While local and foreign visitors to the Kruger Park were this week fleeing their camps, if not in terror then almost certainly in soaking wet clothes, to escape the untold billions of tons of water being hurled down upon them by the gods of global warming a brave convoy was heading north through the tempest.
Well, if truth be told, bits of the convoy were also going south, east and west as the media launch of Jeep’s latest Grand Cherokee and Wrangler 4x4’s disintegrated in some confusion thanks to closed roads, swollen rivers and – in at least one instance – a suddenly dissolving tarred causeway over an earth embankment.
Fortunately, for me and for Cape Town colleague Ian Little, that happened about 10 minutes after we’d crossed it and explained the disappearance from our rear-view mirrors of two or three other Jeeps that were following us and didn’t reach the bridge in time. Even the famed Jeep 4x4 off-road abilities wouldn’t have saved us... or them.
As the giant rainstorm drowned the entire park, turning usually dry sand rivers and the normally merely damp Bayamiti River (see picture below) into torrents more commonly seen on CNN footage from India and sundry tropical climes, we and the rest of a mixed dozen newly re-engined Cherokees and Wranglers ploughed their chosen ways along roads running in floodwater in search of the Malelane Gate and beds at the Bongani Mountain Lodge in the south-west corner of Mr Kruger’s creation.
South-west? Yes, we and several others from the scattered convoy were, well, a bit lost... our satnav wasn’t showing the park’s road network and the sun was invisible through thousands of metres of rain clouds so south looked just the same as north – or east or west.
We eventually met up with other Jeeps at the deserted (except for a scavenging and very large solo hyena) Afsaal rest spot standing perhaps a metre above another rampantly flooding river. Which, my Kruger-crazy daughter later told me, simply doesn’t exist...
FRESH POWER: Jeep's Wrangler, the iconic real off-roader with a ladder-frame chassis, has been awarded a new 3.6 litre, more frugal petrol engine.
We’d entered the park, by special permission, at the Numbi gate after driving from Kruger/Mpumalanga airport and the rain become unrelenting along the almost deserted park roads. Our Wrangler, with its new 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine and five-speed automatic transmission – both of which it shares with the award-winning Jeep Grand Cherokee – barely checked as sheets of water battered its windscreen on flooded low-lying stretches of tarred road.
But the real test was yet to come (after the semi-terror of 20 or so kilometres of the rain-soaked, pot-holed and (disgustingly) tolled N4 en route to the turnoff to Bongani. Initial access to the lodge is along a narrow gravel road that winds steadily up the mountain to the gate – on the other side of what is usually a small stream crossed by a 20m concrete causeway.
The lower road was a running river of washaways and exposed rocks, most of them absorbed by the Wrangler’s new and improved suspension. The causeway was running thigh-deep in fast-flowing water but the now reassembled convoy made it through with 4x4 engaged – and parked.
Much discussion on whether to proceed up the further 7km of steep gravel road to the lodge itself went down; while there was little argument about the Cherokees and Wranglers making the ascent the fear was that, by morning, the “stream” would be even higher and exit to Kruger airport impossible.
RAGING FLOOD: Regular visitors to the Kruger Park will know this as the Bayamiti River - a usually dry bed with a pond here and there frequented by hippos and rhino. Mother Nature changed all that this week. See video!
The decision: cry off, turn around, re-cross the river and head for the only available mass accommodation, the Sabi River Sun Lifestyle Resort at Hazyview, which we eventually found after traversing what must be some of the worst-signposted roads in the country. And (attention transport minister S’bu Ndebele) renewing the worn-out road markings would probably save many lives.
All the Jeeps ran faultlessly through some of the most appalling weather on some of the worst pot-holed and ill-maintained roads I’ve encountered in South Africa – but full marks to the repair crew who were out the next morning doing their best to patch up the storm damage.
The current range of Jeeps was introduced towards the end of 2011; the 2.6 V6 engine is a new addition to the range. The Grand Cherokee, with upgraded suspension, fresh-styled bodywork and a cabin far superior to that of its predecessor arrived in early October and the matching two and four-door Wranglers at the end of that month.
KING OF THE HILL: The Jeep Grand Cherokee is now available, in its new version launched late in 2011, with a three-litre turbodiesel and now with a 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine.
The all-new, 3.6-litre, aluminium Pentastar V6 engine and auto transmission enhance the Wrangler’s on-road driving performance – delivering 43 percent more power (209kW), 10% more torque (347Nm) and lower fuel consumption – “while also taking the vehicle’s legendary off-road capability to a new level”.
The 3.6-litre two-door version has cut the Wrangler’s 0-100km time by 27% to 8.1sec – remarkable for a full 4x4 off-roader – and first gear in the five-speed auto box (which has a manual sequential facility), manufacturer Chrysler says, gives the Wrangler even better off-road capability with its lower overall crawl ratio.
Electronic Range Select is standard for all auto-equipped Wranglers, along with electronic stability control.
The same engine is also available for the Grand Cherokee range alongside its new three-litre turbo diesel and the magnificent 5.7-litre HEMI V8 with its 259kW of power and 520Nm or torque. The turbodiesel is quite content with 500ppm diesel fuel so can range far and wide in southern Africa.
Fuel consumption from the Grand Cherokee from the turbodiesel engine is rated at 10.3 litres/100km in town and 7.2/100 km on the Euro-standardised extra-urban cycle.
TAKE THE FAMILY: if you plan to be a gnu Jeep owner, be assured a Grand Cherokee will be able to take you AND the family. That's one disappearing over the hill in the distance.
Frankly, after two days with the cars – though the curtailed route allowed only a much shorter drive in a Cherokee - I have to wonder why, given the astoundingly high levels of comfort and more modest fuel consumption data of them both, people still focus on buying “luxury” sedans.
The Cherokee, with its revised suspension, has easily as good a ride as a much more expensive upmarket sedan. There's also plenty of leather-lined space for five, high-speed capability and the additional benefits of its sheer ruggedness to handle South Africa’s rapidly deteriorating roads. Its big wheels tend more to roll over most pot-holes instead of thudding into them.
Considering prices and the Cherokees’ versatility on tar and off-road I know where my money would be going... check the figures below.
<a href="http://www.wheels24.co.za/News/Industry_News/Jeeps-sales-soar-in-Europe-20120120" target="_blank"> European Jeep sales soar.</a>
The January, 2012, Jeep vehicle line-up includes the Grand Cherokee, Cherokee, Patriot, Compass, Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited. Here are the prices of the latest models Wranglers and Cherokees...
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0 CRD Ltd - R599 990
Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0 CRD Overland - R649 990
Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.6 Ltd - R532 990
Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.6 Overland - R582 990
Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.7 HEMI Overland - R645 990
Jeep Wrangler 3.6 V6 Sahara - R369 990
Jeep Wrangler 3.6 V6 Rubicon - R389 990
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3.6 V6 Sahara - R394 990
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3.6 V6 Rubicon - R414 990