Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Crossing over to the adventurous side

Spending two days driving on a few truly beautiful routes in Mpumalanga and the Limpopo province and then unwinding in the lap of luxury for another three days sounded like pure bliss. Add to that the opportunity to explore the natural beauty of three spectacular destinations and a chance to get the adrenaline pumping and I was raring to go. When I learned that we would be doing so with five op South Africa’s favourite compact crossovers and in the company of representatives from each of these brands, I could barely contain my excitement.

The instructions from our team leader, Mary Willemse, were clear: “Meet us at our house in Kempton Park, from where we’ll leave to rendezvous with the rest of the group at Alzu, on the N4, east of Middelburg.” I don’t do well with instructions, so I was late. I arrived at the Willemse residence in a tizz and was met by a stern-looking boss lady with a stack of luggage that included a huge cooler box, goodie bags, snacks, camera kit and other paraphernalia. Fortunately, Anton Willemse Snr is a practiced – and impressively quick – packer, so we were soon on our way.

Thankfully we were first to arrive at Alzu. It had started raining along the way and it was now coming down in buckets. It was cold and miserable, and we scurried inside for a warm cup of coffee and to await the arrival of our guests. Mary took the opportunity to run through the sequence of events – which she had e-mailed to the two Antons and I beforehand, but none of us had apparently read – and handed me a printed copy. We were to drive to Dullstroom, where we would overnight at the Highlander Hotel. On the cards for that evening was a whisky tasting, a scrumptious dinner, and some time to get better acquainted with the rest of the group.

Although the inclement weather had caused a few delays, the representatives from Toyota, Kia, Nissan and Hyundai and their spouses/partners began to arrive, keys of a Corolla Cross, Seltos, Magnite and Grand Creta in hand. Unfortunately, our friend from Suzuki had taken ill with Covid-19 and was unable to attend. I’d been instructed (more instructions) to stand in for her and would, for the remainder of the trip, be behind the wheel of the Vitara Brezza. Introductions were made, more coffee was ordered and then it was time to hit the road.

The two Antons led the pack in our backup vehicle, and I was told to fall in at the back of the convoy. It gave me an opportunity to get a glance at the vehicles as a group. It was still raining, so I couldn’t get a proper look, but what I saw had me excited all over again. The Corolla Cross looked composed, the Seltos was flashy, the Magnite exuded attitude and the Grand Creta appeared practical, it being a seven-seater and all. I’d had the opportunity to drive all of them on previous occasions and I just knew that this was going to be a trip of epic proportions.

The route to Dullstroom is a scenic one, albeit with a few huge potholes in certain spots. There was not much traffic though and the row of crossover vehicles was a fine sight on the road as the late-afternoon sun broke through the clouds. It was cold when we arrived in Dullstroom and Mary quickly ushered our guests into the warm foyer of the Highlander Hotel. Rooms were allocated and keys handed out and we were asked to meet later in the bar area for the promised whisky tasting.

When it comes to whisky, I know very little (read nothing) and wouldn’t be able to tell you the difference between a single malt and a blended if my life depended on it. Connoisseur and private collector, John Woodnutt, did a good job of enlightening all of us though as we sampled a few choice examples from his stash. I still don’t like whisky, but I’d heard and tasted enough to appreciate that the distilling process is as complex as building a vehicle and that there are almost as many variations available as there are SUVs on the road. After a fine dining experience it was time to turn in as there was a lot of driving and some adventure on the cards for the following day. Our destination was the Graskop Gorge on the R533 towards Hazyview. Anton Snr was determined that we should experience the full on-road capabilities of the vehicles and had mapped out a route that would take us over Robbers Pass, past Pilgrim’s Rest. The pass consists of 68 bends, corners and curves and if you’re a bit of a petrolhead like me, this means playtime.

I was having a great time behind the wheel of the Vitara Brezza and I could see that the rest of the group shared my enthusiasm. The compact size of these vehicles makes them ideal for this kind of driving and there were a few broad smiles when we arrived at our lunch venue, everyone having enjoyed a great driving experience and the beautiful scenery along the way.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch though and it was time to make a potentially life-altering decision. The Graskop Lift Company offers three activities for visitors. You can take the glass lift down into the gorge or you can zipline over it. The other alternative is to plunge headlong into it by means of what is called a big swing. Let me just point out that this is like no swing I’ve ever been on. You basically hurl yourself blindly off a cliff and fall precariously past the rockface as you tumble towards the canopy of trees – and a near-death experience – below. I opted for the lift. The fact that others in our group followed suit left me with some of my dignity intact. Down in the indigenous forest we had a great view of the goings-on above and it struck me that the brand representatives and the activities they had picked actually provided a good reflection of the vehicles they were driving on the trip.

Carin Mostert, from Toyota, and her husband Johan were in the forest with Mary and I. Like the Corolla Cross, this was the sensible choice. Practical and safe, you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s not devoid of excitement but provides it in metred and more controllable doses. Of course, the fact that in this case the Corolla Cross was a hybrid added a dash of the unknown, as did the wooden walkways among the splendid trees.

Flying the Kia flag was Terence Steenkamp who, along with his partner, Andrew McKay, decided to give the zipline a go. There was slight trepidation at first, but once they committed there were no regrets. The same can be said of their Seltos. You might be unsure if it’s the best option for you, but once you decide to go for it, you’re all in and there will be no complaints. The entire experience will provide enough thrills to make you want to keep coming back for more.

Like the Grand Creta they were travelling in, Hyundai’s Deon Sonnekus and his companion, Aileen Higgins, exuded quiet confidence as they also opted for the zipline. This would provide them with the opportunity to taste adventure without going overboard and proved that you don’t need to rely on theatrics to make an impression. Confidence in your own abilities goes a long way towards ensuring a positive experience and this is something that Hyundai does very well.

This brings me to the Nissan Magnite and Mamokhele Sebatane and partner Lebohang Thekiso. They surprised everyone with their enthusiasm and belief that they could successfully take the leap, literally. There was plenty of excitement for the task at hand and despite being the smallest in stature of the group – like the Magnite – they put on quite a show. They proved that they have what it takes to make an impression and earned quite a few nods of approval from their fellow adventurers in the process.

I must add that Anton Jnr did us proud by also doing the jump, while Anton Snr captured the entire experience on film. What this proves about our team is that we are a perfect combination of practicality and sensibility, versatility and capability, and experience and youthfulness… all mixed in with a keen sense of adventure and an eagerness to experience as much as possible. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

After a quick lunch it was time to tackle the final stretch to Abelana Game Reserve, near Phalaborwa. This involved passing through Bushbuck Ridge, which proved to be an adventure in itself.

As Mary and I car-karaoked our way through her playlist it dawned on me that this was exactly what compact crossovers were made for: providing you with the means to enjoy all that our beautiful country has to offer, with good friends by your side. These vehicles prove that you don’t need a big, bulky 4×4 – or a large SUV for that matter – to be able to expand your horizons and explore. As we always say at Adventure Afrika: your adventure, your rules.

By the time we reached the entrance to Abelana we were all rather travel weary and eager to relax after a long and busy day. Our five vehicles were left in the parking area inside the gate, and we piled onto two game viewers for a short drive to the main lodge, where we were greeted by the friendly staff and enjoyed a much-needed welcome drink.

Everyone was ushered to their rooms for an opportunity to unwind, unpack and freshen up before dinner was served under the cover of a splendid sycamore tree on the banks of the Selati river. As we gathered around the warm fire we were officially welcomed by Ian Beauchamp and the Abelana team. Ian likened the five brands represented on our adventure to the Big Five. Kia was likened to a lion; impressive, focused on its objectives and with plenty of attitude. Suzuki was the rhino of the group; undeterred, intimidating, and ready to face any challenge. Then there was Toyota, the buffalo; unbreakable, unpredictable and with true staying power. Hyundai was described as the elephant; quietly going about its business, getting noticed and continuing to do what it does best. Finally, there was Nissan, the leopard; always there, ready to cause a stir when you least expect it.

The next morning, we were set to experience both Big Fives, first from the game viewers and then behind the wheel of our vehicles on a guided drive on some of the gravel roads. The first was an unsuccessful venture with regards to game viewing, but the second proved to be a very fruitful exercise. All the vehicles impressed with their ride and handling and their ability to traverse the rougher terrain.

When we drove down to a dry riverbed, I had déjà vu of a previous experience with SUVs where one of them got stuck in the loose sand and required quite a bit of effort to get out. This time around, however, the compact size and light weight of the bevvy of compact crossover SUVs we were driving ensured that everyone made it through without incident.

There were plenty of photo opportunities along the way and the Antons took full advantage, capturing our Big Five doing what they do best: providing their owners with the means to experience adventure without breaking the bank.

We were in for a real treat later that afternoon. A truly impressive gin station had been set up in the lining of trees on the riverbank. We snacked, chatted and sipped gin as we gathered on a concrete bridge to watch the sun set over the water. Nature obliged with a beautiful spectacle that left us amazed, appreciative and recharged. A guided bush walk was planned for the next morning but that night the rain set in and continued for the next two days. The brave ones in the group donned their walking shoes and rain ponchos nonetheless, but the animals were as hesitant to make an appearance in the wet conditions as I was. There were no real sightings, but there was some slipping and falling and a lot of mud and water. Still, like the compact crossovers, it provided a great opportunity to spend quality time exploring the great outdoors.

The rest of the day involved more eating, socialising and relaxing as the Abelana staff tended to our every need. The food was delicious, the company good and the conversation interesting as we lounged around in the comfort of the main building. There was more gin drinking and even a few nerve-wracking and highly entertaining games of Jenga before it was time for our farewell dinner. The general consensus around the table was that our adventure had been a successful and enjoyable one. The vehicles had performed admirably and had proven that you can cross over to the wilder side without a 4×4 vehicle. The word adventure is used to describe an unusual and exciting or daring experience, and this is exactly what we had achieved. After breakfast the next morning we said our goodbyes and headed back to our respective homes via Tzaneen and Polokwane and then onto the N1 south. We had spent five days in South Africa’s great five compact crossovers, in search of the Big Five. It seems that all good things come in groups of five.

Travel Guide

The Highlander hotel

This luxury boutique hotel and conference centre in Dullstroom offers city

dwellers well-deserved tranquillity and luxury. Set in the heart of the magnificent trout fishing village, The Highlander reveals the timelessness of a bygone era combined with luxury, elegance and breathtaking surroundings.

The Highlander was named after the Scottish Highlands, as the area around the hotel has many similarities to the northern country of the United Kingdom and is over 2 100m in altitude. The hotel was formerly known as Peebles Country Retreat and has been voted the ‘Most Romantic Hotel’ during the International Luxury Hotel of the Year awards. In keeping with the romantic and restful setting of the hotel, the rooms feature log fireplaces to ward off the extreme Dullstroom cold. The bar at the hotel is every whisky lover’s dream, offering over 200 single malt whiskies and, with a reservation, a delightful whisky tasting with connoisseur and private collector, John Woodnutt.

CONTACT: +27 (0) 13 254 0039 / +27 62 279 3808 / +27 71 661 8139 | ervations@thehighlanderhotel.co.za | www. thehighlanderhotel.co.za

Graskop Gorge Lift Company

The Graskop Gorge Lift Company is centrally located on the Mpumalanga Panorama Route (on the R533 towards Hazyview). While it is an ideal stopover point, it is also an end destination in its own right, with lots to do on-site. This includes a walk in the gorgeous indigenous forest, plunging down the gorge or ziplining over it, enjoying a coffee with a view or supporting the local arts and craft talent at the on-site flea market.

CONTACT: +27 (0)13 767 1144 / +27 (0)66 305 1572/3 | info@gglc.co.za | www.gglc.co.za | @graskopgorgeliftco

Abelana Game Reserve

Abelana Game Reserve is a fairly new 15 000ha reserve adjacent to the Greater Kruger National Park (nearest entry gate through Phalaborwa) and the Selati Game Reserve. It currently offers two accommodation options, with many plans to expand these options:

Abelana River Lodge: In the north of the reserve, located on the banks of the Selati River, the lodge was opened early in 2021 and has already developed a reputation for incredible cuisine, five-star service and a spectacular location. The impressive 40-bed luxury lodge (20 individual chalets, with luxurious amenities) combines sleek, contemporary African design with organic décor, focussing on a more traditional approach to the safari experience with morning and afternoon game drives. All meals, accommodation and two game activities per day are included.

Abelana Safari Camp: An intimate, eight-bed tented camp offers an immersive, authentic safari experience in a style reminiscent of the classical African explorers. With just four en-suite Meru-style safari tents tucked into the lee of a towering rock or “koppie”, its stunning 100m² viewing deck – constructed on top of the koppie that rises above the camp – has to be seen to be believed. It offers breathtaking views of the reserve and the northern reaches of the Drakensberg Escarpment. An exclusive-use option at a specific set rate (which will include all meals, prepared in authentic Africa style on an open fire) is available, which means activities and catering can be entirely tailored to individual preferences.

*Abelana also offers Big Five walking safaris from both camps.

CONTACT: +27 61 952 4302 | info@abelanagamereserve.com |www.abelanagamereserve.com

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