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[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]
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Note: Google Earth software reads the actual topography and ignores roads, cuttings, tunnels, bridges and excavations. The Google Earth vertical-profile animation generates a number of parallax errors, so the profile is only a general guide of what to expect in terms of gradients, distance and elevation. The graph may present some impossible and improbably sharp spikes, which should be ignored.
Digging into the details:
Getting there: The pass can only be approached from one direction. Start off by travelling to Thabazimbi in the Limpopo Province. From the intersection of the D1485 and the R510 at GPS coordinates S24.591968 E27.398106, travel in an easterly direction along the D1485 for 12.4 km to S24.531795 E27.497870, then turn left towards the main entrance of the Marakele National Park.
Once through the gate, follow the primary route through the park, via the tunnel and gate into the Big 5 area, to a T-junction at S24.482036 E27.536634. Turn left here, then continue straight on for approximately 9.4 km until you reach the start point of the pass at S24.461128 E27.604819.
To drive the pass, you will need to enter the park itself. A daily conservation fee will be levied, unless you are a Wild Card holder. Accommodation, ranging from camping to luxurious lodges, is available in the reserve and in the immediate vicinity. You can also access the park as a day visitor. Unfortunately, no private open vehicles, motorcycles or quads are allowed.
We have filmed the pass in both directions, but we have described the pass in the ascent mode, which is the direction that first-time users will have to drive it, as it is an out-and-back route. The pass begins at a low point where the road crosses a small stream, surrounded by lush vegetation. The brooding cliffs of the mountain which you are about to climb loom menacingly above you on the right-hand side, perhaps causing your heart to skip a beat or two. The road climbs briefly, then dips down again to cross another small stream before the real ascent begins.
The gradient increases dramatically as the road begins to wind its way up the mountainside, following a natural contour line. Height is gained very quickly, as you will realise if you look over towards the sharp drop-off on your left. At various places along this section, sturdy fencing has been erected on the right-hand side to catch rocks and boulders falling from the cliffs. That this is successful cannot be disputed, as is evidenced by the rocks straining against the wire, but this fencing is only sparsely located, so be on a continuous lookout for new rockfalls in the road.
The road is very narrow, just wide enough for the passage of one vehicle. Every so often, there is a small layby located along the route – take careful note of these, in case you need to reverse back down to get past descending vehicles. The general rule-of-thumb is that ascending vehicles have right-of-way, but not everybody knows this, and on this particular pass, it is probably better that the vehicle closest to the nearest layby gives way. If you do decide to stop anywhere along this section, make sure that your vehicle will not impede other road users.
About halfway up the mountainside, you will come across a cattle-grid embedded in the road. This is probably to stop animals from wandering up onto the plateau above you, although it is slightly incongruous in this setting. Trees cling to the cliffs all along this section, but the vegetation begins to thin out considerably as you gain altitude. Steep cuttings which must have presented a serious engineering and labour challenge are constructed here as well, evidence of the determination to build this road which would have started off as an access route to the telecom towers located at the summit.
The views to the left (west) of the road towards the top of this climb are awe-inspiring, but at the same time are a little disconcerting, especially if you have a vivid imagination. Drive slowly and carefully, and pay attention at all times. The road continually changes direction, presenting a number of blind corners, so be aware of the ever-present possibility of oncoming traffic. Be very careful if you need to pull over on the drop-off side to let another vehicle past – it would probably be better to stop and get out of your vehicle to inspect the verge if you need to do this.
[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]
At the 2.1 km mark, the road tops out up onto the plateau, and curves through a sharp right-hand hairpin bend to change your heading from directly north to directly south. The scenery changes dramatically, with open flattish plains dotted about with protea bushes (mainly suikerbos). At least four different protea species have been identified in this area, and at the right time of year these will be festooned with their colourful pink flowers. Cabbage trees (kiepersol), which thrive at this altitude zone between 1800 and 2100 metres ASL, also appear growing sporadically across the landscape.
The gradient decreases significantly, especially at first, so you can relax a little now that the difficult part of the climb is over. The road is still narrow, but getting past another vehicle will be a lot easier. The route undulates across the plateau towards the towers, clearly visible on the skyline ahead of you. There is not much game in this area, but stay on the lookout for Klipspringers, which populate the area all along this section. These small antelope have become fairly habituated, so there is a good chance that you will be able get very close to them.
At the 3.1 km mark, the road passes a small dam on the right-hand side, which signals the start of another climb and the final push up to the summit itself. The road curves to the left, then the gradient increases significantly and meanders through an S-bend, followed by the sharpest corner on the pass, a very tight hairpin bend to the right of more than 180 degrees. This leads into a short straight, then into another hairpin bend taking you back into an easterly heading. This is followed by a third hairpin, although it is not as sharp as the first of this trio of corners.
The road now continues to climb through a series of short straights and corners, but none of them have an angle of greater than 90 degrees. Huge rocks dominate the landscape as the gradient gradually flattens out and you approach the summit, which is reached when you get to a small intersection exactly at the 5.0 km mark.
From the summit point, there are both paved and unpaved roads leading off in different directions to various viewpoints, but a small parking area is provided next to the tower on the extreme southern edge of the mountain, which is where the best view site is located. Turn right to get this point. Yellow footprints painted on the rocks indicate the route that you should follow from the parking area. Keep looking around you, as Klipspringers are a common sighting in this area, as are vultures at the right time of day. You are unlikely to encounter any dangerous animals at this altitude.
The primary hazards on this pass are the width of the road, the blind corners, the extreme drop-offs, and the fact that there are no safety railings. If you encounter another vehicle coming in the opposite direction on the steepest section, getting past one another is going to be an interesting experience, to say the least. Fortunately, due to low visitor volumes, this is an infrequent occurrence, although almost everyone that does visit the park WILL drive up to the viewpoint. You should also watch out for rocks and animals in the road. The speed limit is 40 kph, which is unlikely to be a factor on the pass itself, but please obey this restriction on the access roads through the park.
Many sources on the web indicate the name of this mountain as Kransberg, but this is incorrect, as the 1:50,000 topographical charts show Kransberg to be located in the park, but to the north-west. No official name appears to be allocated to this mountain on the government maps.
Marakele National Park was founded in 1994, and is one of the most recently-established national parks in South Africa. Originally called Kransberg National Park, the name was changed to Marakele (a Tswana word which means “place of sanctuary”) shortly thereafter. The park started off with an area of about 150 square kilometres, but by 1999 had expanded to about 670 square kilometres. Approximately 80 kilometres of roads within the park are accessible to all vehicles, the balance requiring the use of a 4x4. There are two camps, Botle (near the gate) and Tlopi (deep within the reserve), which offer a variety of accommodation.
[Video cover photo by Mike Leicester]
Even though the reserve is heavily populated with animals, game viewing at Marakele can be difficult, and visitor reviews range from “disappointing” to “excellent”, so it largely depends on luck. Much of the reserve is covered in dense vegetation, but if you drive slowly and pay attention there are always animals to find.
There are many waterholes, some with hides, and these often offer the best game and bird viewing opportunities. The dam around which the Tlopi tented camp is located seems to be a favoured watering spot, so some of your game viewing could be done without having to drive around, if this is where you are overnighting.
Animals in the reserve include the usual antelope species such as Klipspringer, Impala, Kudu, Eland, Waterbuck and Tsessebe. Plains game like zebra, wildebeest and warthogs are plentiful as well. The park also boasts all of the “Big 5” (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), and other carnivores such as hyena and jackal, although sightings of these animals appear to be fairly sporadic. Beware of the baboons and monkeys which you will encounter everywhere in the reserve, and make sure that you secure your accommodation while you are out and about. Please do not feed them, as this will encourage undesirable behaviour and will ultimately result in the animals having to be destroyed.
Marakele is also home to, and is probably most famous for, about 800 breeding pairs of the magnificent Cape Vulture, which has been classified as endangered since 2015.
Other names for this species are the Cape Griffon or Kolbe’s Vulture. The birds are endemic to southern Africa, and are found mainly in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and some parts of northern Namibia. Adults can weigh up to 11 kg, and have a wingspan of about 2.6 metres, making them the largest of the African vultures.
It is commonly believed that vultures are dependent on lions and hyenas for food, but this is not the case - mammalian carnivores are competitors with vultures. The birds feed mainly on carcasses of animals that die of old age, disease or accidents. They are excellent at finding and exploiting this resource, often using cues from crows, other scavenging animals or even humans to locate them. Their ability to travel over long distances in a short period of time, as well as their excellent eyesight, give them an advantage over other carnivores and scavengers. In modern times, most of their food intake is derived from domestic livestock.
From the viewpoint at the summit of the pass, on warm summer days when the heat starts to generate updraft thermals along the cliff edges, hundreds of these spectacular birds can be seen circling overhead or nearby – another excellent reason to visit this location and to climb this amazing pass.
[Text & video footage by Mike Leicester]
|GPS START||S24.461128 E27.604819|
|GPS SUMMIT||S24.466056 E27.613959|
|GPS END||S24.466056 E27.613959|
|DIRECTION - TRAVEL||North - East - South|
|TIME REQUIRED||15 minutes|
|SPEED LIMIT||40 kph|
|NEAREST TOWN||Thabazimbi (34 km)|
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||Click to download: Lenong Pass (Note - this is a .kmz file, which can be opened in Google earth and most GPS models)