Long Tom Pass

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Information provided by Hans Bornman from his unpublished book, Lowveld Tour Guide:

Visitors to the Lowveld travelling between Lydenburg and Sabie will negotiate the spectacular Long Tom Pass, 55,6 km long. It is the highest tarred road in South Africa. Mount Anderson is 2 307 m above sea level and the highest point on the pass is at 2 169 m above sea level. The road sweeps smoothly over sharp climbs and descents and it is difficult to appreciate that this pass was once a fearsome natural obstacle, and that in this pass a running battle took place in September 1900. A replica of a Long Tom gun stands in the pass, reminding visitors that the pass gets its name from the Long Tom guns which were used in battle there. Four Long Tom canons were used against the British during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). They were manufactured in France by the Creusot factory, each weighed 15 750 pounds (7159 kg). The length of the barrel was 15 feet (4,615 metres) and the total length was 25 feet (7,69 metres). The diameter of the barrel was 6 inches (15 cm) and each bomb weighed 94 pounds (42,72 kg).

After the Battle of Bergendal, on 26 and 27 August 1900 – see historical particulars under Belfast (Highway N4) – General Louis Botha withdrew the Boer forces towards Lydenburg. After delaying the British south of Lydenburg, he then moved east with two Long Toms in the direction of what is now known as the Long Tom Pass. It did not have this name at the time.

General Sir Redvers Buller (1839-1908) occupied Lydenburg on 7 September 1900, whereupon one or two of the Long Toms shelled the town from the heights to the east. Buller had two 5 inch guns of 57 Company, Royal Garrison Artillery, with his force, and these came into action in the town. These guns were to have a running duel with the Long Toms as the fight moved through the pass. Their range was comparable with that of the Long Toms.

Buller wanted to block the road from Nelspruit to Pilgrim’s Rest, so it was necessary to follow Botha. As the infantry climbed up the steep slopes, the Long Toms were inspanned and moved away.

The Long Toms took every opportunity to check the British advance, firing at ranges which were too great for the British field artillery to reply. The 5 inch guns were normally further back along the column, and by the time they had been brought to the front, the Boer guns got away … and so it went on.

On one occasion, the Long Toms waited almost too long before retiring. When the British reached the top of Mauchsberg, they looked down and there, stretched before them, was the whole Boer convoy. The 5 inch guns shelled the road beyond to stop the Boers. The Long Toms shelled the pass to check the pursuing British.

The British gunners found the negotiation of the pass as much of a problem as did the Boers. Unlike the relatively manoeuvrable Long Toms on their four wheeled carriages, the 5 inch guns were on two wheels. All the weight on two wheels made them difficult to handle. A Battery Commander’s description of the descent from Mauchsberg a week after the battle, graphically describes the difficulties:

“We began the descent from Mauchsberg to the next camp – over 2 000 feet down. The road was awful, much of it on solid blasted rock with no surface trimming at all, winding in and out of the heads of ravines hundreds of feet deep …. It wanders along until, in desperation at finding itself approaching an absolute precipice, it lunges down a little cleft worn by water out of the solid rock, more like a giant’s staircase, with steps two or three feet higher (rounded off by constant wear) than the road. With a desperate struggle to avoid the precipice it reaches a narrow nek, not more than 20 yards wide, which carries it on safely to a lower spur … We had to let our guns and wagons down one by one, all the gunners holding on ropes and even then we nearly killed some horses.”

The Long Toms weighed about 6 tons and it says much for the Boer gunners that they were able to overcome difficulties like this.

By now the Long Toms were in action on the Knuckles – a razor backed ridge along which the track passed. It is not certain how the name Devil’s Knuckles got its name. In 1873 a German, Dr Cohen, mentions on a map, which he made with a pedometer between Mozambique and Lydenburg, the name Devil’s Kop. It seems thus fairly certain that the name was given to these sharp prominences on the watershed by the early Boer settlers, but it is not known how the ‘knuckles’ appellation originated. One thing is certain that the ‘knuckles’ were extremely difficult and dangerous to negotiate.

It was here that the command of one of the guns passed from Adjutant Espach to Lieutenant Heinrich du Toit. Du Toit had commanded the Long Tom on Pepworth Hill outside Ladysmith, where he was wounded on 30 October 1899. The other gun was commanded by Sergeant Major Cox.

The British advance guard pushed on and nearly captured one of the guns. An eyewitness described the scene:

“When the cavalry was barely half a mile behind the rear gun and we regarded its capture as certain, the leading Long Tom deliberately turned to bay and opened with case shot at the pursuers over the head of his brother gun. It was a magnificent coup, and perfectly successful.”

Case shot can be compared with a shot gun round. It was used at short ranges, up to a few hundred metres, against a massed target. It broke up at the muzzle, and sprayed a cone of bullets on its target. It was seldom used.

Boer reports mention several acts of bravery as the Long Toms fought to cover the withdrawal of Botha’s men. When Sergeant Major Cox needed certain ammunition for his gun, two Irish soldiers with the Boers galloped to Lieutenant du Toit’s gun some distance away. One man collected a shell, and the other a cartridge, which under fire, they delivered to Cox’s gun. This one round caused havoc in the British ranks, and in the confusion, the Long Toms were able to withdraw. This was the last position of the canon in action and is indicated by a signpost today.

It is said that General Botha himself, when it seemed certain that there was no chance of saving one of the guns, said: “Why do you struggle with the old gun? Let it roll over the cliff!” Not recognising him, a field cornet said: “Grab the rope and pull.” He did and the gun was saved.

The Times History says: “The valour and skill of the Boer rearguard enabled the main army to retire without serious loss to itself.”

On 11 September, Botha successfully negotiated the pass with his force, including the Long Toms. The battle was over.

As the war moved into its guerilla phase, the need for the Long Toms was reduced. One by one they were destroyed to prevent capture by the British. The first was blown up in September 1900 at Komatipoort. The second was destroyed a month later at Haenertsburg in the Northern Province. The third fired its last few rounds at the attacking British at Rietfontein, east of Lydenburg, in April 1901, and was then blown up. The last engaged British troops approaching its position at Feeskop, near Haenertsburg, on 30 April 1901. These were the last Long Tom rounds fired in anger. With the British at 2770 metres, the detachment ceased firing and blew up the last Long Tom.

The modern road through the pass was opened by the Administrator of the Transvaal, in 1953. Road engineering has changed the shape of the pass. In places the road takes a new route, but in others, the route is the same as it was in 1900. Motorists today can see the Long Tom replica and signs by the road which is reminiscent of the struggle in the pass all those years ago. The passage of the Long Toms through the pass was a splendid achievement, fully justifying the name of the pass.

 

Other signs on this pass, are as follows:

 

Mauchsberg

This mountain was named after a famous German teacher and geologist, Karl Mauch (1837-1878), who had prospected that area for gold and appears on old maps as far back as 1873. It was well known that the Portuguese had for centuries been trading gold with the indigenous inhabitants. During the early decades of the nineteenth century more information about the possibility of gold being present in the region, reached Europe. Mauch read about this in newspapers in Germany. He came to Africa and travelled everywhere on foot.

 

Whisky Spruit:

There are three origins attributed to this name. One holds that because the water in this stream is peaty, made whisky taste particularly good, it was used for that purpose and for which it became famous. The other origin is that a group of travellers from Sabie, on their way to Lydenburg, stopped there to enjoy their whisky, and having finished, agreed to hide the remaining bottle on the banks of the stream from which they expected to retrieve it on their way back to Sabie. However they did not find their bottle again. The other origin is that in the hectic gold mining days, miners used to congregate at a small hamlet hotel, which nestled in the valley above the road crossing under Mauchsberg, at the end of each month, to consume their gold accumulations in whisky, and then return to work.

 

Old Trading Post

Before the middle of the nineteenth century Joao (Jiwawa) Albasini (1813-1888) used this post as one of his trading stations scattered throughout the Lowveld and Middleveld regions. Albasini was the first European to settle in the Lowveld in the Lower Sabie area. With the establishment of Ohrigstad in 1845 Albasini moved to Pretoriuskop where he obtained land from the BaKutswe captain, Magashula, for 22 head of cattle, and established his first trading post next to an old trade route. The remains of these buildings are still in evidence, north of Pretoriuskop in the Kruger National Park. His bearers made use of this route to carry goods from Delagoa Bay via Magashula’s village to Ohrigstad. This trading route eventually became known as the Albasini Route.

 

Portuguese Mine

This mine is no longer accessible to the public, having become too dangerous. While it is attributed to the Portuguese, there exists reasonable doubt that it was not the Portuguese, but Hindu from the East, who also mined gold in Zimbabwe.

 

Blystaanhoogte

This name means, literally, ‘remain standing heights’, given to these steep heights by the early transport riders, because they found it very difficult to scale them with wagons.

 

Die Geut (The shute)

This was a sharply sloping depression in the ascent of Mauchsberg, like a shute, which was difficult to negotiate.

 

Long Tom shell hole (bomgat)

This hole was made by one of the shells fired from a Long Tom canon. Travellers should not park near it as the road here is a no-parking zone.

 

Old Harbour Road

Originally named the Delagoosberg road (road to Delagoa Bay) covers a considerable distance of the pass, and may be seen in several places. One wonders how the early users of the road could successfully negotiate this appalling ascent or descent.

 

Devil’s Knuckles.

No one knows how Devil’s Knuckles got its name. In 1873 a German, Dr Cohen, indicated on a map he made with a pedometer between Maputo and Lydenburg, the name Devil’s Kop. It seems thus fairly certain that the name was given to these sharp prominences on the watershed by the early settlers, but it is not known how the ‘knuckles’ appellation originated. One thing is certain that the ‘knuckles’ were extremely difficult and dangerous to negotiate. The knuckles were huge steep prominences with steep valleys between, stood right on top of the only and very narrow ridge (watershed) between the precipitous valleys on the north and the south, connecting the escarpment on the west with that on the east. Travellers were, therefore, forced to use that route if they wished to descend into the Lowveld with their wagons. Signs of the original road can still be seen around and over the knuckles.

 

Koffiehoogte

The name means ‘coffee heights’. The road from Spitzkop and Hendriksdal over the Long Tom Pass to Lydenburg, was the first road to be used between Lydenburg and the coast and used to be known as Delagoosberg road. It was first constructed over the Mauchsberg in 1873 by the old South African Republic (ZAR) under the leadership of President Thomas Burgers. The name Koffiehoogte seems to stem from the practice of the transport riders stopping here, on top of the first steep part, to give their animals a breather and to brew coffee. The original road did not follow the route the tarred road now follows to Sabie. It was constructed further to the south.

 

Olifantsgeraamte

The farm, at the Nelspruit turnoff, now owned by Mondi Forests, got its name from the fact that for many years after the last elephants in this region were shot here, their skeletons remained. This occurred in the third quarter of the last century.