Jeep over the embankment.
While the Jeep rested at the start of the exit, the 4Runner ambled its way through the boulders without too much fuss. The combination of ultra low gearing, very low tyre pressures and some rock crawling experience definitely helped.
The exit to the river was hair raising, to say the least. Pierre’s Jeep slid sideways, with the rear hanging precariously over the edge. Fortunately, we found a large boulder in a small gully close by which we could use as an anchor point for winching. A little while later, Hannes could breathe a sigh of relief.
When the Toyota followed, we slid sideways at exactly the same spot, but got out of the predicament unassisted.
Our stress levels were in the red zone and to make matters worse, two VW Beetle-sized boulders came rolling down the mountain, crossing the path about 30m in front of the 4Runner. Had these behemoths landed on our 4x4…
This happened a second after I had mentioned to Gert that “hierdie berg verweer die hele tyd. Kyk hoe lê die klippe in die pad.”
It was a stark reminder of just how perilous the road conditions in Lesotho are, whether through rain, snow, mud, rocks or avalanche. Indeed, one's life is in constant danger in these remote areas.
There were another couple of difficult spots, and at around 14:00 I decided that an impromptu mountain waterfall swim was in order. At first everybody thought I should go to the funny farm, but eventually all joined in for some good clean fun.
After another long daunting, steep uphill, boulder strewn gully, we reached the top of Letele Pass, immediately posing on the “Letele, Still Shit” rock, for some pictures.
I recalled that the downhill side of Letele had one bad off-camber 90-degree bend but that the rest was pretty reasonable to the end. But little did we know how many washouts, off-camber sections and detours still awaited us.
We reached the bottom of the pass in the late afternoon on the second day, and set up camp between the boulders in the riverbed.
Once again we assumed that the way out to Katse Dam would be smooth sailing, but that was not to be. The morning of the third day was met by the 4Runner wanting to turn into a Land Rover by springing a power steering leak. One of the return hoses had shifted into the path of the fan, resulting in the hose being chafed through. Pierre came to the rescue with a piece of his diff breather hose, and all was well again.
Much later we came to a piece of road on the edge of the mountain, above the river, that was undercut and washed away. We had to back track, find a way down into the river, find a route along the river bed and re-enter the road farther on. This little detour took us a full three hours, with a couple of tipsy, near roll-over moments, over the rocks in the riverbed.
Then the 4Runner got stuck in a muddy pool while we were trying to find the path that had been washed away every couple of hundred metres. A quick tug, and we were on our way again, looking for a detour around the detour.
Much later we finally made it to the road at Katse Dam and wow, what a relief!
Looking back now, and while acknowledging that Letele is indeed one of – if not the most – dauntingly difficult passes available to us, the worst part was psychological. We never quite knew what lay in wait for us up ahead, and whether we would actually make it through. All in all, it was a totally epic experience.
Men and machines
Vehicle: 2012 Jeep Wrangler JK 3,6-litre V6
Suspension: Synergy Long Arm with 14-inch Travel Fox coilovers
Springs: (F&R) Synergy Coil Over
Shocks: (F&R) 14-inch Travel Fox Coilovers
Front axle: Currie Rockjock 60
Differential type: Dana 60 High Pinion
Rear: Currie Rockjock 60
Differential type: Dana 60 High Pinion
Tire brand: (F&R) Maxxis Trepador MT
Tire size: 40-inch
Wheel brand: Black Rhino
Wheel size: 17-inch x 9-inch
Bumpers: (F&R) Rugged Ridge
Tire carrier: Rugged Ridge
Rock sliders: Synergy
Skid plates: Synergy
Compressor: ARB Heavy Duty
Winch: Warn 9RC Competition
Auxiliary lights: Carr Lightbar
Ronald Hairbottle aka Dieseldog
Hobbies: 4x4, Explore nature
Vehicle: 1991 Toyota 4Runner
Suspension: SAS leafs front, leaf rear
Springs: Front: OME 91B Leafs, OME 181 Leafs, rear clamps removed.
Shocks: Front: 305mm (12”) Fox Racing c/w remote reservoirs, extended towers. Rear: OME N75F mounted inboard on custom mounts
Front Axle: Toyota Pickup solid beam,moved forward 30mm on perches, knuckle gussets, top gusset, perch gusset, diff guard, knuckle rock rings, Trail-Gear knuckle seals
Front Differential Type: high pinion conversion
Rear Axle: Toyota solid beam, shaved, tilted, rear full gusset, diff guard, slip and twist traction bar.
Rear Differential Type: Toyota 2-Pinion
Tire Brand: BF Goodrich MT KMII
Tire Size: 35 x 12.5 R15
Wheels: Steel, 4x4 Traction Rock Rings
Wheel Size: 15 x 8J
Offset: 50mm (2”)
Bumpers: Front: 4x4 Traction custom high clearance winch bumper with stinger, Trail Gear LED indicator lights.
Rear: 4x4 Traction Custom 44mm (1ó”) x 3mm tubular high clearance
Rock Sliders: 4x4 Traction custom dliders - 44mm (1ó”) x 3mm tubular routers, main skids 5mm wall 50mm square tubing, welded to frame
Skid Plates: 4x4 Traction custom radiator protector plate and fuel tank guard.
Compressor: ARB CKMA12, mounted in engine bay, ARB Pump-Up Kit, ARB Tyre
Inflator, ARB Tyre Deflator
Winch: Smittybilt XRC8 with synthetic line
Auxiliary Lights: HID Xenon H4 Bulbs
Recovery Equipment: High lift, Jack Buddy, snatch straps, tow straps, bow
shackles, snatch Block, tree saver, fold-up axle stand.
Source: Leisure Wheels