The Eastern Cape’s web of backroads encourages true escapism so take a vehicle that can make the most of both tar and dirt. Mercedes-Benz’s GLE Coupe 400d was put through its paces.
Words & Photos Peter Frost
Elegantly does it, that was the assumption we made as we headed out in our Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe 400d. We’d made peace with the fact that we would be sacrificing a degree of off-road ability in choosing it… after all, the big Merc is clearly aimed at the glitterati rather than the khaki crusaders – just look at it. Still, we planned to give it some stick, test the DNA, which harks back to that much-loved old trooper, the Mercedes ML, beloved workhorse of dairy farmers the world over. Here then are the highlights of a trip that delivered surprises all round, car and landscape both.
We began in Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth) heading north on the N2, then up the N10 towards Cookhouse, left onto the gravel R335, then the R400 to Jansenville and Kuzuko Lodge. From there the R335 to Somerset East, across Swaershoek Pass to Cradock and west on the R61 to Nieu-Bethesda and Allemann se Huisie. After a break, back through Graaff-Reinet, down the R75 via Jansenville and Kleinpoort to Camp Karoo before turning off and following a series of dirt farm roads running roughly parallel to the R75, back to Gqeberha.
On the face of it, Mercedes’ GLE Coupe is an unlikely backroads companion. It was designed with promenading in mind, the motoring equivalent of a plus one at the Met, apparently more mink than manure. And the N2 out of Gqeberha offered no chance to test off-road ability. It has sportscar aspirations certainly; the cutting-edge 243kW, 400d diesel, six-cylinder engine proved an instant hit on the blacktop, quiet, sophisticated, crazy-quick and effortless at overtaking those notorious, crabbing N2 taxis. Inside, Mercedes’ new digital environment means it feels as if you’re piloting a plane, the dual screens reaching across the entire dashboard. It’s comfortable, naturally, but also surprisingly roomy for a sports coupe, swallowing a year’s supply of Perdeberg’s finest Dry Land Collection, as well as the chaos of a week’s self-catering bush living.
Trials of Kuzuko
The first test came on the approach to Kuzuko Lodge, which is located off the N10 and R400 down a series of rutted backroads that get ever more interesting as the Zuurberg range looms closer. The adaptable 4Matic chassis went to work, sending power where it was needed, back, front or to all wheels depending on the terrain. You park your car at the entrance to Kuzuko’s reserve and 4×4 up the mountain to the eyrie. I couldn’t help wondering how the Merc would have managed on the hectic inclines. We’d have to wait until Camp Karoo to find out.
Discovering Swaerhoek Pass
Leaving Kuzuko on the dirt R335 via Middelwater, we made good time on the well-kept farm roads. After Somerset East things got interesting. On the R63 towards Pearston there’s an intriguing dirt road off to the right. The sign suggests R337 to Cradock, but really it should say ‘most excellent adventure ahead’. We took it, of course. It turns out to be one of the Eastern Cape’s most compelling stretches of dirt. It begins simply enough – well graded, good cambers through relatively flat farmland. About 10km in, things got fun and stayed that way. The road rises through the ever more imposing peaks and valleys of the Gannahoek, Bloemfontein and Doringbos mountains, culminating in the Swaershoek Pass through the Swaershoek Mountains. Cresting the summit and looking all the way down to the settlement of Cradock was very special, not easily forgotten. The GLE Coupe didn’t put a foot wrong, the massive torque on tap (700Nm) ensured effortless climbing up the switchbacks, the diesel growl entirely apt in the farmland surroundings.
After Swaerhoek, the usually impressive R61 Wapadberg Pass down into the Camdeboo from Mountain Zebra National Park was decidedly average, though the all-conquering Coupe absolutely loved it, that 400d six cylinder and taut chassis in its element on the well-engineered tarred pass. After the N9 dogleg it was back on the dirt. We chose the Nieu-Bethesda approach road closest to Lootsberg Pass (there’s also a mostly tar approach closer to Graaff-Reinet). That glorious stretch of dirt through the Sneeuberg foothills, guided by the ever-present Kompasberg peak, is a firm favourite of ours, like coming home. Time disappears in the rear-view mirror, Bethesda’s magic all about returning to a calmer, quieter epoch.
To Camp Karoo
A few days with legends Ian and Katrin Allemann in Bethesda is never enough, but the intriguing challenge of Camp Karoo, close to Klienpoort, lay ahead. To get to this remote farmhouse, visitors need to 4×4 from the gate (or be transferred by game vehicle). This time I had the choice and politely told our guide we’d follow his open-top Landcruiser in the big Merc. What a blast – the drive to the house is itself reason enough to go – a winding, at times vertiginous trek through the Winterhoek Mountains until the lodge reveals itself atop a hill, overlooking the sheer cliffs of the larger massif. This was the GLE’s toughest test, sharp rocks, substantial middelmannetjies, inclines and drops. The adaptable suspension again worked a treat in Off-Road mode, raising itself well above the evil mannetjies. By the time we arrived at the house we were all royally impressed.
Disappeared was our goal, and job done, a swag bag of new roads and memories to take home. Much thanks must go to the big Merc, which, after 1 000km, proved itself not only up to the task of playing in the bush, but something of a revelation. The relatively low-profile tyres stood up to some terrible abuse, and the onboard tyre pressure monitor showed no air loss, even over the rock-strewn goat tracks of Camp Karoo. On the fast dirt sections, it was true and constant, inspiring almost immediate confidence, and on tar it was devastatingly quick and a masterful stopper, those huge discs pulling the two-and-a-half-ton car to a halt in seemingly impossible distances. Dirty, caked in the experiences of a week off road, it felt absolutely one of the khaki crew, its dues paid. We were very sad to see it go and amused at the idea that its next (real) owner would most probably never know its real powers. Great memories.
High up on a hilltop, well off the N10, Kuzuko recommends itself for the combination of old-fashioned thatch and stone chalets and spectacular views. Each designer unit has a private balcony overlooking a water hole, far, far below. As much as the game drives through the private reserve, the mountaintop sundowners and the hikes to the substantial cave system are appealing, it’s tough not to just kick back and take in that view, cosseted in a suite that is so beautifully presented.
From R6 790 a couple a night.
Possibly South Africa’s best-kept secret, Camp Karoo is a purpose-built homestead, miles from any other human activity, up in the often-forgotten mountain wilderness behind Addo Elephant National Park. The farmhouse’s principal attraction is its five-metre-wide furnished stoep, a gorgeous extension of the house. Though self-catering, staff are on hand to clean and prepare (and make the world’s best roosterkoek). The main house accommodates eight in two, two-bedroom suites and there are two other separate units accommodating six more guests. From R14 000 a night for the house and cottages, a total of 14 people. perfecthideaways.co.za
Allemann se Huisie, Nieu-Bethesda
Ian and Katrin Allemann sold their Karoo Lamb restaurant as well as the much-loved Ramstal pub to concentrate on accommodation. They own the Owlhouse Backpackers in Martin Street and other rooms nearby. The best of these is arguably Allemann se Huisie, the cute one-bedroom garden cottage behind the Backpackers which has an exclusive kitchen and bathroom. From R650 a couple, a night.
Mercedes Benz GLE Coupe 400d 4Matic
Substantially more powerful than both its rivals here, it’s also the most adept off-road, the adaptive ride height a real boon. Not the most fuel efficient (8,4l/100km average) but supremely comfortable and the most engaging of the three to drive. It’s seriously overpriced, but otherwise a winner.
243kW @ 3 800r/min
700Nm @2 000r/min
Price: R1 827 800
Audi Q8 45TDI quattro
The prettiest, arguably most desirable and the newest design. Audi’s interior is hands down the best put together, easiest and most satisfying to use. Some turbo lag hinders performance, and the low-profile tyres limit dirt road use.
183kW @ 3 500r/min
600Nm @ 2 000r/min
Price: R1 573 500
BMW X6 30d Xdrive
The oldest design here and it feels it, especially inside, despite a 2019 update. But the immediacy of the turbocharged six is delightful, it’s great fun to drive and full of character. Biggest issue is practicality – it’s cramped in the back, difficult to see out of and hindered by low profile tyres. Popular though.
195kW @ 4 200r/min
620Nm @ 2 200r/min
Price: R1 577 775