It is 04h00 on a Saturday in mid-July, and it’s bitterly cold in Gauteng, but seemingly not cold enough yet. While the rest of South Africa sleeps, we’re loading a newly-minted Jeep Gladiator to the hilt with provisions for an impromptu trip to Afriski in Lesotho’s majestic Maluti mountains.

Lesotho is the only country on earth where the lowest point is above 1,400 m above sea level, meaning there is significant snowfall in winter. The ‘Kingdom in the Sky’ experiences temperate weather throughout the year. However, winter temperatures can drop well below 0°C in the highlands, and high-lying regions receive frequent, albeit short-lived, snowfalls.


Cold winters are not rare in much of southern Africa, but snow is, and ski resorts are even more so. At an altitude of 3,000 m, Afriski is the continent’s only operating ski resort south of the equator. 

We’ve been to Afriski before, but mainly for a planned visit on a set date, which means snow isn’t guaranteed. This year, however, the gods smiled on us as our scheduled week-long test of the Jeep Gladiator bakkie coincided with a cold snap that promised decent snowfall on the Lesotho highlands. The stage was set for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tackle some extreme driving conditions in a vehicle built for precisely that.

Offered exclusively in Rubicon trim, the Gladiator is South Africa’s priciest and only convertible bakkie. As a true Jeep, the roof can detach in segments, the windscreen is collapsible, and you can ditch its doors if you need to let some fresh air in. Considering our destination, however, we wouldn’t dream of doing any of that on this trip. 


The drive from Gauteng to Lesotho presents a mix of highway cruising along the N3 and fairly decent regional roads. From the north, the crossing into Lesotho is at the Caledonspoort border post a few kilometres from the Free State town of Fouriesburg. The shortest route to this sleepy settlement is via Bethlehem on the R26 from Villiers. However, this routing is best avoided, for the time being, owing to the extensive construction underway between Frankfort and Reitz. Instead, continue on the N3 to Warden, follow the R714 to Bethlehem, and rejoin the R26 from here.

By the time our Gladiator bravely fought its way through the dust and over the rutted gravelly remnants of what once was the R26, heavy snowfall on the Mahlasela Pass had forced the closure of the section of Lesotho’s main A1 arterial that leads to the Afriski Mountain Resort. Although there’s no doubt that the Gladiator is more than capable of handling even the most challenging terrain, the risk of black ice had increased to uncomfortable levels, and we weren’t about to take any chances. We decided, instead, to wait it out in Fouriesburg until the road had been cleared. 

The first eatery one encounters as you enter the town is Plaaskombuis. With an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary design, an extensive menu, hearty servings, and friendly service, Plaaskombuis offered a welcome respite after our long journey.

With the all-clear to proceed into Lesotho, we headed for the border post, and I noticed for the first time since we left Gauteng nearly seven hours before that we had averaged 11.7 l/100 km on the way there. Remarkable, considering the Gladiator’s considerable heft and size requires an equally burly engine to power it as effortlessly as it does. Jeep’s popular 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 also does duty in the Gladiator, producing a meaty 209 kW and 347 Nm of torque, all sent to the drive wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox. We were also two-up in the car – with luggage, equipment, and provisions – and maintained a decent pace since the start of our journey.


It takes about two hours to travel the 96 km distance between Caledonspoort and Afriski. It’s slow-going through the many villages dotted along the first section of the way and up the narrow Moteng Pass. Although road conditions here are surprisingly good, the Gladiator is a broad vehicle and passing slower cars and trucks on this winding section of the A1 proved tricky. 

It’s beautiful here, though, and as you rise rapidly to over 2,000 m above sea level in a matter of minutes, the almost alpine Malutis show themselves in all their glory. 

Only once we reached the Mahlasela Pass did our efforts start paying off. As evidence of recent snowfalls began mounting, we watched the Gladiator’s digital thermometer numbers drop from the high teens down to almost zero.

We were fortunate to be in a comfortable and well-equipped vehicle. From its 8.4″ touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to self-activating seat warmers and heated steering wheel, the Gladiator’s amenities are more than mere creature comforts; they’re needed for survival in this unforgiving environment.

Included are three USB ports up front with two more in the rear, a premium nine-speaker Alpine sound system, dual-zone climate control, and a 7” digital display that the driver accesses via remote switches on the multi-function steering wheel.

Practicality is essential for a trip such as this, and the Gladiator has it in spades. The rear bench can be lifted to reveal lockable bins for additional storage, while the load bay is lined with a scratch-resistant coating and features a lockable roll-up cover for added security.


Almost everything about this trip was unplanned but welcome. Coincidentally, the Jeep Club of Southern Africa also headed to Afriski for the weekend, and we met the convoy about halfway up Mahlasela Pass. Naturally, the Gladiator attracted the group’s attention, allowing us to discuss our favourite features with the assembled fans once we reached Afriski.

By mid-afternoon, near-blizzard conditions began pelting the resort with rain and sleet, causing temperatures to drop to a freezing -3°C and increasing the risk of encountering black ice on the pass. 

On the road, the Gladiator benefits from loads of low-end torque, which is perfect for overtaking on the highway but less ideal when navigating an icy stretch of blacktop. Switching from two-wheel-drive to four-wheel-drive auto provided the grip we needed to tackle the road back to Fouriesburg. 

Although the intention was to spend the night at Afriski, deteriorating weather conditions meant an increased risk of the Mahlasela Pass being closed again. Before heading back down, however, we grabbed the opportunity to play in the snow and gather the photographic evidence we came here for in the first place. The Gladiator is a purpose-built off-road machine with imposing capability, 249 mm ground clearance, a 43.6-degree approach and a 26.0-degree departure angle, making it the ideal weapon to dominate any terrain, including, in this case, at least 150 mm of snow. 


Our icy excursion may have been short-lived, but the impressions made on us by the competent Jeep Gladiator to the Roof of Africa will endure. More than a bakkie, it is an uber-cool leisure-focused behemoth that is as at home cruising the city streets as it is conquering Southern Africa’s tallest peaks. You don’t need to be a Jeep fan to recognise the Gladiator for what it is – simply, the coolest product to come from the iconic American brand in years.



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