To kickstart a new year and a new decade, we dreamed up a new challenge – to complete 100 of the most challenging, historic and interesting mountain passes in southern Africa in just 30 days!
With our well-travelled expedition Discovery loaded to the roofracks with gear and accompanied by a clutch of old Defenders and their colourful owners who joined the expedition for short stretches at a time, first on the list was the famous Sani Pass that links KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Then it was on to reach the top of the Tlaeng Pass in Lesotho (highest drivable pass in southern Africa) and 16 more high-altitude passes through the Maluti Mountains.
Back into South Africa, we clocked up all 5 of the ‘Extreme High Five’ mountain passes of the Eastern Cape Highlands, including summiting Ben McDhui (highest point in South Africa) in howling winds, torrential rain and thick fog, as well as the technically tricky but breathtakingly beautiful Bastervoetpad Pass (27Km long – SA’s 6th highest mountain pass).
We then turned south, tackling the toughest and oldest mountain passes of the Eastern and Western Cape provinces, before heading north-west through the Cedarberg mountain range to reach the most difficult pass of all in the Northern Cape – the Road to Hell, infamously known as the most dangerous 4×4 desert mountain pass in South Africa. From there, it was a race against the clock to complete the final six mountain passes on our list in the ancient mountain desert landscapes of the Richtersveldt on the Namibian border before the 30-day deadline.
This home-grown journey once again proved the incredible resilience and off-road capabilities of our expedition Land Rover Discovery, which had already successfully completed three world-first geographic and humanitarian expeditions in 3 years, and had only recently returned from the gruelling 10,000Km Zambezi-Congo expedition east-to-west across Africa.
The 4,023Km route also proved to be excellent high-altitude training for veteran expedition member Mike Nixon, one of only four ‘Last Lions’ of the gruelling Absa Cape Epic mountain bike race, who was preparing for his record-breaking 17th Cape Epic challenge.
With Mashozi’s Rite to Sight humanitarian work en route, this Riding High On Sky mountain pass adventure turned into an unusual world-first for the Land Rover Discovery, with tremendous interest from the 4×4 adventure community, both local and international, who eagerly followed the expedition’s progress.
• Total number mountain passes actually completed: 125 in 30 days – a new southern Africa record
• 16 in the Maluti Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho
• 109 in South Africa, including the ‘Extreme High Five’ mountain passes of the Eastern Cape Highlands, and 25 historic 19th Century mountain passes in tribute to master road-builder Thomas Bain.
• Highest altitude: Tlaeeng Pass in Lesotho (3270m) – highest drivable pass in Southern Africa
• Trickiest descent: Ongeluks Nek Pass in mud and rain
• Most difficult mountain pass of all: The Road to Hell in the Northern Cape
• Most dangerous situation: heatstroke on the Road to Hell – temperatures were above 45’C
• Fastest & most exciting descent by mountain bike: Bastervoetpad Pass in the Eastern Cape Highlands
• Total number of punctures in our Cooper tyres: Zero
• Extreme weather and 4×4 mountain pass conditions:
Gale force winds, thick mist, torrential rain and severe thunderstorms; precipitously steep, twisting ascents and descents with slick mud and rocky terrain (some difficult sections over 25Km long); flash floods and swollen river crossings; deep sand, loose rocks and dangerously high temperatures in desert regions.
• ‘Firsts’ for the Land Rover Discovery:
• First successful summit of Ben McDhui, South Africa’s highest mountain pass by a new Discovery
• First new Discovery to tame ‘The Road to Hell’ in the Northern Cape (both descent and ascent)
• 4023Km – total travelled through some of southern Africa’s toughest high-altitude terrain in 30 days
A ‘last hurrah’ to the gutsy Discovery model launched in 2017, ahead of the much-anticipated arrival of the new Land Rover Defender in 2020.
Friends in Adventure, we hope this Riding High on Sky adventure encourages you to also throw some camping kit in your Land Rover and hit the mountain pass route of your choice. But a word of caution: we made sure we had all the necessary 4×4 equipment and carefully researched the route beforehand. We highly recommend Trygve Roberts’ informative Mountain Passes of South Africa website.
Nearly every mountain pass we traversed requires properly-equipped 4×4 vehicles with good ground clearance, low-range capabilities and experienced drivers – even then, you can come unstuck. So please do your homework first, always travel with more than one vehicle on the more difficult sections and watch the weather – many mountain passes are very treacherous in cold, wet and windy conditions and it’s not always easy to call for help.