OFF ROAD TEST: VW Beetle conquers Sani Pass. Again.
In 1956, a man called Sy Symonds ‘drove’ the first two-wheel-drive vehicle up the infamous Sani Pass. It was a VW Beetle, and on that rough trail, it was quite an achievement. Now, 60 years later, we decided to follow in Sy’s tracks and attempt to drive the latest two-wheel-drive VW Beetle Dune up the same pass. Yes, it seemed like a great idea at the time.
It wasn’t the rocky track, or the water crossings, or the ruts, or the absolutely stunning Maluti Mountains that made the biggest impression on us initially.
It was the looks on the faces of the drivers of Cruisers, Prados, Pajeros and Patrols and Hilux bakkies, heading down the pass. They all shared a look of sheer disbelief, rounded off with a tinge of “what the hell is that doing here!” Honestly, on the access road that leads towards the South African border post and the official start of the famous pass, we also shared that thought: what the heck were we thinking, driving a front-wheel-drive hatch up a mountain pass upon which only 4×4s are supposed to venture? This new Beetle is not even a high clearance 4×2.
Blimey. Who’s great idea was this again? But before we get to the VW Beetle Dune and the Sani, a short trip down memory lane – and an ex-Spitfire pilot, a VW Beetle 1.2 with a 25kW flat-four motor and a prize of 100 pounds. The year was 1956. Sy Symonds was a World War II fighter pilot, he raced cars, he was a motoring journalist and he had a keen sense of adventure. One day, he read a report on Sani Pass, a terribly dangerous track, serving as a trade route between Himeville in South Africa and Mokhotlong in Lesotho.
The track, suited more to donkeys than any type of automobile, was said to peak
at 2 800m above sea level. It was said to be extremely dangerous, with deadly drop-offs, and a narrow track that led over rocks and boulders and through rivers. By then, the route had been conquered by a vehicle: in 1948, another former Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot, Godfrey Edmund, was tasked by Stanley Motors in Kokstad to try and get one of their Willys Jeeps up the pass, as part of a publicity drive to sell more Jeeps.
Edmund and his team eventually made it, but one of the two Jeeps was lost in the process, tumbling to its demise, over one of the fearsome drop-offs. Thankfully, no one was injured. That ascent did require the combined effort of a crew of Basotho helpers with their ponies, a chain-pulley block, plenty of jerry cans filled with petrol and lots of rope. After the proverbial ice was broken, Jeeps and Land Rovers increasingly made the treacherous journey up the pass.Symons noted that no two-wheel drive vehicle had ever made it up the pass though, so he set about doing research on the viability of such an expedition. This proved a challenge in itself – in those days, there was no Google. All communication was conducted through telex messages, land-based telephone lines and the post.
Specific information on conditions and the pass was still sketchy despite Sy writing several letters of enquiry to the trade operators in the area. So it was that he decided to take a road trip to Himeville, and get first-hand information of
the pass, at the pass. There he contracted one of the 4×4 drivers who regularly did the Himeville to Mokhotlong run to take him up the route. He was secretive about his plans on the pass, apparently much to the inquisitive 4×4 driver’s frustration. When he eventually revealed his plan, to drive a Beetle up the pass, the local expert apparently didn’t stop laughing for several minutes before telling Symonds that the plan was, without question, complete madness.
Sy spoke to us about that trip in 2006, shortly before passing on to greener pastures. Back then he said: “When I saw the actual pass, and the actual conditions, my heart sank into my boots. My grand plan looked all the more unrealistic and foolhardy. But therein also lay the appeal – when someone reckons it can’t be done, well, then it needs at least an attempt to prove that it can be.”Back in Johannesburg, Sy decided to forge ahead regardless. He borrowed a Volkswagen Beetle 1.2, and added underbody protection and a roof rack. The roof rack would carry the planks and other gear needed to, literally, build a track for the Volksie, as needed. He also took along some vital spares, knowing the Beetle was in for a mechanically rough time in the mountains.
Oil company Total got wind of his plan, and offered Sy a prize of 100 pounds if he and the Beetle made it up the pass and all the way to Mokhotlong, situated about 50km from the Sani pass summit. Sy assembled a crew of three henchmen this included a young Ewold von Bergen who would later go on to become a South African rally driver champion. And so, with the Beetle, Sy and his team set off for Himeville, to try and drive a VW Beetle where no VW Beetle had ever gone before. He also organised a Land Rover as a back-up vehicle, along with some extra hands.
From the word go it was a struggle. Von Bergen later said they carried the Volkswagen more than they actually drove it. The high altitude robbed the already underpowered flat-four motor of around half its horsepower. And it had the standard road tyres on, and ground clearance was not much at all. Many hours later, and after carrying, pushing and pulling the Beetle more than actually driving it, the exhausted team finally arrived in Mokhot-long. It was the first time that a vehicle other than a Jeep or Land Rover had made it to town, so the sight of the unfamiliar German car apparently caused quite the fanfare. The team was even invited for dinner at the mayor’s house.
But what goes up must go down. On the patches of snow and slippery mud and rocks, the descent quickly turned into a nightmare; the Volksie’s brakes and tyres barely up to the challenge. Concerned for volunteer driver Ewold von Bergen’s safety, the team devised a cunning safety plan: they removed the driver’s door, tied a rope around Von Bergen’s waist, and with the other end of the rope in hand, they stood at the ready to yank the future rally champ from the Beetle if the Volksie decided to go over a cliff.
“It was more a case of sliding down the pass,” Von Bergen recalled during an interview. “On the slippery, snow-covered track, the Beetle’s brakes were useless. So we came up with the rope safety plan. I really thought my last day had come, and looking back now I don’t think our rope restraint system would have been very effective! I was mostly just a passenger on that downhill trip.” But the Beetle and its minders made it down in one piece.
Symonds collected his prize from Total and the Beetle became the first two-wheel-drive vehicle to conquer the infamously dangerous Sani Pass. Which brings us to the shiny new VW Beetle Dune in which we heading up the pass, much to the shock – and annoyance of some – of the drivers of pukka 4×4s. This new crossover version of the Beetle is front-wheel driven, and besides the cosmetic decals and wing, and the bright sandstorm yellow hue, the Dune also has 10mm more ground clearance that its standard siblings. That 10mm was proving to be vital, especially with the Beetle’s vulnerable front and rear overhangs.
We nevertheless took extra special care on this access road, picking our lines very carefully, and removing rocks in places. And so we arrived at the SA border post – to the great amusement of the men in blue on duty there. “Are you going to leave that Beetle here?” asked the one, clearly concerned for the VW’s well-being on the pass ahead. “You are going to damage it, you know.” After the passports were stamped, the policemen walked over to take a closer look at the Dune. We explained that it is VW’s new crossover version of the retro-styled Beetle. It’s powered by a 1.4-litre that is turbocharged, and that delivers 110kW of power and 250Nm of torque between 1 500–3 500r/min.
“Where’s the stick shift? It needs a manual gearbox?” asked one policeman.
It is equipped with a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, we explained – you can swap cogs manually, or you can let the electronics sort out the gear shifting details. We also elaborated on the Dune’s traction control system, which adds plenty of off-road traction. Or so we hoped. Finally, the police officers waved us on, not convinced about our sanity. As we drove off, we watched them in the rear-view mirror shaking their heads with big smiles on their faces. They definitely had a story to tell their families and friends after their shifts were done. The first water crossing loomed. And the first bit of careful planning commenced. Pick a line, check the rocks and water level on that line, adjust the line slightly, and then, finally, slowly start edging forward. Since it was the first challenge, we stopped halfway through to make sure the low front bumper was clear of the rocks. But through it went.
Around a few corners, the first climb on loose rocks waited. We deflated the front tyres to 1.8 bar (down from the standard 2.5), and slowly set off. As mentioned, only the front wheels are driven, and the Dune is equipped with traction control that can’t be manually switched off. The traction control was potentially a major issue. In most modern vehicles, when wheel slip is detected, the computer closes the power taps comprehensively, which results, on a steep incline, in a dramatic loss of forward momentum, even if the power is lost only for a moment. And in the Beetle, we could not switch it off. At all.
With first gear manually selected, we edged forward. As expected, a front wheel
soon lost traction… but instead of shutting down the power, the electronics seemed to immediately divert more power to the other wheel, which had traction. The result was that the Dune just kept on climbing, and climbing, the computer doing a sterling job of maintaining forward momentum without shutting the power off.
On we went, higher and higher. There were a few rocky patches to deal with, but with some careful planning and the right line, the VW continued the ascent unabated, its underbelly not once touching terra firma. However, the first 7km from the border post is relatively easy going… it’s the last 1km to the Sani summit that is the most challenging, the gradient increasing dramatically, with switchback after switchback. And the huge drop-offs, too, of course.
We had been particularly worried about Icy Corner… although ice on this hairpin is no longer an issue thanks to the improvements to the road construction in recent years, it’s the rocks, the tight turn and the steep gradient that had us worried. If we needed some momentum, this was where we would need it, we had thought. Fortunately, we needn’t have worried. With the traction control ensuring plenty of traction, we could take it really slow, skirting around the protruding rocks and avoiding damage.
The turbocharged engine also played its part here. A naturally aspirated engine, operating at these altitudes, loses out substantially in the power department. With the turbocharger, the power loss is much less pronounced in the Beetle. And with the manual option in the DSG gearbox, we could easily modulate engine revs versus gear versus incline.
The Beetle Dune continued the ascent, dealing with some of the slippery conditions far better than we had ever expected. And so, in a most non-dramatic fashion, we reached the Sani summit in the two-wheel- drive VW Beetle Dune – just as Sy Symonds and his colleagues had done in a VW Beetle. We had expected to endure at least some hardships with traction and rocks – we had even taken along shovels, bricks and planks in case we needed to build a ‘road’ for the flashy Dune. But these were never needed. The VW Beetle had, 60 years after the first ascent, again conquered Sani Pass.
1956 VW Beetle 1.2
Engine 1 192cc flat-four petrol
Power 25kW @ 3 700r/min
Torque 88Nm @ 2 000r/min
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Drive Rear-wheel drive
Top speed 109km/h
0-100km/h Yes. Eventually
Driving aids MCCS (man-carry control system)
Safety systems ARRS (advanced rope restraining system)
Price 400 pounds (new)
2016 VW Beetle Dune
Engine 1390cc four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power 110kW @ 5 000/min
Torque 250Nm @ 1 500-3 500r/min
Gearbox Seven-speed DSG
Drive Front-wheel drive
Top speed 200km/h
0-100km/h 8.8 seconds
Driving aids Traction and stability control system
Safety systems ABS, EBD, front and side airbags, emergency brake assist
Price R424 000 (includes five-year/60 000km maintenance plan)
On the road
The Dune is, in effect, a Volkswagen Golf dressed up as a cool-looking Beetle. But that’s not a bad thing at all, because the Golf is a highly accomplished hatch in its own right. Add the Beetle’s retro-styled, luxurious interior, the sporty bucket seats, and the very perky 110kW 1.4TSI powertrain, and you have a cool two-door that also doesn’t mind a fast, swoopy mountain pass.
On the beautiful tar roads around Lesotho, we had bags of fun in the Dune. The beautiful 18-inch wheels (which are not practical on gravel) come to the performance party on the smooth tarmac. Chuck it into a corner, and the front wheels go where you point them, only understeering if you really overcook it.
And if you really go way too far, the stability control is still on duty to save you from the brink of disaster. The TSI engine, in combination with the seven-speed DSG, is bags of fun to hustle, too. It revs eagerly and smoothly, and even though there is no sense of drama (as you’ll find in a GTI, for instance), it’s still a whole lot of fun. Conversely, if you stick to the national speed limit on the N3 highway, the 1.4TSI motor will sip around six litres/100km – which is really cool.
Sani Mountain Lodge
No visit to Sani Pass is complete without a visit to the Sani Mountain Lodge, located on the Sani summit, overlooking the pass. On a clear day, standing on the lodge’s lookout point, you can see all the way to Himeville, 40km below.
There are various accommodation options, including family rooms, rondavels and the more basic. Prices start at R870 per person at the main lodge, and R250 per person at the inn.
A great attraction is the restaurant and pub, the latter still rated as the highest pub in Africa (at 2 840m). Many visitors take a day trip up and down the pass, taking in a lunch stop at the lodge along the way.
More information: sanimountain.co.za
Sani Pass – then and now
Obviously the pass is now in much better shape than it was in 1956. Back then, it was really just a track suited to donkeys, Jeeps and Land Rovers. Compared to those conditions, the modern Sani is like the N1 highway. Sure, it is rough in places, but with modern road-building techniques and more regular maintenance, the pass is kept in pretty good shape, especially towards the end of the winter months (and before the summer rains change the road conditions again).
Driving the latest VW Beetle Dune up the pass was not an attempt to showcase the Dune’s 4×4 abilities. Obviously, it’s not a 4×4 by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, it was an ode to the adventurous spirits of the like of Sy Symonds, Ewold von Bergen and Godfrey Edmund, and to the legendary, original VW Beetle.
Words: Danie Botha
Photos: Deon van der Walt
Read about Sy Symonds journey up Sani Pass in 1956 with the VW Beetle here.