PRETORIA - After a year of being constantly bombarded with negativity, general doom and gloom and frustration, a reset was needed. Also, a dose of decent humanity and kindness wouldn’t be amiss either.
Not just a break, but a proper breakaway. Silence, space and as far as possible away from the madding crowd.
It was a relief then to get a message on one of the 4x4 WhatsApp groups that two or three of the members were planning to do the Richtersveld 4x4 Eco route in the Northern Cape which follows the Orange River for most of the trail.
We had the long-term Ford Raptor, my off-road trailer had recently been serviced but had been standing idle for a long time and it was a bucket list trip I had been wanting to do for a while. It was time.
Mention places like Pofadder, Pella, Klein Pella Kambreek, Grootmelkboom, Ramansdrif, Komgab, Vioolsdriff and Helskloof Pass and you wouldn’t consider them to be a bustling metropolis, which was exactly what was needed.
Sure, we could have done the annual drive to the family holiday cottage on the South Coast but you can do that in a Ford Figo. We had a Raptor and Raptor territory was called for.
I scoured 4x4 forums, bought good old-fashioned detailed paper maps and books penning the trip all with GPS co-ordinates and even contacted people who had done it before.
First thing you needed to know is that you have to be completely self-sufficient for the time you’re planning to spend there. Water, food, power, ablutions and wood all had to be carted along for the seven days that we decided to spend on the route.
Meanwhile, the two couples we were going to drive with had to change their plans and dates so we were going to be on our own. We decided to brave it anyway, we had wired our gear for solar power to charge the batteries to run the camping fridge and freezer, worked out menus, routes and calculated costs. What could go wrong?
We would end via Vioolsdrif on the Namibian border, leave the Orange River over Helskloof Pass and head to Hondeklipbaai for a few days before returning home stopping over at Augrabies National Park along the way. A proper test of vehicle and occupants to be sure. Trust me, it was.
We left for our overnight stop in Pofadder just as curfew lifted. Pulling away you could feel the combination was heavy and the Raptor would be using all of its 157kW and 500Nm from the 2.0 litre bi-turbo engine. It never laboured, though, aided by the remarkable 10-speed auto transmission.
The Raptor’s Sync 3 infotainment and satellite navigation system is fitted with Tracks4Africa, a route guidance aid you dare not be without when driving such a route. It took us a while to find out but after some googling I realised that you have to change the settings to include off-road and dirt tracks before plotting the whole route with the necessary co-ordinates and waypoints.
The plan was to spend Christmas day chilling next to the river and preparing dinner for that evening. That was the plan.
Leaving the N14 just past Pofadder I deflated the tyres, switched to 4H and headed towards our first waypoint along some of the worst corrugated roads I have encountered.
Leaving the “main road” and on to the trail just before Witbank, a small community with a few houses, and dusty streets the temperature was showing 42ºC. We squeezed through a few rocky outcrops and got to where the GPS said we were supposed to be which was a few 100 metres from the river banks so obviously it had changed course and wasn’t that full.
I scouted the area on foot and found previous tracks to a delightful place we could stop. Switching to Sand Mode we easily followed the track and driving over a small sandy outcrop the trailer’s jockey wheel decided it was time to come loose and promptly became a sand anchor bringing us to a shuddering halt. Removing the trailer made no difference. We were stuck, lying on the Raptor’s belly with sand up to the chassis, diff and front bash plate. For a while blind panic set in. Alone, no signal, no shade, 20km to the closest humans and the temperature closing in on 50ºC.
Fortunately, my partner is the calm one and put in a plan of action. Action involved digging and digging, drinking water, lifting the car with the highlift jack and packing wood under the wheels.
Attempt one. Nothing. Just spinning wheels.
Back to the plan. Lift, dig, pack wood. I wrapped my thick recovery rope through one of the rear alloys, and continued to dig. This was the last chance Saloon, otherwise the next day would mean a 20km walk in the searing heat to try to get help.
Low Range. Check. Sand Mode. Check. Rear diff lock. Check. I slowly pressed the accelerator, the front wheels shuddered and the Raptor started to inch backwards. Careful not to put too much power to the wheels, we were free. The relief was palpable and the sun was about to set.
Dinner wasn’t as grand as we had planned but you have no idea how good gammon, garlic bread, slices of cold tomato and avo tastes like next to a fire knowing you’re mobile again.
We worked out that we had each drunk about five litres of water and a couple of sachets of Rehidrat. And the heat? Well, the sand had melted into the soles of our shoes to give you an idea.
Not the start we had hoped for but after finding hard sand, hitching the trailer and hightailing it back to solid ground we headed for Ramansdrif, essentially grass banks on the river where you can bush camp.
Back on the main trail and you soon get the sense of isolation that these parts of the Northern Cape are renowned for. Getting to the top of an incline we heard an almighty thump and felt the trailer drop to the left. Damn, (remember, this is a family website) a puncture I thought. No sweat, there was a spare and I had taken multiple puncture repair kits. No such luck, no siree.
Lying under a crumpled mudguard was the whole wheel, not just the rim, the whole wheel hub with a destroyed wheel bearing. It was Boxing Day and the closest phone signal was 120km away.
“Are we buggered (again, remember, this is a family newspaper) my partner asked. “Pretty much buggered,” came my reply.
Shortly afterwards, a group of 4x4s came past (the first and only we would see for days) with a local who gave us a number of a farmer, WP Louw, in the area who may be able to help or point us in the right direction. “Tell him you got his number from Karel,” he said as they left.
We tied down the wheel to the back of the Raptor, headed back to the corrugated road, put some air back in the tyres and gunned the nose to phone reception which was at the original turn-off from the N14, 100km further on.
Only when you’ve driven what we did, still fully loaded, do you understand and appreciate the Fox suspension that’s fitted to the Raptor. It’s astounding how it handles the uneven dirt and turns at speed.
Not once did I feel as though things were going to get out of control or we would end up next to the road as we passed miles and miles of barbed wire fencing. I’ve driven many cars over the years and experienced all sorts of terrain and I can tell you without a moment’s hesitation, that there is not one vehicle in that category off the showroom floor that would have been able to keep up or that wouldn’t have ended up damaged or worse.
Eventually we heard our phones beeping as messages started to come through, finally, signal.
“That’s a difficult one, most of the farmers are on holiday or have gone fishing for the weekend, but give me a few minutes and I’ll see what I can do,” said Louw as we sat in the full blow of the Raptor’s air-conditioning.
True to his word he gave us the number of Quality Tyres in Pofadder. “Speak to Joan Niewoudt; hopefully they can help.”
Joan answered the phone, remember it’s December 26. “My son’s taken over the business and he’s away on holiday with the family in Springbok, but come past and my husband will take a look.”
Basie asked his assistant to remove what was left of the bearing and headed to the storeroom in his electric wheelchair to see whether there was one on site. There wasn’t, so a call to Pietman, and some other people he knew in the area including his son Andries on holiday in Springbok was in order. Seems like the only place likely to perhaps have one was Bearing Man in Springbok, which after a Google search provided an after-hours number. No answer as we gulped down ice cold drinks offered by Joan. My phone rang: “Jammer, I missed your call, how can I help?
“I’m not sure off-hand but I’ll come through with the sample.”
Springbok is 164km from Pofadder and for fear of incriminating myself let’s just say that the Raptor behaves as well on tar as dirt, except that you can go a lot faster and use the full range of the 10-speed auto box as it hunkers down on long straight stretches with very little traffic.
“It wasn’t on the system so I took a look on the racks… how many do you need?” Doepie asked.
“Good, that’s all I have,” he replied with a smile.
We called Andries to tell him we had sourced a bearing and he arrived in his bakkie, took one look at the Raptor and with a big grin said payment for the job would be the Raptor.
We gave him the co-ordinates where the trailer was standing as well as the wheel. He gave us his rates (very reasonable considering the distance, quality of the road and the long weekend), jumped back into his bakkie and told us he’d see us the next morning.
Heading back, we asked ourselves if we should stay over at a guest house or hotel for the night, but this is South Africa and those unspoken words about the trailer standing unaccompanied for the whole day convinced us to retrace our steps. We need not have worried. Whisky with ice and leftovers has never tasted so good and an outdoor shower before bed did much to restore our faith in humanity.
We weren't expecting any action before lunch but shortly after 10am the unmistakable clatter of a diesel engine put our mood into overdrive. Sure enough there was Andries, his wife Luanne and young son and daughter. We could have hugged them as they unloaded all the tools and a generator needed to replace a wheel hub in the bush. Not long afterwards another bakkie rolled in with Joan and Basie. “Here take a cold one, it’s donners warm out here,” Basie said with a big grin. He wasn’t joking, it was heading to 40ºC again and it wasn’t yet noon.
“It’s really no trouble, we think of it as a family outing,” Andries said when we apologised for the inconvenience over the Christmas weekend.
“You can do an EFT when you have signal again, I’ll WhatsApp the invoice.”
If ever there was an act of unselfishness that needed to convince anyone that there are still good and decent people out there, willing to help complete strangers in need, this was it.
Seeing as things didn’t go as planned we too changed our plans and decided to head straight to Kamgab rather than Ramansdriff where we would spend three nights to rest our weary bodies after the first 48 hours of unexpected curve balls.
Again, the temperature was heading to the high 40s but the Raptor’s air-conditioning remained as unflinching as the car itself as we passed ruined homesteads and temporary housing belonging to nomadic goat and sheep farmers moving with their flocks as feed for their stock is needed.
Apart from that there is nothing, just the ever-present Orange River as it winds its way from Lesotho spilling out at Alexander Bay 2200km later. I say nothing, but that’s the beauty of it. It is stark, harsh, tough and desolate with the soft sand road winding through rocky valleys and bends. It has its own beauty and splendour, not like the Garden Route, but in a lonely soul-rejuvenating way that only wide open plains can provide.
We did the obligatory stop at Groot Melkboom, which is in fact a Namaqua fig and thought it had been hit by lightning only to hear later that an idiot on the trail decided that making a fire in its trunk was a good idea.
Heading to the Kamgab site you drive through the dry Kamgab River bed to where it meets the Orange River. Flanked by high cliffs on either side and scattered with Quiver trees it’s one of the more technical parts of the trail and the only stretch I engaged low range, mostly as a precaution because of the trailer that required careful manoeuvering through some tight bends and rocky outcrops.
We were the only people there and parked on the river’s edge. Setting up camp in the heat isn’t the most pleasant thing to do but afterwards the simple pleasure of downing an ice cold drink that had been in the camp freezer running off the Raptor’s inverter on the back seat makes it worthwhile.
There’s no routine relaxing like that. You eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty and lie for hours in the river with a pair of binoculars looking at the various birds as they flitter from Namibia across the river to South Africa and back.
We’d fill a water container from the river in the morning and let it stand in the sun for the day and before going to bed have a shower under piping hot water, the pump running off one of the 12v sockets in the front of the Raptor.
There was no signal, no social media, no news, no interruptions. Bliss.
At the end of day three a group of overlanders from Cape Town arrived and when they heard how long we’d been out of contact asked how much liquor we had. The president had announced new restrictions and booze, or the lack of it, was high on his hit list.
We filled our glasses with ice, poured a drink and put meat on the fire.
Our following destination was at another waypoint next to the River about 12km past Vioolsdriff from where we would drive over the Helskloof Pass and head for the West Coast.
However, fate again had another plan. Cruising through the soft sand back towards the N14 a loud bang saw us tilt to the left again. For Heaven’s sake, or words to that effect, filled the cabin as we got out to see what the problem was. The back left tyre on the Raptor was flat. I was hoping it was just a puncture which would be an easy repair but on closer inspection saw that the sidewall had a three-inch gash in it. Game over unless we could source a new one.
Springbok and Upington were the closest towns but no one had a BF Goodrich 285/70/17, not at such short notice anyway, and we weren’t going to risk rocky paths without a spare wheel.
You have no idea how vigilant you are keeping a look-out for sharp rocks and potential hazards until you don’t have a spare, can’t buy a replacement within a 700km radius and still have the best part of 1300km to drive.
So a call to Oewerbos River Rafters Camp saw us spend two nights including New Year’s eve with running water and flush toilets.
The Raptor was a hit, with many guys coming to ask questions and admire it. I suppose this was helped by the fact that it was covered in dust and dirt and not posing as a wannabe in a parking lot. One guy was in two minds whether to trade in his Japanese double cab and turned around matter of factly to his wife and told her he’d be placing an order in the new year. He won’t be disappointed.
Hondeklipbaai is only accessible on dirt roads which provides it with its own allure. It is windswept and a mismatch of rundown houses, spaza shops and holiday accommodation cheek to cheek with expensive holiday homes. It’s seen its fair share of ups and downs including copper, diamonds, abalone factories, fishing and crayfish, none of which are still operating. Tourism seems to be its future but as one guest house owner told us, local government makes it almost impossible that with red tape, infrastructure issues and shenanigans potential investors just aren’t forthcoming.
Either way it was a pleasant relief to spend time driving the coastal road visiting shipwrecks with the mercury stuck in the mid 20s.
From there Augrabies National Park beckoned with the Raptor gobbling up the miles with music from the Sync 3 via Bluetooth keeping us entertained. It also happened to be the first time in years that parts of the Northern Cape had rain which went a long way towards cleaning the undercarriage of the Raptor and saw the veld which only 10 days previously had been dry and barren turn into a green wonderland.
The park is spotless but unfortunately the pandemic has had its toll on tourism and it stood mostly empty with serious Covid protocols in place including regular testing of its staff. The next morning a staff member told us a German tourist had tested positive and they would be closing the bathroom he had used for two days. Welcome back to reality.
Fortunately we’d had a good headspace reset because driving home through towns that have seen no maintenance for years with crumbling infrastructure, more holes than tar, the gardens of the municipal offices unkempt and filthy and welcome signs as faded as the memories of their heyday was enough to push you over the edge again.
When we pulled into the driveway in Pretoria we had covered 3583km, spent just over 75 hours behind the wheel and consumption evened out at 14.9l/100km. More importantly, though, we had seen some of the most beautiful and desolate places in our country, overcame serious difficulties, met magnificent people and cleansed body and soul which was the intention from the start.
The Raptor? All I can say is hell, yes.
This is what Ford had in mind when they designed it. Not just to look good, but to load it up, take it off the tar, experience far-off places in comfort and practicality and come back not having skipped a beat.