The Roof of Africa Rally, first run in Lesotho in 1965, put off road racing on the map in Southern Africa.
Motor vehicles last competed in the Roof, as it is commonly referred to, in 2000 and this year marks the return of the four-wheel fraternity when the Lesotho Sun 400, round five of the Absa Off Road Championship, gets underway on August 20.
Many of the current crop of competitors in the Production and Special Vehicle categories including Richard Schilling, Hannes Grobler, Cliff Barker, Mike Reddin, Henri Zermatten, Richard Leeke, Neil Woolridge, Ken Skjoldhammer, Alfie Cox and Ralph Pitchford competed with success in previous Roof of Africa’s, which were three-day events over a distance of 1000km that included the Round the Houses race through the streets of Maseru.
Today Maseru is a bustling, modern city and ongoing development has made it possible for only motorcycles and quads to compete on the traditional Round the Houses course.
In the case of the Lesotho Sun 400 competitors will instead complete a 4km Special Stage at the Maseru Race Course, or Pope’s Stadium as it is commonly referred to, at 12h00 on Friday, August 20 before heading out to Roma for a 40km Prologue. The main event on Saturday will comprise two laps of 170km course in the lowlands South East of Maseru with the first car starting at Matsieng at 07h00.
The first Roof of Africa Rally was held in 1965 with the event starting in Johannesburg. Crews travelled down to Butha Buthe where they entered Lesotho and proceeded over the Moteng Pass to Oxbow, the diamond diggings at Letseng Le Terai and on to Tlokoeng. They joined the Mokhotlong-Sani Pass road and travelled down the Sani Pass and finished in Durban. The legendary Jan Hettema won the inaugural event in a standard Volvo.
In 1969 Eddie Keizan won the Roof of Africa in a Land Rover and it was only 25 years later that a Land Rover won again. This time it was Cliff Barker and Mike Reddin who have come out of retirement to compete in the Lesotho Sun 400 in a BMW M3 powered Land Rover Defender 110.
Arthur Harcus, father of Brandon Harcus who is the mastermind behind the locally designed and built BAT vehicles, finished 6th overall in 1978 in a Ventura, won the Roof of Africa the next year and finished second in 1980.
Another off-road legend, Frans Czepek, who has won five Special Vehicle championships in eight years, won his first Roof in 1977 and repeated this 20 years later, in 1997, with his son, Frans Jnr.
Team Ford Racing’s Neil Woolridge and Kenny Skjöldhammer, both former off-road motorcycle champions, are the only South Africans to have won the Roof on two and four wheels. Woolridge won the event on a Kawasaki in 1984 and in a Mitsubishi Pajero in 1999. Skjöldhammer won on a KTM in 1976, finished second in 1978 and 1979 and fourth in 1982. Robin Yates and Skjöldhammer won the Special Vehicle category in 1989 in a Durex Raceco.
Hannes Grobler and navigator, Piet Swanepoel, won the Roof in 1986 and 1988 in a Nissan Safari while Grobler’s current navigator, Richard Leeke, took the overall laurels with Kassie Coetzee in the driver’s seat of a Toyota Hilux in 1993.
Richard Schilling, who will be competing in the Plastotech Raceco, won the Roof of Africa overall three times in a row. In 1990 he and Fred Levesque won in a Chenowth, in 1991 he won it with co-driver Rob Wark in a Raceco and in 1992 with co-driver Ashley Thorn in a Raceco. In 1999, Thorn was the co-driver in a controversial three-man team, which included Stanley Illman and Frans Stangl as drivers of the winning Raceco.
Mark Corbett and Juan Mohr won in 2000, which was the last year that the motor vehicles competed in the Roof of Africa Rally.
The Lesotho Sun 400 will have a special meaning for Class D championship leader Alfie Cox although any result earned will not be added to his list of Roof of Africa successes. Cox has won the Roof nine times on a motorcycle, scored his first overall win in 1988 and continued his winning streak until 1991. Cox again won in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2001.