With around 120 000 books and 30 000 vinyls lining the passageways and common rooms, the Royal Hotel in Bethulie, on the border between the Free State and Eastern Cape, is almost certainly the biggest private library in South Africa.
Built in 1873 and restored in more recent times by a gentleman called Anthony Hocking, who takes great pride in captivating his guests with stories about the area, this first pit-stop on our recent travel adventure with Ford proved to be a most fitting one. That’s because our eventual destination would be the 2022 Ford Rally to Read event, which would see us collect learning materials in Gqeberha to distribute to needy schools in the area.
But rather than flying us down to the Friendly City, Ford’s chief off-road instructor Gideo Basson treated us to a scenic three-day journey that would see us exploring some of the hidden gems of the Eastern Cape in a convoy of Ford Everests, while also becoming acquainted with the enhanced connectivity features now available in the large SUV model.
Our first port of call, after exiting the boring N1 and before overnighting in Bethulie, was the magnificent Gariep Dam, which treated us to a spectacular sunset scene as we arrived just before dusk.
Although the nearby historic town of Bethulie has seen better days, the Royal Hotel is worth a visit if you’re in the area and many historical activities are on offer.
After saying goodbye to Bethulie's gigantic book collection, the following morning saw us stop at South Africa’s longest road and rail bridge, which is known as the Hennie Steyn Bridge. It was more than a little disheartening, however, to see how the railway line and its overhead cables had been so severely vandalised in recent times.
The rest of the day took us on a combination of dirt and asphalt roads that would eventually lead us to the beautiful Hogsback for our second overnight stop. Perched on three flat-topped and forested mountains, and boasting numerous waterfalls, this small eclectic village is another of South Africa’s must-visit locations and accommodation around there is very reasonable, not to mention charming.
The final stretch towards Gqeberha took us through more scenic locales, including the Great Fish River nature reserve with its elevated dirt roads that treat its occupants to some unexpectedly stunning views.
This journey also highlighted how competitive the current Ford Everest still is, even at this late stage of its life cycle. Sure, the new Everest is certainly worth waiting for if you’re seeking a fresher and more high-tech package, but you’d be surprised at how competitive the current one is. The Watts-Link suspension and leather seating kept us comfortable over the 1200km journey and I was impressed by the overall feeling of control and stability that this vehicle imparts. Many of its rivals have a rather ‘wooden’ and detached steering sensation, but the Everest feels positive and well weighted by comparison.
And while we might be bedazzled by the tech that will be offered in the next-gen Everest, the new one still has some impressive features, even if the cabin is starting to look a little dated overall. Along with the Ecosport Trend and Titanium models, the Everest is now fitted as standard with FordPass Connect, which includes a built-in modem.
Through the FordPass app, owners can lock, unlock and even start their vehicle remotely or schedule a start to get the climate control going. You can even locate your car or check things like the fuel level from your phone.
After arriving in Gqeberha, the pace picked up somewhat as we were suddenly thrust into the 2022 Ford Rally to Read event. We spent a few hours at the Eastern Cape Motors Ford dealership loading big wooden boxes filled with books and other educational equipment as well as a few treats. It was a tight squeeze but we eventually got everything loaded into the convoy of Everests, which had been joined by a few Ford Rangers donated by the dealership.
From there we drove through the fascinating Addo Elephant park to the Zuurberg Mountain Village with its sprawling views over the park.
It was by pure chance that I came to appreciate the FordPass app after arriving here. Due to the tight squeeze my luggage had to go into another vehicle, who’s driver locked it and ran off before I could retrieve my stuff. Thankfully Ford’s ever-helpful PR man Felix Sebata had that vehicle loaded into his FordPass app and he was able to open it for me in no time.
The following day we were divided into four teams, with each visiting two underprivileged schools in the area with the supplies in tow. Our first destination was the Rockland Farm school west of the city, where we were greeted with song, cheers and traditional dances, as well as stories of how their rocky terrain is symbolic of the adversity they face as well as the resilience they’ve built as a result.
We received an equally enthusiastic reception at the David Vuku school in New Brighton, where we sat in a classroom listening to stories told by enthusiastic teachers.
But what I appreciated most about the Rally to Read initiative, which has been going for 23 years now, is that it’s not just about dropping off books at schools and then forgetting about them. The organisers get very involved in the training of teachers, which includes numerous follow-up sessions to ensure that the children are getting the maximum benefit from the materials provided.
The project’s ultimate aim is to empower young learners, from Grade R to Grade 3, to bridge the reading gap, ultimately allowing them progress to high school and, hopefully, university too.
The current Eastern Cape project is a three-year initiative, which will benefit around 4100 primary learners at eight schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro. Almost 7000 books were distributed to the schools during our time there on 25 and 26 February. This has been made possible by a R1.36 million donation made by Ford South Africa.
“With South Africa’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, the most important tools that we have to empower and uplift the people of this country are education and literacy,” said Ford’s Director of Transformation Esther Buthelezi.
“Youth unemployment is one of South Africa’s most serious challenges, and our involvement with READ Educational Trust and the Rally to Read plays an important role in our efforts to tackle these issues head-on.”
Being part of this year’s crew was a humbling experience, and we certainly hope that projects such as these continue to grow and prosper in South Africa. If you’re keen to support Rally to Read, follow this link to make a donation.