Leisure Wheels (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Text: Danie Botha

A tra­di­tional Chi­nese say­ing of wis­dom states: it’s bet­ter to walk thou­sands of miles than to read thou­sands of books. In other words, life ex­pe­ri­ences are more im­por­tant than the­o­ries. We took that say­ing quite lit­er­ally… and took a Chi­nese Changan Star III bakkie on a 2 357km road trip, from the most north­ern tip of South Africa, to the most south­ern point. Along the way we stopped over in Suther­land, too, for a spe­cial de­liv­ery.

There we were, stand­ing in the main street in Suther­land. It was cold. The wind was howl­ing in an­gry bursts, send­ing small par­ti­cles of dust slam­ming into ex­posed skin. We were hun­gry, and thirsty for a good cup of cof­fee.

We had al­ready driven 2 000km to get to the cold­est place in South Africa. In a small lit­tle Chi­nese lorry. And we still had an­other 400km to go be­fore we would reach our des­ti­na­tion: L’Agul­has, the south­ern tip of the African con­ti­nent. Right, so whose damn idea was this? Drive a 1.3-litre Chi­nese lorry across South Africa, over all kinds of ter­rain, as far as rea­son­able steer­ing clear of nice and smooth main tar roads? Surely the per­son re­spon­si­ble for this mad­ness should be lynched and shot?

Oops. It was I. Dam­mit. Maybe we should skip the lynch­ing and shooting parts then. It seemed like a bril­liant the­ory a few months prior to the trip.

A road trip is al­ways an ad­ven­ture, right? No mat­ter the ve­hi­cle and this would be a right proper one.

We had first met the Changan bakkie a few months prior, for our fuel test. Back then, the most af­ford­able dou­ble cab bakkie in the land proved to be quite a sur­prise pack­age, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the ask­ing price of R166 880 for the Star III Lux model.

It has air-con­di­tion­ing and electric front win­dows. It even has a sound sys­tem – a very ba­sic one with only four but­tons and ques­tion­able sound re­pro­duc­tion, but it has a sound sys­tem. And it worked well enough run­ning around town.

There’s full in­stru­men­ta­tion that in­cludes a rev counter, speedo and an elec­tronic dis­play. There is also a man­ual head­light height ad­juster in the cabin, which is re­ally handy if you’re car­ry­ing a load. Cen­tral lock­ing with a re­mote key is stan­dard, too.

There are no airbags though. Nor are the brakes equipped with an anti-lock brak­ing sys­tem (ABS).

The Changan doesn’t have power steer­ing ei­ther, so it of­fers some healthy arm ex­er­cises as part of the pack­age. The brakes work well enough, but one has to get used to the pedal ac­tion. There is noth­ing, noth­ing… then sud­denly, plenty of brakes.

It’s pow­ered by a 1 243cc four-cylin­der petrol en­gine, which lives un­der the front seats. It pro­duces 72kW and 119Nm of torque and the power is sent to the rear wheels via a slick five-speed gear­box. The bakkie tips the scale at less than 1.2 tons, so per­for­mance is spritely enough around town.

The Changan rides on a MacPherson in­de­pen­dent front suspension and leaf springs at the back. It is rated to carry a ton of pay­load, so as you can imag­ine, with no load on the ‘bak’, the ride can get choppy on un­even sur­faces. Add a few ki­los on the bak though, and it’s not bad at all.

The bakkie’s rel­a­tively good ride qual­ity (for a work­horse) is partly thanks to the longer wheel­base. At 4 660mm in length, the lit­tle bakkie is quite long, with the load bin with its drop sides sur­pris­ingly large in re­la­tion to the rest of the ve­hi­cle.

We had been quite im­pressed by the lit­tle Chi­nese bakkie dur­ing our first meet. A road-trip like this, well, that’s a whole dif­fer­ent story. Let’s start at the be­gin­ning.


Prior to the ex­pe­di­tion, a week-long study of a map of South Africa re­vealed a spe­cific point along the bor­der be­tween South Africa and Zim­babwe, about 50km west of the Beit­bridge post, that appeared to be the most north­ern point in all of South Africa.

This was the point we aimed for. How­ever, be­fore we de­parted for Lim­popo, we had not been able to reach any­one who could as­sist us with de­tails on how ex­actly to get to that point; be­ing a bor­der and all there’s pretty strict se­cu­rity mea­sures in place for this area.

We landed up on the doorstep of a local lodge, sim­ply be­cause the map in­di­cated that a nearby dirt road may (or may not) lead to the point along the bor­der we were aiming for. The lodge was closed down. The se­cu­rity man­ager, af­ter hear­ing about our lit­tle trip, in­structed his men and var­i­ous se­cu­rity con­trol points to let us through all the way to the Lim­popo River.

It’s a sober­ing place, this bor­der. The once mighty Lim­popo was all but dry and the barbed-wire fenc­ing had dis­ap­peared in places, leav­ing gap­ing holes all over the place. The few lo­cals who were around eyed us with more than a few raised eyebrows, too (two strangers in a small dou­ble cab Chi­nese bakkie, driv­ing up and down a bro­ken bor­der fence was prob­a­bly a tad sus­pi­cious!).

So com­pa­triot Tumelo Maketekete and I didn’t hang around, get­ting the pho­tos and video out of the way as quickly as pos­si­ble.

We left the bor­der at 13:38. Ahead of us lay 2 357km of... well, we’d find out soon enough.


Once we were back on the R572 that runs par­al­lel with the Lim­popo, head­ing west to All­days, the lit­tle Changan got in the groove. With around 200kg worth of hay bales on the bak, and all our gear in the cabin, it cruised sur­pris­ingly mer­rily at a true 120km/h, the rev counter nee­dle point­ing at a busy 4 500r/min.

Hay bales? Oh yes. It was a cun­ningly bril­liant plan. With that ex­tra weight on the bak, the ride qual­ity was pretty darn good. And we had a plan up our sleeves with those hay bales, too.

The R572 is in ter­ri­ble shape. In places, there’s no point driv­ing on the ‘road’ any­more, the sand tracks along­side it are much eas­ier on the kid­neys. Thank good­ness for South African hu­mour. At one par­tic­u­larly nasty patch, some­one had put up a sign that says ‘Pot­holes’ – just in case no-one had no­ticed. Un­der­neath the ‘Pot­holes’ there was a small ad­di­tion: “Hope you’re wear­ing your good sports bra to­day!”

Af­ter All­days, we tack­led our first proper dirt road sec­tion, to the town of Tolwe. And on this badly cor­ru­gated road, that ex­tra weight on the back re­ally helped a lot, and we could cruise at a com­fort­able 80km/h.

From Tolwe, we aimed fur­ther south, to Bal­ti­more, then Marken. With the day draw­ing to a close, it was time to find accommodation. We landed up in Vaal­wa­ter, at the Water­berg Ho­tel.

We sat down for din­ner, or­der­ing some steak and beer. The wait­ress seemed in­trigued with our cam­era gear.

“Are you cops? From the foren­sic unit?” she asked.

“Er, no. We’re just pass­ing through,” an­swered Tumelo, cool as daisies.

For a mo­ment there, I thought we may have en­tered some twi­light zone, and we were in a clas­sic cow­boy movie.

You know, the one where a stranger walks into a town’s bar. The man be­hind the pi­ano stops play­ing, the four cow­boys play­ing poker stop play­ing poker. And the lady of ques­tion­able moral stan­dards and the un­usu­ally low-cut dress stops sweettalk­ing a po­ten­tial suitor.

At the bar, the big and burly man be­hind the counter asks: “Hey mister. You look­ing for trou­ble?”

And the cow­boy, cool as daisies, replies: “No siree. Just pass­ing through... and I’ll have my­self a whisky while I’m at it.”

Af­ter din­ner, we passed straight through to our room, and our beds. We still had a long way to go. A re­ally long way.


We hit the road at 6am, keen to cover as much dis­tance to L’Agul­has as we could. We started the morn­ing in grand fash­ion, too, as we took the most di­rect route to Thabaz­imbi, on a beau­ti­ful gravel road, run­ning past the Marakele Na­tional Park, with the sun peek­ing over the hori­zon.

We stopped to re­fuel in Thabaz­imbi. The Changan’s fuel tank is only 40 litres big, and de­spite av­er­ag­ing around 8 litres/100km, the ef­fec­tive range be­tween re­fu­els was, at best, about 350km. We stopped ev­ery 300km or so, keen not to have to push a lit­tle Chi­nese bakkie to the next town.

The roads were busier, too, with a lot of traf­fic on the R516 be­tween Thabaz­imbi and Rusten­burg. From Rusten­burg, the dou­ble cab headed west-south-west again, to Licht­en­burg, and on to Biesiesvlei for an­other re­fuel, and a lovely meat pie at the Biesiesvlei Pad­stal.

We also linked up to the main N14 road, all the way to Vry­burg. All went swell un­til we reached the ac­tual town of Vry­burg... a 14-wheeler had jack-knifed on the main en­try road, block­ing traf­fic in ev­ery which way. So we had to take a small de­tour next to the main road.

Mind you, this was one of many ac­ci­dents along the route; you can never let your guard down on our roads.

We headed due south, past Jan Kem­p­dorp and War­ren­ton, straight to Kim­ber­ley. We had been on the road for nearly 12 hours by then, cov­er­ing around 1 000km and the sun was again head­ing to­wards the hori­zon. With all the stops along the road with ac­ci­dents, road­works and re­fu­elling, we had not made it quite as far as we had hoped.

We found so­lace in the Tran­ska­roo Coun­try Lodge in Brit­stown. It turned out to be quite the fancy estab­lish­ment, with a splen­did gourmet burger served up in the restau­rant.

This was no cow­boy bar. This was more like a lah-di­dah English coun­try bistro, where pa­trons speak to each other with a stiff up­per lip. You know, like “I say old chap...

do pass along the Earl Rose and cu­cum­ber sand­wiches”.

We hit the sack early, just af­ter 9pm. We still had an­other 1 000km or so to go. And there was also a spe­cial de­liv­ery planned for Suther­land, the cold­est town in South Africa.


We left Brit­stown at 5am, head­ing west, to Vos­burg, Carnar­von and then Wil­lis­ton. This was prob­a­bly the best drive of the trip so far. No other cars, no an­i­mals on the road, the stark and beau­ti­ful Ka­roo land­scape... and the sun that ma­jes­ti­cally rose in the sky, be­hind us. This was a road trip! In Wil­lis­ton we re­fu­elled again. We were head­ing even fur­ther off the beaten track, head­ing to­wards Fraser­burg and then Suther­land. And again the lit­tle Chi­nese lorry, with its longish wheel­base, im­pressed on the beau­ti­ful dirt roads lead­ing to Suther­land. We could hap­pily cruise at 80km/h, the ship sail­ing steady and true.

We made it to Suther­land by around 11am. We had come

this way for a spe­cial de­liv­ery. You see, Suther­land has been badly af­fected by the drought – said to be the worst in 100 years – that has gripped the re­gion in re­cent times.

It had not made sense to drive all this way with a work­horse bakkie, and an empty bak.

So the hay bales were des­tined for local an­i­mals in need of food. We also had a few blan­kets for fam­i­lies to keep them warm dur­ing the bit­terly cold win­ter nights. And lastly, we took along stacks of crayons for the kids, to keep them hap­pily busy dur­ing the school hol­i­days, as part of a local outreach pro­gramme.

We had ar­ranged the de­liv­ery with a local com­mit­tee that looks af­ter the needs of the area in this dire time... and we handed the small loot over to them, to dis­trib­ute as they see fit.

Af­ter be­ing sand­blasted by the an­gry and cold Ka­roo wind, and en­joy­ing a good cup of cof­fee, we tack­led the last stretch to the coast. But it wasn’t ex­actly around the cor­ner.

We briefly hooked up with the N1 artery at Matjies­fontein, for about 70km of rather un­pleas­ant driv­ing. The wind was howl­ing and there were many trucks and cars on the road. It wasn’t much fun.

The R316, head­ing to­wards Mon­tagu, was a mil­lion times bet­ter. Rooi­hoogte Pass and Burg­ers Pass are beau­ti­ful and rel­a­tively quiet, and bags of fun to drive, even in a 1.3-litre lorry.

Af­ter Mon­tagu, some road­works cost us a bit of time but we were soon driv­ing past Swellen­dam, then through Bredas­dorp.

We were al­most there! But it had taken us the best part of the day again and we, frus­trat­ingly, ended up in a bit of a race against time to reach the ac­tual south­ern­most point of the con­ti­nent be­fore sun­set.

We reached the tip of Africa with about 15 min­utes to spare, it was that close. The ac­tual south­ern­most point though, was be­set with an en­thu­si­as­tic group of Ja­panese tourists.

It was not quite the pro­found epiphany we had been day­dream­ing about for the past three days.

In­stead, we had to pick our way through the ex­citable, chat­ter­ing tourists, to reach the plaque that marks the spot where the In­dian and At­lantic Oceans col­lide.

The lit­tle Chi­nese bakkie had made it with­out miss­ing a sin­gle beat. Or even a flat tyre.

We could still walk okay with no ob­vi­ous back pains and aches, and even smiled a bit.

The Changan’s air­con­di­tion­ing (for the hot Ka­roo days), rel­a­tively com­fort­able seats, the not-so-bad ride and the fact that we could cruise at 120km/h thanks to the 72kW en­gine had made the trip a bear­able ad­ven­ture, and not a tor­tur­ous or­deal.

Quite the road trip, it was. And a real ad­ven­ture.

“Bet­ter to walk thou­sands of miles than to read thou­sands of books,” goes the old say­ing.

Nuff said.

Above: Tumelo Maketekete hav­ing a peek at Zim­babwe, on the other side of a very dry Lim­popo River. Be­low: With a 40-litre fuel tank the lit­tle bakkie’s range was lim­ited to a ‘safe’ 350km. Right: The route we fol­lowed… from the north­ern­most point in SA, to the south­ern tip.

Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top: With about 200kg of hay bales on the ’bak’, the Changan was sur­pris­ingly pleas­ant to drive on gravel roads. The sports bra com­ment, on a pot­hole sign, in the Lim­popo Prov­ince. A quick break at the Biesiesvlei road stall. The cabin fea­tures air-con, a very ba­sic ra­dio and electric front win­dows. Top: Driv­ing next to the SA bor­der… in places the fence was nowhere to be seen. Right: The set­ting sun, strangely re­flect­ing into the train driver’s cabin, in the Kala­hari.

Above, clock­wise from top left: We de­liv­ered some blan­kets, crayons and hay to the drought-stricken town of Suther­land. There was still snow on the higher Western Cape moun­tain peaks. De­liv­er­ing the hay bales. Tumelo get­ting all cre­ative in Burg­ers Pass, be­tween Ma­troos­berg and Mon­tagu. Be­low: An old wreck in the Suther­land. Right: At the south­ern tip of Africa, at L’Agul­has, where the In­dian and At­lantic Oceans col­lide.

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