Mazda BT-50 goes to Lesotho
With our Mazda BT-50 project vehicle basically complete, we decided to put it through its paces. What better place to take it for a shakedown than the Mountain Kingdom?
It’s been quite a process, but the metamorphosis of our long-term Mazda BT-50 was recently completed. The Mazda bakkie, which started out as a stock standard double cab, is now a proper overlander. When we launched this project, we had a simple goal: create a practical vehicle for overland trips. That meant no oversize wheels, show-car paint job or fancy gadgets. All we wanted were the basic essentials for long-distance travel. Major additions have included an ARB replacement bull bar with winch and spotlights, chunky BFGoodrich tyres, Old Man Emu suspension, Rhinoman aluminium canopy, Takla seat covers, Desert roof rack and Desert Armour drawer system.
Built for overlanding
Let’s run through those additions. Although it can be argued that a replacement bull bar is not strictly necessary, it can be handy when tackling rough terrain. It improves a vehicle’s approach angle, of course, and it also offers some added protection when travelling in an unpredictable environment. Adding a winch and spotlights improves the practicality of a replacement bull bar even further, and here our Mazda’s ARB Intensity LED driving lights deserve special mention. As a set, these two lights are phenomenally expensive. They cost R30 490. You’ve undoubtedly just choked on the tea you were sipping while reading this, so let’s reiterate. That was not a typo. A pair of ARB Intensity lights has a sticker price of R30 490. Not everyone will be willing to pay that kind of money for a set of spots, and that’s understandable, but it’s impossible to exaggerate the efficacy of these lights: they are unbelievable. For those who do a lot of driving at night, these are a worthwhile investment. We’ve never tested any other lights capable of illuminating a dark road in such spectacular fashion.
Moving on from the front of the vehicle, we’ve also shod the bakkie’s standard rims with a set of BFG all-terrain tyres. While these are chunkier and more off-road-oriented than the BT-50’s regular tyres, they aren’t any larger, which means that the tyres don’t touch the wheel arches when turning sharply and there are no issues with gear ratios. To be sure, a vehicle looks great with a set of oversize tyres, but when creating a proper overlander, it’s often better to resist the urge of upsizing rubber. The more things are kept within standard spec, the less the odds of things going wrong. Underneath the vehicle, the standard suspension has been replaced with an Old Man Emu one. For most applications, the regular setup is perfectly fine, but since our project Mazda is built for gravel travel, we opted for a more robust suspension that’s truly geared towards off-road work.
At the rear, the Mazda boasts a Rhinoman aluminium canopy and a Desert Armour drawer system. The canopy has impressed us a lot. The build quality is excellent and it suits the overall look of the bakkie. Moreover, there are no rattles or squeaks. The canopy fits the load bay of the BT-50 like a glove. The drawer system has also proven to be extremely useful. Having dedicated drawers where items can be stowed safely and away from dust is great when travelling overland.
Hitting the (tar) road
With our long-term BT-50 now ready to do duty as a hardcore overlander, we decided to take it on a short trip to test its performance. From Johannesburg, we headed towards Harrismith. From there, we took a gravel road down Bezuidenhout’s Pass, and onto Geluksburg. After a night in this small town, we headed for Sani Pass via the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Sani Pass took us into Lesotho, and after a night at Sani Mountain Lodge, we drove to AfriSki Mountain Resort and Oxbow Lodge, where we spent the night. From there, we drove to the Free State town of Clarens via the Caledonspoort Border Post, and after a night there, we headed back to Johannesburg. No one would describe the 270km N3 route between Joburg and Harrismith as exciting. It’s busy, sure, but apart from that, the driving is pretty uninspiring. However, it did give us a chance to test how our modified BT-50 performed on a regular tar road.
With all that added kit strapped on, the bakkie was obviously quite a bit heavier, so we were expecting it to feel more sluggish. We also thought its fuel consumption would take a hit. Thankfully, its performance was unchanged. If the added weight had impacted how the engine performed, it wasn’t perceptible from behind the steering wheel. Fuel economy also remained about the same (around 12 litres per 100km). Our project BT-50 is equipped with a 3.2-litre oilburner that develops 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque. Now, the vehicle is also available with a 2.2-litre diesel engine, and one might question the need for the larger 3.2 mill, but in this sort of situation you understand the value of that extra grunt. With all that power and torque available from relatively low down on the rev range, the BT-50 isn’t bothered by a bit of extra weight. As mentioned, it hardly has an impact.
The engine in our vehicle is also mated to a six-speed automatic transmission that’s perfect for this sort of open-road driving. It isn’t terribly responsive if you put your foot down hard, but if you adopt a relaxed driving style, the Mazda is a joy to pilot. It cruises effortlessly at 120km/h, and has more than enough oomph left over to accelerate when you need to overtake. In short, the BT-50’s performance impressed us. The cabin was quiet and comfortable (even with those chunky tyres), and there were no rattles. The aftermarket accessories hadn’t worsened its on-road performance, which was important for us, since just about any overland journey inevitably involves a lot of tar driving.
After a quick stop for supplies in Harrismith, we headed for Bezuidenhout’s Pass. Instead of continuing on the N3, we turned onto Abattoir Street, which is in the south-western part of town. Taking this road, we drove out of town. The tar soon turned to gravel and we were given an opportunity to test the performance of the Mazda on dirt. It’s only about 38km from Harrismith to the start of Bezuidenhout’s Pass, but a road that started out as wide and in reasonable condition quickly deteriorated. In some spots it even turned into a little tweespoor track. If you opt to drive this road, you’re likely to think you took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up on a farm road. Keep going, though, and you will eventually reach the top of Bezuidenhout’s Pass.
The road was uglier than we had anticipated, but the Mazda traversed it without fuss. With that Old Man Emu suspension working away underneath and a heavy load on the back, the BT-50 provided a comfortable ride. With 4H engaged, it also felt stable and secure. The bakkie is long and wide, so it didn’t feel skittish. The odd pothole or ditch didn’t unsettle it either. Before long, we were at the top of the pass. Bezuidenhout’s is not a gentle gravel road. It is proper 4×4 territory. With adequate ground clearance, you could head down it in a 4×2 bakkie, but drive up it from the Geluksburg side, and you will definitely need 4×4, and probably low-range, too.
The scenery is spectacular, but the road is rough, as the narrow track is littered with large boulders. Some careful driving was needed here and there, but the Mazda didn’t struggle at all. It had the ground clearance needed to deal with the rocks, and the tyres were perfect for this sort of environment. Bakkies, like most other vehicles, are increasingly being fitted with large rims and low-profile rubber. Many bakkies now sport 18-inch rims as standard. The BT-50, however, has 17-inch rims, which seems to offer the best balance between on-road performance and off-road toughness. With its 17-inch rims, the bakkie offers a decent cornering speed and feels secure on tar, but it has enough rubber to survive a 4×4 trail without suffering a damaged rim or shredded sidewall.
Sani pass and Lesotho
From the bottom of the pass, it was a quick drive to Geluksburg, where we spent the night. The next morning, we drove to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. After spending a few relaxing hours there, we drove to Sani Pass. The road to Sani Pass makes a sudden and dramatic transition from smooth tar to terrible gravel a few kilometres from the South African border post. We have driven this stretch of road many times before, yet we have never seen it in worse condition. In fact, when we visited this time round, the road to Sani Pass was actually worse than the pass itself. Why is this? Some earth-moving equipment is clearly traversing the road on a regular basis (and tearing it to pieces in the process), so it seems as if the South African Government is preparing to finally tar this road. The good news, however, is that all this activity ceases at the border post, so while Sani Pass might still be tarred at some stage, it isn’t imminent.
After the road to the border post, Sani Pass felt rather humdrum, especially in the BT-50. While it can be tricky (and downright dangerous) when icy or wet, it’s nothing more than a steep gravel track when dry. In 4H, the Mazda chugged up the pass with minimal effort. But, what the trail lacked in excitement, it made up for in beauty. As usual, the views were spectacular. Right at the top of the pass, the gravel gives way to silky-smooth tar. Because the road ends at the steep and twisting Sani Pass, hardly any commercial vehicles come this way. In fact, there’s very little traffic to speak of in this corner of Lesotho, so the tar roads are in immaculate condition. After a night at Sani Mountain Lodge, we took the beautiful tar road towards Black Mountain, one of the highest points in Lesotho. Over the mountain, we headed inland towards Mokhotlong. After 67km, we hit a T-junction, with the road to the right leading to the town of Mokhotlong, and the one to the left making its way to Thaba-Tseka and the centre of Lesotho.
We turned left. This piece of road sees far more use than the one leading to Sani Pass, and because of this, it isn’t in a great way. We encountered clusters of potholes every few kilometres, but road crews were thankfully busy fixing these. Running into the occasional stop/go wasn’t ideal, but it was nevertheless heartening to see that Lesotho’s relatively new tar roads were being maintained and not simply left to slowly return to gravel. It’s roughly 135km from Sani Pass to AfriSki, and we completed this stretch in two- and-a-half hours. We stopped in at the ski resort, which was absolutely buzzing. It was early August and the air was chilly, so AfriSki boasted some attractive slopes. We spent a few hours watching people slip and slide on their skis, and then travelled further down the road towards Oxbow Lodge. There isn’t a lot of accommodation at AfriSki, so Oxbow is extremely busy during the winter period. It is pricey and basic, but should you need accommodation in this area, it’s pretty much your only option.
We spent a cold night at Oxbow. So cold, actually, that many of the vehicles struggled to start the following morning. Not the Mazda, however. Neither the cold nor altitude could faze the BT-50. We travelled in a north-westerly direction, exiting Lesotho via the Caledonspoort Border Post. From there, it was just a short 43km drive to Clarens, where we spent a final night. The following morning, we drove home to Joburg. It had been a brief trip, but it was long enough to prove that the Mazda BT-50 is capable of passing the overland test. As an overlander, the bakkie is an awesome vehicle. Its engine isn’t the most technologically advanced, and its cabin isn’t as plush as that of some other bakkies out there, but the BT-50 feels tough. Driving the Mazda, you believe that the vehicle will get you where you want to go, and bring you back safely. Also, it’s a great all-round performer. It’s spacious, comfortable and capable: everything you want in an overlander. With its aftermarket accessories, the Mazda BT-50 can tackle just about any overland journey.
Text and photography: GG van Rooyen