“South Africa isn’t like Singapore, it isn’t as safe. So don’t leave your phone or bag lying around. You leave it there, you turn around and it’ll be gone,” intoned a man, who randomly started chatting to me at the highway rest stop, in grave tones.
This, along with dire portents coming from street signs warning of smash-and-grab hotspots, news stories of people being killed by local wildlife in remarkably diverse ways (up to and including death by giraffe) and handy tips from the hotel to only walk in brightly lit areas at night.
And one local I spoke responded “absolutely” to a question on whether he’s known of anyone who’s been a victim of crime.
To my coddled Singaporean sensibilities, I found myself in a country where you can’t walk out at 2.30am for a prata fix while wearing enough precious stones to rival a jewellery show and where the most lethal animal around is a flying cockroach.
Of course, being an oblivious Singaporean is dangerous in South Africa. To be fair, so is being an oblivious Singaporean nearly anywhere else in the world.
Then again, it’s all too easy to get lost in the stunning beauty of South Africa. It might lead to dangerous situations, like walking off a cliff, or taking your eyes off the road because you’re driving past an amazing river valley.
On that first point, that’s a very real prospect at Three Rondavels. Located around 400 or so kilometres north of Johannesburg, it’s a trio of peaks so named for their resemblance to the roofs of traditional huts. The Three Rondavels themselves can be found in the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, and getting there is an adventure in itself.
Of course, you could be boring and take the highway, but what you really want to do is drive along South Africa’s
sinuous mountains roads. Along the way, you’ll discover, as I did, that South Africa’s terrain goes through a remarkable amount of elevation change.
Particularly because Johannesburg and Gauteng, the province it’s located in, sits on the Highveld, a plateau with an elevation of around 1,500m. There are great expanses of flat grassland, but there are also great ribbons of tarmac cut into the sides of hills. Now, to most minds, the country is still flat, but this is coming from a Singaporean whose idea of a tall mountain is Bukit Timah.
So anyway, elevation changes are good, because that means there’s plenty of great driving to be had. Yes, even in an SUV weighing some 1.8 tonnes, though it helps if the SUV in question is the BMW X3. I’ve thrown a fair bit of shade at SUVs in general before, but the X3 is surprisingly agile.
It doesn’t drive so much like a truck, but more like an oversized hot hatchback. It also helps that I spent a lot of my time in the xDrive30i M Sport variant, which adds, among other things, big wheels and big brakes to go with its 252hp engine—which gives this particular X3 more than enough real-world stopping and going power.
What it won’t do, however, is handle any serious off-roading. As perfectly demonstrated by how I flatted both front tyres on a dirt road on the way out from Makalali Game Lodge, where I had spent a night. Though this wasn’t any fault of the car or the tyres.
Low-profile, roadgoing performance tyres aren’t the best pick for driving on hard-packed dirt, let alone for thrashing on unpaved roads. Going hot into dips and generally flinging the car about is most definitely not recommended behaviour.
Then again, you’ll have to forgive my enthusiasm, because dirt roads are something we don’t get a lot of in Singapore—it’s common knowledge that the entire country is slathered in tarmac. Another thing we don’t get a lot of here is wildlife.
People lose their minds every time they spot an otter, but in South Africa, you’re likely to see something far larger, and far more exotic. For instance, a giraffe loping with its borderline surreal ground-covering gait across the plains, or a small herd of elephants having a mid-afternoon snack by the side of the road.
Though it should also be said the more exotic examples of South African fauna aren’t roaming the streets of Johannesburg. For that, you’ll have to either travel to a private game lodge or to Kruger National Park. Unlike in a zoo, the animals there roam around free, not fenced behind enclosures.
This is both good and bad, because you’ll get to see them up close and personal. An elephant browsing for food barely a few metres away is quite the sight to behold. Or, for that matter, a hyena carrying away some freshly killed prey. Bad because the Euro NCAP crash test doesn't include stampeding wildlife.
The only problem with free-range animals is they don’t exactly come out and perform on cue when the tourists roll by. Don’t believe what Madagascar tells you, it’s a lie. This means you could, if you have rotten luck, go all the way there and not see a single lion, rhino, cheetah or any other cool animal.
But while South Africa has much to offer in the way of natural splendour, it also offers automobiles. Yes, really. Eight global brands make cars in South Africa for domestic, regional and international consumption. Including BMW, which produces the X3 I was just driving at its Rosslyn factory, which I also visited while in South Africa.
The carmaker’s Rosslyn factory, while it’s a comparative outpost in the bigger scheme of the BMW Group (76,000 cars roll off the line every year, against the 376,000 cars the Dingolfing factory in Germany produces), is still every inch a modern automotive production facility.
And because it’s a modern car factory, the assembly line floor looks clean enough to eat a meal off of and much of the heavy lifting—literally and figuratively—is done by robots. The painting process, for example, is completely automated from start to finish.
Which is amazing to think about when you consider how no human hands have, um, had a hand in painting the X3 I’ve been driving. Even having a car factory is a far cry from Singapore. The only car assembled locally was Ford, and that stopped being a thing in 1980 when the factory in Bukit Timah ceased operating.
And I’ll also wager Singapore doesn’t have a powerplant that turns the poop of some 30,000 cattle, plus other biowaste, into a source of renewable energy. Bio2Watt’s efforts, or more accurately, the 130 tonnes of waste per day it processes, fuels a third of the Rosslyn plant’s power needs, with plans to increase this to half in the next few years.
Yes, Singapore also has recycling efforts in the form of NEWater, but that puts a completely different spin on ‘waste not, want not’.
South Africa is certainly a far cry from Singapore, but then again, you’d kind of expect it to be. Plus, I didn’t get mugged/trampled/mauled/bitten, so I’m thinking that counts for something in a country’s plus column.