Yes, you can drive from Joburg to Cape Town using only dirt roads
We join a convoy of Ford bakkies for an off-road adventure and get to roll though beautiful parts of the country few people get to see
It was a simple and sort-of-romantic idea - to drive from Joburg to Cape Town using only dirt roads.
My old man would have laughed his head off. He told me of trips to the Cape in the 1940s when his folks would have to stop to open and close farm gates, or so the story goes ...
There's good reason why we like driving on tarred roads. It's easier on the car, on the tyres and on the kidneys. There's no dust to squint into for approaching hazards, no stones skittering like buckshot under the chassis. There are no gates, no corrugations, no blowouts, no bits of razor-sharp shale to rip your tyres ...
Yet Ford's proposal lit a fire. We would take seven new Ranger bakkies - Raptors, Wildtraks and XLTs - and put them to the test, while rolling through parts of the land few people get to see.
There would be farm gates and river crossings and donkey carts. There would be lonely farms and windpumps, fast gravel R-roads and farm tracks. And dust, lots and lots of dust. Who wouldn't want a piece of that?
DAY 1: HARTBEESPOORT TO OTTERSKLOOF, FREE STATE — 820KM
The dirt begins right there at Pecan Manor, next to the dam. OK, it's a private farm road and, look, there's the farmer, standing by his open gate, watching our convoy rattle past with a bemused look on his face. My co-driver is Felix Sabata, Ford's communications guy, who schools me in rap as we drive south.
Gideo Basson is the convoy commander and the radio crackles with his instructions. "At the T-junction, turn left" or "Cattle grid" or "Pedestrian right-hand side".
Bertus Prinsloo, medic, mechanic and Eater of Dust, is the sweeper, driving alone. It's his job to close all the gates (there are a lot of them) so I dub him Liewe Heksie on the radio. No-one laughs.
I am surprised there are so many dirt roads to choose from. We head west at a cracking pace along the foot of the Magaliesberg, past grain silos and lonely rail sidings that have seen happier days. The land is green and empty.
The instructions come fast. "Next junction, left"." Road splits, take the right fork." We twist and turn and turn again.
There are brief interludes of tar before the convoy lurches off into the dust once more. There is no one dirt road to Cape Town. It's complicated.
The Rangers eat the miles. It's nice to have so much power under my right foot, to feel the car surge over the obstacles. If there are corrugations, I barely notice them. In fact the cabin is so cool and quiet, it feels like Shaggy is whispering in my ear.
We take the back door into Wolmaransstad for a fast lunch stop. It feels like a broken town where scruffy kids stand and watch the heavy trucks thunder through, but the lunch is good and the bar has a kind of brandy-tasting room - not that it's of any use to us.
Then on into the gathering storm, which breaks on us just after we cross the Vaal River at Bloemhof.
We crack on under leaden skies. A brief pause at Boshof (no, I've never heard of it either) and on into the rain. Here's the Modder River, the colour of its name, crossed by an old girder bridge. There comes Petrusburg. At dusk we roll slowly through the potholed streets of Jagersfontein and receive an unexpected lesson in the "trickle-down theory" of economics - it's a diamond-mining town but for most of the people here, the riches really are only a trickle.
Night comes and the pace does not slacken. Only 20km to go, says Gideo. A steenbok panics and dives in front of the bakkie. Luckily I am going slowly enough to miss it. The radio crackles: "Cattle grid." Now I'm going too fast. "The gate! The gate" shouts Felix as I nearly impale us on the concrete gatepost.
I am relieved when the lights of Otterskloof come blazing out of the night. Hot food, cold beer, and bed.
DAY 2: OTTERSKLOOF TO NIEU BETHESDA — 363KM
"Have you driven a Ford lately," I ask one of the other journos at breakfast. "With jokes like that, it's going to be a long day," he replies.
We head off on fast gravel, blitzing through Philippolis and over the Orange River. We follow a winding track that leads us literally through the courtyard of a hardscrabble farm and to Donkerpoort, a ruined station on the railway line to Colesberg.
People would have waited here once for their train, and the goods shed would have been full of wool waiting to be sent off to market in South African Railways boxcars. Now there is only the wind sighing through the grass on the platform.
We skip through Colesberg and then Noupoort, a former railway town where sadness hangs in the air like a cloak.
We stop where we stop only long enough to refuel and press on to Nieu Bethesda where a glorious (late) lunch of homemade cheese and bread and craft beer awaits us at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli.
We spend the night at Ganora Guest Farm just outside town. Ganora is a working sheep farm but it's the fossils that light up owner Jan-Peet Steynberg's face as he talks us through millions of years of dinosaur history.
DAY 3: NIEU BETHESDA TO TANKWA KAROO NATIONAL PARK — 620KM
Our travelling companions are Wyclef Jean, Felis, Shaggy and the Distraction Boyz as we eat up the kilometres. I am driving the XLT. It feels right, with neither the aggro - or price - of the Wildtrak and Raptor.
It helps that I know some of these roads - "fast" gravel threads, punctuated with stretches of tyre-shredding shale, reaching out over the Karoo plains.
It's a long way to the Tankwa so dawdling for pictures is not an option. There's Loxton, there goes Fraserburg and here comes Sutherland for an awesome toasted sandwich.
Then we drive to the edge of the world. The Ouberg Pass is one of the steepest, gnarliest mountain roads in Africa - a switchback of hairy, slippery gravel, dropping 820m in altitude in just over 10km. No worries: we engage low range and float down to the Tankwa Karoo in style.
Our night stop is at the rough-and-ready Tankwa Tented Camp, hard by the Playa where the AfrikaBurn festival brings a splash of colour to the desert every April.
As I have apparently been holding up the convoy today, I am punished with a shot of Jagermeister after dinner. Bring it!
DAY 4: TANKWA TO CAPE TOWN — 508KM
We know we are close to "civilisation" as we pick our way over the Cederberg and skirt the little towns to try to avoid tar.
Clanwilliam, Redelinghuys, Aurora, Darling ... We jink all over the place - left here, right there - following the railway line across the Swartland.
The gig is up just south of Malmesbury where we finally run out of dirt. Table Mountain's bulk fills our filthy windscreens. The Rangers are encrusted in so much dust and dried mud they can barely be told apart. We have travelled 2,300km in four days, a blistering pace, considering some of the roads.
The romance is still intact. Truly, this is a beautiful land.
• Ash was a guest of Ford.