Soon we were back on the road ready to engage the 12th pass - LEKHALO LA LITHUNYA (Pass of Guns). The altitude variance is relatively small (by Lesotho standards) at 234m but it's another long pass at 11,4 km and summits at a lofty 3246m.
During the early 1900's a small war took place here between two rival chiefs and this original path was used to get guns to and from the various defensive points, hence the unusual name.
The Tlaeeng Pass and our 13th pass, has a fairly minor altitude gain of 140m and only one hairpin chicane section. Other than those, the pass is easy enough to traverse, but what makes this pass stand out from the rest is its maximum altitude of 3262m which makes it the 2nd highest pass in Lesotho. This road is also known as the Oxbow-Mapholaneng Road.
Together with the Moteng, Mahlasela and Khalo La Lithunya Passes, it forms a quartet of altitude gaining passes on the A1 route between Butha Buthe and Mokhotlong. The main point of interest occurs at the southern end of the pass which is the Letseng Diamond Mine.
Letseng Diamonds (Pty) Ltd holds the mining lease granted in 1999 by the Government of Lesotho. Letseng Diamonds has two shareholders; Gem Diamonds Limited owns 70% and the Government of the Kingdom of Lesotho owns the remaining 30%.
Operated by De Beers from 1977 - 1982, Letseng reopened in 2004 and was acquired by Gem Diamonds in late 2006 for US$118.5 million. Letseng continues to deliver exceptional returns for its shareholders, with annual production rising since the takeover from 55,000 carats in 2006 to 126,000 carats by the end of 2018.
Letseng processes ore from two kimberlite pipes, Main and Satellite, both bearing extremely low-grade ore (averaging under two carats per hundred tonnes), as well as from existing stockpiles. The mine currently processes around 6,439,000 million tonnes of ore, producing a little over 126,000 carats per annum.
Letseng is also renowned for its production of historic diamonds. In January 2018, a 910-carat white diamond, the “Lesotho Legend”, was recovered, becoming the fifth largest diamond in the world. In August 2011, a 550-carat white diamond, the “Letseng Star” became the fourth major recovery at the mine since the 2006 Gem Diamonds takeover. It was preceded by the 478-carat “Leseli la Letseng” (“Light of Letseng”) in 2008, the 493-carat “Letseng Legacy” in 2007 and the 603-carat “Lesotho Promise” in 2006. Letseng has thus produced five of the largest rough white gem diamonds on record. In addition, the 601-carat “Lesotho Brown” was recovered in 1967.
Unusual for Africa, and due to the elevation, temperatures at the mine drop to -20 °C, and snowfalls are common in winter.
[More on this tour next week]
Bedrogfontein-Zuurberg Tour - the final chapter.
After another excellent meal at the Kronenhoff Guest House in Kirkwood, we had our guests ready to roll a little earlier for the final day of the tour which promised to be a long day as the going is very slow. It took us just 5 minutes to reach the Sanparks control office, where we were greeted by a friendly Xhosa lady who assisted us with processing all the permits. The price was R620 per vehicle plus conservation fees per person, the latter which is waived for persons holding a Wild Card. A reminder to anyone wanting to drive this route is that Sanparks only take cash and it's not possible to buy a permit at the Addo main reception. It's also best practice to have the correct amount of cash as in our case, we were the first group of the day and change wasn't readily available.
With the formalities completed we drove west on yet another perfect fair weather day. Within the first kilometre, the first kudu was spotted and after that game sightings were plentiful and included a close up of a black backed jackal. We detoured off the route to visit the Kabouga house, which nestles in a narrow kloof in an exquisite spot. This is the only fixed accommodation building within the Bedrogfontein section and can sleep up to 6 people. A little further to the south is the Mvubu campsite which is on the river and better suited to bigger groups.
Once back on the main route, the track deteriorated fairly quickly, slowing our average speed right down to about 20 kph. The valley was bone dry and not a single river had any water in it. The one tricky section which involves driving over large loose boulders was dealt with easily by all the drivers, allowing the guide (aka your scribe) to breathe a sigh of relief.
The road then enters a side ravine, which has dense vegetation where the track and the stream have to share the narrow space between almost vertical cliffs. It was also the spot that Jan Smuts' commando chose to ambush the British forces who were pursuing them. The Battle of Bedrogfontein took place here with the British forces losing hundreds of men and horses. Only one Boer was wounded. The stench of death in the valley in the months after the battle was so bad, that no one could use the route.
The fraud part of the name Bedrogfontein relates to a stream or fountain which disappears underground and is then extremely difficult to find lower down the mountain - hence those who sought the thirst quenching waters always felt defrauded when they couldn't find the stream.
We stopped for lunch at a level clearing but without much shade on offer. We managed to locate one of the fountains that Smuts' men used and where their names can still be seen carved into the nearby trees. The route begins climbing very steeply from this point as it ranges ever upwards via multiple switchbacks. The views open up once out of the valley and the scenery is impressive to the east with ridge upon ridge of green clad mountains fading away into the distance.
Finally we reached the summit point where we took a short break for photos and a leg-stretch. One of the convoy vehicles, a Range Rover had picked up a sidewall cut in the LR tyre, which after careful inspection, we decided was OK to continue, as the vehicle has onboard tyre pressure monitoring equipment, the driver could keep an eye on things. As it turned out it was safely driven all the way back to Port Elizabeth on the damaged tyre, but at a slow speed to ensure a no blow-out scenario. Changing a tyre on a steep, unstable slope is never a good idea unless absolutely necessary.
Also at the summit were large animal droppings - either rhino or elephant. It was fairly fresh, so were hoping to get a rhino sighting. The descent into the northern drier section consists of 11 switchbacks, each pinned by a very sharp hairpin, requiring full lock on most of the vehicles. Once safely down the mountain, we found three elephants huddling under the shade of a thorn tree, right next to the road, allowing us to all get good photos - no doubt the depositors of sundry goods at the summit !
Our route took us past the Darlington Dam, which looked quite full with a plume of spray at the outlet point, feeding water into the Sundays River for all the citrus farms in the Kirkwood area. The dam is fed per tunnel from the Fish River system, which is thanks to the foresight of our government planners in the 1950's - lest the farming industry in the valley would have been a disaster without this system.
We drove back east to Kirkwood via three charming poorts - all of them called Paardepoort. We managed to film all three the following day and they will be produced shortly and published on the website. We arrived back at base at about 1700 with enough time to refuel, reinflate tyres, have a shower and enjoy our Chappies night. This was an excellent and faultless tour and one we will most definitely be repeating soon.
Featured pass of the week: Following in the theme of last week's pass, we continue heading north on the P1600 from Kareedouw over the Suuranysberg Pass to traverse the gorgeous Kouga River Pass. Watch the video and add to bucket list!
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Thought for the day: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page" - Augustine of Hippo