Motoring match-up: To tar, or not to tar?

Posted by Mishqah Schippers on 5 August 2021

The formidable Sani Pass has been described as The Mother of all Mountain Passes so the decision to tar this legendary climb hasn’t been met with all-round enthusiasm. Clearly we needed to find out if a two-wheel-drive soft-roader can go where one couldn’t before.

Words & Photos John Whittle

Constant drizzle paired with what is most certainly still a slopey building site made for a few slippery, seat-of-our-pants moments. The GLB took it in its compact stride, though.

Originally developed as a bridal path in 1913, Sani Pass served as an important link between the remote settlement of Mokhotlong in Eastern Lesotho, and the Underberg. It was only in 1948 that the first vehicle negotiated the pass, a Willy’s Jeep with trailer, no less. It took an astonishing 14 hours but they made it in one piece. Since then, tourists and locals have come from far and wide to gawk at the views (oh the views) and tackle the pass in their 4×4s.

None shall pass…
After much asking around and investigation as to how far along they were in the tarring process, we arrived nowhere near a conclusive answer. In 2013, plans to upgrade the 19km stretch of road were approved, with construction scheduled over three years, expected to cost well over R1 billion. The promise of increased tourism in the area as a result has garnered mixed emotions among locals and die-hard ‘passers’. You could argue that the benefits of the refurbishment are huge, though. The increase in revenue from tourism allows for a sharper focus on conservation in the area while a noted upside has been the relocation of much flora along the way, as well as the removal of alien species.

A bundu-bashing adventurer the GLB isn’t, but its slightly raised ride-height does allow for the odd dirt and mud road sojourn.

The little Benz that could
Our four-wheeled companion for the trip was a fresh nameplate from Mercedes-Benz, the interestingly proportioned GLB. Our Galaxy Blue GLB250 – affectionately referred to as Blurgg or Bernina – proved to be an interesting choice for the expedition. Mummies and daddies of all shapes and sizes continue to gravitate towards the small SUV/cross- over segment and this new offering from Stuttgart sits smack-bang in between their crossover GLA, with which it shares the front-wheel-drive mechanical gubbins, and the larger GLC SUV. Thanks to an additional 10cm in the wheelbase, the GLB can be optioned with a pair of seats in the boot to bring the total to seven, something neither the GLA nor GLC offer. Sure, it’s not a full-blown diff-locking 4×4, but what better chariot to test out the supposedly spruced-up Sani Pass than in an SUV with a smattering of off-road capability? And so, suitcases packed into the GLB and CarPlay connected, we hurtled down the oh so excellent N3 with the nav on Mercedes’ superb MBUX interface programmed for Ixopo.

Glorious Ixopo
We decided that a retreat some distance from Underberg would allow sufficient travel to stretch the GLB’s legs, as well as explore a part of the country with such a rich and fabulously interesting history.

King’s Grant served as our home base for the duration of our stay, and a more serene and intriguing place you couldn’t ask for. Situated 7km outside Ixopo, King’s Grant imbues your days with a calmness and serenity that makes a great deal of sense once owner and absolute dear, Cheryl Biggs, tells of the farm’s rich past.

Not the sort of traffic Mercedes-Benz’s brilliant Distronic cruise control system is used to. Rural KZN is full of surprises, but the systems assist, rather than interfere.

Construction started in 1894 on what was to be a mission farm for St Mary’s seminary, a stone’s throw up the way. King’s Grant (then St Isidore Mission) served as a homestead for German Trappist Monks and nuns who served the seminary. Having been completely self-sufficient, the operation consisted of a dairy, millworks and a piggery, replete with snazzy mill and 1900s state-of-the-art machinery, now expertly restored by the owners’ son.

Fourteen rooms, all repurposed monk’s and nun’s quarters, have been stylishly refurbished and renovated. Our room was originally the nun’s refectory where they would converse and mooch around the fireplace after dinner, looking across the lush courtyard at the beautiful little chapel. There’s also a restaurant in the old dairy, where gourmet meets hearty homestyle thanks to the whiz-chef, poached from that old favourite, Granny Mouse Country House.

Off to the Underberg
We headed off for 130km through wonderfully scenic KwaZulu-Natal and down into the Underberg, through Himeville and then onto what was the first phase of the Sani Pass refurb. The surface here was beautiful and the GLB’s adaptive dampers soaked up the few road imperfections with aplomb. It was late afternoon so the road was dead quiet, and there was a storm rolling in. Crisp cold air, gloomy clouds and the distinctive whiff of petrichor suggested we were in for a wild and wet ride. You could be forgiven for thinking we were in the Italian Alps… the scenery is truly astounding.

‘Some views in life have a road. For everything else, there’s the Defender…’

AMG, you say?
Well no, it’s just a styling pack and has nothing to do with the performance of the vehicle. In ‘Dynamic’ mode, the GLB’s somewhat droney 2.0-litre turbopetrol four-pot stops sounded like a sewing machine and came to life. Its 165kW and 350Nm certainly make for nippy performance as the front wheels panic, wheel hop abound – make no mistake, this is no hot hatch. The eight-speed gearbox cavorts through its cogs with uncompromising efficiency but as with most double-clutch gearboxes, there can be a slight delay between input and execution. This is most noticeable when manoeuvring at low speeds. The GLB is at its best when left in Comfort or Eco mode, where you’re a lot less likely to be prying green passengers from the third row of seats.

As we snaked up the hill, we noticed the frequency of construction bollards and fencing starting to increase – 6km in and the tar road ended. Oh dear. It seemed as though Covid and inevitable construction delays had’nt boded well for Sani’s facelift. The rain swept through the valley and what might have been a meticulously compacted and graded dirt road, now became a muddy playground – or a mud trap for the GLB – please no!

We soldiered on, slipping and sliding around, with the Individual setting selected for optimal control of the GLB’s gearbox and motor. Dampers were in ‘squidge’ mode, drivetrain in ‘sport’ for maximum throttle sensitivity, steering in comfort and the gearbox in manual – we’d like to hold onto the gears, please. Maintaining momentum seemed easy enough and despite one or two ‘let’s jiggle back and forth’ moments, the GLB performed as was to be expected.

New-world German engineering meets old-world German architecture. Both frighteningly efficient in their execution and operation.

Its optional R52 000 AMG-line body kit comes with 19-inch AMG light alloy wheels which do a surprising job of both soaking up the bumps and maintaining traction on what are strictly road tyres.

As it turns out, Phase 2a has been completed, Phase 2b is still under construction and plans are only just being finished for Phase 3. This will entail the surfacing of the pass from the border post onwards which includes a staggering elevation change of 900m. The general consensus is that this will take another three to four years with biblical thunderstorms proving to be one of the biggest setbacks. It is said that there has been snow on the pass in every month of the year, so this gives you an idea of the gargantuan nature of this undertaking.

Having arrived at the border post, a sea of Amaroks, Rangers and Hiluxes came through the gates, each and every occupant raising an eyebrow at the coruscating blue Mercedes-Benz, seemingly lined up and ready to tackle the pass…

An architectural gem, these days St Mary’s in rural KZN, is home to a nursing college.

Did we get up?
Well, no. The border officials were adamant that the GLB would not cope and this was to be expected considering its ground clearance of just 200mm and lack of rear-axle propulsion. The rain, too, had been quite a concern, and the rather burly captain of one of the Hiluxes noted that he had had a hairy moment or four on the way down.

Good thing then, that we packed a picnic table, a smelly cheese and a box of salty biscuits – perfect for a picnic on the way back. We had to settle for an outcrop next to a construction office but the view was hardly shabby as the sun dipped behind the vast expanse of green in front of us.

Covered in mud, and with tummies filled with figs and Camembert, we hopped back onto the 6km stretch of glassy-smooth tarred road and made our way back to cosy Ixopo. Mercedes-Benz’s impressive full-LED intelligent lighting system snubbed the pitch darkness of rural KZN, making light work of obstacles, pedestrians, stationary vehicles and whatever else you could imagine. The accuracy and speed with which this system detects objects and distributes lighting accordingly is remarkable and takes the edge off driving in dangerous situations. The same can be said for the adaptive cruise-control, active-steering and lane-keep assist – helpful, but unobtrusive.

The King’s Grant’s pristine gardens are the owner’s addition, the beehive in the steeple is not.

Sani Pass’ revamp will be completed soon enough and I’m certain the influx of tourists will be beneficial to all. The ability to experience one of South Africa’s iconic passes in a normal rental car might detract from the nostalgia of bashing around in a dusty old Landy but this is one of those situations where the positives seem to outweigh the negatives, just.

The Berg foothills region of KZN offers something special. I suspect it may have something to do with just how authentic it all feels. The people are alarmingly friendly and welcoming, distinctly different to what you might find in the city. Exceptional people, astonishing place – would highly recommend. PS: Take a real 4×4 for the time being.

Motoring Match-Up

Road-trip vehicle

Mercedes-Benz GLB 250 AMG Line

Mercedes’ biggest ‘compact’ car is likely to become one of its best-selling as SUVs continue to gain in popularity. It has plenty of grip and feels secure but its biggest boast is not power, it’s space.
165kW @ 5 500r/min
350Nm @ 1 800–4 000r/min

R891 860

Contender 1

Audi Q3 40TFSI Quattro S line

Audi’s snazzy and rather popular contender in this segment offers a smooth power delivery and oh-so-Audi build quality – sublime. Not quite as punchy as the GLB, and no 7-seat option, but AWD is available on the petrol models.
132kW @ 3 900–6 000r/min
320Nm @1400–3 940r/min

R729 000

Contender 2

Volvo XC40 T5 AWD R-Design

Somehow the Swedes went from erm, sensible styling, to Scandi-hubba in one fell swoop. Recently updated, the XC40 is beautifully proportioned and wonderfully put together, too. It also goes like stink, albeit without much fanfare. Five seats only but they’re lovely and comfortable, as is the rest of the package.
185kW @ 5 500r/min
350Nm @ 1 800-4 800r/min

R797 000

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