What was supposed to be a mountain passes challenge for Jim Freeman and the new diesel-sipping Mini Countryman Cooper D, quickly turned into a full-blown Eastern Cape caper … with a slight Scottish flavour.
Both sides of my family come from settler stock in the Eastern Cape. My maternal grandmother was an Edinburgh schoolteacher who came to Aliwal-North to give art classes and ended up marrying the (Afrikaans-speaking) district surgeon, and my paternal grandmother was a Carlisle by birth, directly descended from one of the 1820 Settlers.
The funny thing, though, is that neither of my parents had any affinity for the region. My dad ran away from home at age sixteen to join the South African Air Force in 1939 while my very young mum returned to Scotland following the death of her father a few years before World War II broke out.
Both, ironically, returned to South Africa after the cessation of hostilities, but their indifference for the Eastern Cape largely remained. (My dad never left the province, simply because he loved fishing.) I am the freak of the family. I was conceived rather than born there and lived there for only a decade, but I love the place. I believe that if you have not explored the Eastern Cape, you have not seen South Africa.
My family history was recalled recently when I took the latest addition to the Mini Countryman range, the Cooper D, into the Southern part of the Drakensberg, very close to the Lesotho border. The region is known as the Eastern Cape Highlands and it is about as remote a part of South Africa you will ever visit.
A Diesel Mini
The front-wheel-drive Cooper D Countryman is the only oil-burning model in the local Mini range. It quietly arrived here in September, and is positioned between the petrol-driven Cooper and Cooper S. It is powered by a BMW derived two-litre, fourcylinder turbodiesel engine punching out 110 kW and a healthy 330 Nm of torque between 1,750 to 2,500 rpm.
Our D-model, equipped with optional Steptronic auto transmission (R18,200), had a long list of extras, including LED headlights, a panoramic sunroof, a Harman Kardon sound system, sports seats, and the Mini Excitement package – to the value of an astounding R127,800! This does not include the price of the Autohome rooftop tent it was carrying.
The highlands area is stupendously beautiful, and the people are gregarious, hospitable, and thirsty – making them excellent story-tellers and audiences. One such person is Dave Walker, owner of Walkerbouts Inn in the tiny village of Rhodes about 70 km away from the regional “metropolis” of Barkly-East and 20 km from the Tiffindell Ski Resort.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed when he caught sight of the mud-encrusted Mini the morning after my arrival. “What on Earth happened to you?” It was a long story, I explained. After leaving Addo (my first overnight stop after departing Cape Town), driving North along the N10 towards Cookhouse, a sign reading “Farm Stall / Pub / Open Daily” caught my eye. Never one to pass up the chance to discover a good new bush pub, I turned in and was I glad I did.
Middleton is an old railway dorpie of about fifteen houses that has been converted into a rehabilitation centre for people recovering from various addictions. Surprisingly, the complex includes a picturesque tavern that sports all sorts of South African Railways and Harbours memorabilia including an extremely rare “spend-a-penny” coin-operated toilet lock.
From there, I told Dave, it seemed as if I was stopping every half an hour to take pictures … The monument to the men hanged in the Slagters Nek Rebellion of 1815, a sign that said Daggaboers Nek, and the magnificent stone church at Tarkastad. I drove through thundershowers, time was moving on and I had no idea of what lay ahead, so I filled up the Mini at Queenstown and turned on the navigation system.
I had previously studied my Book of the Road – known as “Your South African Motoring Bible” – and saw my logical first waypoint was Elliott, Northeast of Queenstown. The satnav (another option on the Mini-list), however, took me on a roundabout route to Cofimvaba and beyond towards Mthatha in the Transkei.
I called Dave. “Boet,” he said, “you are taking one hell of a detour and you will never get here before dark. Turn left at the filling station in Ngcobo and head for Elliott, then Barkly-East.” Do not worry, he added, we will leave your supper in the kitchen.
The real adventure
Thus, the real adventure began. The original intention was to put the Countryman – weighing two tons and 2,670 metres long it actually is a maxi-Mini – through its paces over some Eastern Cape mountain passes. However, as the All4 all-wheel-drive version (the plug-in hybrid 165 kW Cooper S E Countryman All) was not ready yet, we had to make do with the two-wheel drive model.
On the highways the Countryman was a pleasure, with mountains of oomph for overtaking. Not having driven a “new” Mini before, I was apprehensive about tackling the 1,300 km route in what I wrongly perceived to be a small car; but the Countryman surprised me with its roominess. With all the add-ons, luxury levels were impressive, the instrumentation funky, and I loved the toggle switch for the ignition.
After I left Ngcobo I realised the trip was going to be a tough driving assignment … Much of the road to Elliott snakes over the aptly named Satan’s Nek. It is heavily potholed, and driving was complicated further with the onset of night, torrential rain, and thick mist.
The R58 is much better but can be dangerous where it winds through the Barkly Pass, and other than cats’ eyes and Armco I did not see much of the beautiful pass. Then I spotted a sign “R393 Rhodes” and decided to turn off. It was not a good move. Tar immediately turned to dirt, the rain intensified, and the mist got even thicker.
There were potholes aplenty and bedrock broke the surface almost continuously. At times the mud was thick, and I almost slid sideways into a cow. The ABS, with braking assist, worked overtime and well. It was an interminable 80-odd kilometres and I arrived at Walkerbouts Inn in serious need of strong drink, but the bar, sadly, was closed.
Next day, Dave looked at the 165 mm ground clearance of the Countryman and said I should have no problems reaching Tiffindell but not to try any of the other passes such as Naude’s Nek or the Tiffindell-Tenahead Traverse. The Countryman made short work of the Tiffindell road, even on a very steep (but, thankfully, short) section where drivers are urged to “engage lowest gear, keep up the revs and drive positively”.
I flipped the six-speed auto with Steptronic over to manual and cruised up the hill. “Hill” is a bit of a misnomer, and as I cleared the tricky section I was confronted by a sign: “Carlisleshoekspuit Pass 2,563 m – fifth highest pass in South Africa”. No problem for the Mini, and soon I could see Tiffindell in the distance.
The resort lies at the foot of Ben McDhui, the highest pass in the country and named after the second highest mountain in Scotland and Britain. You can drive to the top, but I knew instinctively
that this would be well beyond the capabilities of the Countryman. Another vehicle, another time.
As I was leaving Tiffindell, I took a cursory look at the tyres and stopped in horror. There was a deep five-centimetre long gash in the sidewall of the front offside tyre. I noted that the tyres were run-flats but checked for a spare anyway. There was none, so I crept back to Rhodes in a sweat.
The scenery, at least, was magnificent and humbling in its scope. I stopped in a clearing to test the ease-of-use of the rooftop Autohome, half-convinced I would be spending the night in it, and back in Rhodes, I put out an SOS to BMW-on-Call. My worst fears were realised. BMW could fly in a replacement tyre from Pretoria, but I would have to negotiate the 360 km to Buffalo City (East London) to get it fitted – and wait two days for it to arrive!
Luckily the Mini accomplished the challenge with aplomb. Hats off to my Countryman; I would settle the Eastern Cape frontier with you in a heartbeat!