Kampersrus, a Canyon and a Captiva
Words & pics by Anzet du Plessis
SOFT-ROADER BREAKAWAY, CHEVROLET CAPTIVA 2.2 DIESEL AT AWD
We’ve covered the Limpopo province extensively in this series, discovering that it’s a diverse province full of surprises. When looking at a map of the province, however, there was a spot we hadn’t visited.Just east of the Blyde River Canyon, between this big attraction and the Kruger National Park, lie small towns like Kampersrus and Hoedspruit. We wondered whether there was anything for the weekend warrior in this area – and were we surprised by what we found!
You’ll be forgiven for perhaps forgetting about Chevrolet’s Captiva in the last few months, with its big brother SUV stealing much of the show (and the sales). In June this year, however, the compact SUV from General Motors received a refresh, and is more than deserving of a test drive when shopping for a family all-roader. It’s one of the more basic SUVs we’ve driven in our travel series, but there are good value for money elements at play.
Compact SUVs like the Chevrolet Captiva are ideal for the long open road with families because of the space and versatility they provide. The Captiva does, however, have the extra benefit of having seven seats, so that your family or group of friends doesn’t have to be limited as it is in an ordinary sedan. An added bonus is that with only two rows of seats, the Captiva’s luggage are is quite spacious, as it caters for seven passengers’ luggage with the seats up.
Our road trip Captiva was the 2,2 litre diesel model, which is available in LTZ specification and all-wheel drive only. Fitted to their top model, the engine produces 135kW of power and 400Nm of torque – a healthy balance for moderate on-off road driving.
The “active” all-wheel drive system in the Captiva is much like those now common in compact SUVs. Power is shifted to the rear wheels as needed, with a front-wheel drive bias saving fuel on the open road where all-wheel drive is not necessary. What this does, especially through the many bends that you’ll find on this specific route, is that the vehicle is easier to handle in a turn than a standard 4x2. Power to the rear gives you more control, more grip and more stability – making it easier to enjoy roads that lend themselves to dynamic driving.
The Captiva AWD’s claimed fuel consumption of 8,0 litres per 100km wasn’t far off, and considering the many passes, steep inclines and start-stop driving done on our trip, the figure of 9,1 litres per 100km we managed was just what we expected. The diesel engine is by no means a lazy mill, and is especially great in urban settings where power is required from the very willing engine at very low revolutions.
The transmission has great overdrive on the open road – which helps with the fuel consumption figure – and gears down quickly for overtakes and inclines. It’s an easy to live with vehicle, with push button start, an electronic tailgate and a reasonably spacious interior, as well as creature comforts like Bluetooth, iPod and USB connectivity.
The Captiva reminded us that you don’t always need a fully kitted off-roader – and certainly, we can’t always afford one. With just the right balance of ground clearance, a well-mapped gearbox and low-peaking torque paired with a good suspension system, one can get to the many attractions that are hidden along South African back roads. The extra row of seats makes it an even more versatile offer, and the safety kit an attractive family proposition.
With the update this year, the Captiva gained dual-zone climate control air-conditioning as standard on the diesel AWD model, as well as a tyre pressure warning indicator for when you’ve pushed your adventure a little too far or misjudged those sand-covered rocks. The front bumper, grille, rear bumper, exhaust and lights were also updated to refresh the look and feel of the SUV, and the standard safety kit includes six airbags – driver, front passenger front and side, and curtain. Driver assist programs like ABS, VSC (vehicle stability control), hill start assist and hill descent control, as well as brake assist, electronic stability control, traction control and EBD are all standard across the range of derivatives.
The best route from Johannesburg is to take the N12 out to Emalahleni, then head to Belfast via the N4. From here, turn towards Dullstroom, which is a great lunch stop, and then go on to Lydenburg. From there, you’ll go past Ohrigstad and through the J.G. Strijdom tunnel (on the R36). The R36 becomes the R527 (do not turn to Tzaneen to stay on the R36), soon after which you’ll turn right on the R531 towards Kampersrus. From Durban/KZN, take the N11 towards Middelburg, and turn towards Nelspruit onto the N4 at the N11-N4 intersection. Head to Belfast, and follow the directions above.
The road to the Kampersrus area is mostly a narrow, single lane tar road with the occasional commercial vehicle pushing through to the Botswana border. On a weekend, there’s a fair amount of traffic headed for Tzaneen along this route, which is something to keep in mind when planning departure times. Once one passes through the JG Strijdom tunnel – with windows open and a few customary taps on the hooter, of course – the distance and traffic all makes absolute sense.
From Ohrigstad the hills begin to build, but after the tunnel the landscape suddenly juts out with imposingly high cliffs to your right and equally beautiful drops to the left, the Ohrigstad river winding in and out between the seemingly endless hills. The many curio stops along the side of the road attest to well used lookout points, but stop sooner rather than later as they do come to a sudden end as the road descends from the Drakensberg range.
A great spring or winter retreat, the slightly humid climate makes the area even more beautiful, with the various shades of green mostly thanks to the variety of citrus and mango trees grown in the area. As the hills wind down and the pass through the mountains straightens out, more and more life emerges. Colourful fruit and vegetable stalls, a great little nursery called Die Appelblaar and informal curios line the side of the road.
For travellers going the self-catering route, a stop at the Appelblaar nursery would not be amiss, as they stock a variety of organic vegetables and are quite reasonable. Do be warned, however, that you may end up filling the boot before even starting your holiday – the owners and staff’s green fingers and enthusiasm can be quite contagious. The informal fruit stalls are also worth a stop. While these kinds of stalls are a common site to travellers, the oranges and avocado pears in this area really are worth a taste, as are the home-grown jam tomatoes.
Turn off before the Blyde River bridge if time to your check-in is an issue, otherwise continue straight to the R531. The former route is a great end to the drive, as it winds up quite close to the mountain range through the massive farms that lie against the bank of the river, has very little traffic and opens up on the valley is the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere. The latter has much more to do – starting right on the R527 intersection with the R531, where you’ll find the Khamai Reptile Centre. This is a great stop for families, and the centre stays open until 17h00, letting little ones with a penchant for all things creepy crawly and slimy get it out of their system before the holiday begins!
Then, the town of Kampersrus – almost not a “town” at all – lies right in the heart of the Biosphere. With the northern Drakensberg towering over it, it is reminiscent of towns like Clarens and Haenertsburg, only far less commercial. A singular line of small shops along the very first street of the town offer visitors a bit of browsing (although we won’t recommend the ice cream!), and there are a few quaint lunch spots as well.
There’s a butchery to stock up on supplies (although a drive to Hoedspruit is recommended unless you’re only topping up), and the Upperdeck has clay oven pizzas and a aero-themed pub with model planes and an old aeroplane dashboard in the décor. A great little tea garden with a homely menu is found just down the road – the Wildebeest Lapa – and the best service in town. The rest of the town is a string of small plots with beautiful gardens, each with a personalized name plate that makes it an incredibly welcoming place to walk through. This is certainly a town to watch over the next few years, with property prices rising and the area’s tourism efforts gaining momentum.
The Blyde River Meander
Our Blyde River meander route has, by far, the least amount of off-road driving in our soft-roader series so far. There are great little stopovers along the R531 that do require dirt road driving – some surfaces better than others – as well as a bit of ground clearance. The roads are sandy in winter and can be quite slippery when the summer rains come, making a bit of traction control quite necessary. On a clear spring day, however, the 178mm ground clearance of the Captiva was enough to clear the rocks that ambush you along the sandy track. While the Captiva isn’t a serious off-roader – and you don’t need one for trips like these – Chevrolet have gone about its layout with consideration for sandy tracks and surfaces that require a bit of extra traction. The six-speed automatic gearbox has a manual mode and, when locked into the lower gears, the 400 Nm of torque which peaks at a low 2000 r/min makes navigating through thick sand easy when maintaining a bit of momentum. For surfaces with loose rocks, the traction control system kept the rear wheels in line around the odd bend and was more than we needed to get down to the sights we wanted to see.
The Eden Tea Garden, found down one of these little dirt roads (see information box for co-ordinates) has a diverse nursery with many local plants, as well as a restaurant set in a vast (and very cool) garden with skyscraping trees and vines, right next to a banana grove. Fairly quiet in the off-season it can seem a bit secluded, but the staff are friendly and the lawns great for kids to run their energy out after a lot of driving. The Godding and Godding Silk Farm – in a more typical bushveld setting, albeit with modern luxuries – is a great lunch spot, with craft shops, great coffee and small bistro with a sophistacted lunch menu (Anne’s Cotton Club Café) and wifi!
Another must-see is Moholoholo, the Wildlife Rehabilitiation centre just past Kampersrus. The name means “the great one” and refers to one of the peaks that tower over the valley. Leave enough time for this stop, as the tours are about two and a half hours long and start at 09h30 and 15h00 on Mondays to Saturdays. A rehab and conservation centre, the tour is quite educational and touching, and animals include lion, leopard, serval, lynx, honey badgers, eagles, vultures and wild dogs. Moholoholo also has accommodation available, as well as a forest camp and special “Junior Wildlife” and “Tracking” tours.
If you can only eat lunch at one stop on your entire trip, make it Moholoholo Ya Mati (on the river). This picturesque wedding retreat sits right on the Blyde river, and the restaurant’s food is by far the best (and best value for money) that we sampled in the area. The staff are friendly and accommodating, and the cool terrace setting something that will stay with you once you’re back in the hustle and bustle of the city. There’s also a play area for kids, and occasionally wildlife wonders down to the river bank from the other side to diners’ delight.
The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, accessible from the eastern side of the Canyon where our route lies, is one of the biggest draw cards of the area. Don’t be confused if signs or brochures point to the Molatse River Canyon, as the park was renamed but still largely carries the old designation. A great place to spend a whole day exploring, the road winds up into the mountain range with some truly spectacular views along the way. At the top is a lookout point and a short hike along the ridge with full view over the magnificent Blyde River dam. The reserve is 29 000 hectares of red sandstone peaks, green valleys, hiking trails and thick bushveld vegetation. This includes rare and endangered cycads, a plethora of spring wildflowers and a diversity of 1000 plant species just around the dam itself. The boat ride – with friendly captain “Bedneck” – is the best way to view wildlife, birdlife and get information – such as the fact that the canyon is the third deepest Canyon in the world!
MORE INFORMATION: BLYDE RIVER MEANDER
Khamai Reptile Centre: Day visitors pass: R30 (children 4-12) and R60 (adults). Interactive tour (make sure you book): R75pp min 6pax. Photographic tour (booking essential): R1000 per group max 6pax. Contact: 015 795 5203, 082 299 3981, or e-mail: [email protected]. Website: www.khamai.co.za
Eden Tea Garden: S24 31 40.4 E030 58 11.2
Anne's Cotton Club Café: 074 187 5312
Moholoholo Rehab Centre and Ya Mati: Moholoholo tours: R50 (children 7-12) and R110 (adults), or R80 (pensioners). Go to www.moholoholo.co.za for accommodation rates and junior, tracking and group rates and information.
Kampersrus: Wildebeest Lapa: S24 29 55.3 E030 53 34.4 – Open 08h00 to 20h00. Note: no credit card facilities.
We stayed at the self-catering Bush Baby Chalets just outside Kampersrus, towards the Blyde River Dam on the Motlatse Canyon Provincial Nature Reserve. About 2,7km before the Kampersrus town entrance, turn onto a tar road to the right. If you’re GPS navigated you to turn right on a narrow tar road before the R531, you’ll get to a t-junction. This is the same road as above, so simply turn right here as well, and you’ll find the Blyde Botanical Reserve on your right. The Bush Baby Chalets, run by Graham Kidner, is inside this private residential estate, making it safe and private. On the property, which is manicured, welcoming and very well taken care of, are two self-catering cottages with two rooms each. A main bedroom and adjoining twin bed room are separated by a shower and bathroom, with a security gate to keep the monkeys out enclosing the small kitchen area. A small porch with a large table makes a great spot for an early outdoor breakfast or some late afternoon reading with a glass of wine. The estate has quite a bit of wildlife on it, and zebras occasionally wander into the property to have a bit of a drink from the rock pool or bird baths. In the evenings, a group of resident bush babies – one large one named Ralph in particular – make their way down to platforms built by Graham, in hope of a small portion of fruit as treats. Ideally located near the Blyde River Canyon, 30km from Hoedspruit and 60km from the chalets in the Kruger National Park through the Orpen gate, the Bush Baby cottages are an ideal retreat for a long weekend or more. We certainly wished we could have spent more time unwinding next to the rock pool, or by the warm fire next to the outdoor kitchen. Their self-catering facilities include a cupboard of cutlery, crockery and all other equipment one may need in an outdoor kitchen, as well as a fridge and coffee facilities in the bedroom.
Self-catering cottages: R550 – R700 per night
More information: www.bushbabychalets.co.za
Contact: Graham Kidner: 076 749 9667
Source: Leisure Wheels