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On a GLA Pilgrimage

23 June 2015

Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga, a wild frontier to which gold diggers flocked in search of riches, used to be one of the province’s best-known tourist attractions. But recent newspaper reports paint a bleak picture of the town, with businesses apparently closing down and the town running on empty. We headed to Pilgrim’s, taking in some spectacular mountain passes along the way, in the latest Mercedes-Benz GLA220 CDI 4MATIC, to find out the state of the town for ourselves

Text: Danie Botha

Photography: Jannie Herbst

They call it the Pilgrim’s Guild. It’s ritual served up in the enigmatic Johnny Reinder’s The Vine bar in  Pilgrim’s Rest. It works like this: when a patron indicates that he or she is ready to become a member of the Guild, a tot glass of Stroh rum, a slice of lemon and a helping of snuff is presented to the brave soul.

First the Stroh rum has to be downed. Next the snuff needs to be sniffed. And lastly, the lemon slice has to be squeezed out in the person’s eyes.

Clearly the Pilgrim’s Guild is not for the faint-hearted.

Johnny tells the story of an Aussie who happened upon the bar, and was duly and unwittingly offered the special Pilgrim’s Guild “deal”.

“That Aussie swore in 10 different languages when that lemon juice, mixed with some snuff, ended up in his eyes… and the screaming! It sounded as if he was being tortured!” Johnny tells us in his bar, in between some naughty chuckles.

He takes a sip of his beer and for a moment goes quiet, remembering a different time – a time when Pilgrim’s Rest burst at the seams over weekends, packed with local and international tourists.

“Ja, it’s a battle to stay afloat these days,” he says. “The town is slowly but surely running down. Look at all the historically significant buildings standing empty, going to waste.”

In the street, parking attendants are swarming around a new arrival, sporting GP plates. The “car guards” are one of the side effects of the economic hardships the town is apparently experiencing.

And desperate times call for desperate measures: The “guards” ask patrons if they may watch the car. When you return your car had been washed. When the surprised patron says that he or she didn’t ask for it to be washed, the “guards”, indignantly and sometimes aggressively claim that the patron clearly did tell them to “watsch” the car.

Empty and derelict buildings indeed abound, especially in the downtown section of the main street. It is apparently the aftermath of a recent purge in which many businesses closed down and patrons were evicted from the government-owned buildings.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. At the town’s information centre, across the road from the Royal Hotel restaurant, tourism officer Sherry Goodwin says it is business as usual in Pilgrim’s Rest.

“Yes, there have been some issues between business operators and the local government, and there is some petty crime, which we call Christmas shopping. But the town’s gates are still open for tourism, and we go on.”
And indeed, in the uptown area around the Royal Hotel there seems to be a more positive vibe. A big tour bus is parked there and the French tourists are sipping expensive looking drinks on the restaurant’s veranda.

The Highwayman’s Garage transport museum is open, as are a host of other small businesses that line the street in this part of town.

We park the Mercedes GLA  and within seconds a car guard reports for duty.

“Can I watch your car?” he asks.

We politely decline because we won’t be venturing far from it.

“Can I wash your car?” he asks.

We decline again, somewhat taken aback by his abrupt nature.

The lads in the museum are much friendlier and more welcoming, and when we organise with Shelly to park the car in the shed with the museum pieces, they snap away with their cell phone cameras, clearly smitten by the sleek GLA.

Parked next to the 1938 Morris Eight series, the Mercedes-Benz does look rather grand. With its sleek, modern lines and fashionable LED lighting, it certainly is a good-looking machine. We explain to Sherry and the lads about the optional Distronic radar system that automatically keeps a set distance between the Merc and the vehicle in front of it, regulating the accelerator and the brakes all by itself.

Sherry remembers a story about the vintage Ford Model T, also parked in the shed.

“In the early 19th century, when cars became more readily available, none of the vehicles in the town could actually drive up the steep hills and get to Sabie. The only one that just managed it was the Model T, but it could only do it in reverse gear. But because it was fitted with a gravity feed carburettor, someone had to sit virtually on or next to the engine and manually feed petrol into the carburettor,” she says. Compared to the Model T, the Merc GLA is a proverbial spacecraft.

On that note let’s talk a bit of GLA.

Based on the latest A-Class, it is built to the popular crossover recipe, so it does have Merc’s 4Matic four-wheel drive system, a tiny bit more clearance than a stock A-class and slightly more, well, off-roady styling along with fashionable plastic appendages to give it a more robust appearance.

This works quite well from a style point of view, but not so much from an off-roader’s angle.

The GLA was obviously not intended to be able to cross the Rubicon. Rather, it speaks to fashion conscious customers who have an affinity for the three-pointed star.

The state-of-the-art 2,1-litre four-cylinder diesel engine produces 125 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque at 1200r/min, and drive is transferred to all four wheels via a seven-speed 7G-DCT dual-clutch gearbox.

Although those power and torque numbers may not seem impressive on paper, this GLA is a surprisingly brisk performer, thanks mostly to the fact that the torque is available so low down.

However, it’s in the handling department that the GLA really shines. Because it is based on a hatch with a low centre of gravity, and aided and abetted by the four-wheel drive system and sporty suspension set-up, the GLA 220 CDI sticks to tar like gum to the sole of a shoe.

Steering feedback is excellent. On the famous Robbers Pass leading into Pilgrim’s Rest, boasting more switchbacks than a 50m anaconda, the Merc felt more like a sports car rather than a crossover. Mind you, the test unit was fitted with the optional Dynamic Handling Package, which reduces the ride height by 15mm and features a sport suspension set-up as well as a Sports Direct-Steer system.

The Benz handled dirt roads surprisingly well too, despite the 18-inch AMG alloys, shod with low-profile performance rubber. Grip is always there, but one has to drive in a more circumspect manner on a rocky and rutted dirt road. It’s just par for the course, what with this Merc’s handling capabilities and the low profile tyres.

The cabin is not massive, and the optional AMG sport seats in the front does limit visibility from the rear pews. But overall the interior exudes an air of quality and class.

Oh, and luxury and technological advancement, too. The centrally mounted LCD display, the fancy leather finish, the sporty three-spoke steering wheel and the aluminium trim result in a cabin filled with upmarket sportiness.

That said, usable packing space is limited, so don’t expect to take the kitchen sink et al on holidays if you drive a GLA.

A stock Mercedes-Benz GLA 220CDi 4Matic sells for R538 631, but our unit, with just about every optional extra in the catalogue, retails for closer to R650 000, which is a lot of money for a hatch-based crossover with limited space. But as stated before, this is a fashion acquisition, and not so much a practical one. And the price of being fashionable is, well, the price.

Let’s get back to Pilgrim’s Rest, then. The town’s historical significance revolves around gold, after the gold field was proclaimed in 1873. Although the factual origin of the name of the town remains a mystery, a popular theory revolves around gold digger William Trafford who, after a good find, yelled to the mountains: “Now at last the pilgrim is… at rest!”

Today visitors can still get a piece of the gold digging action. Gold panning, just like the original prospectors did it, is on the programme in Pilgrim’s Creek. And if you find gold, you get to keep it!

Also on the “to do” list is Ghostie Tours, which obviously takes place at night with visits top all the town’s locations known for plenty of unexplained supernatural activity.  Visits to the village museums, diggings site museum and the Allanglade House museum, as well as hikes and walks and panorama route day excursions, are also available.

So clearly all is not lost in Pilgrim’s Rest. In many ways, the hamlet seems to be a template of what is happening in the rest of the country, with infrastructure systematically falling to pieces under leadership that is not leading as it should but simply plodding on regardless.

Pilgrim’s Rest still has the potential to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the Mpumalanga province. Let’s hope it can be turned around before it is too late.

Later, as we headed out of the town onto the famous Robber’s Pass, the GLA was in its element. While the state of Pilgrim’s had left us in a slightly deflated mood, the sporty Benz was doing its best to bring a smile back to the game, egging us on too explore its handling capabilities more, and then more, and then some more.

And after 8,23km of twists and turns and switchbacks, the grin was back.

C’est la vie!

 Hands up! This is a (coach) robbery!

The Zeederburg Coach Company used to run a coach twice a week between Machadodorp and Lydenburg on the road that is today known as Robber’s Pass.

The coaches used to transport mail, passengers as well as gold bullion from Pilgrim’s Rest to the mining company and banks in Lydenburg.

The first coach robbery took place in 1899 when two masked men stopped the coach at gunpoint and escaped with gold valued at 10 000 pounds – a fortune back then.

The second robbery took place 1912. Pilgrim’s resident Tommy Dennison was apparently in a bad way with debts, and he decided that robbing the coach would solve all his monetary problems. Unfortunately for Dennison, there were only silver coins on the coach, and no gold. He was later arrested when he attempted to settle his debts with some of the loot.

Dennison spent five years in jail, and after he was released he returned to the town, opening up the Highwayman’s Garage – where we photographed the Mercedes-Benz and a few of the town’s transport relics.

Make a pilgrimage to Pilgrims!

Okay, so Pilgrim’s Rest has lost some of its charm and the golden spark that made it such a popular tourist destination in days past. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit anymore. There is plenty to enjoy in the little town, like the museums, the gold panning, the ghost tours, the beautiful Robber’s Pass drive (especially in a GLA with a sport suspension!) and a number of restaurants and shops.

More information: Pilgrim’s Rest Information Centre, 013-768-1060.