Difficult, but worth it!

Located within the boundaries of the Marakele National Park near Thabazimbi, one should not be fooled by the tarred nature of the Lenong Pass. This is quite a challenging pass on a narrow road that clings precariously to the side of the mountain with extreme unprotected drop-offs and, according to TRYGVE ROBERTS of Mountain Passes South Africa, it is certainly not for anyone suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights).

Although the Lenong Pass in Limpopo is tarred, it is rather tricky. However, if you do make it to the summit, the incredible scenic vistas over the Marakele National Park and the Waterberg Mountain range make it well worth your effort. While a 4×4 is not required, you will need to negotiate some gravel roads as part of the access route and as such, a vehicle with decent ground clearance is advisable.

The pass can only be approached from one direction. Start by travelling to Thabazimbi in the Limpopo Province. From the intersection of the D1485 and the R510, travel in an easterly direction along the D1485 for 12.4km before turning left towards the main entrance of the Marakele National Park. Since you must enter the park, a daily conservation fee will be charged (R126 per adult per day and R63 per child) – unless you are a Wild Card holder.

Once through the gate, follow the primary route through the park, via the tunnel and park entrance, to a T-junction at S24.482036 E27.536634. Turn left here, then continue straight on for approximately 9.4km until you reach the starting point of the pass. The pass begins at a low point

where the road crosses a small stream surrounded by lush vegetation. The brooding cliffs of the mountain you are about to climb loom menacingly above you on the righthand 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 winds up the mountainside, following a natural contour line. Height is gained very quickly, as you will realise if you look at 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. This preventative measure has proven successful, but the fencing is relatively sparse – so be on a continuous lookout for new rockfalls in the road.

The road is very narrow, just wide enough for one vehicle. Every so often, a small layby is located along the route – take careful note of these in case you need to reverse back down to allow descending vehicles to pass. The general rule of thumb is that ascending vehicles have the right of way. However, 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 decide to stop anywhere along this section, ensure your vehicle will not impede other road users.

About halfway up the mountainside, the vegetation begins to thin out considerably as you gain altitude. Steep cuttings, which must have presented serious engineering and labour challenges, are constructed here, evidence of the determination to build this road, which started as an access route to the telecom towers at the summit. The views to the left (west) of the road towards the top of this climb are awe-inspiring but, simultaneously, a little disconcerting (especially if you have a vivid imagination!).

Slow and steady

Drive slowly and carefully 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 pass – it would probably be better to stop and get out of your vehicle to inspect the verge if you need to do this. When you have to stop on such a steep slope, it is particularly advisable to turn your vehicle’s front wheels in such a way that – should something happen and the vehicle moves uncontrollably – the vehicle will move towards the mountain side and not towards the cliff side.

At the 2.1km 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 with protea bushes (mainly suikerbos). At least four different protea species have been identified in this area, and at the right time of year (late July to September), these will be adorned with colourful pink flowers. Cabbage trees (Kiepersol), which thrive at this altitude zone between 1 800m and 2 100m above sea level, also appear sporadically across the landscape.

The gradient decreases significantly, and while the road is still narrow, getting past another vehicle is much easier. The route undulates across the plateau towards the towers, clearly visible on the skyline ahead. There is little game in this area but stay on the lookout for klipspringers, which populate the area all along this section. These small antelope have become quite habituated, so you will likely be able to get very close to them.

At the 3.1km 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, whereafter the gradient increases significantly and meanders through an S-bend, followed by the sharpest corner on the pass, a very tight hairpin bend of more than 180 degrees to the right. This leads into a short straight, then another hairpin bend, returning to an easterly heading. This is followed by a third hairpin, although it is less sharp than the first of this trio of corners. The road now continues to climb through a series of short straights and corners, but none have an angle greater than 90 degrees. Huge rocks dominate the landscape as the gradient gradually flattens out, and you approach the summit, which is reached at a small intersection exactly at the 5km mark.

From the summit point, there are both paved and unpaved roads leading off in different directions to various viewpoints. There is a small parking area next to the tower on the extreme southern edge of the mountain, where the best view site is located. Turn right to get to this point. Yellow footprints painted on the rocks indicate the route you should follow from the parking area.

Keep looking around you, as klipspringers are a common sighting in this area, as are Cape Vultures at the right time of day. 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. At some 800 breeding pairs, Marakele National Park’s colony is one of the largest in the world – another excellent reason to tackle this fantastic pass!

FACT FILE

GPS START: S24.461128 E27.604819

GPS SUMMIT: S24.466056 E27.613959

GPS END: S24.466056 E27.613959

AVE GRADIENT: 1:11

MAX GRADIENT: 1:4

ELEVATION START: 1 619m

ELEVATION SUMMIT: 2 052m

ELEVATION END: 2 052m

HEIGHT GAIN/LOSS: 433m

DISTANCE: 5km

DIRECTION – TRAVEL: North-East-South

TIME REQUIRED: 15 minutes

SPEED LIMIT: 40km/h

SURFACE: Tar/Concrete

NEAREST TOWN: Thabazimbi (34km)

About Marakele National Park

One of the most recently established national parks in South Africa, Marakele National Park was founded in 1994. It was initially called Kransberg National Park, but the name was changed to Marakele (a Tswana word which means ‘place of sanctuary’) shortly thereafter.

The park started with an area of about 150km², but by 1999 it had expanded to nearly 670km². Approximately 80km of the roads within the park are accessible to all vehicles, the balance requiring a 4×4. There are two camps – Botle (near the gate) and Tlopi (deep within the reserve), which offer a variety of accommodation options rangings from luxury tented camps to self-catering chalets and campsites.

Even though the reserve is heavily populated with animals, game viewing in Marakele can be difficult as much of the reserve is covered in dense vegetation. However, many waterholes (quite a number with viewing hides) offer great game and bird viewing opportunities. The dam near the Tlopi tented camp is quite popular – so if you stay there, your game viewing could be done without driving around!

Other animals in this Big Five reserve include the usual antelope species such as klipspringers, impalas, kudus, elands, waterbuck and tsessebes. Plains game like zebras, wildebeest and warthogs are plentiful, and sporadic sightings of other carnivores such as hyenas and jackals have been reported. Beware of the baboons and monkeys you will encounter everywhere in the reserve, and ensure you secure your accommodation while you are out and about.

CONTACT: +27 14 777 6928 / 29 / 30 / 31 | sipho.zulu@sanparks.org | www.sanparks.org/parks/marakele

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