Cape Town to Jozi in a Ranger, on dirt only.. with a special mission
Driving from Cape Town to Johannesburg exclusively on dirt roads sounds a little far-fetched in this modern era but certainly a trip that would be filed under the epic library.
When the new Ford Ranger Raptor was launched I held out for a test drive because I wanted to do a trip from Joburg to Durban on as much dirt as possible, and I'm not talking about roads that were tar but are now stretches of potholes between towns off the main highways because of maladministration and every other reason we don't need to be reminded about.
During my research I came across a blog that was written a few years ago about a group of friends that had travelled from Joburg to Cape Town mostly on dirt roads and sent the link through to Ford more in hope than expectation.
A while later a "save the date" mail popped up; Gravelogue, read the header. We'd be driving 2300km in Ranger Raptors, Wildtraks and XLT double cabs from Cape Town to Joburg. What had started as a rambling discussion over a couple of beers was now a reality.
The group gathered early morning at Meerendal Wine Estate with the first stretch just over 500km to Tankwa lying ahead of us. My driving partner and I opted for the single turbo Ranger XLT, which I've written about before as being one of the best value for money double cabs currently in the market.
But first we had to make a detour to collect animal feed.
As you know, certain parts of the country have been decimated by drought and expedition leader Gideo Basson decided on the Joburg to Cape Town rotation that having a string of empty bakkies driving past farms in the Sutherland area in dire need would be an opportunity missed.
A discussion with Ford gave the thumbs up and a few calls later in true ubuntu style a farmer in the Malmesbury district was found who would sell the bales at half price. Another call determined one of the farmers who was on the brink of collapse and so we loaded each bakkie and drove off with 86 bales of feed in to the hinterland.
No matter which way you look at at it, a bakkie built on a ladder frame and unloaded will always be a bit skittish especially on dirt so loading them with the feed served the dual purpose of actually using it for what it was designed to do and also making it a bit more comfortable to drive.
We traversed railway crossings and drove on service roads and long stretches of dirt up the West coast which has its own special brand of beauty, much like the residents.
The XLT was a pleasure to drive with the ten speed gearbox shifting effortlessly as we constantly changed our speed for prevailing conditions and because the standard tyres are more off-road bias grip was never an issue.
By now all the vehicles had a decent layer of dust covering them and the convoy looked the part of overlanders or rather good Samaritans with the loaded bales.
A sharp right just before Klawer heading inland past Clanwilliam and Wupperthal saw the terrain become a bit tougher and drier and by the time we hit the Tankwa Karoo it was eerily moonscape-esque.
Overnight was at the delightfully eclectic Tankwa Tented Camp where all manner of odds and ends are built, welded, planted and hung. It's the home of AfrikaBurn every April so you get the idea.
On our way to Nieu Bethesda this time in a Raptor and the overnight stop at Ganora Guest Farm 620km away, we're told over the radio that the Tankwa Karoo is the driest place in South Africa; the sunburned boulders and rocks bare testimony to that as we head towards Ouberg Pass over the Roggeveld Mountains that divides the country between winter and summer rainfall.
It's a tough pass with hairpins, loose rocks and magnificent views which we got to enjoy while tightening the bales which had started to take its toll from the bumpy trek.
Having cell phone signal again jolted us out of a pleasant 12 hours of being unreachable but did provide the opportunity to contact the distressed farmer to determine his whereabouts.
The sky is an African blue and the sun beats down relentlessly as we head past Sutherland and the famous telescope before turning in to the farm to meet the farmer, his wife and two workers. Well, the workers were temporary for the day because everyone has been let go as a result of the drought.
We unload the feed which is good enough to keep them going for eight weeks when hopefully there may be some rain to get the veld to grow again.
As city people we watch the news and see the images on our social media feeds from an unaffected perspective, shrug, and then head to the shops to buy what we need without giving it a second thought.
Seeing the grizzled farmer, his wife and the workers in a huddle with tears streaming down their faces hits you like a kick in the midriff.
"We know drought, but in three generations we have never experienced something like this," he says staring off in to the distance.
"It's not just because of the feed," says his wife. "It's because, yesterday someone thought about us, that's what makes it so special."
It was time to hit the road again and I was behind the wheel of a Raptor, on a dirt road, unencumbered by bales. Time to play. This was Raptor bread and butter; big 35 inch all terrain tyres, Fox suspension and a Baja mode.
Whenever the lead car would warn us about bumps or imperfections in the road we'd hang back and pick up speed. We weren't quiet airborne, but the Raptor stayed true even at speed and four wheel drifts were attacked with much gusto and joy.
As we head past Loxton the heavens open and it buckets down making the road a slippery, muddy mess, I think about the farmer and hope it's heading his way before gunning the Raptor through a puddles sending plumes of water over the bonnet and windscreen.
We arrived at Ganora Guest Farm in the dark and head for our rooms before tucking in to some of the best lamb I've tasted in a long time. It's a working sheep farm so it stands to reason, but owner Jan-Peet Steynberg is just as passionate about the 250-million year old fossils found on his farm as he waxes lyrical about pre-historic plants and animals.
Oh, the Karoo was never covered in sea water as many believe, it was in fact a fresh water lake.
After breakfast and the obligatory visit to the owl house, home to Helen Martins before she took her own life in 1976, the day was a fairly short drive of 363km to Otterskloof for our last overnight stop.
There are stretches of long, straight roads that the Raptor revels in and we pass towns that I recall driving past as a kid but it seems that like almost all small towns in South Africa a general air of decay and hopelessness overwhelms the area.
These are towns where people lived, laughed, cried and grew up in, mostly connected to the railways. But the railway infrastructure has been left to rot and crumble for a number of reasons as have the communities living there.
We stop over in Colesberg for lunch and the Restaurant is taking strain. Then we remember, stage eight load shedding. Sigh.
Eventually we pull in to Otterskloof in cars that by now are covered in dirt, dust and mud. We're asked to put our phones in the middle of the table during dinner to talk and tell stories. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea but there are a few good laughs, philosophical discussions and war stories before most retire for an early night to rest for the 800km trek back to Joburg.
It's an early start and my co-driver and I reluctantly give up the Raptor for a Wildtrak.
Nothing wrong with it though with a plush (did I mention dusty?) interior, a 2.0 litre twin turbo also coupled to a 10 speed automatic gearbox.
It does however have road-based tyres and that's the first thing I would change if there's going to be a lot of gravel driving. Stronger sidewalls and an aggressive tread will give you a lot of peace of mind.
There's been good rains so the fields are green and the cattle fat as we continue our dirt road nirvana warning each other about pending obstacles in the road before a quick lunch in Wolmaransstad and the last stretch back to Lanseria.
Time passes quickly though and parts of the road have been washed away making the going slower than anticipated so the decision is made to head to the tar so that the Cape Town people can catch their flight.
There's no one dirt road between the two cities which is why we took so many twists and turns affording us the opportunity to witness places and sights in our beautiful country you'll never see if you stick to the black stuff.
You don't have to do the whole bang shoot, but on your next journey make a dirt detour and experience something more than Ultra Cities, franchise food and stale coffee.