Rosslyn to Durban in a BMW X3
The Rosslyn plant of BMW South Africa has commenced with the assembly of X3 Sports Activity Vehicles for exportation. Jim Freeman took one from the factory in Tshwane, following the railway line to Durban, where they are shipped to Europe … all while criss-crossing the back roads, of course.
There is a spot on the R34, 35 km from Utrecht in Kwazulu-natal, where the railway line from Gauteng disappears under the road as it makes its way to Durban. One bitterly cold morning, I stopped there, picturing something completely different in my mind’s eye.
I saw wagon trains, some filled with disenchanted Voortrekker families and others laden with ammunition and supplies behind long columns of trudging red-clad troops, heading in the opposite direction. Just as some regions of South Africa grow grapes and others are bounteous in their production of maize and wheat, this one has historically sprouted corpses.
Every South African knows the names: Rorke’s Drift, Blood River, Majuba, Laing’s Nek, Spioenkop, Bloukraans, and Colenso, to name but a few sites where pitched battles were fought, and a host of forgotten other spots where bloody skirmishes took place. Eight decades of conflict in which first the Voortrekkers and Impi’s of Shaka and Dingane contested the fertile plains, then the Anglo-zulu war during which the British under Lord Chelmsford took on the might of King Cetshwayo (initially disastrously) and, finally two Anglo-boer wars that had very different outcomes.
It is an incredibly beautiful part of South Africa where the peaceful countryside completely belies the brutal, bloody history of the province and travelling the backroads should be on the bucket list of every road tripper.
Level roads, level crossings
I explored the region in the first X3 produced at the Rosslyn plant of BMW, outside Pretoria. This xdrive30d M Sport variant could not be termed “visually discreet” – it was emblazoned with a South African flag on the bonnet and boasted a personalised number plate: 1 X3 SA GP.
No, it did not fly under the radar; certainly not that of the Mpumalanga traffic officer who pulled me over on the N3 just short of Villiers. He was, however,
sufficiently impressed by the vehicle and the fact that the side-view parking camera captured him handsomely as he stood at my window to wave me on my way. I then left the highway, following the route over Vrede, Memel, and Newcastle. Kwazulunatal is a province where the names of places sometimes jarringly reflect the linguistic or geographic origins of the groups that fought for its possession: Volksrust and Vryheid stands cheek-by-jowl with Madadeni and Newcastle; blink your eyes at Wakkerstroom and, next thing you know, you are driving past Glencoe on the way to Dundee.
About an hour before sunset, nearly reaching Newcastle, that magical time that photographers call “golden hour” struck. In big-sky country with newly reaped mealie fields stretching to the horizons and hardly a hint of traffic to disturb the wintry quiet – it was glorious.
The railway line to Durban runs fairly close to Newcastle and it was down this track that the first load of over a hundred export X3s trundled in May this year, ultimately destined for European owners.
Tim Abbott, CEO of BMW Group South Africa and Sub-saharan Africa, said it was “a big moment for us ... the result of a R6,1 billion investment and the culmination of three years of hard work and planning.” It was one of the biggest single automotive investments in South African history.
The manufacturing of X3s in Tshwane began when the company called time on the production of the 3-Series sedans in February. By that time, Plant Rosslyn had built 1,191,604 3-Series vehicles over five model generations and over 35 years. The maximum capacity of the plant is 76,000 units a year, while the vehicle distribution centre can accommodate up to three train dispatches a week, each train capable of carrying up to 160 vehicles.
Dirt, drifts, and potholes
It was near freezing the next morning, with frost laying thick on the ground when I left Newcastle. The Arcelor Mittal plant appeared to float on a bank of mist behind me as I headed North towards Wakkerstroom, testing the X3 on dirt for the first time.
The surface was good, though occasionlly rocky and corrugated. The Xdrive all-wheel drive system ensured the vehicle remained sure-footed, and solid front and rear suspension meant the vehicle did not bottom out on deep drifts or potholes (of which I encountered many later in the day).
My early start meant I had plenty of time
for exploring, so after returning to tar – the N11 – and while deciding what to do with my day, I saw a sign pointing to Majuba, the so-called “Hill of Doves”. I needed no further prompting.
The battle of Majuba, fought on 27 February 1881, was the final and decisive battle of the first Anglo-boer war. It was a humiliating defeat for the British, the more so because they occupied higher ground, which Boer commandoes successfully stormed despite a dearth of cover. A total of 92 British soldiers were killed, 134 wounded and 59 captured. Boer losses amounted to one dead and five wounded.
Now in full “battleground mode,” I decided my next stops would be Rorke’s Drift and Isandhlwana. Both battles were fought in the space of two days, starting on 22 January 1879. At Isandhlwana, the British were massacred and the Zulu Impi’s suffered heavy losses, while at Rorke’s Drift the Zulu warriors were decimated with few British fatalities in return.
Roro the boat
It was still only mid-afternoon, so I decided to push on to Durban as I was destined to enjoy the magnificent curry buffet at the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. It turned out to be the wrong decision: though the R68 road surface is generally good, there are few fences on the side and livestock cross the road imperturbably. The situation worsens on the Nqutubabanango-melmoth stretch, which gets very twisty with the bush growing right up to the road shoulder.
I found myself driving at below the 80 km/h speed limit – despite the capabilities of the X3 – as I did not think the good people at BMW would appreciate it if I parked their nearly R1 million SAV upside one of the cows of King Goodwill Zwelethini.
Later that evening, I safely parked the first SA produced X3 at the Suncoast Hotel, only 15 km from the Port of Durban where the first batches of X3s had already been loaded at the Roro (Roll-on-roll-off) vessel facilities of the Durban Car Terminal, the largest of its kind in Africa, for their journey to Europe.
With three berths and two operational stack areas with 14,000 parking bays, the current capacity of the Car Terminal is 480,000 vehicles per annum, but forecasts estimate this will reach around 650,000 units by 2021.
It is here where the 700 km long X-trail from Rosslyn to Durban ends, and with BMW South Africa planning to export around 40,000 X3’s per year, it is no wonder this model is considered the most important asset in the local arsenal of BMW.