GOES ON A 2 300KM ROAD TRIP
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.
A SOBERING START
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.
HEY, ARE YOU COPS?
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.
MAKING HAY. AND SOME JAPANESE TOURISTS
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.
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.