Lesotho did not gain the name “the mountain kingdom” for nothing. Nearly two-thirds of the country consists of mountains with peaks ranging from 2 200 to 3 000 metres high. That means passes galore. Trygve Roberts of Mountain Passes South Africa explores one of his favourites, the Moteng Pass.
Situated in the northern quartile of Lesotho, the Moteng Pass is located on the A1 road between the town of Kala in the west and the Afriski Mountain Resort in the north. Stretching over 15.3km, it has a huge altitude gain of 896m, converting into an average gradient of 1:17. Don’t be fooled by that mild-sounding figure, as it includes the descent. Most of the ascent from the western approach is between 1:5 and 1:8. The 91 bends, corners and curves will most definately require your full concentration. Amongst those are four extreme hairpin bends and one full horseshoe. The A1 road is the major route across the northern sector of Lesotho and, as such, carries a fair volume of traffic, including some large trucks. These need the full width of the road to negotiate the hairpin bends, so be careful of this as you drive. The pass has been the scene of numerous accidents, mostly involving trucks and buses. All the passes in Lesotho are above the snow line, so driving here in winter invariably means having to deal with snow and ice, which is to be avoided if possible, and especially so if you are not in a 4WD vehicle.
When approaching from the west, the obvious starting points are either Maseru or (if you want to avoid the hustle and bustle of this rather large town), Ficksburg might be a quieter option. From either point it’s easy to access the A1 route. There are many villages and towns to traverse, with the main ones being Hlotse, Jonathans, Butha- Buhte and Kala. From Kala, it is another 25km to reach the western start of the Moteng Pass. To approach from the east, the best-known landmark is the Afriski Mountain Resort. Head north-west along the A1 for 20km to reach the eastern start of the pass.
From the western start, the road runs directly east for a 1km climb at a gradient of 1:25, but this changes as the first major bend – a 110-degree right hander – is reached, changing the heading into the south as a tributary stream needs to be cleared. A short straight of 600m is followed by another 110-degree left-hand turn, which is followed by a short dip to cross the stream at the 1.7km mark. This is also the point where an altitude of 2 000m above sea level is reached. Immediately after the crossing, the road sweeps through a 120-degree right-hand bend, heading back into the south and remaining on the eastern side of the tributary, which is visible on the right.
A large mountain towers into the sky on the left, which is approximately 2 700m high and forms the headwaters of the stream on your right. At the 2.1km mark, the road turns sharply through 150 degrees and heads north-east as the big mountain is skirted on its north-western flank. The gradient after the stream crossing ramps up to 1:10. As the northernmost nose of the mountain is cleared at the 2.8km mark, the gradient suddenly eases off to 1:40 and the going is easy for the next few kilometres. At the 4.3km point, there is another 100-degree right-hand bend to be aware of – it is the start of the next ravine which needs to be cleared. The road forms a large U-shaped bend and crosses the river at the apex of the bend. Soon after this second crossing the gradient picks up again to settle down between 1:6 and 1:10 as the road follows the main river along its southern side. This 1.1km leg has very few bends, giving you time to enjoy the magical mountain scenery.
Things change dramatically at the 5.8km point, where the next hairpin is reached. It turns through a full 180 degrees to the right, at a very tight radius. This is one of the hairpins where trucks might use up the entire width to make the turn – always give way to them. With the direction briefly reversed into the west, the next equally sharp hairpin makes its appearance at 6.1km, turning to the left. The gradient remains steep throughout this section as the road follows the contours of the mountainside to enter the crossing of the third tributary at 6.5km. There are two streams at this point, approximately 80m apart. Once you have crossed the fourth tributary, the road swings through a tight S-bend.
With the direction now into the north-east once more, the road remains on the southern side of the main river for 700m and crosses the fifth tributary at the 7.2km mark. From this point to the summit is by far the most technical of the entire pass. It is packed with razor-sharp bends – a total of six, which turn through angles greater than 100 degrees. It is also here that you will experience a gradient of 1:5, the steepest on this challenging pass.
Take it easy and enjoy the magnificent mountain-scapes as you climb almost 400m in altitude over just 2.8km. If there is any ice on the road, extreme caution needs to be exercised – even if you are in a 4WD vehicle. The summit point of 2 820m above sea level offers vast and wonderful views both to the west and east. Make sure you pull well off the road if you plan on taking photographs.
The eastern descent is fairly easy and most of the bends have wide angles. The pass ends at the crossing of the sixth stream at the 15.3km mark, at an altitude of 2 612m. Continue for 6.5km to reach the New Oxbow Lodge or 20km to reach the Afriski Mountain Resort.
CAUTIONARY: The speed limit in Lesotho is 50km/h in rural areas and 80km/h on national roads. Roadblocks and speed traps are common and more so nearer the bigger centres.
GPS START S28.756894 E28.536258
GPS SUMMIT S28.755714 E28.600811
GPS ENDS 28.736043 E28.616896
AVE GRADIENT 1:17
MAX GRADIENT 1:4
ELEVATION START 1 924m
ELEVATION SUMMIT 2 821m
ELEVATION END 2 612m
HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS 896m
TRAVEL DIRECTION East
TIME REQUIRED 15 minutes
SPEED LIMIT 60km/h*
SURFACE Tar (A1)