Diamond Mines and Mountain Passes

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A range of 5 to 12 hours to cover ~200 kilometers – those are the estimates I was given for the trip. The ‘good’ road, the A3, from Katse to Thaba Teska and then on to Mokhlotong I already knew was a disaster we wouldn’t be bothering with. The safest alternative would be to backtrack all the way to Leribe on the A5 we knew was tarred, but that would add 100 kilometers to the trip and wouldn’t be nearly as exciting. Instead we would take the road to the Kao Diamond Mine and the 4×4 track from there to the A1 near the Letseng Diamond mine – and that is where the estimates come in.

Lesotho Mountain Village
Villages are subtly built along the mountain side
I hadn’t gotten a definitive answer on the condition of the road or the track. I knew that the mines were using it and maintaining it to some degree and hoped it wouldn’t be too rough but I had prepared the family for a long day(s). The first part of the trip back to Ha Lejone was all tar we had traveled before that took us over one small pass ~2600 meters – so no problem at all. Then we turned on to the gravel, 28km to the mine, it was bumpy and rocky with a few short steep ascents I needed to switch into low range to crawl to the top. It wasn’t reassuring that my son sat in the back seat chanting ‘Daddy isn’t going to make it, Daddy isn’t going to make it’ every time we were going up a hill but he had been doing that for days so I was used to it. Really though, it wasn’t that bad and we made it to the mine on track towards the low end of the range.

Letseng Diamond Mine
The huge Letseng Diamond mine complex in Lesotho
The mine complex, and the Lesteng one later on, was huge. These diamond operations are bringing a lot of money and jobs to the country and along with the water projects and Chinese paving the main ring road (more effectively than what we saw in Laos) represent the most investment this little country has probably ever seen. It’s resulting in better infrastructure, increased pollution and extraction of the country’s depletable and renewable resources.

Aardwolf at Tlaeng Pass
Our peak for the trip on the highest paved pass in Africa
I made the turn on the sharp switchback at the mine turnoff onto what is marked on every map I saw as a thin ‘4×4 track’ – or nothing at all. This track would take us over several mountain passes that peaked at 3230 meters, none of it tarred, all of it (relatively) luxurious. The mines have turned this track into a well graded, well maintained, decently wide dirt road. The 30 kilometers to the A1 that just a few months ago (granted in the wet season) had taken experienced 4×4 drivers 4 hours to cover took us a little more than 1. This put us in a great position well ahead of schedule allowing us to backtrack the few kilometers up Tlaeng Pass, the highest paved pass in Africa, putting us at a peak for our trip of 3255 meters.

We continued the drive on the mostly paved A1 and A14, pass the ongoing paving efforts, towards Sani Pass. Since we had left early anticipating a long day we got to our stop for the night at 1:30, and with about 2.5 hours left until the border closed and nothing else in sight we decided to continue on to tackle Sani Pass as well.

Sani Pass
The steep, tight switchbacks of Sani Pass
Sani Pass is a legendary 4×4-only pass that peaks at 2874 meters at the Lesotho border and covers 1332 vertical meters down the Drakensberg into KwaZulu-Natal (300 meters more than the second biggest in the country). There is talk (and fear) that it will be paved in the near future as part of the plan to increase tourist access into Lesotho. Having seen and driven it, I wish them the best of luck. The steep switchbacks near the top reach gradients around 25% with very tight hairpin turns from one steep descent to the next. Low range, slow and careful – minimum aggression as my off-road training taught me. It was a lot of fun. Worth making an excursion to before they ruin it for good (some say they already have).

La Lucia Beach
Fishing on a Saturday morning with Durban in the distance
We were at the South African border post midway down the pass where it begins to flatten out in no time with no major setbacks. This left us using our guide book, gps database and 4×4 forum to find a place to stay nearby in Himeville. Before not too long, and just one load shedding (the south African term for rolling blackouts) during dinner later, we found ourselves sitting by the fire in a lovely cottage (Yellowwood) engaged in one of our new family traditions – the evening watching of an episode of the 90’s classic Dinosaurs (so far we have learnt of the damage done by eating the last of a species, the environmental havoc caused by knocking down the forest, who is n0t the mama and how to treat them and pushing your mother-in-law off a cliff at 72 is a tradition that needs to end).

We are now in the posh La Lucia suburb of Durban enjoying the beach and city for a few days before heading up the coast to Zulu villages, beach camping and game parks.

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  1. ariel
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    We miss you

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