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King of the Hills

From Cape Town to an unlikely hill in Knysna that once a year comes to life with petrol-head merriment, Ray Leathern took Jaguar’s first SUV to challenge the daunting Seven Passes road.


The mostly gravel route in question runs parallel with that ponderously slow stretch of N2 between George and Knysna; weaving in and out like a serpent doubling back on itself, rising and falling with the topography as if for the sole reason of entertaining the driver.

After a splash of morning rain, ironically, it is the high-lying areas that are damp, while the tree-covered hairpins deep in the valleys below remain bone dry.

Clearly I can push a lot harder, though the flying luggage (in a boot 150 litres more cavernous than that of a Porsche Macan) and crushed **padkos** on the backseat might suggest otherwise.

There are no blinking stability control lights on the dash, let alone any perceived interference to the big SUV’s trajectory … and yet, at the precise apex point of each dusty hairpin I am absolutely flooring it. The eight-speed transmission tries to send all 430 Nm to the rear axle before a powwow with the on-board electronics punts the overspill forwards and the Off Road ‘Surface Response’ programme (Jag’s version of LR ‘Terrain Response’) manages all four driven wheels: nipping, tucking, and braking imperceptibly to keep me from sliding into the unsuspecting shrubbery.

It is more pragmatic than practical, allowing the big cat to arc gracefully between hairpins, and for something possessing such confidence, it is crazy to think a year ago there was no such thing as an all-terrain Jaguar.

The interceding time since launch has softened the initially peculiar-sounding name and the seemingly contradictory sports-car-meets-off-roader concept.

There is the Big-Foot stance affording you lofty airiness and great visibility of an SUV, yet you are positioned low down in the car, with a snug embrace and a small XE steering wheel for a distinctly sporting feel.

So, for the first time ever in a Jag you can ignore the Luddite ways of the sat-nav and seek out rugged routes like the Seven Passes road: a 75 km stretch scything through the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains backing onto Wilderness and Sedgefield.

Sinuous S-bends cross the amber torrents of the Swart-, Kaaimans-, Silver-, Touw-, Hoogekraal-, Goukamma- and Karatara rivers (hence the name Seven Passes), before dropping into Knysna via the fabulous Phantom Pass (allegedly named after the white phantom moth indigenous to the area).

The first settlers in the 1770s were attracted by the sheer beauty of the area – and who can blame them – but the road came into being when it was evident a track to support the burgeoning hard timber trade out of the Knysna Forests was needed.

It was not until the great Thomas Bain moved to Knysna in 1860, however, that a decent overland route between George and Knysna was built, with the labour of between 22 and 50 convicts.

It was a massive undertaking and it was not done all at once; location work through the thick forests and deep river gorges took place only when opportunity offered, and the full road was only completed in 1883, 23 years later.

It would be the main road connecting the two Southern Cape towns for over 70 years, before a new national road would serve the area from the 1950s onwards.

And it is that national road I detour off, because as Jaguar openly says, the F-Pace is still a road car, but one that has the off-road smarts when duty calls. Like now.

The rigid shell of the big cat is rocking up and down firmly but comfortably as we cross the more weathered road joins and pock-marked surfaces of the pass. The suspension of the F-Pace is taking hits like a Stormers front ranker, while inside the occupants remain utterly serene

The 132 kW 20d is the only four-pot in the range and the least powerful – if you are after more urge the 3.0-litre turbodiesel with its sumptuous 700 Nm reserve of torque is the one to have – but at least our R-Sport model still makes a statement with its dark 20-inch rims and two-tone detailing.

I am relishing the thought of the admiring glances when we roll into the Simola Hillclimb – few would argue Ian Callum’s big kitty is not a great looker from any and all angles.

There is still some way to go as we cross the halfway mark at Diep River, and still plenty of exquisite road building to admire, thanks to the brother-in-law of Bains, Adam de Smidt.

A local District Engineer of that era, he and Bains apparently had major differences of opinion over the positioning of the road.

De Smidt insisted the road line should cross the rivers where the gorges were shallowest; Bains wanted the alignment to be flatter, stick closer to the foothills of the Outeniqua.

The Passes Road was just one of the many responsibilities of Bains at the time and by 1869 he had transferred to Barrydale to construct what would become the masterful Tradouw Pass, leaving De Smidt to carry on – away from prying eyes.

He defied the orders of the master road builder. Hence the dramatic drops, meandering gradients, and sometimes complex cambers scything through the unlit narrowness – and the absence of any signature white ‘Bain’s tombstones’ as they became known from lining Bain’s Kloof Pass.

There is perilously little run-off, but an even greater danger awaits when encountering another car (most often a brown, entropy-defying Toyota Cressida) coming the other way, and yet something in me is still pressing on, daring to carry more corner speed in this 1 900 kg cat.

Up ahead, finally, smooth blacktop beckons, with the familiar Knysna lagoon scrolling past on our right for the final kilometres to Simola.

The F-Pace is feeling rather imperious right now, brandishing its dusty tailgate and a surfeit of admirable ride quality and reassuringly good fuel economy – just 6.5l/100km consumed means there is still half a tank for the return journey back to Cape Town.

Moments later we are being ushered through the madding hillclimb crowd straight to the VIP area, despite having no official Jaguar credentials with us whatsoever.

Who am I to disagree with the burly, hi-vis-jacket-wearing gatekeepers; giving me a full-palm gesture to proceed up the hill, no questions asked? I could be Sharlto Copley (who so famously revealed the F-Pace one year prior at the Simola Hillclimb) for all they know!

But it is the Jaguar F-Pace that earned the kudos. The big kitty has boldly gone where no Jag has gone before, a riotous car on a truly riotous road. Perhaps I should now repack the boot …