Adventure and game viewing, right on Jozi’s doorstep

People often think you need a big SUV and many days on the road to reach a remote location before your outing qualifies as an adventure. Mary Willemse set out to disprove this with a Suzuki Ignis and a tempting getaway just two hours from home in Jozi.

One can always find an excuse to take a break from city life – whether you’re celebrating a big milestone, treating yourself to a mini vaycay, or perhaps fancy a working holiday by moving your “office” to the bush for a change of scenery. And for this purpose, a quick getaway to Cullinan and surrounds is perfect. With the Dinokeng Game Reserve just a stone’s throw away, you can even see the Big Five, right on Jozi’s doorstep!

Situated in the north-east corner of Gauteng, the quaint Victorian village of Cullinan is a short 30-minute drive from Pretoria and just over an hour from Johannesburg. Cullinan’s streets are lined with giant oak trees and Edwardian houses, as well as several cosy cafés and art shops – making for a perfect day out. The town exhibits some fine examples of classic architecture that have survived the ages and many other historical and cultural attractions, including murals painted by Italian prisoners of war during World War II, St George’s Anglican Church and the Cullinan Station.

If you’d like a longer visit, you will find many charming B&Bs in Cullinan itself, and just a short distance from town there are various nature reserves worth visiting. We stumbled upon the delightful Butjani Lodge (about 40km from Cullinan, on the Dinokeng tourist route) run by Penny and John McDonald. They bought the property as a weekend hideaway more than two decades ago. “I remember driving out here after a long, stressful week in the corporate jungle, and you could literally feel the stress leave your body as you took the turn-off at Moloto Road,” recalls Penny. We concur. This bushveld haven, situated on a 450ha private nature reserve, offers rest for the weary.

Royal gems

But back to the home of the Cullinan Diamond, the world’s largest. This gigantic precious stone (weighing in at 3 106 carats) was found by miner Thomas Evan Powell, who brought it to the surface on 26 January 1905 and handed it to Frederick Wells, the surface manager of Premier Diamond Mining. The stone was named after the then owner of the mine, Sir Thomas Cullinan, and later bought by the Transvaal government and presented to King Edward VII, the ruling king of the United Kingdom at the time. The diamond was cut into nine large gem-quality stones, plus a number of smaller fragments, and placed in the crown jewels.

Unfortunately – due to Covid-19 regulations – we could not join the surface tour of the Cullinan Premier mine. From what we hear, it is well worth a visit. This open-cast mine is among the biggest in the world – some three times the size of the more famous Kimberley Big Hole. When you’ve finished goggling at the enormous crater, visit the Diamond Hub next door, where you’ll be able to see diamond-cutting demonstrations and replicas of the mine’s most famous gems.

While certainly not as valuable, we found another gem on the outskirts of town. Muningi Gorge is home to Adventure Zone Cullinan and is a true feast of adrenaline-filled activities suitable for the whole family. As we entered, we had some concerns about the fairly long section of gravel road, which was a little washed away and rather slippery due to recent rains. Our Suzuki Ignis simply got on with the job at hand, never backing away from a challenge, both on and off the tar. Before the Japanese automaker re-entered South Africa back in 2008, a commonly held perception was that our gravel roads and adventurous driving routes were simply too rugged for a compact vehicle to survive. The super popular and immensely capable Jimny turned that perception on its head and the brand’s evident technical expertise when developing robust and durable compact cars capable of all road surfaces continues to impress with every model introduction. Unlike some rivals, the Ignis has meaningful dirt road driving ability, thanks to a generous 180mm of ground clearance – a great deal more than any conventional hatchback.

Adrenaline Galore

Arriving at the reception area of Muningi, we were met by the jovial Lawrence who took us through the safety briefing for our first activity of the day: a long, high, and extremely fast zipline, covering 1.5km as it criss-crosses the gorge. When I heard we would reach speeds of up to90km/h and drops in excess of 80 metres, I opted to be the photographer for the day. Luckily young Anton was super keen to get his heart racing, and off they went. Returning with a massive smile and an overwhelming thumbs-up, he confirmed that it was great fun. Starving by this time, we had some delicious pizza before we headed out on an8km quad bike trail traversing some challenging obstacles and beautiful bushveld landscapes. If you’re lucky, you may even see some of the zebra and antelope roaming the area. This really was a fun activity, expertly guided by one of the friendly Adventure Zone team members.

Adrenaline pumping, we then tried our hand at the ancient skill of archery. As it’s one of our favourite spectator Olympic sports, both Anton and I were keen to hit the bull’s eye. All I can say is that it looks much easier than it is, and with many of our arrows flying over the targets into the bushes behind, poor Lawrence had his hands full! However, he patiently explained how to control the recurve-bow, and eventually we both at least made it onto the scoreboard. Just be wary of the notorious “archer’s love bite” – it’s real and I had a lovely 10cm bruise on my wrist to show for my efforts. There were still many more activities to tempt us at this adventure-filled stop (including abseiling, horse riding, game drives and beautiful hiking trails) but we needed to hit the road as a stunning three-course meal awaited us at Butjani Lodge.

Arriving here, we were ushered to our secluded and comfortably appointed tented suites, boasting a raised deck from where we could sit for hours, staring into the lush bushveld landscape. It was hard to believe we were just an hour away from the rushed Jozi life. The evening’s dinner –carefully prepared by Chef Emelda – was scrumptious and the chats with hosts Penny and John equally enjoyable.

A late and lazy start to the next day had us enjoying yet another lovely meal by Imelda before we headed out to Dinokeng Game Reserve, where we aimed to put the Ignis through its paces on one of the self-drive routes. Established in 2011, Dinokeng is the only free-roaming Big Five reserve in Gauteng, and offers various self-drive routes and several exclusive lodges within its borders. Realising that I had some serious questions to ask Anton’s geography teachers, we had an epic struggle figuring out the route maps supplied by Dinokeng. This had us making U-turns more often than not, and we had to thank the tight turning circle of the Ignis. While the Ignis offers adequate game-viewing height, we only spotted a few giraffe, wildebeest and quite a few zebra in the dense thicket. That said, this underrated reserve is definitely worth a visit. It contains 140km of gravel track, marked to indicate whether the routes are suitable for high clearance vehicles or limited to sedans, and there are three public picnic spots equipped with braai facilities where one can tuck into a lovely bush brunch. It is home to both black and white rhino, three lion prides and large herds of buffalo and elephant. While leopard call this area home, we did not expect to spot them in the dense bush, and certainly not after the last season’s heavy summer rain.

Back at Butjani (it’s about 30km away), we were welcomed by the resident group of giraffes before we headed to the beautiful lapa area to relax with a cold one, enjoying the serenity. We noticed a few odd-looking brick circles and asked Penny about it. She explained that it is where they do their astronomy evenings, which are hugely popular during the winter months when you see the stars at their best. These evenings are guided by an astronomy expert talking all things planets and stars with the guests. Penny has grand plans to add fine dining to the experience to create a “billion-star” celebration in the bush.

As our short breakaway started to draw to an end, we asked John to take us to his favourite spots on the reserve to capture some photos of the Ignis. Again, the little warrior courageously drove where lesser counterparts would fear to tread. Shots in the bag, we headed back for another exquisite meal and chatted the night away, bonding as mom and son on this too-short getaway.

Behind the wheel: Small package with a massive heart

When Suzuki Ignis arrived in South Africa as a new player in the compact crossover market back in 2017, many perceived it as a little town runabout similar to the Volkswagen Up and Kia Picanto. From the onset, though, the Japanese automaker positioned it as a “gateway into the adventure and SUV life”. As such, we set out to see if this vehicle really does have SUV cred.

The little Ignis (it means fire in Latin) surely looks more off-road than town, with design cues that blend retro and modern to create quite a feisty SUV-like stance. It looks like the progeny of a union between a classic hatchback and a Suzuki Jimny. The word quirky comes to mind, and for me,quirky is good!

So what about the S in SUV? Is it sporty? While it makes do with a 1.2-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine, developing a modest 61kW of power and 113Nm of torque, in this small frame it felt nippy enough in town. It is important to remember the Ignis tips the scales at under 1 000kg, so its power-to-weight ratio is good. The five-speed manual gearbox was a fine complement to the engine – no frills or fancy tech there. The big surprise was how settled it felt while driving on the open road and at highway speeds, where small cars with their light weight and short wheelbase can feel out of place. I rarely had to gear down and while I was initially a tad nervous to overtake, power was on tap when I needed it. The big plus is the fuel consumption, which never exceeded6 litres/100km during our real-world test, pretty close to the claimed 5.1 litres/100km.

What about the all-important “utility” part, which is the reason why so many South Africans shift away from town cars and toward the compact SUV market? The Ignis certainly has a few great features to distinguish it from its city-slicker counterparts. This includes the vital 180mm of ground clearance, a decent 267-litreboot and adequate legroom for back seat passengers. The wheels (15-inch alloys on the 1.2 GLX MT we sampled) had no trouble on the farm gravel roads and in Dinokeng. There were a few spots where I realised my somewhat higher-priced Polo would not get through, which certainly makes the Ignis an attractive option.

Moving inside the cabin, I must say that I found it a tad dated. Considering the youngster that would consider this as an option, I thought more effort could be made with the infotainment system and screen. It does however have AppleCarPlay and Android Auto capability, and the driver does have a handy head-up display which provides all the info you need while driving.

All in all, I could not find much to fault with this compact SUV, which certainly punches above its weight when it comes to both driveability and usability.

Model line-up & pricing

  • 1.2 GL MT: R199 900
  • 1.2 GLX MT: R230 900
  • 1.2 GLX AMT: R247 900

The Suzuki Ignis comes standard with a 2-year/30 000kmservice plan and a 5-year/200 000km warranty. Service intervals are at 15 000km/12 months, whichever comes first.

Travel Guide

Butjani Lodge

Only 130km from Sandton and 75km from Pretoria, Butjani Lodge offers a serene and tranquil wildlife experience. Fully catered (offering breakfast and a three-course dinner), the cosy lodge comfortably accommodates10 guests in the one guest suite and four tented en-suite chalets. As the sun sets, head off for a complimentary game drive and sundowner in the bush. Activities include mountain biking, bush walks and birding (best down at the Elands River).

CONTACT: +27 82 803 8608 | penny@butjanilodge | www.butjanilodge.co.za

Cullinan Adventure Zone

Nestled in the quaint miner’s village, Cullinan Adventure Zone is home to some of the best adrenaline-pumping activities in Gauteng. Accommodation and conference facilities are available close by, making this an ideal corporate team-building option. Tailor-made school excursions and workshops can also be offered, which include stargazing, maps and navigation, snake demonstrations, fire-making and drumming. There is also an Adventure Zone branch at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria offering hiking, archery, quad bike safaris and a number of other activities.

CONTACT: +27 12 734 0507 | adventure@azcullinan.co.za | www.adventurezone.co.za

Dinokeng Game Reserve

Located only 50km from Johannesburg, Dinokeng offers self-drive routes for a day out or a selection of private lodges to choose from. Visitors can explore the reserve from06:00 to 18:00 daily and entrance fee is R80 per adult and R50 per child, plus R250 for a one-day vehicle permit. Permits are available at the Ndlovu, Tau and Wilderness Way gates, which are strictly cashless.

CONTACT: +27 12 711 4391| reception@dinokengreserve.co.za | www.dinokengreserve.co.za

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