Like many other wild ideas, this one started over a few cold ones. It was at the Ford Ranger XL Sport launch in Mpumalanga at the end of 2020, when a few of us cornered Ford’s Communications manager as well as Gideo Basson, their resident adventure guru. The idea was simple: a hardcore off-road experience with the flagship Raptor, a trip that would push the boundaries, forcing us to work with the vehicle and each other to keep the convoy going. Will this make for the ideal off-road trip or a complete disaster? Fast forward to 2022 and the invite landed in my inbox, complete with a warning that things were about to get rough.
The Ford Raptor is like no other bakkie on sale in South Africa today. It’s fair to say that no other standard production bakkie can compete when it comes to fast gravel handling. Thanks to that trick suspension, special shocks and chassis tweaks, it gets pretty close to off-road rally car performance – straight off the factory floor. I’ve had the privilege of getting behind the wheel of a Raptor on many gravel roads, but what I had not done was the slow and steady rock crawling, the hardcore lowrange stuff. This trip was going to change all of that. It would be a baptism by fire as we were headed into Lesotho.
To be honest I didn’t know much about this little land-locked country. I had been to the top of the Sani Pass to have a drink at the highest pub in Africa, but that’s about it. I’ll expand on my impressions of this mountainous kingdom in the skies a bit later. For now, let’s start at the beginning.
It’s day one and I, along with five other adventure-loving journos, meet at Ford’s Silverton manufacturing facility. The factory, in what is called the Tshwane Economic Zone, has just undergone a massive R1-billion transformation in order to produce the all-new Ford Ranger. This development has put most of Ford’s suppliers right on its doorstep. And there, making their imposing presence felt in the parking lot, was a line of sparkling new Raptor SE models. The SE stands for Special Edition, which adds a few eye-catching decals as well as a secure loadbin cover.
On closer inspection I noticed that the cars were already loaded with tents, sleeping gear and tanks of water. This was no 5-star hotel trip – it was going to be much more down to earth. We were all eager to get going, and with formalities out of the way, coffee downed and radios checked, we hit the road to our lunch stop in Fouriesburg. Our trip through the Free State took just over three hours, bringing us to a stone’s throw from the Lesotho border where the passport-stamping process was easy and efficient.
New country, new adventures
Once through, I was struck first by all the grey import Japanese vehicles on the streets, with their different names and shapes. The next awakening was being surrounded by expansive and beautiful views, unlike anything I have seen before. Even the tarred road out of the capital looked like an otherworldly ribbon snaking over the mountainous landscape.
Our convoy of six Raptors was going strong, and the trip so far had once again proved how capable this brute is on tarmac. That long-travel suspension soaks up every imperfection in the road. It was a real comfort to be in such a capable vehicle as we headed deeper and higher into the mountains, particularly when the heavens opened, adding to the unfolding drama. It wasn’t long before we turned off the smooth tar and followed the banks of the Katse Dam. Completed in 1996, this huge dam is fed by the Malibamat’so River and forms part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.
As the sun was setting, we travelled further into the unknown on washed-out gravel roads, in search of our camping spot for the night. Eventually expedition leader Gideo took us down a rutted path clearly used only by livestock, and after a good measure of bumping over the veld we emerged at a clearing where the views all around took my breath away. We were on the edge of the Katse Dam with water as smooth as glass stretching to the horizon, surrounded by a huge backdrop of hills and distant mountains.
The day wasn’t over though. We had tents to set up and a fire to make so that we could braai our supper. As we sat watching the flames dance in the dark, I looked up. There was no moon and no cloud, which meant I could see the Milky Way arcing across the sky, so bright it felt as if I could reach out and grab a handful of stars.
Day two was an interesting one. It was a day we all started surrounded by peace and beauty, which nearly ended in complete disaster. It was special to wake up next to the Katse Dam on a crisply-cold morning surrounded by dew-covered grass glistening in the sunlight. We even had a visit from some of the locals, who came to see what this cavalcade of fancy vehicles was all about.
With tents packed, breakfast eaten and vehicles loaded, we headed back up to the gravel road, which was in surprisingly good condition. We learned it was the road used by the builders and engineers on the dam project. Not too far along, we stopped at the dam wall itself, which is huge beyond belief. We weren’t surprised to learn it is the second largest doublecurvature arch dam in Africa, and is 710m long, 185m high, 60m wide at the base and 9m wide at the top. When full, it holds back water covering a surface area of around 3 580ha.
A wet affair
When we had finished marvelling at this feat of engineering, we pushed on, making our way along more gravel roads, with more unbelievable scenery unfolding around each turn. Just after our lunch stop, it began to rain. Proper mountain rain. And this is when our issues began. The smooth gravel had ended at this point, and we were on tracks used by livestock and horsemen. All around us the soil was like thick and sticky black clay. Our slow pace meant that the tyres were getting full of this stuff.
At first the Raptors seemed to be in their element, and despite the mud, the General Grabbers were getting some grip. It was all good until we got to one section where not even the specially developed tyres could cope. The mud had become so slippery and the road so narrow that a single mistake threatened to see the vehicle slide off the track and into a field.
As I was making my way through a particularly tight section, I lost all ability to make the Raptor respond to steering inputs. It was just following the path left by the vehicle in front, which had barely made it. I countered as I felt the rear of my Raptor start to slide – too late, buddy! We were off the track, sitting with the nose pointing up. Now I felt like a right old fool. We radioed Gideo for assistance, and while he was coming back, my driving partner, Brendon Staniforth from Maroela Media, decided to get out of the bakkie. He had obviously forgotten we had just slid down a small embankment, because as soon as his feet touched the ground he did this little tap-dancing thing and landed face down in the mud.
This made everyone laugh, and for a moment the attention was off my little blunder. At least until we had to hook up two Raptors to tow me out of trouble. That was a bit hectic. We thought the worst was over. It wasn’t, not by a long shot. If anything, the mud had become even thicker and more slippery. The bakkies were moving even when parked with the handbrakes on, and the group could hardly walk about without falling.
Once we had manhandled and towed all the vehicles though the first difficult section, the next presented even more challenges. The conditions were the same, but now with a left- hand turn down the hill. The mud had made it nigh impossible to steer the vehicles, so we had to haul out the recovery tracks. The guys would lay them down, drive the vehicle over them, and then lay down the tracks again to clear another few metres. After a few minutes each track was so clogged with mud that it took two of us to lift it, while staggering around on ground that had turned to slosh. To add to our woes, it was incredibly cold, and the sun was starting to set.
It took us four hours to cover just 400m using this technique, and we were exhausted when we arrived on the other side where there was more grip. That was when Gideo told us we still had to go down the mountain as our campsite was some 5km away on the banks of the river. However, we all decided it was far too dangerous to attempt in the conditions, and opted instead to camp at the top of the mountain.
Meanwhile, the wind had picked up dramatically and it was now as close to freezing as it could be. The rain had started falling again, too. Just our luck that there was a village on a hill close by. Gideo went and asked the elders where we could camp for the night that would provide some protection, and ever so graciously they offered to let us stay inside the school building for the night.
I don’t think a bunch of journos have ever been so excited to head to school. We rushed over to the buildings, set up beds inside the classroom and gathered around the fire – at least for a few minutes until the heavens opened again. We all took shelter in the classroom again, shared a very welcome dinner and indulged in a few war stories about the tough day we had just survived.
More mud and mountains!
Day three turned out to be the final day of serious off-roading. After we packed up the camp site and loaded the cars, we headed off down the mountain. The previous night’s rain had added to the rains that this area had experienced in the previous weeks, and water was seeping out of the ground just about everywhere.
The going was tough, and the road (if you can call it that) became narrower. In some places there was no road at all. We were crawling along cautiously, not wanting to get stuck. This was going to be a long day, and we didn’t want to make it any harder for ourselves.
There were some close calls, like the moment when a rock came loose and fell into the road just as the first vehicle had gone past. This was a slight issue as it had blocked the path. Thankfully the Raptor has 500Nm of torque and solid recovery points on the rear bumper, so we wrapped a strap around the rock, deployed all 500Nm on offer and managed to move it out of the way.
As we meandered down the mountain, the terrain changed, with rocks and tufts of grass replacing the mud. Still, the Raptors took this in their stride, with each driver being given guidance from outside so they could follow a safe line through the tough sections that led down to the river. After all that rain it was flowing strongly, and we needed to get across.
My concerns were quickly put at ease, because the surface below was solid enough and the Raptor has a wading depth of 850mm. We all made it safely out on the other side, with our pulses racing just that bit faster. By now, the sun was shining, the sky was as blue as ever and it was getting hot. Gideo looked at us and said, “OK, now the hard work starts”. Excuse me? The hard work? Turns out that it’s one thing going down into a valley, and a whole other thing getting up and out the other side.
The mountain threw it all at us. As we climbed higher, the rocks became progressively bigger. It was no longer a case of following the road, and more a case of navigating over whichever rocks were smaller and easier to crawl over. We did notice that there was very little scraping of the undersides of the vehicles, which we put down to the Raptor’s superior 283mm ground clearance. For the odd clash with larger rocks, it was a help to know there was a solid 2.3mm bash plate to protect the engine vitals.
To put this part of the route into perspective, we asked fellow adventurer Willem Van de Putte from IOL Motoring how it rated. He’s an avid off-roader who owns a tricked-out Defender and does rock crawling and camping stuff for weekend fun. He reckoned that what we were doing in off-the-showroom floor Raptors was on par – if not more challenging – than some of the gnarlier sections of Baboon’s Pass (also in Lesotho). It was tough, it was slow, and we had to pack rocks here and there so we did not fall off the cliff sides. This was not for sissies, and we were thankful to be in a capable vehicle under the guidance of a pro like Gideo.
Despite all the bumping and grinding, we all made it to the top with not a single flat tyre. It had taken eight sweaty hours to drive just 7km. We were all beyond tired, but at the same time impressed that we had made it – thanks in large part to the ability of the Raptors. After some more gravel road driving we hit the tar road that that took us to Semonkong where we were to stay the night. We made a final stop en route at the Maletsunyane Falls, to take in the fantastic views. After snapping a few photos we were glad to head straight to Semonkong Lodge, where a hot shower and soft bed seemed like the most welcome things on earth.
We were all seriously tired, but over dinner we got to reflect a little on what we had seen and been through. We had all worked closely together, showing me just how important it is to have the right people by your side when attempting an adventure such as this. We had encountered helpful people in places where a vehicle has probably not ventured in the last ten years. These are people who make do with so little. What a privilege, we all agreed, to experience such a beautiful country that can also be dangerous if not respected.
To top it all, we had stretched our limits in a vehicle that once again blew my expectations away. Not only were its credentials intact as a high-speed performer on gravel and tar, but now we had proved it is also an accomplished rock crawler. We were up early the next day, battling to get up and down the stairs at the lodge due to the effects of high altitude. We packed the filthy vehicles for the last time and hit the road, once again in awe at the mountainous terrain that defines every part of this country. Back at Silverton and heading home I couldn’t help but think that this was by far the most gruelling trip that I have ever done. Certainly it was another star performance from the Raptor. Now Ford, bring on the new and even better Raptor, and let’s do it all again!