Sani Pass will soon be tarred and we can’t help but feel that some of the magic will be lost. We drove it one last time in our long-term Subaru Outback
There’s a store near the Nelson Mandela Capture Monument at Howick, KwaZulu-Natal. I don’t remember what it was called, but I do remember that my brother and father were quite excited about it on their return from their mission to buy charcoal for the fire that evening.
They told me about all the things they had seen in the shop. “They sell everything – from toilet seats to replacement parts for tractors, and charcoal,” my brother told me enthusiastically.
I wasn’t as excited as they were, having seen many such shops in rural SA. However, I do recall thinking that it was an interesting spot to park a Subaru Outback, since the first-generation model was sold in more or less the same way in the UK.
Subaru did not invade Britain with a host of brand-new dealerships and a massive marketing campaign, but chose to sell the Outback alongside the farming equipment in rural stores. In many ways, the Outback was the Hilux double cab of Europe. It was a car that farmers could use during the week for their activities, but luxurious enough for the drive to church on a Sunday morning. The fact that it was nearly unbreakable also helped a lot. As a result, the Outback has a stellar reputation in the UK and it continues to be a sales success to this day.
The same is unfortunately not true in SA, and it’s hard to understand why. Is it brand loyalty to other vehicles that keeps people away from Subaru dealerships, or is it the station wagon body that puts people off? Whatever the reason, it’s difficult to fathom why Subaru doesn’t sell at least 100 units a month. The Outback has everything going for it, and yet it remains largely ignored by the car buying public.
We’ve had one at Leisure Wheels for almost a year now and it has been sublime. Most of its time has been spent within the confines of the city, but it has also been on a longer expedition. An opportunity to test it on a rough track recently presented itself when my brother and I decided to take our father up Sani Pass one last time before the Chinese road construction crews move in with their tar barrels.
A top-ten drive
The plan was simple. Drive the first leg from Johannesburg to the bottom of Sani Pass on day one, drive up the pass on day two and drive down and home on day three. As often happens with good adventures, it didn’t pan out that way…
The first day was a success. We made our way to the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands where we stopped to buy a few beers from Nottingham Road Breweries. Then we set off on the final 170km leg to our overnight destination in the Drakensberg foothills.
I was fairly excited, because I knew what lay ahead. Those rural roads are beautiful and curvy, and I hadn’t been able to explore them on a previous visit.
The Outback is an off-roader, but at its core it’s still a Subaru. The brand has a reputation for building cars that stick to the road like cow manure. Include a 2,5-litre Boxer engine, a fairly decent soundtrack from the exhausts and some mildly moist roads and you are in for a good time.
Unfortunately, my two passengers weren’t used to being hustled along at a brisk pace. One of them is an engineer and the other a lawyer, so you can imagine their faces when they heard a tyre squeal for the first time.
I tried to keep them calm, assuring them that we were nowhere near the car’s limits, but their pie-eyed expressions left me wondering whether they believed me.
To be fair, a car feels very different when you are sitting in a passenger seat rather than driving yourself. Behind the wheel, you get all sorts of feedback and the Outback was giving me plenty to work with. The steering is perfectly weighted and the car responded immediately to my input in the “Intelligent” driving mode. The only spanner in the works was the CVT gearbox, but I bypassed its clumsy self-shifting mode and used the paddles behind the steering wheel.
The sun setting in the distance made it a most enjoyable drive – indeed, a top ten placing on my personal list of best drives.
I settled down to a relaxed cruise for the last 50km. I enjoy a spirited drive as much as the next guy, but it was dark and the countryside was littered with Clover cows.
Our arrival was carefully planned to take place after dark. Neither of them had been to Sani Pass before, so I was hoping a majestic sunrise would reveal the mountain in all its glory but, alas, it was not to be.
Up and over
A thick mist descended on the region overnight, bringing visibility down to roughly 20 metres. My passengers wouldn’t get the full impact of the pass, which is 30% driving and 70% psychological.
The Sani Pass isn’t that tricky when you can only see 20m in every direction, but it’s a different ball game when you are driving up that narrow road and you can actually see the vast drops on the right hand side.
“This isn’t so bad,” my brother commented from the rear seat, just as we left the tar on the SA side.
“This is just the gravel road that leads to the pass,” I said in the hope of freaking him out a bit. He was scheduled to take the wheel for the pass portion of the trip, as I wanted to make things as difficult as possible for the Subaru.
It has an “X-mode” driving setting, which is supposed to make off-roading as easy as possible for the driver, and the best way to test this is to put a novice behind the wheel and send him on his way. Meanwhile, I would snap some photos.
I had my doubts, because I knew the Subaru would be down on power because of the altitude. A healthy dose of confidence and momentum would be necessary to maintain progress, especially on those last few tight corners.
The car and driver performed brilliantly. There were a few occasions when I thought more momentum was needed, but that X-mode made a mockery of the pass. The Subaru would slow down to crawling pace, after which you could hear the mechanicals working underneath to find traction. At this point the driver needed only to feed the power in slowly and the Outback would leap forward again. It’s a brilliant piece of kit and a perfect example of how technology should be used to make adventures like these more accessible to people who aren’t used to off-road driving.
The last few corners were sorted within a few minutes and we were quite surprised to find a tarmac road just as you exit Sani Pass. The bulldozers are parked and ready to tar the pass. Some of the romance will be lost, but at least it means everyone will now be able to enjoy the views from the top.
Our plan was to camp at the Sani Top Lodge, but the weather changed our minds. As we sat there enjoying a hot beverage, we noticed the tops of a few damp boulders freezing over. We were prepared for cold, but freezing was out of the question. A quick glance at recent weather patterns revealed that the last snowfall had been only the week earlier, so we climbed back in the car with a new mission — to drive straight through Lesotho and out on the other side, in the Free State.
The trip would be roughly 200km, but I had no idea that 150km of those would be some of the toughest I’ve ever driven.
The first 50km to Mokhotlong was beautiful. The tarmac was brand new, which made progress easy. It was 10am and we were under the misguided impression that we’d arrive in Clarens at around lunchtime…
Our progress took a turn for the worse as soon as we turned left at the T-crossing outside of Mokhotlong. The road was in decent condition and cars were few and far between. Unfortunately, the locals use the roads for other things, such as transporting cattle or playing games. A top speed of between 40km/h and 70km/h was all we could manage. More than once we rounded a blind corner to find a herder and his sheep filling the road.
The scenery made it all worthwhile, however. It’s a tough trip, but driving through the heart of Lesotho is something every adventurer should do at least once in his lifetime.
Even if we’d wanted to drive a bit faster, the car was having none of it. The altitude, which we recorded at 3200m above sea level at one stage, was robbing the car of much of its power, which wasn’t ideal as we needed it most over those final few kilometres.
The road just sort of disappeared and we ended up driving on the first stages of a new road.
The Chinese workers had laid down a thick layer of small volcanic-like stones, and this proved a seriously tricky surface to drive on. Not enough speed and we would bog down, but too much speed on a loose surface is never a good idea.
Luckily, the Outback adapted perfectly to the conditions. I just kept my foot planted and left the job of finding traction to the electronics. The rear end “went light” on a few occasions, but the car reined it in within milliseconds without losing forward momentum.
The last 100km were taxing, to say the least. By the time we arrived at the Caledonspoort border post we were spent. Suddenly camping was not an attractive prospect, but since it had been my idea to begin with, I didn’t share this thought with my companions.
The stupid tents we had didn’t make the camping any easier. We had bought them under the impression that they were two-man tents, but I’d like to meet the person the manufacturer used to measure this claim.
The initial thought was that taking camping gear along would allow us to test the Subaru’s luggage capacity. We packed like varsity students, which is another way of saying we simply threw everything in the back and set off. But for the record, the boot swallowed three tents, four large bags and a host of blankets and pillows. If we’d packed more carefully, I’m sure there would have been enough room for two additional people and their luggage.
After camp had been set up, and we realised we hadn’t brought anything to sit on, we decided to have dinner in Clarens, go to bed early and set off as soon as the sun was up the following day.
At one point during the night, I heard my brother calling my name. “Gerhard, Gerhard.”
“Yes,” I responded, fairly annoyed about being woken up.
“Do you fit in your tent?” he asked.
The temperature went down to 0 degrees that night. I considered climbing in the back of the Subaru, as it is actually big enough to house three sleeping men, but as soon as I unzipped my tent, that idea flew right out with the gale force, ice-cold wind that was blowing at the time.
So I spent eight hours in that depressing tent. My feet stuck out and the strong wind blew the tent flat onto my face every few minutes.
Believe it or not, I’d do it all again. It’s times like these that make for great stories, I keep telling myself.
The way back
With only 350km of flat road to cover between Clarens and our respective homes, the final day went off without a hitch.
The Subaru was a comfortable and quiet companion. In fact, it’s hard to believe it was the same car we basically abused to get us up and over Lesotho. More surprising than that was the lack of any rattles. Cars tend to develop annoying rattles on such journeys, but the fact that the interior was as quiet and rattle free as the day we set off is testament to how solidly Subaru builds its cars.
If I could change one thing, it would be the CVT gearbox. Subaru does a better job than most, but I still prefer an automatic gearbox. I understand that a CVT makes a car more frugal, but the 0,5l/100km saving just isn’t enough of a gain, in my humble opinion.
Having said that, the CVT system gets better when you live with it and adapt your driving style. The 2,0-litre turbocharged diesel derivative is better suited to the CVT set-up, so I’d advise anyone thinking about buying an Outback to drive all three derivatives to find out which one suits you best.
When we drove it hard, the Outback responded with a fuel consumption of around 12l/100km, but on the flat plains of the Free State it dropped to 7,5l/100km. That’s more than acceptable for such a large car, with full-time all-wheel drive.
And you get all of this at a very reasonable price of R490 000. The Outback certainly isn’t perfect, but at the price we can’t think of another car that does so many things so well.