Like all highly important social debates that affect the core of human society, this dispute was sparked around a campfire: would a small plane or a bakkie be faster on an overland jaunt of say, around 150km? Needless to say, the race was on.
You see some weird things around a campfire. Especially when the refreshment supplies are running low, and the conversation has lasted into the small hours of the next morning. A case in point: a campfire in the bushveld. A Smartie box of people around said fire at a campsite. One gentleman was doing an impersonation of a Gripen jet fighter he had once seen at an air show. With arms stretched out in a ‘V’ formation behind him, he whooshed past the fire this way, then that, all the time providing disturbingly loud but highly inaccurate sound effects to simulate the fighter plane. His actions inspired others, too. Like the middle-aged man from Modimolle who believed he’s got the unique clap-clap-clap sound of a Heuy helicopter from the Vietnam War utterly mastered. So the man clapped-clapped-clapped all around the fire while his supporting wife added to the atmosphere by humming the tune of the Airwolf television series.
Not to be outdone by the folks from the platteland, a visitor from Soweto chipped in with his simulation of a microlight aircraft. Sounding more like a giant, inebriated bumblebee, he elegantly made a few impressive (but slow) flybys past the fire. After the commotion of all the simulations (there were quite a few more but I’ve digressed from the subject), someone raised a half-full glass and stated, rhetorically: “My bakkie is sooooo much faster than my neighbours’ little pipsqueak aeroplane… and he paid a farm’s price for it, too.” The debate had officially been born. Airwolf from Modimolle took the bait first. “You’re bleddy mad man! A plane, even a small one, flies in a straight line. And there’s no traffic up there.” The drunk bumblebee agreed: “Ja, and there are no spietkops up there either.”
“I’m telling you, my lorrie will beat that little aerie any time, any day, no contest,” replied the originator of the verbal campfire scuffle. Suffice to say that it went on for a very long time. Long after all the refreshments had been depleted, and even after the sun peeked over the horizon. But the seed had been planted. Over the next few weeks we pondered the question: is a small aeroplane or a bakkie faster on a cross-country jaunt? There are certain things we could take for granted: a Gripen fighter plane can reach almost 2 500km/h. Clearly no car on this planet can match that. Similarly, a microlight of the entry-level trike variety, which is really just a big hang-glider wing with an engine strapped to the back, can reach a top speed of about 90km/h. So that’s much slower than a bakkie. But then we chatted to Tim Bouwers from Bobo Campers, and he told us about Rainbow Aircraft, and his own plane, Cheetah 912. Based in Benoni, this company produces this award-winning ultralight aircraft that weighs just 272kg when it is empty. Powered by a 100 horsepower Rotax engine, the Cheetah 912 can reach a top speed of around 160km/h.
Next we needed a suitable airport where the 912 could land. Of course, to make it a proper ‘overland’ race, we also wanted to include some gravel roads for the vehicle. We found a great solution in Frankfort Airfield, just outside the Free State town. And we found a gravel shortcut, too: after turning off the main N3 drag from Gauteng at Villiers, there is a network of dirt roads that lead to the Windfield Silo. The main R26 tarred road between Villiers and Frankfort is about 30km, but the speed limit is 100km/h. The dirt road was a couple of kilometres shorter, and we hoped that, conditions permitting, we could make up some time there. Visiting the town of Frankfort we quickly realised: there are a lot of Isuzu bakkies around. Like really a lot. There’s even a sign outside town proclaiming this area ‘Isuzu country’. Our bakkie ‘racer’ option was an obvious one: it had to be an Isuzu KB. So we got a KB 300 D-Teq 4×4.
Mother Nature gives us a workover
The table was set. The race would start at the Petit Airfield near Boksburg, and end at the Frankfort Airfield just outside Frankfort in the Free State. In the bakkie, we had two route options: from Petit cut straight through the East Rand to the N3 highway, all the way to Villiers. Then take the dirt road via Windfield Silo to reach the airfield. The total driving distance would be just over 150km. Interestingly, this route is pretty much a straight line of driving, so the plane’s direct line of flight virtually equalled the travelling distance. But we soon found out it would not be quite as simple as that. On our first run the bakkie took the straight R51 route. But even at 6am, traffic proved an issue… and standing still at a traffic light for just 30 seconds put us out of the game in the bakkie.
The plane had it even worse though. After taking off at Petit and making it all the way to Frankfort in good time, Tim and his Cheetah 912 could not land. The Free State was covered in very low cloud cover, and he couldn’t even see the airfield, never mind land on it. At least the bakkie made it to Frankfort, but it had taken almost two hours to complete the 152km. A week later we tried again, driving all the way to Petit in the small hours of the morning. The plane was extracted from its hanger, and coffee was enjoyed. But then we looked up: and despite the weather reports stating completely the opposite, the sky above Petit was covered in mist. So the little 912 was going nowhere in a hurry. We had one shot left. Heading out for attempt No 3 early one morning, the sky was filled with stars… and not a cloud in sight.
The Isuzu KB departed the Petit airfield at 5:55am. Tim aimed to take off at 6:30, once he had enough daylight to fly. We had decided to avoid the R51’s many traffic lights and stop-start traffic, and opted for the longer, but hopefully faster, N12 highway option. We had to, of course, adhere to speed limits, and not drive like a minibus taxi. So no overtaking in the emergency lane, cutting in front of other motorists at traffic lights, and so on. Thankfully we never stopped very long at traffic lights. On the highway we set the Isuzu’s speed control to exactly 120km/h (actual speed). This route is about 30km longer than the straight R51 option, but we hoped that our higher average speed would make it all worthwhile. The traffic authorities, who seem much less bothered with road safety than earning revenue for their respective municipalities, were out in force. We counted five speed traps on the N3 between Johannesburg and the turnoff to Villiers.
Once we hit the dirt road, we selected four-wheel drive (high range) and – where it was obviously safe to do so – we pushed on. This was a race, after all. Although the dirt roads are generally in good shape (and probably better than most of the tar roads in the Free State) there were some rough patches. In the KB we hardly noticed though, as the tough Isuzu blasted through the worst stuff. Finally we reached the R62 tar road again, and covered the last 10km to Frankfort mindful of the 100km/h limit. The last thing we needed at that stage was to be nabbed by a traffic cop. All the time we were scanning the skies above for a blue Cheetah 912… but no plane, which meant we were winning. We were winning! Rather excitedly we made our way to the turnoff to the airfield.
There was still no plane in the air as we approached the hangers. But then, approaching the airport buildings… we saw him. The Cheetah was parked in front of a hanger. Dammit! A gleeful Tim awaited us as we arrived in the Isuzu KB. It had taken him 58 minutes to cover the 150km from Petit. That’s an average speed of almost 150km/h. We had needed an hour and 53 minutes to cover 181km; that’s an average speed of just over 90km/h.
Yes, the plane was much faster than the bakkie on the overland trip. Period. But it had been an absolutely perfect flying day for the little Cheetah 912. We had to abort several attempts because flying conditions were not ideal. The Isuzu KB, on the other hand, doesn’t mind the weather one little bit. From a practical, real-world point of view, the bakkie is definitely the better option. There are other real-world factors to consider, too. The Isuzu KB may not be as spritely as some of its competition in the double cab diesel segment, but it will last a very long time. The plane’s Rotax engine lasts for 2 000 hours, then you have to replace it with a new one, and that’s a R400 000 expense. Of course, flying a plane and obtaining a licence is also a bit trickier than the K53 driving test. Medical tests, regular aircraft inspections and servicing, hanger costs and so on also mean owning an aircraft such as the 912 is no small change matter. So yes, the plane is faster. And it’s probably cooler. But it’s a bit like a Ducati 999 superbike: awesome for a breakfast run or track day but far less pleasant if you had to ride it from Joburg to Cape Town.
A plane is obviously far less practical for overlanding, too. Despite the weight and space limitations, you can’t pop into that big service station next to the highway for a burger and milkshake. The Isuzu is the far more practical option for a 150km overland drive. And it drank around 10 litres/100km on our drive, which means you can reach more than 700km on a tank of diesel. You know, we reckon another braai is due.
Rainbow Aircraft Cheetah 912
Engine Four-cylinder petrol
Seating capacity Two
Consumption 12 litres/100km
Price About R800 000 (new)
Isuzu KB300 D-Teq double cab 4×4
Engine Four-cylinder turbodiesel
Displacement 2 999cc
Power 130kW @ 3 600r/min
Torque 380Nm @ 1 800r/min
Transmission Five-speed manual
4×4 system Part-time (2H, 4H and 4Low)
Driving aids Traction and stability control, rear differential lock
Seating capacity Five
Consumption 10.1 litres/100km
Price R549 800
Text: Danie Botha | Photographs: GG van Rooyen