It was a big day when BMW South Africa’s Rosslyn plant commenced with the assembly of the X3. Following the assembly process, these lifestyle vehicles are then transported by train to Durban’s harbour, where they are shipped off to Europe. This prompted JIM FREEMAN to use the first of the new X3s to criss-cross highways and byways along this important railway line.
There’s a spot on the R34, it’s only 35 kilometres from Utrecht in KwaZulu-Natal, and this is the spot where the railway line from Gauteng disappears under the road, snaking its way to Durban.
One bitterly cold morning, I stopped there, picturing something completely different in my mind’s eye.
I saw wagon trains. Some were filled with disenchanted Voortrekker families. Others were overloaded with ammunition and supplies behind long columns of trudging red-clad troops, heading in the opposite direction.
Just like some regions of South Africa grow grapes and others are bounteous in their production of maize and wheat, this one has, historically, sprouted corpses.
Every South African knows the names: Rorke’s Drift, Blood River, Majuba, Laing’s Nek, Spioenkop, Bloukraans, and Colenso, to name but a few sites where pitched battles were fought, and a host of other forgotten spots where bloody skirmishes took place.
Eight decades of conflict in which first the Voortrekkers and Impi’s of Shaka and Dingane contested the fertile plains, then the Anglo-Zulu war and, finally, two Anglo-Boer wars that had very different outcomes.
It is an incredibly beautiful part of South Africa where the peaceful countryside completely belies the brutal, bloody history of the province and travelling the backroads should be on the bucket list of every road tripper.
LEVEL ROADS, LEVEL CROSSINGS
I traversed the region in the first X3 produced at BMW’s Rosslyn plant that is situated on the outskirts of Pretoria. This xDrive30d M Sport variant could not accurately be termed as visually discreet since it is emblazoned with a South African flag on the bonnet and boasts a personalised number plate that reads ‘1 X3 SA GP’.
No, it did not fly under the radar; and especially not under the radar of the Mpumalanga traffic officer who pulled me over on the N3 just short of Villiers. He was, however, sufficiently impressed by both the compact SUV and it is side-view parking camera that captured him handsomely as he stood at my window, before waving me on my way.
I then left the highway, following the route over Vrede, Memel, and Newcastle. KwaZulu-Natal is a province where the names of places sometimes jarringly reflect the linguistic or geographic origins of the groups that fought for its possession: Volksrust and Vryheid stand cheek-by-jowl with Madadeni and Newcastle. Blink your eyes at Wakkerstroom, and the next thing you know, you are driving past Glencoe on the way to Dundee.
About an hour before sunset, near Newcastle, that magical time that photographers call “golden hour” struck. In the big-sky country with newly reaped mealie fields stretching to the horizons and hardly a hint of traffic to disturb the wintry quiet – it was glorious.
The railway line to Durban runs relatively close to Newcastle. It was also down this track that the first load of European-bound X3s trundled past in May this year.
Tim Abbott, CEO of BMW Group South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, said that it was a big moment for BMW: “It’s the result of a R6.1-billion investment and the culmination of three years of hard work and planning.”
It was a big moment for SA too since it was one of the biggest single automotive investments in our country’s history.
The manufacturing of the BMW X3 in Tshwane began when the company called time on the production of the 3 Series sedans in February. By that time, Plant Rosslyn had built 1,191,604 3-Series vehicles over five model generations and 35 years. The maximum capacity of the plant is 76,000 units a year, while the vehicle distribution centre can accommodate up to three train dispatches a week, with each train capable of carrying 160 vehicles.
X3 OVER DIRT, DRIFTS, AND POTHOLES
It was near freezing again the next morning when I departed Newcastle. The Arcelor Mittal plant appeared to float on a bank of mist behind me as I headed north towards Wakkerstroom, testing the X3 on dirt for the first time.
Overall, the surface was good with only the occasional rock and washboard corrugation making its presence felt. Lucky for the xDrive all-wheel-drive system then, since it ensured that the vehicle remained sure-footed while the reasonably compliant suspension ensured that the Bimmer didn’t bottom out on deep drifts or potholes, the latter of which I encountered many later in the day.
My early start meant I had plenty of time for exploring, so after returning to the blacktop – or the N11 to be specific – and deciding what to do with my day; I saw a sign pointing to Majuba, the so-called Hill of Doves. I needed no further prompting.
The battle of Majuba, fought on 27 February 1881, was the final and decisive battle of the first Anglo-Boer war. It was a humiliating defeat for the British, the more so because they occupied higher ground.
Now in full ‘battleground mode,’ I decided my next stops would be Rorke’s Drift and Isandhlwana. Both battles were fought in the space of two days, starting on 22 January 1879. At Isandhlwana, the British were massacred and the Zulu Impi’s suffered heavy losses, while at Rorke’s Drift the Zulu warriors were decimated with few British fatalities in return.
RORO THE BOAT
It was still only mid-afternoon, so I decided to push on to Durban as I was destined to enjoy the magnificent curry buffet at the Oyster Box Hotel in Umhlanga. It turned out to be the wrong decision. Despite the generally acceptable surface of the R68, there are only a few to little fencing on the side of the road. The result is livestock that crosses the road imperturbably.
The situation worsens on the Nqutu-Babanango-Melmoth stretch, though, with a twisty road and dense vegetation that grows right up to the road shoulder.
I found myself driving at below the 80 km/h speed limit – despite the capabilities of the X3 – as I did not think the good people at BMW would appreciate it if I parked their nearly R1 million compact SUV on one of the cows that belong to King Goodwill Zwelethini.
Later that evening, I safely parked the first SA produced X3 at the Suncoast Hotel, only 15 km from the Port of Durban where the first batches of X3s had already been loaded at the RoRo (Roll-on-Roll-off) vessel facilities of the Durban Car Terminal, the largest of its kind in Africa, for their journey to Europe.
It is here where the 700-km journey from Rosslyn to Durban ends for around 40,000 European-bound X3s each year. Unfortunately, though, it also means that here in the midst of numbers like 14,000 parking bays and car terminals capable of handling 480,000 vehicles per annum, my journey comes at an end too.
And, well, it’s here, on the numbers front, where the BMW X3 xDrive30d M Sport doesn’t disappoint. It’s a South African charger for the history books.
Report by JIM FREEMAN | Images © JIM FREEMAN / BMW SOUTH AFRICA