Classy and ballsy
The Jeep Wrangler is equally at home in the Limpopo bush or seeking out a fine-dining restaurant in Pretoria, writes Jim Freeman. It does not just blend into the background …
“So, you rode 500 km on a couch on great roads in two days?” sneered by friend Paul Wren from his bike customisation workshop in Mauritius. “Gee, they breed them tough in mainland Africa.”
What could I say to a man who lives on an island where the greatest threats to life are rum cocktails and people on scooters? He was right; I had done an extended breakfast run on a Harley and (I had not told him yet) another 1200 km in the newest Jeep Wrangler – acknowledging the global brand partnership between two iconic American marques – and, truly, it was not a hardship deployment.
I own a Jeep – a somewhat venerable 3.7-litre Cherokee Limited Edition – but I have always been captivated by the Willysstyle Wrangler. To my mind, it is what a Jeep
should look like … the essence of going anywhere in search of adventure.
Sadly, it is easy to regard as a Dinky Toy-vehicle (who remembers those? Or even Corgi and Matchbox?), especially when it comes in Fire-cracker red. You may associate it with Utah, the Dakotas, Colorado, Arizona, or California in the United States but certainly not with Hoedspruit and the Balule adjunct to the Kruger National Park in Limpopo.
That is where I am taking the Wrangler, although not immediately. My first stop is in Pretoria to pick up an old friend and photo-journalist for dinner at a classy new Italian eatery, Forti Grill and Bar. Fortunato Mazzone (known as Forti) is a man of
contrasts: he is a high-tech enthusiast who runs an old-school kitchen equipped with a pot of master stock, as well as a qualified economist who studied opera and law.
“Half the meals on my menu are made using only four to five ingredients,” maintains the fifth-generation restaurateur. “Sometimes my food is misunderstood because, in the fine-dining environment, people expect complicated dishes, whereas I, for example, enjoy a fantastic piece of grass-fed beef with duck fat roasted potatoes and just a knob of compound butter. That is truly a finedining experience.”
I was rather fortunate to find the restaurant (situated in the Time Square Sun International Casino in Menlyn Maine); it is in a part of Pretoria that I do not know well and the Wrangler Unlimited 2.8CRD Sahara I had picked up at Lanseria Airport did not have a navigation system. This was despite the vehicle boasting a host of electronic extras that included a large display on the dash.
No worries. I had Google Maps on my phone and that was the only time I really needed the GPS. Once you hit the N4 from the capital to Emalahleni and beyond, you would have to be seriously directionally challenged to get lost. This route does,
however, take you from Mbombela/ Nelspruit Northwards through White River, Hazyview, and Bushbuckridge, so I would recommend the slightly longer, but much better N1 to Polokwane before cutting across towards Phalaborwa via Tzaneen.
The Wrangler is spacious and extremely comfortable. The 2.8-litre engine with its smooth five-speed automatic transmission ate up the kilometres of highway without so much as a jar of my kidneys. A large fuel tank (85 litres) coupled with typical diesel fuel-efficiency meant I did not have to worry about range.
A minor gripe is the placement of the hazard flashers. I pride myself on being a courteous driver who acknowledges fellow road-users when they pull over to let me pass, but the big red button is way down low on the central console amid several other controls, so you need to take your eyes off the road to find it.
While getting to the 40 000-hectare Balule Nature Reserve was easy, finding my end destination of Ezulwini Billy’s Lodge would have been a lot trickier had I not been there before. Balule hosts a plethora of private game lodges, most of which have, over the past decade, elected to drop their game fences and become part of the Greater Kruger National Park though their membership of Associated Private Nature Reserves.
Billy’s is one of two lodges in Balule owned by Joburg-born former casino owner Laurence Saad (the other is River Lodge) and run by his tres-cool daughter Lauren on a 150-hectare “holiday” game farm, bought nearly 25 years ago. The purchase was the result of a boyhood passion of Laurence for both the bush and area – a far cry from Orange Grove (I know because I grew up close by). Ezulwini, by the way, is the isizulu word for paradise and Billy was the late brother of Laurence.
The Balule is the wrong place to go if you are in a hurry to check off the Big Five on your checklist; it is part of a conservancy whose purpose is to give greater range to free-roaming animals. On any given day you can see a multitude of animals or buggerall … because that is what they are – freeroaming. Blink and you miss it. There is no self-drive viewing because the individual land parcels are privately owned and there is no unlimited property traverse.
The beauty of Ezulwini is its lodges. They are not big, so you are not swamped by people. When you are not on a “drive,” you can be on your own. I mean really, really on your own with birds, buck, warthog, and (sometimes) elephant in the dry riverbed in front of your suite. I left my doors and windows open at night and regularly heard lion and hyena close by, as well as the call of a myriad of pearl-spotted owlets.
Lauren also kindly allowed me to go out with one of the rangers in the Wrangler. Of course, we could not strip off the roof and drop the ‘screen to convert it to the classic Willys configuration – yes, you can do that – but we did test its off-road capabilities just a bit.
Do not ask me about the three lions (not talking about the England football team) while I was backing down a hill to take a picture of the Jeep as it was coming over the crest! Let us just put it this way: lions and people can go in different directions a lot quicker than a Wrangler, which has the turning circle of Gondwanaland …