Syncro trip in Lesotho

John, B. was kind enough to send me pics of a trip he made in Lesotho. Thanks again John.

 Hi Alistair,

Lesotho is a mountain kingdom landlocked in the middle of South Africa. It is a country in its own right. It is part of the Drakensburg Mountains, literally means Dragon Mountains and they are a very high, wonderfully exciting range of mountains in South Africa. They get snow in winter, one of the few places that do and high enough up it is very stark and windblown. The Lesotho people still eke out a living in these mountains and are famed for their breed of horses that live up there and that they use to herd goats etc. There is very little in the way of economy and China has recently started building massive roads and bridges etc. as they are doing all over Africa now, in return of course for Diamonds and the like! Africa seriously has a new master or overlord, having gotten rid of us European Colonialists they now are rapidly trading their freedom away to China in return for infrastructure.

The motivation for the trip was that they were just about to tar on of the famous mountain passes whereby one gains access from South Africa into Lesotho. It will certainly change the region’s economy and make it easier for the locals to trade but at the same time at a huge loss in terms of pristine non developed mountains. So on the 24 of Sept 2014, eight VW Syncro’s headed for Cobham Nature Reserve just outside Himeville which is in the lower foothills of the Drakensburg to start this epic adventure.

We were going to attempt 3 well known and sometimes treacherous passes in one trip over 4 days. The Jeep club guys see this as their stomping ground and we in our boxy little vehicles were looking forward to treading in their territory!

Suffice to say the trip was exciting with the first pass totally smooth and easy as it had been prepared to be tarred by the Chinese road people! We then proceeded to get into the mountains proper and had an amazing time, sleeping above the cloud line and in river beds next to flowing rivers, completely self-sustained and cut off from civilization. We, as usual, attempted to do too much distance and our average speeds were so low as some areas had been washed away form the last snows and storms that we took a full day to do a few kilometres! But that’s how I believe these trips should be!

We had a trip, where although highly challenging, we had no breakdowns at all! Just shows that Syncros can be made reliable again if one spends enough trouble and time and money on them.

All the Syncro’s on this trip, bar one had upgraded to 15” wheels.

One of them is a rare (rare in SA, I think Europe had them a lot) imported factory built 16” wheeled Syncro but also fitted with 15” wheels for ease of finding tyres on trips into Africa. You’ll notice only one “Campervan” or Westy style roof. They were never brought into SA and so we are not used to having them and tend to rig ours out in a more modular in fashion and with standard rooftops.

2 Syncros had 2.0i Golf motors, 5x had 5cyl 2.6 VW (Audi) conversions and the one standard Syncro still had the OE VW WBX4 motor, although it had been stroked from 2.1i to 2.3i for more torque.

Interestingly, the standard 14 inch wheeled WBX 2.1 Syncro fared as well as any of the other Syncros, making one wonder whether we do mods for our own vanity rather than vehicle capability. It was an extreme trip in terms of needing both front and rear diff locks often engaged on very steep ascents and really good clearance for rocks on the passes and river crossings and the stock Syncro didn’t miss a beat!

I quote some excerpts from Stuart’s trip report at the time. He has agreed that we may use them. Stuart was the trip leader and owner of the 16 inch Syncro you can see in one of the pics, he also runs a Syncro business here and is a great source of parts and solutions to the traditional Syncro problems!…I quote…

“The track from Mantsonyane to Semokong is 67km in length, and we were far behind at this point. We met a group driving bikes on the track, they had camped at the river the night before, it was now 2pm and they had managed to do 5,5km from the river, they had a Ford Everest with a trailer as a backup vehicle and this was slowing them down, they had damaged the fuel tank on the decent into the river and said we were going to struggle to get up…. how right they were!”

“We pressed on to the river, the descent from this side was daunting with a nasty 400mm step on an angle to go down, if you took the wrong line it would push you to the edge of the track with a near vertical drop to the river. Once we were all safely down we needed to get up the 8.8km with 500m in total climb in the next few hours, as it looked as if there was rain on the way.” (My comments, it was so steep that if you stopped to help another vehicle, you had to switch off in crawler gear, handbrake on as hard as you could, then get out and dash to the back of the vehicle and put rocks behind the wheels for extra safety as the vehicles often felt that they wanted to slide backward. It also helped starting off again to have the rocks behind the wheels! It was incredibly steep, the photos pay no justice to this what so ever)

“I (Stuart) was the lead vehicle, we stopped after every climb and got the rest of the vehicles through, there were 500mm in diameter boulders, huge washed out steps and deep gulley’s everywhere. Luckily at this stage there were short climbs with flat patches in between, the last 4km was different, basically one steep climb with 2x hairpin bends, no place to stop and wait for the others. Huge rocks, massive steps, and a side slope to the cliff edge, wrong line and you were a goner….

… Henning asked me to drive his Syncro up to the top, as his confidence was shaken. His description is all you see is “Blue Sky” while driving up the steps. We now had to get his Syncro back onto the track, the rear locker was spinning it closer and closer to the edge as the one wheel was stuck on a step. We flatted the step to a nice angle and I used the front diff lock to pull the Syncro towards the track. Then it was foot flat and to the top without stopping.”

“Another 2 hours later and with the light fading fast and the first few raindrops starting to fall we had all the Syncro’s almost to the top. At the top there was a deep gulley in the road, Paul’s Syncro slid into it and almost onto its side.

Looking up “Gorilla’s pass” from below and seeing three Syncro’s stuck on the narrow track in front really had me worried. There was no going back, and if one of the Syncros in front experienced mechanical failure we would have had serious problems. No trees for winches, never mind getting a vehicle in there to winch. I had horrible thoughts of broken side shafts, CVs, busted sumps, etc. The buses were often required to restart on the incline, with four wheels clawing for traction between rocks, smoke coming from clutches and tyres on the rocks….. But when it REALLY COUNTED the Syncro’s didn’t let us down!”

And a couple of shots of John’s van alone.


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