A few days previously, I was sitting at my desk, with my feet up, twiddling a piece of bellybutton lint reflectively between thumb and forefinger, contemplating the finer intricacies of the universe, when the call came in. It was 9 on a Tuesday morning, and I was in the clutches of a terrible magazine print deadline. The mission from Drive Out HQ was urgent and relatively straight forward. Take the new Toyota Rav4 and drive it 1500 odd kilometers to the Tiffendell Ski Resort in the highlands of the Eastern Cape, along the Lesotho border, and return it, unscathed, by Monday morning. Could it be done? Would I be able to do it? The print deadline was heading towards its final caffeine assisted conclusion. Other people could massage it through the intricacies of the print process. A 3000 KM round trip up the East Coast and into the mountains was exactly the kind of mad cap, spur of the moment, long distance jaunt that the new Rav4 has been designed for, and I gladly assumed the position as captain of the voyage...
Before long - midday Wednesday - I am hurtling along the N2, winding through the fields South of Swellendam. The Rav4 purrs like a cheshire cat and handles like a rally car, with much more comfortable seating. The road unwraps before you like a present. The car also packs more punch than it's 2.0 litre engine suggests. And is downright frisky on the open road, especially in the higher gears. For you petrol heads, that means 112kW @ 6 000 r/min and 194Nm of torque at 4 000 r/min. The new Integrated Active Drive System means that the car alternates between 2 wheel drive, on the long straights (to save fuel) and 4 wheel drive around corners and precarious mountain curves. It is an entirely automated process, you don't have to push any buttons. But you can feel it in the added responsiveness and handling of the vehicle. The dashboard resembles the motherboard of the Starship Enterprise (couldn't find the 'warp speed' button - but that does not mean it is not there) and tells you everything you need to know about how the car is running. How much petrol you have, how long before you run out, how cold it is outside. The windscreen wipers and headlights can be operated on an automatic function. So the car determines how much precipitation and light there is, and sets the wipers and lights accordingly. The plush leather interior is soothingly comfortable. The 6 CD shuttle produces an endless bubbling stream of tunes. And the satellite navigation system means you'll never need a map, nor get lost, unless you choose to.
A massive storm is rolling in. Bruised skies threatening rain, the wind is howling, much like me, pushing up the coast, the South Wester at my back. At Caledon, I take an impromptu dip in the hot spring. Nothing like a splash in a natural hot bath, in cold weather. I float on my back and look up into the drizzle and let the city stress dissolve. Aaaah yeah. Absurd moments abound on the road. Two middle aged English women, perch in the shallows discussing Lady Diana.
'You can tell she wasn't thinking about her childrend...' tut tut.
Warm and soothed, I ease my new Rav4 through Swellendam and on through Riversdale. Look listlessly in the direction of Stil Bay's pointbreak as I push on towards the Garden Route. Swing through Mossel Bay and witness a perfect, peeling left breaking into the river mouth at the Groot Brak. It's almost enough to force me to pull over and jump in for a surf. Alas there is no one else out, and the area is notorious for what we surfers call 'men in grey suits' or 'johnnies' or simply 'big bladdy sharks'. With the back seats packed flat, Toyota's new Easy Flat system, there is plenty of space for my surfboard, wetsuit, bags, cameras, books and all the other stuff I can't leave home without. You could also sleep comfortably back there, if the need ever arose.
I opt for a surf at the safer option of Vic Bay, just outside Geoge. Now who names a city George? Well it all came about during the second British occupation of the Cape, and was originally known as George Town after the reigning king of England, George the 3rd. After riding a few small pre-frontal crackers over the shallow rocks, as the sun sets. I strike up a conversation with another George, busy sorting out his fishing tackle for the twilight session.
'Seen any shad out there?' he asks. Incidentally I had. He's a mellow bloke, more of a talker than a fisherman, really. But he shmaaks hauling in shad, no doubt. After a brief rundown of his rather depressed career history in sales, he wishes me well, and sets off after the shad, squelching in his rubber boots and waders.
'Maybe I'll see you again... ' He says in way of a goodbye. 'Then maybe not. Either way...' He smiles and leaves it hanging. Nice guy, George.
Soon I'm hurtling through the forests of Knysna. Pull into Plett for a famed Cornutti's pizza, and back on the road. Eventually park off in J-Bay for the night, with vague hopes of an early morning surf before I have to hit the road and pick up my better half at the airport in East London. The night is pure hell. Across the road from the B&B, the J-Bay municipality has managed to drill a jackhammer through a sewage pipe and the water main. While the storm lashes the houses with torrents of rain. 10 man Arsenal manage to lose the Champions League final. T'was a dark and stormy night for all...
In East London, after the airport mission and getting caught up in the after-school traffic, there is nary enough time to sneak a peak at the Nahoon reef doing it's thing before we have to blaze our way up the N6 towards Queenstown. The Rav4 makes it easy. We pull into friendly Queenstown and have a burger at the local roadhouse before taking the road less traveled via Dordrecht, Indwe and Barkley East to Rhodes. Rhodes is this quaint, drunk little village nestled in the valley below the 3300 meter imposition of moutain known as Mokhollo (great mother) in Xhosa or Ben Macdhui to the English. Rhodes is an old trading village established in 1893. Wool is it's main export. Named after one Cecil John, who famously donated the pine trees that distinguish the place. Rhodes experienced exciting times at the turn of the century. Race meetings were held regularly (horses, dogs, men in sacks, whatever) and bookies would trek over the mountains from Durban while the booze was dragged up and over the hills from East London. The head ox on the liquor wagon was known as Die Wederman , and his horns are mounted on the wall above the bar. While you're there, drink a toast to him. The bar at the Rhodes Hotel could tell a few stories of celebrated fisticuffs, high stakes gambling and raucous evenings on the bottle. Many cowboy types would ride their horses directly into the bar and order drinks.
Today the Rhodes Hotel lies quietly, like a hangover, in the cold valley, selling vetkoek and mince for lunch to the tourists heading up to Tiffendell.
For a more contemporary experience, try The Walkerbouts B&B across town. Their bar has some fresher tales to tell. Local patriarch Dave Walker makes a fine local brew, and entertains guests with good food and great stories in cosy surroudings. We roll into Rhodes late at night, over some seriously tricky, muddy roads. At the Walkerbouts B&B there is just enough energy to eat the lamb curry and wash it down with a pint of Dave's fresh lager.
The next day and we are cruising up the curvaceous, muddy mountain track towards Tiffindell. The scenery is breathtaking. The trusty Rav4, diff-lock engaged, has enough juice to handle the steep incline, and dodgy road. The mountain pass winds and twists up through a sequence of steep s-bends towards the high plateau where Tiffendell is located. And although I don't realise it at the time, I am certain that the machine is using the anti-lock braking (ABS), traction control (TRC) and Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control (VCS+) which adds electronic power steering to the mix and integrates all of the electronic functions, together with the Active Torque Control 4WD system, via a high-sped CAN communications interface. In other words, layman, although the Rav4 has all the modcons, creature comforts, speed, ability and natural good looks of a fast road car, it is also remarkably capable off-road. From tarmac to bushveld to frozen muddy tracks that fall away into oblivion, the Rav4 is a competent, versatile set of wheels.
At Tiffindell the crew are going berserk. The season hasn't started yet, they're still putting the finishing touches on their new chalets, and they have already had their first big dump of snow. After 15 minutes of being there, the snow is coming down in twinkly sheets, carried on the wind into drifts, whitening out the landscape. I am itching for an impormptu snowboard session. Alas the pistes are not packed and the lift is not running. We quaff a cup of hot chocolate and are hurried out of the place before the pass is closed off due to the inclement weather and falling ice. A warning light blinks on the Rav's instrument panel: 'Ice on Road'. But we don't slip or slide and roll off the mountain. Just a smooth, controlled descent, winding down the wet face of the escarpment.
By morning, the mountains surrounding Rhodes are thick with snow. It's like an alpine dream in Africa. With 1800 clicks between ourselves and Cape Town, we decide to pull a slow arcing turn towards home. In the lower reaches, the foothills of the Berg, the rain is pelting down. The Rav4 handles in the wet, with much the same competence it has dealt with everything else we've driven over. Secret safety features kick in and keep us moving forward over flooded roads. We wind our way through the 'Frontier' country, with it's pockmarked history of Xhosa and British violence. Rolling down the Nico Malan pass towards Fort Beaufort is breathtaking as you break through the high mist. There is a moment between Port Elizabeth and Jefferys Bay when we hit a flooded section of road. I feel the wheels lift and the car starts to plane, but there is no loss of control. As quickly as it loses it's grip, the traction control and active torque control kick in. With pre-emptive safety features like that, I wonder if there will ever be a need to test the array of front, side, curtain and knee airbags that Rav4 possesses.
On every trip, there is a tipping point, a high tide mark where all the kilometers, minutes and spaces culminate and solidify into something beyond experience and before memory. It arrived in Jeffreys Bay. Perched above the waves in the aptly named African Perfection B&B, I crawled out of bed before dawn, stretched on the neoprene and slipped out the door with my board. I was greeted by the sight that every surfer wishes for in J-Bay. Clean, empty, reeling pearlers and not a single surfer out yet. Those few perfect rides before the dawn hang in my mind as I push my Rav4 down the road to this story's sad conclusion. I have to give her back and return to my spartan Jeep.
As far as I'm concerned the new Rav4 is like a small, hyper-functional Toyota Prado. It is a car highly suited to the modern outdoors lifestyle, small and efficient enough to get around the city at pace and in comfort, but with enough off-road grunt to take you anywhere your heart might wish to wander on the weekend. And that's a bonafide cold fact. It's also a vehicle that will give you great pleasure, while you watch that ou trying to do a 3 point turn in his ultra-equipped Land Rover Freelander in the Hyde Park parking lot.