Rock­ets, fyn­bos and light­ning bolts

Road Trip - - CONTENTS - Story by Ferdi de Vos | Im­ages © Ryan Ab­bott | TCB Me­dia

Home to the most com­plex bio­di­ver­sity on our planet with more than 1,880 dif­fer­ent species of plant, the Ko­gel­berg Bio­sphere Re­serve is the first bio­sphere re­serve in South Africa and the floris­tic heart of the Cape flo­ral king­dom.

Recog­nised as one of the great­est bio­di­ver­sity hotspots in the world, this 1,000 square kilo­me­tre zig-zag rib­bon of coastal plain, squeezed in be­tween the Atlantic Ocean and tow­er­ing sand­stone moun­tains about 40 km from Cape Town forms part of the world-wide net­work of bio­sphere re­serves of UNESCO and in­cor­po­rates a Capena­ture re­serve as part of its “core con­ser­va­tion area.”

This area is dis­sected by the spec­tac­u­lar Clarence Drive, or R44, that now reg­u­larly ranks as one of the top ten driv­ing routes in the world. Yet, only a cou­ple of decades ago the unique area, ex­cep­tion­ally un­touched as the moun­tain slopes was closed to the public and strictly pro­tected (only a small por­tion along the Steen­bras River Gorge is open for hik­ing) and used for more sin­is­ter pur­poses.

You see, in the mid-1980s a piece of land sit­u­ated just out­side of Rooi Els in the heart of the Cape flo­ral king­dom, played a piv­otal role in the de­vel­op­ment of mis­sile and rocket tech­nol­ogy for the South African mil­i­tary as this site, known only as Farm 186, was used for the test­ing of rocket mo­tors.

The Rsa-pro­gramme

The pro­ject was clas­si­fied top-se­cret, and back then many ru­mours sur­rounded the real pur­pose of the fa­cil­ity; eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able by a tall ra­dio mast and huge equip­ment shed clearly vis­i­ble from the road be­tween Rooi Els and Hangk­lip. How­ever, the range of tall moun­tains masked the test­ing sites fur­ther in­land.

While de­tails on the pro­gramme re­main sketchy, the RSA rocket story be­gan in the mid-1960s with the de­vel­op­ment of short­range tac­ti­cal mis­siles. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa, with help from Is­rael, be­gan de­vel­op­ing a longer range bal­lis­tic mis­sile. The RSA-1, an in­ter­me­di­at­erange, sin­gle-stage bal­lis­tic mis­sile, was fol­lowed by the RSA-2 with a longer range,

and the RSA-3, based on the Is­raeli Jeri­cho mis­sile, a three-stage solid-fuel or­bital launch ve­hi­cle.

For the RSA-3 an indige­nous solid-pro­pel­lant pro­duc­tion ca­pa­bil­ity was de­vel­oped in Som­er­set West and the mo­tors tested at the fa­cil­ity near Rooi Els, while the Over­berg test range near Bredas­dorp was used for test flights. While sup­pos­edly a space pro­gramme, it is said that the RSA-3 could have de­liv­ered a war­head on cities as re­mote as Washington DC or Moscow.

A fur­ther ver­sion, the RSA-4, was still in de­vel­op­ment when in 1993 South Africa an­nounced it will dis­man­tle its nu­clear weapons pro­gramme and sub­se­quently its mis­sile de­vel­op­ment pro­ject. An ex­am­ple of the RSA-3 is still on dis­play at the Zwartkops Air Force Mu­seum near Pre­to­ria.

“Rocket Fritz”

So, what has this to do with the Ger­man man­u­fac­turer with the light­ning bolt logo – in­sti­tuted in 1964 as recog­ni­tion to the fa­mous Opel Blitz truck – on its ve­hi­cles? Well, in the 1920s Fritz Opel (later Von Opel), a grand­son of Adam Opel, founder of the com­pany, be­came in­ter­ested in rocket propul­sion and de­vel­oped rocket pow­ered ve­hi­cles to use in spec­tac­u­lar demon­stra­tions for the com­pany, earn­ing him the nick­name “Rocket Fritz”.

The ve­hi­cles, cre­ated with the as­sis­tance of astronomer Max Valier and py­rotech­nics en­gi­neer Friedrich Sander, was named Opel RAK and, just like the South African RSA rock­ets, four pro­to­types were built. The first one, the RAK.1, was com­pleted ninety years ago – in March 1928. Based on an Opel 4/12 chas­sis with small lat­eral wings and twelve rock­ets, it achieved 75 km/h in just eight sec­onds.

In May 1928 the im­proved RAK.2 – longer, with larger side wings and 24 solid rock­ets pro­duc­ing six tons of thrust – reached a speed of 238 km/h at the Avus race­track in Ber­lin in front of 3,000 peo­ple. Later that same year Von Opel and Sander set a new record for rail ve­hi­cles with the RAK.3, reach­ing a speed of 256 km/h … but an­other rocket rail ve­hi­cle, the RAK.4, was de­stroyed when its solid rock­ets ex­ploded on the track.

With this his­tory of Opel rocket power in mind, we took the new Grand­land X SUV on a trip to­wards Rooi Els to see if we could find any re­mains of the in­fa­mous static rocket mo­tor test­ing site.

Lat­est brand-builder

The twisty Clarence Drive – named af­ter Jack Clarence, who was re­spon­si­ble for re­plac­ing the foot­path be­tween Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els with a proper road – is a spec­tac­u­lar piece of tar­mac, and from the raised driv­ing po­si­tion the Grand­land X, the as­sort­ment of fyn­bos ei­ther side of the road was a sight to be­hold.

The re­cently in­tro­duced SUV has the huge job of re­build­ing the brand from Rus­selsheim, fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of Gen­eral Mo­tors from South Africa, the sale of Opel to the French PSA Group (Peu­geot, Citroën, and DS), and a new dis­trib­u­tor, Uni­trans Mo­tors, tak­ing over the

lo­cal dis­tri­bu­tion and re­tail op­er­a­tions. It com­petes against a host of com­pact SUVS, like the VW Tiguan, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tuc­son, Toy­ota RAV4, Nis­san X-trail, and Mazda CX-5, to name a few.

Based on the PSA EMP2 plat­form the rel­a­tively tall and wide Grand­land X is closely re­lated to the Peu­geot 3008, but its front-end de­sign is un­ques­tion­ably Opel, with a prom­i­nent light­ning bolt logo in the large grille, en­closed by slim LED head­lights on our flag­ship Cosmo model with a huge op­tional panoramic sunroof.

A sharply de­fined C-pil­lar, slanted rear end, and slim LED tail-light clus­ters un­der­neath a deep tailgate crease, dif­fer­en­ti­ates it fur­ther from its French donor, and it is cer­tainly at­trac­tive-enough to hold its own in a seg­ment with many looka­likes.

While its ex­te­rior de­sign is quite pro­gres­sive, the in­te­rior lay­out is markedly con­ven­tional (es­pe­cially when com­pared to the avant-garde ar­range­ment of the 3008) with large ana­logue di­als in front of the driver and a neatly in­te­grated cen­tral touch­screen.

How­ever, durable ma­te­rial, el­e­gant fin­ishes, and good at­ten­tion to de­tail gives the five-seater an aura of qual­ity and it is spa­cious front and rear, with 514 litres of lug­gage space thanks to a space-saver spare wheel. It also has a full suite of driver-aid and safety sys­tems, un­like many of its com­peti­tors.

Turbo power

Driven by a French sourced 1.6-litre turbo en­gine de­liv­er­ing 121 kw and 240 Nm of torque, mated to a six-speed auto trans­mis­sion that sends power to the front wheels only, the Grand­land X is no rocket ship – achiev­ing a 0-100 km/h time of around nine sec­onds, a top speed of close to 200 km/h, and a con­sump­tion fig­ure of seven litres per 100 kilo­me­tres – but still plea­sur­able to drive. On the open road its driv­e­train was refined and smooth, and its han­dling on 18-inch tyres sharp, but its best at­tribute is its su­pe­rior ride qual­ity, on tar as well as on un­du­lat­ing dirt roads.

By now we have turned off from the R44 on to a coarse and un­kempt tar road lead­ing to­wards the tall mast and light green build­ings, but soon we reached a locked gate and high fence with a sign board in­di­cat­ing the land be­yond be­longs to Capena­ture and is not ac­ces­si­ble.

We tried an­other dirt road pass­ing the Rock­jumper Coun­try House to get to the ru­moured test­ing sites (indi­cated by a cou­ple of huge bare patches close to the Buf­fels River Dam on Google Maps), but a locked gate and fence again halted our progress – a clear in­di­ca­tion that this area: even while it re­verted to a na­ture re­serve af­ter Amer­i­can in­spec­tors ver­i­fied that the test fa­cil­ity was de­stroyed, is still off lim­its and not reach­able with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion …

While ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful in our quest (a beer at the Drum­mond Arms in Rooi Els made up for it), it did give us enough op­por­tu­nity to gage the lat­est Ger­man blitz of­fer­ing. It is a solid con­tender in its class, but with a price tag of over R560k for the Cosmo ver­sion, it prob­a­bly would not set the sales charts alight. Per­haps this will change when it is built in Walvis Bay, and not sourced from Sochaux in France (or Eise­nach in Ger­many) ...

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