Kaapsehoop and its surrounding forests are infamous, thanks to murmurings of ghosts and ghouls in the region. It would be the perfect testing ground for the new Renault Duster, just in case we needed to make a quick getaway from a boorish phantom.
It’s 5.30 on a cold winter’s morning. We’ve just turned onto the N4 towards Mpumalanga and the GPS tells us that our next turn-off is 270km away. The mist rolling in over the highway just adds to the misery, but at least we’re in a comfortable car with a decent sound system. There’s nothing quite like old-school rock ‘n roll to get you in the right mood for an adventure, even when it starts out like this one.
A few hours later we turn off the N4 and head straight to Kaapsehoop for an early-morning breakfast. Our mood has been lifted somewhat by the sun coming out of its hiding place, but this creepy little town is doing its best to dampen them again.
It’s still cold outside, but we decide to have a pancake at the Koek ‘n Pan restaurant. While we are sitting there, an old man comes along and starts taking random pictures of his almost-as-old single cab bakkie. We greet him with a friendly nod, but he just stares back. Could there be something to the rumours we’ve heard about this strange little town? At this point we feel like players in a low-budget straight-to-DVD horror movie. At least we’ve got a decent getaway vehicle. It’s called the Renault Duster, which is quite apt considering the surroundings we find ourselves in on this soft-roader excursion.
The Duster has already proved itself a worthy long-distance companion, but we were expecting as much from a car that seems to have breathed new life into the French brand’s local line-up. These models are selling like hot cakes, and it’s not hard to see why.
Like the Ford EcoSport and Peugeot 2008 that we tested against each other last month, the Duster competes in the new compact crossover segment. We couldn’t source a 4×2 model in time for that shoot-out, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. To fully understand the merits of the Duster, one has to drive it in top spec 4WD dCi guise.
First, however, one needs to understand the segment in which it competes. This has come about because consumers are demanding more bang for their buck. They want something stylish, frugal, safe and tech laden, but they want it at a bargain price. Hatches and sedans are “so last week”, so it has to have a high-riding SUV body.
Enter the Duster, which is a completely modern car in the sense that it provides a compelling SUV alternative in the crucial R200 000 to R250 000 bracket – a price range dominated by dreary saloons and hatchbacks.
The Duster is stylish, frugal and comes with all the standard features the modern man or woman demands. It’s a car so in tune with the times that one has to wonder whether Renault had a crystal ball when it started planning the model some years ago.
It’s strange that something like the Duster would be so popular with a modern crowd. Take a step back and you’ll inevitably conclude that Renault was following a fairly traditional and uncomplicated route.
The Duster doesn’t have outlandish styling; in fact, it has two lights at the front and two at the back. In between it has four doors, seating for five and space for a decent amount of luggage. It has a 1,5-litre turbocharged diesel engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Power is sent to the front wheels, but it can be locked in four-wheel drive if needs be.
It’s as traditional as cars come, but for some reason it has grabbed the attention of the motoring public. Perhaps that has something to do with character. The Duster may be as conventional as they come, but it definitely has that certain something, an X-factor, if you will. Or is it just a case of an uncomplicated car being a breath of fresh air in a world where cars are getting increasingly complicated and more expensive?
That’s why we decided to take it to one of the oldest communities in SA – a place that turned out to be more old-worldly than we’d expected.
Our first stop on the way down to Kaapsehoop was at a statue. Fortunately for us, this particular statue has a habit of changing every now and again.
It’s called Old Joe and it’s basically a rock shaped like a human, but there’s an interesting story behind its name.
Old Joe is situated on the Schoemanskloof road (R36) between Machadodorp and Nelspruit. Workers came across this human shaped rock while building the road in 1927 and named it after their much-loved supervisor, Johannes Antonie Barbas. The rock was painted completely white and the words “Old Joe” were written on it.
Old Joe has been moved a few times, but found his final resting place in 2002 when concerned locals erected a stone platform next to the freshly upgraded road.
Since then Old Joe has been a beacon for tourists and residents alike, but it’s the blank canvas approach to this statue that really captures the imagination.
It has changed face many times over the past 87 years. Old Joe has been painted to resemble everything from a smartly dressed man to a weird mix-up between a zebra and a rabbit. Old Joe is currently disguised as the Easter Bunny, but who knows what he will have become when next you find yourself in his neck of the woods?
The road past Old Joe is a beauty and gave us the opportunity to test the dynamics of our brown Duster. It’s not a sports car by any means, but it felt planted and composed on this section of road.
The diesel engine also proved that it wasn’t a one-trick pony. If anything, it was even better once removed from the highway where it wasn’t constantly ticking over at 120km/h. The six-speed manual made it easy to tap into the 75kW and 240Nm of torque, and overtake the many trucks that haunt the region.
This tiny town, also known as Kaapschehoop, is situated just off the N4 near Ngodwana. From Johannesburg it’s a straight shot down the N4, until you to Ndogwana and turn right on to the unnamed Kaapsehoop road.
It gained its name in 1882 after gold was discovered in a small river running through town. This gave the people in the nearby De Kaap Valley hope that they may become rich beyond their wildest dreams, which lead to the name Kaapsehoop.
Before then it was known as Duiwels Kantoor, because a lot of unruly behaviour took place in its streets. According to our guide, Pierre van Zyl, this part of what has become Mpumalanga was normally overflowing with miners looking for a good time after a difficult week at work. Their behaviour became infamous in the neighbouring towns, hence the unflattering moniker.
These days it’s hard to believe that Kaapsehoop had such dubious origins. It’s one of the most serene places we’ve been to, which is probably why one feels slightly uncomfortable on arriving there. In Johannesburg we are so used to being bombarded with noise at all hours that it’s quite disconcerting when there’s no noise at all.
This peaceful existence is attracting a lot of attention, as city dwellers break away from the hustle and bustle for a weekend away. Most of the locals seem thankful for the business, but we heard murmurings of displeasure about recent architectural additions to the town. Some of the newer buildings don’t fit in with the old miner’s town ethos, but Kaapsehoop remains a beautiful little place.
Two pancakes later we were feeling a lot better. The mince and Bar One surprise fillings turned out to be just what we needed to get settled into a tranquil existence. The strange man with the bakkie was long gone and had been replaced by a few of the friendly 185 inhabitants out on their morning stroll.
Sadly, we couldn’t stay in town for much longer as our first overnight stop was buried away somewhere in the Komatieland Forest farther down the road. The Duster was proving to be a fine choice for this trip, but we were about to hit some rough gravel roads, which would tell us if it was as good off the tarmac as on it.
Mines, ghosts and aliens
We meet our gracious host for the evening at Kaapsehoop Adventures, a few kilometres into the Berlin Forest.
Pierre van Zyl has lived a colourful life. He used to be an IT guy in Johannesburg, but left it all behind seven year ago to live a simple life in the mountains. He now serves as the innkeeper for Kaapsehoop Adventures, as well as a guide to all the best-kept secrets in the area.
Our first stop is rather macabre but perhaps fitting, considering that this area is said to be one of the most haunted places in SA. For instance, the myths include one about a very angry old ghost that whips people as soon as they fall asleep.
On our way to an abandoned mine, we happen upon an old graveyard. Pierre tells us that most of the people buried here were mine workers, but some of the graves are rather small compared to the rest. The child graves are scattered about, and make up around a third of the total – a clear sign of the sickness and diseases that broke out in the mining communities. The children were the first to go…
Later we inspect an old mine tunnel. One can’t help but gain a newfound respect for the men who crawled around in these tunnels without any physical support, or any of the mining techniques in practice these days. They faced a life-threatening job every day. No wonder they let their hair down in Duiwels Kantoor over the weekends.
We need a bit of perking up after these two morbid sightings, so we leave the forest in search of a waterfall. We spend a few minutes admiring one. The water is clear, and bitterly cold – best admired from a distance in the winter.
As the sun sets, we head out in search of Adam’s Calendar. This popular tourist attraction, discovered in 2004, is rumoured to be around 75 000 years old, predating any other circular stone calendar by a few thousand years. That’s how it got its name. If it is indeed the oldest of its kind, it may well have been the first man-made time-keeping object.
It’s a controversial subject to say the least. Some research has been done, but not nearly enough to support any substantial claims about the origins of Adam’s Calendar. What can’t be ignored is the way certain stones line up with compass points and other objects in the area. Pierre says some semblance of intelligence must have been at work here. We’re inclined to agree, but it’s difficult to accept some of the theories that have been put forward.
There’s a whole clan of people who believe that Adam’s Calendar is a sophisticated “teleportation device” that can be used to break the cycle of Annunkani occupation, whatever that means. This group planned to occupy Adam’s Calender on 28 November 2011 to do just that, but the government responded by closing the site for the day. Planet earth remains under Annunkani rule, for now.
The absolute silence and unpolluted mountain air help get us to sleep that night. Thankfully we awake next morning without any signs that we suffered a decent ghost whipping.
A proper rock tour
Did you know that Barberton area was at the bottom of the sea billions of years ago? Just outside the mining town there’s a route called the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, and driving it is like taking a journey through a history book. It’s also an excellent example of how an apparently dull subject can be packaged in an unusual and interesting manner – compliments to the Barberton Tourism and Biodiversity Corridor.
You start this 37km tour just outside Barberton, where you’ll find the first of many lookout points along the way.
Every stop has a full-colour map that gives you interesting snippets on the surrounding area. Next to the map is a short history of the rock formations and how they fit into Barberton’s billion-year history.
Around 3,22 billion years ago, massive land masses collided to form the lowveld mountain ranges. The rocks in the Barberton Greenstone belt tell an awesome story of land and sea colliding to form spectacular results, such as human life. It’s also one of the few places on the planet where scientists have access to rock formations from that era, which means some of the earliest known fossil samples were found right here in SA.
We complete our rock tour and point the Duster’s nose back towards Kaapsehoop.
The last mission for this adventure is to get a picture of the region’s famous wild horses.
On the way to Kaapsehoop Horse Trails, we encounter a wild stallion, which takes a particular interest in our Duster. Perhaps it was the brown colour that attracted its attention, or maybe horses are just good at spotting a bargain when they see one.
That night we discuss the merits of our chariot. It has a few shortcomings, such as the lack of cruise control and seats that feel a tad short, but there’s no big problem that would keep us from recommending the Duster. At R245 000, it’s a stellar vehicle. It stands out in its segment and not just because it’s a bargain and it’s brown. It would be a great car in white, too.
We never found anything paranormal, but what we did find was a brilliant little car that’s part of a terrific new segment. We can’t wait to see what manufacturers come up with next to take the fight to the segment-leading Duster.
Kaapsehoop Adventures is on the road that leads to Kaapsehoop from the N4.
E-mail: [email protected]
Kaapsehoop Horse Trails is situated just outside Kaapsehoop.
E-mail: [email protected]