In 1991, Tom Cochrane compiled ‘Life is a Highway’. You might have heard it crackling on the FM band at some point, but for this writer, it’s that quintessential wind-in-the-hair melody that just about strikes a chord on any road trip, on any given day. So, cue the music and let the montage of life’s special highway moments begin.
The Tom likened life to a road that you travel on, and speak, in a very between-the-lines manner of reconnecting with somethings once lost. In this case, that’d be the undeniable call of adventure and the resonance of open spaces. Ahem, that might have been a bit overly reflective…
Bags packed and loaded, we headed eastwards. To the Panorama Route. A place that many with spiritual predispositions call a racetrack gifted by the divine due to its sweeping and often hairpin-sharp mountain passes and breath-taking scenery.
We, however, were not looking for something to go through corners in a cacophony of screeching tyres. Remember adventure? Yes, that’s what we were looking for, the sort where if the montage played it’d be a series of thoughtful moments of kicking up dust in the middle of the forest and selfies at very high places and smiles of course. After all, passengers with gritted teeth and saucer-like eyes don’t make for great travel companions.
The Volvo XC40 T5 then, we reasoned, would be perfect. It’s comfortable even with its 20” takkies (did I mention we had the R-Design?) it’s safe and if needed, it is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that produces 185 kW and 350 Nm of torque. Also, we figured that it’d be an interesting change-up for the crossover to get out of its usual humdrum city existence and into the fresh country air.
LIFE’S A HIGHWAY
Before the forest, and even before the adventure, the N4 highway loomed ahead of us. But, there’s even symbolism in that as far as I’m concerned with everyone heading in roughly the same direction, having to face similar obstacles like allowance-chasing spietkops over just about every crest. But hey, it’s these obstacles that keeps life interesting …
The adaptive cruise control of the Volvo was set to the legal 120 km/h, keeping us safe by maintaining the following distance to the cars ahead while keeping Mr Traffic Official out of our Piggy Bank. It wasn’t easy what with 185 kW just begging to be used. Temptation: It’s omnipresent.
THE ADVENTURE COMMENCES
That temptation is only temporary, though, since we soon turned off the N4 at Belfast and on to the potholed R540 where our lodging was also located, six kilometres off the main road and into the dusky forest of Lakenvlei. It was beautiful. And rugged. It looked like it was still holding on to ancient secrets of the forest with very little in the way of human interference.
That night, after several hours of forest exploration, we put our feet up around the sizzling sounds and intoxicating smells of the braai, cold one in hand and reflected on the overall performance of the Volvo so far. The consensus being that it’s hard to believe performance that good can reside in such an understated body. Oh, and that it was endlessly pretty.
In the process of losing ourselves in the adventure offered by this beautiful part of South Africa, we thought we’d visit the personal bucket list-topping Panorama Route. While it might sound like an easy feat, and I’m sure it is, it happened on to my list after several visits and several attempts to drive it failed. Every time thanks to entirely unforeseen circumstances throwing that metaphorical spanner in the journey that is life.
Better get an early start then, grab a coffee in the idyllic town of Dullstroom, and let the journey commence. It was off to a good start. The weather was perfect, the roads scenic and the company chatty, excellent, I didn’t have to worry about dropping the conversational ball as I so often do. I was in my element.
Like Tom sang about passing through all the towns, we crossed over the threshold of Lydenburg, a town you know you’ve arrived in when you must drive on the pavement to avoid larger-than-life potholes with the infamous Long Tom Pass beckoning just up ahead.
“A road so rough,” is the essence of the Long Tom that not only throws trucks, and tight turns your way, but also bumps and wheel-threatening potholes – it’s the stuff of true adventure and the chance to properly test the Volvo’s handling qualities that continued to impress us.
It’s adventure- and selfie-stops just about the entire length of the Panorama with scenic stops at the Long Tom Canon, a jalapeno burger at the Woodsman in Sabie and the magnificent MacMac Falls just before Graskop. For the adrenaline junkies, there’s the Graskop Lift Company that not only offers vertigo-inducing adventure with its lift and platforms but also one scary-looking cliffside swing.
KNOCK ME DOWN
We were making excellent progress thinking that this might just be it. I’m going to tick this one off. Finally. However, Mother Nature had other plans, unfortunately. Approaching the Berlin Falls, thick white clouds closed in from the front. “No way I’m driving under that,” I thought. “That spells trouble,” to phrase it in a print-suitable manner.
And it did. Turning around and heading in the direction of Pilgrim’s Rest, the sky darkened progressively. Up ahead: The 27-kilometre long Robbers Pass. It started relatively calm with a drop here, a drip there and then the heaven’s opened up right in the thick of the Pass’ most dangerous and highest-looking section. I knew, from my experience living in Pretoria, what was next.
And it was loud. Little ice crystals falling to Earth’s surface looked to cause destruction on a biblical scale. We had to get away, but seeing mere metres ahead proved next to impossible. My road trip partner was starting to get anxious, and so was I. Very much so.
LIFE’S AN ADVENTURE
I have not ticked this one off my list, I’m afraid to report. And yet, it was an adventure of note that I won’t easily forget. The car was the perfect tool for the job and by some miracle, it managed to escape any hail-storm damage. It was even quite frugal, despite all that performance on tap, registering 8.3 litres per 100 kilometres. We took the Volvo XC40 out of its comfort zone and it retorted with a simple “is that all you’ve got?”. In the infamous words of The Tom, “it went from the Khyber Pass to the Vancouver lights”.
Adventure happens when the straights end and the ‘twisties’ begin. It happens when you step out of your comfort zone and chase the horizon of the unknown, much like The Tom’s rendition of life, “there’s a world outside every darkened door, come ride with me to the distant shore”. And that, it would seem, is what the little Volvo does best. Sure, it doesn’t kick down the garden gate, but exploring the world to the distant shore it does, and in spectacular fashion.
Oh, and I’ll be back to settle my score with the Panorama Route once and for all.
A LAKENVLEI RETREAT
There’s a saying about going into the forest to lose your mind and find your soul, and there is no better place to do this than Lakenvlei Forest Lodge located just outside the quaint town of Dullstroom in Mpumalanga.
You turn off the main road along a paved path that leads to the lodge, passing under shadowed treelines, crossing grass planes and vast wetlands. Consider it a slow drive wherein you leave the everyday worries behind you with every passing kilometre. Here you can take a deep breath of the fresh pine-forest air with the prospect of existing at your own pace, even if for a day. The marshland symphony reaches a crescendo as the moon climbs the sky but be sure to bring an insect repellent if you choose to frequent the outside deck. If your stay at Lakenvlei is of a more romantic kind, you should consider a platter of cheeses and trout roulade from the Cheese Factory in Dullstroom. Either visit should not be concluded without an early morning walk, or hike if you prefer, along one of the numerous trails on the property. Or, sit still for a moment on the pine-needle-blanketed forest floor and listen to the sounds of wildlife around you. Strange red mushrooms and horses are to be seen but handled with care. A steaming cup of coffee awaits you at the main hall afterwards, where daylight has transformed the lakeside vista yet again.
For more information visit: www.lakenvlei.co.za
Mieke is an avid traveller and lifestyle writer that has a healthy appreciation for all places remote, good-food and wheels – especially of the two-wheel variety.
Report by DEON VAN DER WALT & MIEKE OELOFSEN | Images © ROZANNE MALAN-CAMERON