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Flowers, off-road and tough terrain: An epic journey through the Cape's floral kingdom in an Opel Grandland X

2018-09-15 08:33

Roadtrip: Ferdi de Vos, Images – Ryan Abbott

Opel Grandland X roadtrip

Image: Ryan Abbott

Home to the most complex biodiversity on our planet with more than 1 880 different species of plant, the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve is South Africa’s first biosphere reserve and the floral heart of the Cape floral kingdom.

Recognised as one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots, this 1 000 square kilometre zig-zag ribbon of coastal plain squeezed in between the Atlantic Ocean and towering sandstone mountains about 40km from Cape Town forms part of UNESCO’s worldwide network of biosphere reserves and incorporates a CapeNature reserve as part of its "core conservation area".

A sinister past

This area is dissected by the spectacular Clarence Drive, or R44, that now regularly ranks as one of the top ten driving routes in the world.

READ: Here’s how much Opel’s compact Grandland X SUV costs in SA

Yet only a couple of decades ago the unique area, exceptionally untouched as the mountain slopes are closed to the public and strictly protected (only a small portion along the Steenbras River Gorge is open for hiking), was used for more sinister purposes.

You see, in the mid-1980s a piece of land situated just outside of Rooi Els in the heart of the Cape floral kingdom, played a pivotal role in the development of missile and rocket technology for the South African military as this site, known only as Farm 186, was used for the testing of rocket motors.

The RSA-programme

The project was classified top-secret, and back then many rumours surrounded the real purpose of the facility; easily identifiable by a tall radio mast and huge equipment shed clearly visible from the road between Rooi Els and Hangklip.

However, the range of tall mountains masked the testing sites further inland. While details on the programme remain sketchy, the RSA rocket story began in the mid-1960s with the development of short-range tactical missiles.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa, with help from Israel, began developing a longer range ballistic missile. The RSA-1, an intermediate-range, single-stage ballistic missile, was followed by the RSA-2 with a longer range and the RSA-3, based on the Israeli Jericho missile, a three-stage solid-fuel orbital launch vehicle.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip rear

                                                                          Image: Ryan Abbott

For the RSA-3 an indigenous solid-propellant production capability was developed in Somerset West and the motors tested at the facility near Rooi Els, while the Overberg test range near Bredasdorp was used for test flights. While supposedly a space programme, it is said that the RSA-3 could have delivered a warhead on cities as remote as Washington DC or Moscow.

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A further version, the RSA-4, was still in development when in 1993 South Africa announced it will dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and subsequently its missile development project. An example of the RSA-3 is still on display at the Zwartkops Air Force Museum near Pretoria.

"Rocket Fritz"

So, what has this to do with the German manufacturer with the lightning bolt logo – instituted in 1964 as recognition to the famous Opel Blitz truck – on its vehicles?

Well, in the 1920s Fritz Opel (later von Opel), a grandson of Adam Opel, founder of the company, became interested in rocket propulsion and developed rocket-powered vehicles to use in spectacular demonstrations for the company – earning him the nickname "Rocket Fritz".

The vehicles, created with the assistance of astronomer Max Valier and pyrotechnics engineer Friedrich Sander, was named Opel RAK and, just like the South African RSA rockets, four prototypes were built.

The first one, the RAK.1, was completed ninety years ago; in March 1928. Based on an Opel 4/12 chassis with small lateral wings and twelve rockets, it achieved 75 km/h in just eight seconds.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip side

                                                                           Image: Ryan Abbott

In May 1928 the improved RAK.2 – longer, with larger side wings and 24 solid rockets producing six tons of thrust – reached a speed of 238 km/h at the Avus racetrack in Berlin in front of 3 000 people.

Later that same year Von Opel and Sander set a new record for rail vehicles with the RAK.3, reaching a speed of 256 km/h… but another rocket rail vehicle, the RAK.4, was destroyed when its solid rockets exploded on the track.

With this history of Opel rocket power in mind, we took the new Grandland X SUV on a trip towards Rooi Els to see if we could find any remains of the infamous static rocket motor testing site. 

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The twisty Clarence Drive – named after Jack Clarence who was responsible for replacing the footpath between Gordon’s Bay and Rooi Els with a proper road – is a spectacular piece of tarmac, and from the raised driving position the Grandland X the assortment of fynbos either side of the road was a sight to behold.

The recently introduced SUV has a huge job to rebuild the brand from Russelsheim following the departure of General Motors from South Africa, the sale of Opel to the French PSA Group (Peugeot, Citroën and DS), and a new distributor, Unitrans Motors, taking over the local distribution and retail operations.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip 2

                                                                               Image: Ryan Abbott

It competes against a host of compact SUVs, like the VW Tiguan, Kia Sportage, Hyundai Tucson, Toyota RAV4, Nissan X-Trail and Mazda CX-5, to name a few.

Based on the PSA EMP2 platform the relatively tall and wide Grandland X is closely related to the Peugeot 3008, but its front-end design is unquestionably Opel with a prominent lightning bolt logo in the large grille, enclosed by slim LED headlights on our flagship Cosmo model with huge optional panoramic sunroof.

A sharply defined C-pillar, slanted rear end and slim LED taillight clusters underneath a deep tailgate crease, differentiate it further from its French donor, and it is certainly attractive enough to hold its own in a segment with many lookalikes.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip 1

                                                                         Image: Ryan Abbott

While its exterior design is quite progressive, the interior layout is markedly conventional (especially when compared to the avant-garde arrangement of the 3008) with large analogue dials in front of the driver and a neatly integrated central touchscreen.

However, durable material, elegant finishes and good attention to detail gives the five-seater an aura of quality and it is spacious front and rear, with 514 litres of luggage space thanks to a space-saver spare wheel. It also has a full suite of driver aid and safety systems, unlike many of its competitors.

Turbo power

Driven by a French sourced 1.6-litre turbo engine delivering 121kW and 240Nm of torque, mated to a six-speed auto transmission that sends power to the front wheels only, the Grandland X is no rocket ship – achieving a 0-100km/h time of around 9 seconds, a top speed of close to 200km/h and a consumption figure of 7 litres per 100km/h – but still pleasurable to drive.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip view

                                                                             Image: Ryan Abbott

On the open road its drivetrain was refined and smooth, and its handling on 18-inch tyres sharp, but its best attribute is its superior ride quality, on tar as well as on undulating dirt roads.

By now we have turned off from the R44 on to a coarse and unkempt tar road leading towards the tall mast and light green buildings, but soon we reached a locked gate and high fence with a signboard indicating the land beyond belongs to CapeNature and is not accessible.

Opel Grandland X roadtrip

                                                                          Image: Ryan Abbott

We tried another dirt road passing the Rockjumper Country House to get to the rumoured testing sites (indicated by a couple of huge bare patches close to the Buffels River Dam on Google Maps), but a locked gate and fence again halted our progress – a clear indication that this area, even while it reverted to a nature reserve after American inspectors verified that the test facility was destroyed, is still off limits and not reachable without special permission…

While ultimately unsuccessful in our quest (a beer at the Drummond Arms in Rooi Els made up for it) it did give us enough opportunity to gauge the latest German blitz offering.

It is a solid contender in its class, but with a price tag over R560k for the Cosmo version, it probably won’t set the sales charts alight. Perhaps this will change when it is built in Walvis Bay, and not sourced from Sochaux in France (or Eisenach in Germany).

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