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A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY

A PILGRIMAGE IN THE ISUZU D-MAX

Celebrating the Golden Anniversary of the LUV/KB/D-Max pickup, we took the latest descendant in the long bakkie model line-up to Pilgrim’s Rest – location of the biggest gold rush of its time and the first officially declared goldfield in South Africa.

When introduced 50 years ago, the export version of the Isuzu Faster was known as the KB or the Chevrolet LUV, and it was the Chev badged version that was released locally in late 1972. Since then, a further five generations have seen the light, with the KB undergoing another name change to D-Max.

Locally produced for nearly four decades, the KB (South Africa introduced the D-Max designation only in 2018) found gold here, and quickly established itself as a top-seller in the one-tonne bakkie market, always occupying a top-three position in this highly competitive segment.

Celebrating this milestone for the Isuzu one-tonner bakkie in South Africa presented us with a golden opportunity to take the latest D-Max 1.9 Ddi LS double cab to visit Pilgrim’s Rest, location of the biggest gold rush of its time 150 years ago, and epicentre of the first officially declared gold fields in South Africa.

THE GOLD STANDARD

Five decades down the road, the Isuzu D-Max steadfastly remains one of South Africa’s top three bakkie choices. With a range spanning no fewer than 28 derivatives – from single cab workhorses to the mighty AT35 – buyers will strike gold no matter their needs.

Our D-Max companion on the nearly five-hour drive to Pilgrim’s Rest from Pretoria (via Schoemanskloof) was the mid-range LS 4×2 auto that panned out to be the ideal steed to explore the Panorama Route in the heart of Mpumalanga.

Producing 110 kW and 350 Nm of torque (coupled to a six-speed automatic in our tester), the 1.9-litre D-Max has a lot of heart, and is wrapped in a design that has stood the test of time.

Inside, the LS is loaded with creature comforts, decked out in hard-wearing plastics, leather, brushed aluminium, and contrast stitching on the seats and dashboard.

Its 7” touchscreen infotainment is Bluetooth compatible and offers next-level Wi-Fi connectivity, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a rear-view camera, USB ports in the front and rear, and a handy tilt- and telescopically adjusted steering column.

On an extended drive such as this, having ample stowage is critical, and in the D-Max, there is sample space for bottles, keys, wallets, and the like. The driving position is nicely elevated, and seating (for up to five adults) is comfortable and supportive.

THE ROAD TO GOLD

Thriftiness is one of the 1.9 D-Max’s key features, and on our drive – that included vast stretches of the N4 highway, rolling hills, sweeping corners, and some rougher surfaces on the last section of the road to Pilgrim’s Rest – the D-Max averaged 8.4 l/100 km. Strong headwinds during the first day of driving likely cost the D-Max a sub-seven consumption number, though.

With cruise control on-board, the D-Max provides a comfortable drive even when unloaded. Although the auto ‘box found some inclines challenging to manage, manual intervention swiftly resolved the problem.

With a host of safety features, such as EBD, ABS with brake assist, traction- and stability control, hill-start assist, hill-descent control and Trailer Sway Control, you’re well covered should things go awry. There are also seven airbags on board, including a driver knee bag.

At R586,000, the rear-wheel-drive (with rear diff-lock) D-Max 1.9 LS delivers everything you need in a double-cab bakkie, and unless you’re planning to do regular sand and dirt driving, full 4×4 capability is unnecessary.

THE FIRST GOLD RUSH

Nowadays, the small museum town of Pilgrim’s Rest in Mpumalanga is protected as a provincial heritage site, but the seemingly peaceful settlement has been the scene of much turmoil over its 150-year history. When payable gold was discovered on the farm Geelhoutboom, five kilometres from modern-day Pilgrim’s Rest, it instigated the first gold rush in South Africa. 

The alluvial gold in the area was discovered by prospector Alec “Wheelbarrow” Patterson (according to folklore, he earned his nickname after he pushed his wheelbarrow all the way from Cape Town to the diggings – a distance of 1,600 km). He panned Pilgrim’s Creek, as it became known when the nearby MacMac diggings became too crowded. 

He kept his find a secret, but a gold rush resulted when another prospector registered his claim with the Gold Commissioner. The site was officially declared a gold field on 22 September 1873 and named the New Caledonian Gold Fields by the then president of the Transvaal Republic. The small town of Pilgrim’s Rest suddenly grew to 1,500 inhabitants searching for alluvial gold. 

By 1876, more permanent structures replaced the tent town, and various businesses began trading to supply the diggers with necessary provisions and equipment. And, by the 1880s, the alluvial gold started to dwindle, and many diggers moved to the newly discovered deposits in Barberton.

Alluvial panning eventually gave way to deeper ore mining by better-funded mining companies. As the volumes of gold ore increased, engineers constructed small, local hydroelectric plants to generate electricity for the electric tramway and the ore crushers at the reduction works. 

This made Pilgrim’s Rest the second town in southern Africa (after Kimberley) with street electricity. Pilgrim’s Rest was also the location of an emergency mint during the Second South African War, striking the famous and now extremely rare ‘Veldpond’ gold coin.

LAST WORD

Today, the tiny hamlet of Pilgrim’s Rest remains true to its 19th-century heritage, with period buildings and old-style hospitality. Although the town has lost some of its lustre since being declared a National Monument in 1986, the tide of decay is held back by its proud inhabitants, who still number close to its historical count.

Having had the opportunity to visit Pilgrim’s Rest for the first time in over three decades – with the legendary Isuzu D-Max as a travel companion – we heartily recommend it as a must-visit attraction on the Panorama Route. 

The Royal Hotel

Painstakingly restored to its former glory, the Royal Hotel offers guests a unique taste of late Victorian-style accommodation. The ten converted, authentic late 19th-century buildings make up the Royal Hotel’s 50 richly decorated bedrooms, with antique brass beds, washstands, and sumptuous en-suite Victorian ball and claw baths.

The elegant lounge extends a warm invitation to settle into plush armchairs and take tea before a roaring fire.

The Peachtree & Diggers Restaurants serves hearty old-fashioned meals of fine local ingredients. The attention to period detail extends to the historical Church Bar, a former relocated school chapel.

**For more information, call +27 13 768 1100.

ISUZU D-MAXENGINEPOWER 
(kW @ r/min)
TORQUE 
(Nm @ r/min)
TOP SPEED
(km/h)
0-100 KM/H
(seconds)
FUEL 
(l/100 km)
PRICE
Isuzu 1.9TD double cab LS autoIn-line 4-cyl; 1,898 cc turbodiesel110 @ 3,600350 @ 1,800-2,600N/AN/A7.3R586,000

Report by FERDI DE VOS & BERNIE HELLBERG JR | Images © BERNIE HELLBERG JR

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