2017 Mazda BT-50 drives the Cape mountain passes
Mazda recently allowed us to test the updated 2017 BT-50 ahead of its official local launch. We decided to drive it on some mountain passes
It’s always a treat when you get your hands on a vehicle you thought you’d have to wait a while for. So when Mazda South Africa approached us late last year and asked if we’d like to spend some time with the updated Mazda BT-50, which only gets its official launch in February, we jumped at the chance. But what to do with the vehicle? Spending a week driving to the grocery store and back seemed like a bit of a waste. We needed something a tad more interesting.
After a brief caucus, it was decided that we would take it down to the Cape to tackle some of those famous mountain passes. We’d have loads of time to test it on the highway, and also see how it performed on some rough gravel surfaces.
Thomas Bain, road engineer
We were heading down from Johannesburg to the Cape with a few particular roads in mind. The first was Meiringspoort, near the small town of Klaarstroom. Second was the Swartberg Pass, from where we’d venture down into the well-known Gamkaskloof. The last was Prince Alfred’s Pass, which we would hop onto near Knysna. Why these roads in particular? Well, it would give our trip a nice little theme, since they had all been created by one man: Thomas Charles John Bain, undoubtedly one of the greatest road engineers South Africa has ever seen. Meiringspoort was his first project, Prince Alfred’s Pass his longest, and the Swartberg Pass his most impressive. Along the way we would encounter some other important places that played a part in Bain’s life.
Bain was a prolific road builder, constructing no less than 24 major roads in his lifetime. He was born in Graaff-Reinet and had 12 siblings (six brothers and six sisters). His father, Andrew Geddes Bain, was also a road builder, and it was from him that young Thomas learnt the trade. Andrew Bain him-self created eight passes, including the well-known Bainskloof Pass. Another project of the elder Bain was Meiringspoort, on which he collaborated with Thomas. This was to be our first destination.
Joburg is about 1 000km from Meiringspoort, so in order to give ourselves enough time to explore it, we hit the road in the wee hours of the morning. We left just after midnight, heading south on the N1. Almost immediately, the BT-50 impressed. We had spent a lot of time in lower-capacity 2.2-litre and 2.4-litre vehicles lately, so it was great to feel the power and torque of that burly 3.2-litre. The updated bakkie has the same 3 198cc oilburner from the previous model, which pushes out 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque, and is mated to a competent six-speed automatic transmission.
On the open road, it is a glorious combination. It offers the sort of effortless power that makes overtaking a doddle. There’s loads of torque low down (peak torque is generated in the 1 750–2 500r/min range), and the engine never feels as if it’s working hard. It just chugs along, doing its thing. By around 10am, we were in Beaufort West. The town is about 135km from Meiringspoort, and is the place where the Bains set off from in 1854 to try and find a spot to carve a road through the mountains. Construction began in 1856. The budget was £5 000, which even back then, seemed woefully insufficient. Amazingly, though, the Bains managed to construct Meiringspoort for £5 018.
Meiringspoort is one of the chief connectors of the Klein and the Groot Karoos. It’s about 25km long, and crosses the same river (the Groot River) no less than 25 times. Today, Meiringspoort is pretty busy, especially during the holidays. It’s on the N12, and connects Klaarstroom in the north with De Rust in the south. It’s a beautiful tar road, so absolutely any car can drive it, but some of the bridges flood occasionally during the rainy season.
The scenery is spectacular, with massive cliffs towering over the road and a river meandering next to it. There are plenty of places to stop for a picnic and some trails to explore. As mentioned, it’s definitely not a serious 4×4 pass. It’s not even a gravel road. But the scenery is so spectacular that it makes the trip worthwhile. And when you visit, take a moment to appreciate it for the engineering marvel that it is. The Bains created the original 16km pass in a mere 223 days.
The Swartberg Pass
After spending a night in the lovely Klaarstroom Hotel, we headed for the Swartberg Pass the following morning. The pass is 64km from Klaarstroom, on the road to Prince Albert (it’s 21km from Prince Albert). It is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular passes in all of Southern Africa. The fact that its gravel and not tarmac is an added bonus. That said, it’s in great condition. Under normal circumstances, you can tackle it in just about any car, although some added ground clearance is always welcome. You probably don’t want to expose your low slung sportscar to it. We encountered a little coupé that was inching along at a snail’s pace and being piloted by a very flustered-looking driver.
The Swartberg Pass took a tad longer to build than Meiringspoort. Thomas Bain worked on it from 1881 until it opened on 10 January 1888. Amazingly, it still looks much like it did in Bain’s day. Those signature hairpin bends were his creations. If you travel the pass from the north to the south, like we did, you start off in a deep, narrow and imposing gorge. After a short while, you begin to climb out of the gorge via Bain’s Pass. The twisting gravel road takes you up the Swartberg Mountains until you eventually reach the peak.
Once over the top, the landscape opens up and you are met with wonderful views to the south. The vistas are fantastic. It’s not a pass you drive quickly; it’s one you savour. In total, it is roughly 24km long, and you should give yourself at least 90 minutes to do it. The elevation at the summit is 1 575m, and the gradient is pretty steep. The average is 1:28, with the maximum at 1:5. Predictably, the BT-50 had no issues dealing with the Swartberg Pass. We put it in four-wheel drive, but this really wasn’t necessary. Again, its engine was the standout performer. It climbed up the pass with the greatest of ease.
While traversing the Swartberg Pass, we took a little detour. Very near the summit, you encounter a jeep track veering off the main road. It’s accompanied by a sign saying: “Gamkaskloof 37. Travelling time 2 hours.” This, as the sign states, is the road that leads to Gamkaskloof, also know as Die Hel. What exactly is Die Hel? It’s a lush and green valley amid the Swartberg Mountains that was once inhabited by the San. In the 1830s, a few Afrikaner families (the Cordiers, Mosterts, Marais, Nels, Snymans and Jouberts) found their way into this valley, and lived there in relative isolation for around 130 years. Only when the road was built in 1962 did the inhabitants slowly start to leave.
Venture onto this track and you’ll soon encounter a second sign with the rather frightening message: “Dangerous Road for 48km! Use at own risk!” Don’t let all these warnings dissuade you. It’s not as bad as all that. Gamkaskloof is now quite a popular destination for off-road enthusiasts. The road is slow going, but it’s not difficult. You don’t even need a 4×4, although a few bends are so steep that a little extra traction definitely helps. When you start off, you won’t believe the claim that it’ll take you two hours to complete the trip down into the valley.
But things quickly deteriorate. The road gets rougher (but never quite 4×4 territory), and the drop-offs become prodigious. It also becomes a narrow singletrack closer to the valley, so passing vehicles from the front can be scary (Die Hel has only one road in, so you’ll need to return on the same track). Add some mud and water to the equation, and you’ll understand the need for the warning signs. There’s nothing difficult about it, but you need to take it slowly, and probably have a head for heights.
It was hot on the day we visited, close to 400C. And as mentioned, the road is bumpy. Travel it in an old-school 4×4 without air conditioning, and it probably does feel like hell. But in the BT-50 it was nothing but pleasant. The bakkie’s suspension dealt with the potted road well and the cabin was cool and comfortable. Once again, that power came in handy on the inclines. Its impressive 237mm of ground clearance also meant that we didn’t need to worry about the loose stones in the road. Good ground clearance is a must if you want to tackle this track. At the bottom of the pass, you will find accommodation and a restaurant. You can camp, or sleep in one of the old farmhouses. If you have a mountain bike, take it along. It’s a great road for mountain biking. It even hosts an annual race: the To Hell & Back MTB Stage Race.
Prince Alfred’s Pass
Our final pass the following day, was Prince Alfred’s Pass. While the Swartberg Pass is undeniably impressive, many people argue that Prince Alfred’s Pass is Thomas Bain’s best work. It’s easy to understand why. Firstly, at close to 70km, it is by far the longest in South Africa. Secondly, it was a difficult road to build. There were plenty of obstacles in Bain’s way, all of which he overcame. He did a spectacular job. In fact, the pass you drive today is virtually identical to the one he created.
We approached the pass from the south, climbing onto it close to Knysna. From there, we headed for De Vlugt, which is a hamlet situated along the pass. It’s about 55km from Knysna to De Vlugt, though it’s hard to say how long it’ll take you to complete it. Best guess is around 60 minutes; it really depends on the state of the road. It wasn’t in great shape when we visited and was dotted with large holes that constantly forced us to slow down. We would spend a few moments driving 60km/h, or so, and then have to jump on the brakes as a massive pothole suddenly appeared. It did at least give us a good chance to test the BT-50’s suspension.
Things inside the bakkie remained comfortable and composed, although it did feel a little loose at the rear thanks to an empty load bay and a pretty stiff set-up at the back. Overall, the BT-50 performs well off the beaten path. With 4WD engaged, you can tackle bad roads with confidence. As long as you’re not in a hurry, you won’t be sorry you ventured onto this pass. The views are lovely, for one thing. It purportedly also boasts the best milk tart in all of South Africa. You’ll find it at Die Plaaskind Padstal in De Vlugt. How good is it? Not sure, but it must be very good indeed. Despite arriving quite early, it was sold out, so we had to settle for some chocolate cake instead. While munching on our cake, we discovered that Die Plaaskind Padstal offers travellers a unique place to sleep. It rents out an old farmhouse that once housed the Bain family.
Yes, you can stay in the house that Thomas Bain lived in while building Prince
Alfred’s Pass. It hasn’t been updated, either, so you can get a good idea of what life must have been like for Bain while building the road. From De Vlugt, we headed to Avontuur, which is close to Uniondale and marks the end of the pass. The drive was short (about 40 minutes) and again very scenic. But now it was time to head home. We hadn’t had a lot of time to spend with the BT-50, but we had spent it well. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Bain is always a good way to spend your time, especially when you’re driving a vehicle as powerful and comfortable as the new Mazda BT-50.
The Kodo Treatment
When the new BT-50 came out a few years ago, it was an utterly distinctive vehicle. There wasn’t anything quite like it in the segment. Inspired by Mazda’s Nagare design language, it was purportedly created to resemble a pouncing lion. It had a muscular build that was sleek and sweeping, and large triangular indicator lights emphasised this even further. Some people loved the nothing-quite-like-it looks of the BT-50. Others weren’t convinced. The interesting thing, though, is that Mazda has since moved on from its Nagare design language, replacing it with Kodo; the soul of motion. Kodo has been quite a hit, birthing vehicles like the CX-5 and CX-3.
Now the BT-50 has been given the Kodo treatment as well. Most noticeably, its front end has been overhauled. The bakkie has a chrome blade grille that’s more like that of other new Mazdas, and those sloping indicator lights are gone. But it doesn’t end there. The large rear indicators have also been removed, and the latest BT-50 rolls along on a particularly nice set of rims. The result of all this is a darker and more sombre appearance. While the previous catlike appearance is largely gone, the car looks more aggressive and imposing with this new wide front end. The BT-50 is certainly less love-it-or-hate-it than it was before.
The cabin of the BT-50 looks much like it did before, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it has always been one of the best. It remains fresh and has every modern convenience you could ask for. There’s even a new reverse camera. The engine/gearbox combination has remained unchanged. You still get a 3.2-litre oilburner that pushes out 147kW of power and 470Nm of torque, which is mated to a six-speed auto shifter.
Mazda BT-50 3.2 6AT 4X4
Engine 3 198cc, in-line, five-cylinder, turbodiesel
Power 147kW @ 3 000 r/min
Torque 470Nm @ 1 750 r/min
Transmission Six-speed auto
4WD System Selectable 4WD with low range and rear diff lock
Tyres 265/65 R17
Ground clearance 237mm
Fuel tank 80 litres
Text and Photography: Gert van Rooyen