ADVENTURE DRIVE: Exploring Limpopo’s hidden secrets in the Ford Ranger XL Sport
As a youngster I was fortunate enough to have seen large parts of our country thanks to my parents' inquisitive nature and a caravan.
And even now many, many years later I still get excited every time I hear the word or get to go on a road trip.
I reckon a lifetime wouldn't be enough to get to see how much our country has to offer and the beauty that's out there.
We can be a strange bunch when it comes to picking holiday or long-weekend destinations; our compass often pointing south to KZN, the Eastern Cape or Western Cape.
Somehow heading north to Limpopo and Mpumalanga is an afterthought and more's the pity.
That's why I jumped at the opportunity to head that way with an invitation from Ford to also spend some time with their Ranger XL Sport Pack.
We're a spoilt bunch, us motoring hacks, usually testing and analysing top of the range specced cars while giving a cursory glance to the entry level vehicles of the same model.
Ford's entry XL bakkie is their volume mover and they have now added a few bits and bobs and optional extras to make it more attractive.
South Africans have a penchant for black detailing so Ford have put on 17-inch black alloy wheels, black gloss grille and a tubular sports bar, while you can opt for the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as side steps.
We were on route from Johannesburg to follow parts of the Olifants River driving parts of Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga and because most of it was going to be on dirt roads and mountain passes, the 4x4 double cab was our partner for three days.
The XL range is fitted with Ford's 2.2-litre Duratorq TDCi engine producing 118kW of power and 385Nm of torque matched to either a six speed manual gearbox or a six speed automatic transmission, which the convoy was fitted with.
When I started my 4x4 driving many years ago there were only a handful of automatic cars, but as technology has improved so did automatic transmissions to the point that given the option, I would always choose an auto over a manual. Not only is it far more comfortable to drive but it's also mechanically more gentle on the drivetrain when you're doing serious boulder and rock climbing.
And while the XL range doesn't have the 10-speed auto box of its more up-market siblings, we found it to be very smooth through the gears both on highway cruising and traversing over rocky passes in low range.
Good recent rains have left the landscape green, farmers happy and dams filling up as we drove dirt roads ranging from smooth to rocky and washed away in 4H with the Olifants River in our sights.
One of the things that struck us was how solid the Ranger felt throughout the trip despite some harsh surfaces and bumps, testimony to the factory in Silverton, Pretoria where the full range of Rangers including Raptor is built.
Passing villages and towns we pulled off onto the banks of the river but the rains had the last say, having changed dry sand to mud so we stopped for a photo opportunity and headed towards our overnight stop at Aloe Bush Game Lodge.
Day two saw us properly test the 4x4 capabilities of the XL as we drove dirt roads heading towards Orrie Baragwanath Pass in Limpopo. Haven't heard of it? Neither did we.
It's almost Thomas Bain-like in its engineering; winding up the Wolkberg mountains in a series of sharp twists, switchbacks and bends.
This was real 4x4 driving with occasional use of the rear diff lock over large rocks and ruts with a sharp fall on the one side which reminded me a bit of the legendary Baboons Pass in Lesotho.
The Ranger XL managed easily proving that to get to some of the most picturesque places in the country you don't always need a monster 4x4.
At the top of the pass you enter the Lekgamaleetse Nature Reserve where we stopped for lunch under a thick canopy of trees and soft underground mulch while keeping an eye out for Frodo Baggins to pop his head around one of the large tree trunks.
A quick drive up a steep rocky mountain path to take in the magnificent views and more photos before descending towards Blyde River including a lovely piece of twisty tar.
It's the kind of blacktop you want to push a road-hugging car down with lovely long curves and sharp bends and in surprisingly good nick.
We had to do with the Ranger though and for a big double cab it's not shy to try it with some vigour, the suspension holding up well with only the occasional tyre squeal as we played around.
Overnight was at Moholoholo close to Hoedspruit and just up the road from the Blyde River Canyon.
The Blyde River Canyon is the third largest Canyon in the world behind the Grand Canyon (USA) and the Fish River Canyon in Namibia but the only "green canyon" dominated by subtropical vegetation. I told you the area is special.
Riding in a boat on the dam seeing the Three Sisters from the bottom for the first time gives you a whole new perspective of the area, very much the same as driving the Ranger XL Sport Pack.
The 2.2 TDCi double cab XL 6AT 4x4 Sport Pack is priced at R559 500.
I'd pay the extra R6080 for the eight-inch touch screen which adds significantly to the look and feel of the interior and for just under R566 000 you get a decent double cab that won't disappoint you when the going gets tough.