In order to put the new Pajero Sport to a test worthy of a 12 time Dakar Rally winner, Ferdi de Vos journeyed 2,400 km from Parys in the Free State to D’Kar in Botswana; and back, finding some remarkable hidden gems along the way …
Mitsubishi introduced its Fortuner-rivalling Pajero Sport SUV in South Africa last month; what better way was there to comprehensively evaluate this newcomer than to take it on a mini-Dakar?
To do so, while also celebrating the century-old manufacturer’s dominance of the 39-year-old rally-raid event, we devised a tough circular route of 2,400 km from Parys in the Free State Province to D’Kar (also spelt Dekar) in Botswana.
The new SUV’s namesake Pajero ancestors built up an enviable reputation in the fearsome Dakar race. Entering the marathon rally the first time in 1983, the first win for the team came in 1985, followed by 11 more victories, including seven consecutive wins from 2001 to 2007 – all of them on African soil.
When in 2009 the Dakar Rally moved to South America, Mitsubishi officially withdrew from the event. But, even a decade after that final victory, the Pajero is still revered as a serious off-roader, and its Dakar record may never be broken.
A Different Design
The Pajero Sport inherits some design traits from its Triton sibling, but is distinguished by bigger chrome surrounds for the grille and frontal air intake, giving it more road presence, and stylish headlights with LED driving lamps. Its long rear overhang is well balanced by a high bonnet line and a chromed wedge-shape window line, with side-steps and roof rails well integrated into the overall design package.
At the rear, it differs greatly from its competitors with their sleek, horizontal tail lights. In contrast, it has sharp triangular tail lights with a vertical line stretching down to the bottom of the tailgate. While this design cue may not be to everybody’s taste, it sure is different.
Driving to Parys for the start of our journey, we appreciated the comfort and space of the seven-seater Sport, with generous head and legroom for the front and second-row passengers, as well as ample luggage space. The comfortable soft-feel leather seats, with electric adjustment for the driver’s seat, further enhanced the quality feel of the cabin. Other useful features were the 60:40 split with tumble, reclining and sliding function of the second row of seats, dual air-con with rear passenger temperature controls, rear park distance control with a rear-view camera, and fold-away electric door mirrors with turn indicators.
On the Champs-Élysées
Our abode in Parys was the Le Grande Chateau Hotel, just off the main drag in Boom Street, close to the Vaal River. We were warmly received by the competent staff in the French themed establishment and shown to our clean, comfortable rooms (mine even had a small balcony).
We enjoyed a great supper at the Pickled Pig Ale House in the main street but, considering how we felt when needing to get up for our very early start the next morning, we must have somewhat overindulged on the establishment’s huge selection of craft beer …
Thankfully, our hotel hosts prepared delicious snack packs for us, and fittingly, we started our mini-Dakar from the Champs-Élysées of Le Grand Chateau at sparrows the next day. Heading down the R53 through Potchefstroom and Ventersdorp, we reached Zeerust just after sunrise, before joining the M4 towards the border post at Skilpadshek.
Powered by the 2.4-litre 4-cylinder turbodiesel engine also used in the Triton, the Pajero Sport effortlessly negotiated the ribbon of tarmac meandering through the maize fields and bushveld of the North-West – in some places reminiscent of the pampas in Argentina. Mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission with intelligent shift control, power delivery was virtually seamless, but interestingly the electric handbrake does not automatically release when the accelerator is pushed. According to Mitsubishi this is safety related, but we found it frustrating and sometimes dangerous (as the vehicle actually will move forward slowly, but then needs to be stopped to disengage the brake).
In keeping with our Dakar theme (next year’s event will follow a route from Peru through Bolivia to Argentina), we also crossed the border; into Botswana. Arriving early, the whole procedure was quick and painless, and soon we were on the A2, making good time towards Ghanzi.
Apart from the trains of trucks, the Trans-Kalahari Highway, initially wide and smooth, is notorious for free-roaming animals. We spent most of our time dodging errant herds of goats, cows, and donkeys. Especially donkeys.
Fortuitously, the Pajero Sport is endowed with a variety of safety systems. Its relatively fast steering and class-leading turning circle also assisted, making the Sport agile enough to avert every suicidal beast, although a couple of slow-reacting birds did not make it, I am afraid.
By now we were west of Kanye (a Kardashian moment fleetingly passed), as well as Jwaneng and Kang, fast approaching the sandy scrublands surrounding Ghanzi, D’Kar, our end destination was now only 50 km away.
A Lesson in San
Entering D’Kar – a small, dusty village situated about two kilometres from the A3 main road leading to Maun – we did not expect much. However, much to our surprise we found a museum, a school, clinic, and a building dedicated to the Kuru Art Project, developed since 1990 by members of the Naro and Dcui San based in the D’Kar community.
Once a farm of the Dutch Reformed Church, it later evolved into a rural village after being donated to the Naro. The art project encourages San artists to share their unique visions and experiences, and even with no formal training the local artists have won many awards, both collectively and individually. Their work can be found in collections throughout the world and their art have been displayed in over 160 exhibitions in more than 15 countries globally.
While marvelling at the art project, we were told that we had just missed the annual Kuru Traditional Dance and Music Festival, held at the nearby Dqae Qare San Lodge on the weekend of the full moon in August. The village and cultural centre had turned out to be a true hidden gem on our trip, and we continued our journey, destination Maun, with a much better understanding of the plight of the San people.
After playing dodgems on the potholed road to Maun, we reached the gateway to the Okavango Delta at dusk. We stayed over at the ideally situated Maun Lodge on the banks of the Thamalakane River, and after a good night’s sleep we started the return journey the next morning; with a short detour to visit the Makgadikgadi Pans – one of the largest salt flats in the world.
The area has many pans, the largest being the five square kilometres Sua (Sowa) pan close to the town of Nata. In comparison, the single salt flat of Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – venue of one of the most spectacular stages in the Dakar Rally – measures 10,6 square kilometres. After a four-hour trip, including a rough dirt road detour that truly tested the suspension of the newcomer, as well as noise, vibration, and harshness levels – which it passed with flying colours – we arrived at Nata Lodge, an oasis in a wild, unforgiving landscape.
From here, we followed a dirt route through the Nata Bird Sanctuary to Sua pan, covered with water after some good rains. To get closer to this refuge for birds and animals in the arid area, we followed an unmarked track through the marshland and shrubby savanna.
Here the unique Super Select 4-II 4WD system with electronic off-road assistance of the Pajero Sport came into its own. With a lockable rear differential added, the Mitsubishi proved unstoppable in the wet, muddy conditions.
A Final Surprise
After a sojourn in the neat, clean campsite at Nata Lodge, we set course for Francistown the next day, and soon we arrived at Sebe Sebe Lodge situated next to the Limpopo River.
After our long journey, we savoured the beautiful scenery from the big deck overlooking the river, and the friendly staff went out of their way to make us feel at home. It was an apt ending to our arduous mini-Dakar. While the Pajero Sport worked hard at times, it never missed a beat during our 2,400 km excursion, doing its heritage proud and proving itself a real contender in the SUV market. Still, compared to the average distance of the Dakar Rally, we only finished the equivalent of four of its twelve special stages …