There are many premium SUVs around, but few with true off-road capabilities. I took one of the best, the Land Rover Discovery SE TD6, on an adventurous road trip into the Karoo, Baviaanskloof and Addo Elephant National Park.
I live in Hout Bay, so that all my road trips will start with one of the most spectacular coastal roads in the world: Chapman’s Peak Drive. Chappies, as it is fondly known to locals, was blasted into a cliff face high above the sea, just where softer sandstone meets harder granite rocks, more than a hundred years ago. After a short drive across the harbour pier to watch the seals, I am heading towards those 114 enjoyable bends. The large Discovery with enormous space inside is handling surprisingly well through the tight stuff and the 600Nm of the V6 diesel pull it nicely out of the corners.
What used to be a more comfortable, squared-edged alternative to the old Defender is now in its fifth generation. Built for more than 30 years it is now much closer in looks and feel to a Range Rover, than all its predecessors. The current Discovery is a more rounded premium SUV, a comfortable cruiser, relaxed ride and excellent off-roader. And I am taking it on a road trip to find out whether all of this is true.
I love elephants. So Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape was the obvious destination choice. Albeit with a few interesting detours thrown in. After a nice breakfast in Muizenberg I follow the False Bay coastline on Baden Powell Drive. And the relaxed, comfortable cruiser part is already being proven on the N2 towards Swellendam, my first overnight stop.
South Africa’s third-oldest town has plenty of B&Bs to choose from. I opt for Schoone Oordt Country House, built in 1853. But before I check in I am enjoying the best Springbok carpaccio on vetkoek in the country. At Old Gaol restaurant across the beautiful church. Followed a bit later in the evening by dinner at Field & Fork, where the only back drop is, that the waiter writes his 10% tip onto the bill himself after the meal.
The next day I am going to prison. I leave the N2 in Riversdale and take the less travelled R323 via Garcia Pass, connecting me with Route 62 in the Klein-Karoo. My petrolhead heart misses a bit, while passing a farm with dozens of vintage bakkies in various stages of conservation. Shortly after Huisrivier Pass Calitzdorp is reached, where I hit the first dirt. Instead of following the R62, I choose the turn-off into Groenfontein valley. The Disco smoothes out all of those bumps and ruts of the dusty narrow road with ease. I am joining the tarred R328 at the bottom of Swartberg Pass for just a few kilometres.
Historic Swartberg Pass is one of my favourite mountain roads in the country. Built by Thomas Bains and opened in January 1888, it is the most spectacular way of entering the Great Karoo. And because it is a national monument it can never be tarred. I am climbing up each and every one of those 1585 metres to the top, effortlessly and in absolute comfort. The twisted geomorphology looks like a giant lasagne, slipped off a dinner plate.
As mentioned before I am on my way into prison, in Willowmore. And once again I choose a loose gravel alternative to get there. This time the more than a hundred kilometer long R407. Trailing a large dust cloud behind, spectacularly illuminated by the setting sun.
The Willowmore prison consists of a hospital cell, hard labour cell, awaiting trial cells, a female cell and kitchen cells. The names are still the same, but the jail with its half-meter thick stone walls, built in 1895, was shut down in 1960 and fell apart over the years. Until Karen and Oleg restored it lovingly, transforming it into an enchanting Victorian boutique hotel with three air-conditioned rooms, surrounded by beautiful, landscaped gardens.
The 200 kilometres between Willowmore and Patensie through Baviaanskloof, the valley of the baboons, is one of the last adventure routes left in the country. It’s 4x4 only. A dream track into almost untouched mountainous landscapes. After Kalahari-, Kruger- and Addo Elephant National Park Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area is the largest nature reserve in South Africa. The first Dutch settlers named the valley after all the baboons living there. And they made quick work of them. The remains of a leather factory bears ghoulish witness.
Like Swartberg Pass, the dirt road between Willowmore and Patensie was build between 1880 and 1890 by Thomas Bain, who should posthumously made the patron saint of SUVs for his lifetime achievements.
The gravel commences just outside Willowmore. For starters there is Nuwekloof to cross, a narrow canyon, flanked by vertical, red rock faces. Beyond is solitude. And the best place to stay in Baviaanskloof: Sederberg Lodge, consisting of six luxury stone-and-glass hideaways in the mountains.
The next morning, beyond the Nature Conservation gate, the adventure part starts. You sign in and if you don’t sign out at the other side, they are going to search for you. The Discovery is entirely unfazed by whatever is thrown into its path. Just a short twist of the terrain response button, from gravel to rock crawl and back, followed by a water crossing with lots of wading depth left for even deeper stuff.
At the top of Grassneck Pass the views into the Karoo are once again magnificent. The progress on the rough track is slow, but the Land Rover never hesitates.
The last mountain track snakes up Combrink’s Mountain Pass. I battled this many years ago in an old Defender 110. Now it is made easier by two concrete lanes in the very steep parts. You just have to hit them at the right angle with your wheels and balance your ride on them.
From the top there are sweeping views forever again. On the left and right the lush Cape Floral kingdom with those magnificent proteas is flourishing, filling the air with exotic fragrances. As soon as you can make out the highest peak on your left, 1800 meters and aptly dubbed Cockscomb, the adventure comes to an end.
Addo Elephant National Park doesn’t disappoint either. I am not only experiencing elephants smartphone camera close, but also a group of 117 buffalos, as well as lions, giraffes and numerous antelopes. The overnight stay at Gorah Elephant Camp is a journey back in time to those classic African safaris, a world-class location.
And the Camp Figtree barman performs magic cocktails. His G&Ts beat everything I have sampled so far in this regard. In fact the place is so magical, that I stay another night.
Leaving me with one more overnight stay along the Garden Route on the way back. Another highlight: Tsala Treetop Lodge near Plettenberg Bay, with the best breakfast of the trip. Plus one more stop and one more detour. As wild cats were quite elusive during my safaris, I join a tour of Tenikwa animal rehabilitation centre, where I experience leopards, cheetahs and servals up close. And the Discovery is getting another challenge. Bloukrans Pass is officially closed for a while now, but that obviously doesn’t apply to Land Rovers. And I am rewarded with an awesome drive along a heavily overgrown, moss-covered road.
And just like all my road trips start with Chappies, they also end with a tradition: a stop at the Italian Street Café just outside Bakoven, to enjoy one of their delicious chocolate milkshakes.
Land Rover Discovery SE TD6
Engine 3.0-l. V6 turbo diesel paired with an 8-speed auto box
Power 190kW and 600Nm
Top Speed 209 km/h
0-100km/h 8.1 seconds
Price from R1 216 906
Where to sleep:
Schoone Oordt Country House – Swellendam
Stay in one of the 11 luxury bedrooms of this historic country house from 1853. Best overnight stay in Swellendam. Beautiful garden with pool.
The Old Jail – Willowmore
A real prison from 1895 with half-a-meter thick stone walls. Stay in lovingly restored former cells in this wonderful boutique guest house and art gallery.