Ross­lyn to Dur­ban in a BMW X3

Road Trip - - CONTENTS - Story by Jim Free­man | Jim Free­man/bmw SA

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.

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