There is a 5km mountain pass on the border between South Africa and Namibia. Presumably constructed as an access road to a copper mine next to the Orange River in the 1950s, the pass is a rocky, nasty affair with big drop-offs. Going down is relatively tough but it is ascending the narrow pass that is the real challenge. We tackled it in a Foton Tunland with some upgrades – but with no differential lock.
A different path to hell
The Road to Hell we’re talking about here is not the more touristy road to Die Hel in Gamkaskloof. We’ve been down that path several times before and, compared to this Road to Hell it’s about as challenging as a chess match against a newborn baby. This particular route to eternal damnation is situated roughly 150km north of Springbok, right on the border with Namibia.
Not much is known about the Road to Hell pass, other than a few basic facts we found on blog posts from off-roaders who have been there before. All we knew was that it eventually ends right next to the Orange River, within spitting distance of Namibia. Word has it that miners built it as an access and escape route for when the water level was too high to use the main road. Essentially, it’s a 5km rock track that leads through the rocky mountains down to the river… there are no other roads or exits. You go down this track, and you go up this track.
It is known as the Road to Hell and there are various images of a large rock with those words written on it, denoting the start of the pass. Our plan was to search for this rock, descend down this road to hell and safely rise out of the ashes afterwards. It’s not impossible. Dante did it and he walked. We’d be using a modified Foton Tunland, so we at least had the added benefit of internal combustion.
Why a Tunland?
With so many double cab bakkies being launched recently, the Tunland shifted slightly off of most people’s radar. This is unfortunate, because the Tunland represents an interesting alternative choice to the mainstream bakkies. It was the first Chinese bakkie that could go toe to toe with the Japanese offerings, but since its launch in 2012, the goalposts have moved forward considerably. We now live in the era of the R600 000 bakkie, which makes the Tunland a relative bargain at around R400 000.
We toyed around with the idea of using the standard Foton 4×4 for our venture into Beelzebub’s valley, but after reading several 4×4 enthusiasts’ reports on the pass, we concluded any stock standard bakkie would die a certain death. Thankfully, Foton South Africa had made a deal with 4×4 accessory company LA Sport to modify one of its Tunland 4×4s, and that’s the unit we got. It came with a lift-kit, LAS Profender upgraded shock absorbers and leaf springs, plenty of underbody protection, replacement front and rear bumpers and a set of chunky Cooper Discoverer STT Max off-road tyres draped over XD Series rims. Since we had very little idea what to expect, it made sense to take this Tunland. It still didn’t have a rear differential lock, but 4×4 tour guide Johan Kriek, who came along as expert spotter for the Tunland, pointed out a true (yet philosophical) factor: “When they built this pass, rear differential lockers didn’t really exist, and they got along just fine… so we should be okay. Theoretically.” In retrospect, taking the modified Tunland turned out to be the right call, because there’s simply no way the standard bakkie, or any other standard bakkie for that matter, would have coped with the climb back up. Going down is relatively easy, because you have gravity on your side. Coming back up? Not so much.
Through heaven to get to hell
The road between Springbok and the Namibian border is about as boring as roads get, but the moment you hook a right off the N7 (135km from Springbok, on the dirt road to Swartkop mine) into the valley that leads to the Road to Hell, it feels as if you’re driving on a different planet. Cellphone reception is almost immediately lost after that right turn, and the surrounding mountains drown out any noise from the outside world.
There is no road to speak of. Our Garmin Montana 650 (and the Tracks4Africa mapping) pointed us the right way. It’s not that navigation without such a system would have been impossible, but it would have been very challenging. It was a highly entertaining drive, because you drive on a sandy, slippery surface and there’s literally nothing to hit within a 10km radius. The views were spectacular and the sheer scale of the nothingness left all of us feeling rather small in comparison.
But the road soon started snaking through rocky mountains, and for a moment we though this was the start of the pass. But it was still a highway – the actual pass was some way away. We soldiered on until the GPS told us we had arrived at the pass, and we found the rock with the words ‘Road to Hell’ written on it. Alongside this rock are various others with messages from previous adventurers written on them. As this is a family magazine, we can’t quote most of the
comments, but suffice to say that a few people fought hard to get back up again. Some even left the parts of their vehicles that the pass had torn off…
A quick glance beyond said rock confirmed our worst fears. The Road to Hell was a demon of a road, but it was at least paved with good intentions. Our initial inspections revealed that previous visitors spent time filling the pass with rocks where things got seriously scary. To give some perspective as to how dangerous the road is, there are currently talks to start controlling access, purely to save inexperienced drivers from killing themselves. It’s a good idea, because the information currently available on this pass is sketchy at best. One 4×4 club claimed that they struggled for two days to get up, while one guy states that he completed the entire journey in a 4×2 Isuzu KB.
We’ve never encountered such a broad range of online comments before, but let’s just say that Isuzu man should lay off the ice cream and pickles before going to bed, because the only way a 4×2 is going to complete this journey, is in someone’s dreams. You need a proper 4×4 (with at least one differential locker) and experienced spotter, a decent amount of experience and a support vehicle. Leave any of these at home and you may get hurt. It’s as simple as that. Apart from three tricky obstacles, the pass is basically a narrow and rocky path that meanders down a mountain until you eventually get to the Orange River. So we engaged low range, slapped the Tunland in first and let the engine do all the braking. The first and second gear ratios proved to be perfectly suited to the terrain, with manual braking necessary only when things got really tough.
The first serious obstacle presented itself within 200 metres – a large rock on the right of the narrow track. This forced us to go as far left as possible, right onto the edge of the path. It’s this kind of obstacle that makes the Road to Hell so dangerous, because it tests your driving ability and sense of self-preservation.This obstacle is followed by another 100 metres of slow, rocky meandering, after which the most treacherous hindrance presents itself. We read about this nasty rock on the forums, and while many can’t agree about the ferocity of the pass, everyone agrees that this rock will kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing. Thanks to our Tunland’s additional ground clearance and the addition of gravity taking us down the steep section, we overcame that rock without too much drama and soldiered through the infamous dongas that soon followed.The rest of the pass is easy. We took it slow and easy, until we eventually arrived at the makeshift campsite near the river.
It was one of the most remarkable places we’ve ever been. The surrounding mountains are spectacular and the fact that we were completely off the grid only added to the romance. So we did what anyone in that situation would do – we had a braai.
Let’s get the Hell outta here
Not knowing the exact condition of the pass, we had been fully prepared to camp next to the river that night. The relatively easy descent, however, meant we still had plenty of daylight left to attempt the climb out of Hell. Climbing back up more than doubles the difficulty. The loose, rocky surface demands a rear differential lock, but since we didn’t have one, we had to rely on old-school methods. Like low-down torque and plenty of wheel articulation – thankfully the Tunland had plenty. The plan was simple. The Tunland’s Cummins 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel delivers most of its torque low down (it peaks at 360Nm at 1 800r/min), so we decided to stick to first gear in low range with the tyres deflated to an initial 1.2-bar. The risk of a puncture was increased, but grip levels on the slippery rocks were much improved.
Initially the climb was surprisingly smooth, which once again proved that a slow and easy approach – and good-old mechanical grip – still gets you a long way in tough 4×4 conditions. In places where our support vehicle battled – the Tunland (admittedly with those specialised Cooper tyres and trick suspension) just crawled onwards and upwards. In the back of our minds, we knew that large rock was still coming. If ever there was a perfect example of why a 4×4 requires a differential lock, that rock was it. As we approached it at a rather uncomfortable angle, our hearts sank. Going up looked a lot worse than we remembered, and the fact that the sun was setting fast didn’t help. It bogged down on the first try due to driver error, which is a nice way of saying the driver freaked out after the wheels lost traction and stomped on the brakes. That deep ravine was now nicely in view from the driver’s seat and the psychological effects of the pass were taking their toll. Remember, we had no rear differential lock, so we had to storm this rock with a fair turn of momentum.
On the second go, things got a lot more serious. The obstacle tends to bounce the vehicle left and into the rock face, but the left rear wheel suddenly found grip, which caused the front of the bakkie to shoot right and slightly over the cliff’s edge, coming to rest with the chunky LA Sport belly plate embedded on a large rock. Johan suggested we deflate the tyres to 0.8 bar. We also completed some essential road building, filling in the worst holes. But the fact remained: the obstacle required plenty of momentum, combined with extremely accurate aim and a relatively calm driver. And so, attempt number three was successful as the Tunland’s low-rev torque and articulation and the grippy Coopers all combined to get the Foton – in spectacular fashion it must be said – up and over that rock. Phew! A standard bakkie, any standard bakkie, would be dead by now…
Shortly afterwards, with the back-up team getting their 4×4 over the last hurdles higher up the pass, more drama. Thinking that the route was clear, and with only the photographer in attendance, we let rip on a particularly rocky section, full of cross-axle holes. The left front wheel connected a massive boulder, moving the rock onto the track – and right into our way. For crying out loud! We were so close! Much road building followed, topped off with plenty of swear words, and some plans thrown about. That rock was simply too large to move by hand leaving a gap for the Tunland between the abyss and the rock that was really not wide enough. The only way through was with momentum, precision aiming and a fair whack of luck.
Johan warned that there would be no stopping… without a rear diff lock momentum was key to getting the Tunland through the rest of the axle twisters lined with rocks. So off we went… and with plenty of bouncing and spinning of wheels, the Tunland got through. The left front rim and tyre took a beating though, the sidewall of the Cooper damaged against that rock. Amazingly, the tyre did not deflate. That last few hundred metres to the top of the pass was surreal. The pass was majestic to behold and clearly this Chinese bakkie can off-road with the best of them, despite the lack of a rear differential lock. Those last precious moments on the pass, after we had conquered the worst of this ‘road’, gave us a newfound respect for how capable the Tunland really is.
And on tar?
In terms of on-road handling and interior comfort, the Tunland lags behind its Japanese competitors, but the keen Foton pricing reflects that. That Cummins engine, however, is bang up to date and doesn’t have to stand back for anything offered by Toyota, Ford or Isuzu. Standard equipment is generous and the only thing we really missed was Bluetooth connectivity for music. You can connect a phone to make calls, but it doesn’t allow for audio playback. That’s our only real criticism with regard to the Tunland as an everyday bakkie. As for fuel consumption, it’s good news. During our entire 2 500km trip, including the Road to Hell, it consumed an average of 10 litres/100km, which is mighty impressive considering the modifications and the additional weight it was carrying.
The Tunland is interesting, because it costs less than the top-spec mainstream bakkies, but retails for the same sort of price as the mid-range versions of those bakkies. It’s way ahead in terms of performance, but badge snobbery remains a stumbling block. Look at it this way. For R450 000, you could have a new, kitted-out Tunland like this, which can go places no other standard double cab would go.
If you’re serious about off-roading in some rough, tough and beautiful places and you can look past the fact that it’s a Chinese lorry, this bakkie is definitely worth considering. You can give it hell, and it will still come back and ask or more.
Foton Tunland 2.8TDI 4×4
Engine 2.8-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Power 120kW @ 3 600r/min
Torque 360Nm @ 1 800r/min
Gearbox Five-speed manual (with transfer case)
4×4 drivetrain Part-time four-wheel drive
4×4 driving aids None
Ground clearance Approx 250mm
Fuel consumption 10 litres/100km
Fuel tank 75 litres
Maintenance plan Five-year/70 000km
Standard price R389 995
Price as tested Approx R450 000
Places to stay
The Road to Hell pass is situated in the gramadoelas, far away from everything. From Gauteng it’s a drive of about 1 450km to get to the pass, so we stayed over at the Protea Hotel Oasis in Upington on the first night. Although we had been fully prepared for a night of camping, our relatively quick descent and ascent of the pass meant we completed the tough journey before nightfall (on the shortest day of the year, nogal).
So we headed to the Springbok Caravan Park where we stayed the night in a bungalow, before heading back to the concrete jungle. The drive from Cape Town to the pass is about 800km, so it’s also not just around the corner. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around Springbok though.
Protea Hotel Oasis, Upington
The Oasis is situated in the town centre, next to the Orange River. The spacious and luxuriously appointed rooms feature en-suite bathrooms, air-conditioning, satellite television and classy coffee and tea making facilities. There is a restaurant and bar next door at the main Protea Hotel. Prices start from around R1 700 per person per night. Tel: 054 337 8400; proteahotels.com
Springbok Caravan Park
This facility, which features comfortable camping and basic bungalow accommodation, is situated about 3km from the Springbok town centre. There are 54 camping stands and the communal ablution facilities are basic but some of the neatest we’ve seen, and everything works properly. There are also two four-bed chalets and five two-bed rondavels available. Pricing starts from R100 per person sharing. Tel: 027 718 1584; 082 548 9286; springbokcaravanpark.co.za
Text: Gerhard Horn and photographs: Henrie Snyman