Undoubtedly Mpumalanga’s most famous pass, Trygve Roberts from Mountain Passes South Africa explores the Long Tom Pass in Sabie.
Winding through some of Mpumalanga’s breath-taking scenery, the (in)famous Long Tom Pass is one of those “love to hate you” passes in South Africa. It is 26.2 km long (even longer depending on where one starts measuring), plus it displays an altitude variance of 671 vertical meters through a complex network of curves as it ascends up the Drakensberg escarpment between Sabie in the east and Lydenburg in the west.
The pass forms part of the Mpumalanga Panoramic Route, which offers stunning scenery (the love part). Still, it carries appropriately heavy traffic – both tourist and commercial (the hate part). Named after the famous Long Tom cannon used in the Anglo-Boer War, the pass is prone to heavy mist, and can be dangerous in low visibility conditions.
Sabie is Shangaan for ‘fear’ and is so named after the crocodiles that frequented the river at the town. This neat and well-kept forestry town, nestled in a beautiful valley and bisected by the Sabie River, has plenty to offer the tourist and adventure traveller. Of interest is the unique SAFCOL Forestry Museum, the only one of its kind in Africa and the pride and joy of the town.
The Long Tom Pass officially begins in the east, at the intersection of the R37 and the R532 at the old historical camping spot known as Koffiehoogte, climbing at a very reasonable gradient on a well-engineered road. Most of the bends have a wide turning radius, making for a safe traverse. Still, safe is a relative word and needs to be balanced out with the behaviour of other drivers and natural weather issues, of which the worst is dense mist. The road has eight false summits, each one deceiving the driver into thinking that the summit of the pass has been reached. There are also a couple of long straight sections which run along flat ridges and provide an element of safety, especially for descending vehicles, from the constant braking needed on the steeper sections.
The ascent continues through a complex series of sharp curves, many of which turn through a full 180 degrees. The speed limit is 70 km/h and is well enforced with several camera traps on the pass. Around one of these big right-hand hairpin bends, there is an old Portuguese mine, dating back to 1658, on the right. After the next big S-bend, the road straightens out towards the northeast for a long straight ascent through beautiful mountain scenery. On the left is the perfectly situated and named “Misty Mountain Lodge” which offers meals and accommodation in a serene mountain setting. Just a few hundred metres past the lodge is the “Ou Handelspos” (Old Trading Post).
Long Tom cannons
There are numerous historical points of interest, including an example of one of the famous Long Tom cannons. This substantial feature is set well off the road on the left (if ascending) and there is ample parking. This spot allows tourists a safe opportunity to view the old Long Tom cannon; while marvelling at its impressive statistics and how the Boers lugged the monstrosity over these vast mountains.
Built in Le Creusot, France by the firm Schneider et Cie, it became the bane of the British commanders’ lives. The Boer commandos kept them pinned down on the lower escarpment for many months with the enormous range and firepower of these Long Tom cannons. Four of the cannons were purchased by the then Transvaal Republic and delivered to Pretoria in 1899 at a stiff price of R125 700, which included 8 800 shells.
As the Boer forces knew the terrain exceptionally well, they were able to move these big cannons to different positions constantly. This undoubtedly surprised the enemy, causing them much frustration and confusion.
Ultimately, General Redvers Buller conquered the Boer forces with superior numbers and the Second Anglo-Boer War came to an end when a peace treaty was signed in May 1902.
The cannons were deployed at various conflict points, including Mafeking, Kimberley, Ladysmith and Lombardskop, where one of the Long Toms was damaged by the British. It was later removed and returned to the workshops in Pretoria, where the damaged portion of the barrel was sawn off and then nicknamed “Die Jood“.
Towards the end of the war, the Boer forces damaged all the Long Toms so that the British troops could not use the same weapons against them. One of the craters left by the massive shell can still be seen on the side of the road at the 8.5 km mark. It is well signposted, but not immediately apparent where it’s safe to stop.
The real enemy
The malaria mosquito killed more humans in the Lowveld than any war or other pestilence ever could. This little insect wiped out entire groups of miners, adventurers and road workers, and every mile cut into the mountains to make the road was a significant triumph. The Long Tom Pass was built between Lydenburg and Sabie as an alternative route for the wagoners of the 1800s to get through to the Mozambican port of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) for trade. It took the wagons 10 days to get from here to the coast. Now, it’s a simple matter of hours – border post protocol included – if you go via the Long Tom Pass.
The upper part of the escarpment is frequently shrouded in clouds and mist, which creates hazardous situations for motorists. Looking down to your left you will see the old road, which has been given a number of titles over the years. The official version is “Die Ou Hawepad” (Old Harbour Road), and another local version is “Die Ou Koetspad” (The Old Coach Road). This is the steepest part of the pass where the gradients get into the 1:10 range. Soon the road goes through a series of sharp S-curves known as “Die Duiwel se Preekstoel” (The Devil’s Pulpit). The rapid increase in altitude through these bends is called ‘The Staircase’.
At the top of the final set of S-bends, the road curves towards the left, revealing a stunning vista of serried ravines to your left. These are known as the ‘Devil’s Knuckles’, and with a little imagination, it’s easy to see how it got this name. When the clouds swirl up between the ‘knuckles’, it makes for an outstanding photo opportunity. The layby to enjoy this view is on the right-hand side of the road and quite dangerous to access for ascending vehicles. If you do intend to stop here, be very careful of approaching traffic.
The highest point of the pass is at 2150 metres ASL at a spot known as Visierkerf (Gunsight Notch). You might spot the Whisky Creek waterfall on your left (north). Near the true summit, the road skirts the bulk of Mauchsberg (2209 metres). These upper sections of the pass fall within the control of three nature reserves. From west to east they are the Gustav Klingbiel, Sterkspruit and Mokubolaan nature reserves.
The Long Tom Pass carries a lot of traffic and in particular, very large truck-trailer combinations involved with mining and forestry. When laden, these vehicles travel very slowly, and this invariably creates frustration with drivers of standard vehicles, who frequently overtake on solid barrier lines and blind corners. Don’t be in a hurry. If you get stuck behind a slow truck, rather pull off at a layby and enjoy the views than risk your life or those of others.
The Long Tom Cannon in numbers:
- Length of barrel: 4.2m
- Calibre of barrel: 155mm
- Mass of each shell: 40.6kg
- Mass of entire cannon: 5 700kg
- Range: 9km
- Mass of barrel: 2 500kg
- Length of gunsight: 1 400mm
- Total length of cannon: 7.5m
- Pulling power needed: 16 oxen
- GPS START: S25.148684 E30.756437
- GPS SUMMIT: S25.141288 E30.604936
- GPS END: S25.141288 E30.604936
- AVE GRADIENT: 1:39
- MAX GRADIENT: 1:10
- ELEVATION START: 1 479m
- ELEVATION SUMMIT: 2 150m
- HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 671m
- DISTANCE: 26.2km
- DIRECTION – TRAVEL: West
- TIME REQUIRED: 20 minutes
- SPEED LIMIT: 70km/h
- SURFACE: Tar (R37)
*For more information on mountain passes near you, visit the Mountain Passes South Africa website: