Driving in South Africa with the BMW X3

Driving in South Africa with the BMW X3

X3 x ZA

Text: Daryl Lee

Three days with the X3 in South Africa — here's what we learned

South Africa isn't flat

Well, this point isn't entirely accurate. Great swathes of South Africa are flat, because that's the nature of grassland, and you can't have grassland without flat. Like how you can't watch a movie without having popcorn, that should be mandatory with the usher forcing you to get a box if you don't have one. At gunpoint, if necessary.

Anyway, imagine my surprise at my ears popping at regular intervals while driving. This shouldn't be happening, I thought to myself, but a quick check on the BMW's GPS showed I was around 1,400m above sea level.

In addition to that, aside from said grassland, large parts of South Africa (the provinces adjacent to Johannesburg, at any rate) are surprisingly undulating. So you don't really get the feeling of Kilimanjaro rising like Olympus over the Serengeti thing.

What do you get is since there were so many hills on our driving route (from Gauteng to Mpumalanga), it meant plenty of great driving was had. Ordinarily, an SUV is anathemic to fun, but the BMW X3 is, like the country it was produced in, is quite the surprising animal.

It doesn't so much handle like an unwieldy, tall SUV, but rather more like a high-riding hot hatchback. It's an almost physics-defying feat of engineering, really.  

The scenery is jaw-dropping

Whether it's driving through the Gauteng region's many hills or the spectacular Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga, be sure that South Africa has much to offer in the way of amazing insta-worthy views. 

And it should also be stressed that driving in South Africa is nothing like driving in Singapore. While we're used to the endless gridlock of city driving over here, traffic in South Africa is light. Once you're out of major urban areas, anyway.

Because traffic is light and drivers are (broadly speaking) far more polite than they are in Singapore, doing 400km of driving in a day is pretty easy. It also helps the scenery along the way is amazingly picturesque, so you can take plenty of Instagram pit stops along the way.

Take a walk on the wildlife side

No trip to the continent would be complete without going on safari. And go on a safari I did, albeit a short one lasting just a few hours driving through the Kruger National Park's tourist roads.

The bad news is, while lion — and the rest of the so-called 'Big Five' that also includes buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino — does roam free through Kruger and the Makalali private game lodge where I spent a night, actually seeing one depends on how lucky you are.

And since I'm cursed with the worst luck in the world when it comes to such things, I didn't see a single lion (the ones you saw in the gallery above were not spotted by me), whether lounging about, or eating something. Good thing, then, that I made up for that by eating what a lion normally eats...

You can eat (almost) all the deer-y things

The Kruger National Park says it has a "strong antelope population", and when you count over 30 listed on its website, you know it isn't kidding about about it having all the deer-like things. For my part, I ate kudu and antelope, and as with all sorts deer, it's lean, gamey and on the dry side. Though that's not an indictment of the way it was cooked, it's just the way it is.  

This got me wondering. Why has nobody ever thought of doing an antelope buffet? Obviously, not all the 30-odd antelope found in Kruger are on the menu, due to some of them being endangered. And eating an endangered animal is morally wrong... and also a criminal offence.

I propose to call it "Eating the Heart of Africa". You're welcome, and I expect a cut of the proceeds when you become fabulously wealthy from this idea.

A modern car factory has remarkably few people

The real reason why I was in South Africa wasn't to drive through one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, or to see the Kruger National Park, or to eat kudu.

It was to see how the new made-in-South-Africa BMW X3 is built at the carmaker's Rosslyn factory, around an hour's drive from Johannesburg. Yes, there are some BMWs made in South Africa, and they have been for the past 45 years.

If you've never before been to a modern automobile production facility, you might be forgiven for thinking BMW's Rosslyn factory is monstrous. Recent upgrades have seen its production capacity increase by 10 percent to 76,000 units, and since production of the X3 was started in April this year, well over 18,000 cars have rolled off the assembly line.

This, however, pales in comparison to BMW's largest European manufacturing facility in Dingolfing: six models are produced there, with an annual capacity of 376,000 cars annually. Still, while BMW's Rosslyn facility is relatively small in comparison, manufacturing just one model, it's still deeply impressive to see a small army of robots birthing a car.

Yes, robots, not people. For example, the process of painting a car is fully automated from start to finish, with the body assembly almost completely done by machines. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to see any of the 3,000-odd people the plant employs, though to be fair, I stopped by during a lunch break.

Interestingly enough, BMW says employment there has actually gone up, despite the increased automation. Apparently, while there are fewer people on the production floor, there are more people beavering away behind the scenes maintaining the machines.

To find out more about the X3 and other BMW models, click here.