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 …

Road Trip - - ROAD READY - Story & Im­ages © Jim Free­man

“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 …

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