There are indeed privileges to doing this job yet some stand out more than others. TopGear SA has been afforded to very rare opportunities and we’ve decided to take them at the same time.
Out in the north eastern part of the country lies a small town called Barberton. It’s rich in the fabric of South African history boasting a number of firsts, many of which we must be grateful for today. The first real gold rush started here around 1880 through which a thriving economy was birthed. The first stock exchange in South Africa was in Barberton, the first street lights were erected and apparently the first double-story building was built in the town centre that still stands today.
It’s a quaint little town fringed by the Makhonjwa mountain range and an area that is very close to all sorts of industry from citrus, nut and sugar cane farming to tourism and mining. This confluence of industry means the need for a bakkie is high on most agendas, but the fascinating thing is how significant the market share is when it comes to one bakkie in particular: Hilux. They’re everywhere and whilst we know that Hilux outsells all others, it’s the sheer capitalisation in this area that is so obviously noticeable. The safari vehicles, mining company cars, farm vehicles, family cars, business cars etc – all bear the T-badge.
Driving the latest Hilux Legend RS, we’re here in Barberton for two challenges. The first challenge is to make our way to a small town called Malalane. Doesn’t sound like much does it? But we’re attempting to get from Barberton to Malalane without using any public roads whatsoever. We’re going to climb to the top of the Makhonjwa mountains and then trek all the way across the top until we descend into Malalane where we’ll undertake our second challenge.
We’ve been told that this is indeed possible, if you have the right vehicle. A gentleman by the name of Wynand Engelbrecht is the owner of an off-road adventure company called Dusty Tracks. He knows these areas like the back of his hand and he insists that with the right vehicle, we can coast up and across in low-range and probably make it to Malalane within 5-6 hours. A journey that would normally take about 45-minutes by national roads time extended to almost a whole day.
Wynand leads the charge driving a 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser 79 4.5D. It has edged past 400 000km on the clock and Wynand insists it is the best thing for what he does. He swears by it and the fact that I’m driving a Hilux gets us further along in the conversation. I don’t know what would have happened had I been driving anything else.
Our trek begins through a private piece of land at the foot of the Makhonjwa’s. It is deserted to say the least and from the moment we drive into the undergrowth until we actually reached the outskirts of Malalane, we didn’t see a single human…sort of. Such is the tranquility and rarity of this trip. The first part of the journey is already mesmerising as we make our way through thick lowveld bush crossing small bridges and rivers old mining villages. I experience a history lesson in gold mining and the way of life back then as we edge deeper and deeper towards the mountain itself.
Without much warning we get to a hairpin in the bush where Wynand stops and suggests we engage low-range and drive with more caution. The climb has begun and not a minute after setting off once again do I realise how majestic and dangerous this climb is. We are literally on the edge of a cliff, chugging up the face of a mountain with the Hilux starting to slip and slide and throw rocks about. It’s hard going now but it’s equally awe-inspiring as the bush gives way to the majestic rolling hills that extends as far as the eye can see. The people of Barberton refer to these mountains as the Valley of a 1000 hills feeling it is more apt a place than the KZN namesake.
As we make it to the top I have to stop and take it all in, a magnificent 360 degree tapestry of green. It’s a privileged view and I don’t take it for granted. But time is of the essence now and we’re chasing the afternoon intent on making it to Malalane on time. We have to trek across the top of these mountains inching closer and closer to the small town on the other side. The mountain is unforgiving at times with large sections of rock beds that test the Hilux to no end. I remain in low-range for at least half the time encountering layer upon layer of tough and tricky sections to negotiate. The Hilux is working hard for sure but nothing seems to phase it even with its old Land Cruiser father-figure leading the charge. The trip from Johannesburg to Barberton and then up this mountain has cemented the Hilux rep for me. The ‘toughness’ is unquestionable but there’s a softer and fresher side to it now too. In this Legend RS spec, the modern family can really make a case for owning a Hilux (or two) as the everyday family car.
Along the way, we stumble across a time gone by – In the late 1800s, Eureka City existed at the top of these mountains. It was the hub of life, the entertainment centre full of wonder and vibe. As we drive through the sparse ruins it dawns on me just how short a century really is. So much has changed yet we still see such powerful visual clues of an entire generation and life that has vanished. We pass the old Victorian hotel as well as the old Horse racing tracks, both of which are still partly noticeable. There were no cars back then and the term horsepower had only just begun to be used for anything other than its literal meaning.
Passing through Eureka City spurs us onto investigate horsepower of a modern kind - 500 to be exact. About an hour later, we begin to make our way down a steep mountainside towards Malalane. It’s been an intense, beautiful drive but nothing can quite prepare me for the next phase of this epic day as I go from one Hilux into quite another.
Werner and Johan Horn are the reigning Class T champions in the South African Cross Country Championships. They’re an independent team based in Malalane and they come from a line of hard working, rally-bred blood, their Father Johan having plied his skills behind the wheel of a Hilux in the 80’s.
Their first foray into pro cross country racing was in a self-built and engineered Toyota Land Cruiser that competed in Class D of the series from 2011. After 3 years of learning including a crash on their first outing, their first victory came at the 2014 Sun City 450. The bug had bitten and so, onto bigger and faster machinery they went.
The pair acquired the Dakar-bred Hilux from Glyn Hall/Hallspeed in 2013 and made their entrance into the bigger leagues the following year. They won the 2017 Class T championship 3 years later, ahead of massive names in the sport including Lance and Gareth Woolridge and Henk Lategan. Naturally, the brothers were ecstatic and as Johan recalls, “It was a dream come true – and something we had worked towards for a long time.”
The key to winning, agreed by both Johan and Werner is “You have to keep a calm head and bring the car home.” Johan, the driver in the duo is seemingly the most temperamental and by his own admission, his younger brother Werner keeps him motivated and calm. “We do have our moments in the car,” Werner says, “but we have a rule that what happens in the car stays in the car.” It’s a good rule when you’re brothers and have that unshakeable competitive streak in you. It’s a pairing that delivers results and when all is done at a race weekend, the team heads back to the lowveld of Malalane where they work hard in the family businesses headquartered at Malalane Toyota. Toyota-ness is a born and bred thing. Thankfully I don’t make the mistake of trying to convince them otherwise.
Fast forward to 2020, a strange year in the history of the SACCS and the pair did it again, winning the Class T champs once again. This car is their baby. Werner and Johan know this car unlike any other, having invested in it, built and rebuilt it literally hundreds of times.
In the end, they say yes to my request, and as I start the theory training process before taking to the wheel, I’m wondering if this really is a good idea. I’ve watched these cars devour all sorts of terrain but it looks painful, dangerous and difficult to drive – oh and I’m also anxiously calculating the cost of replacement if I run out of talent and redefine the term ‘off-road’. I’m standing there in an oversized race overall and wondering whether we should just go home.
Make no mistake, this car is 100% race car. The only real similarity compared to a normal Hilux is the overall shape, the doors and the badge on the grille. It’s a purpose-built, cross-country racing machine. Under the hood sits a tuned naturally aspirated Lexus 5.0-litre V8 that delivers 280kW sending all this power to all 4 wheels via a 6-speed sequential SADEV transmission. The monocoque comprises a heat-resistant and lightweight Kevlar composite, around which sits heavily reinforced underpinnings. Everything including the chassis, the steering arms, the exhaust system, prop shaft and braking system are purpose-built pieces to withstand the extreme forces that come into play. The Reiger dampers, two a-piece at each corner are also incredibly resilient items that are built to withstand and cope with the immense torque and heat that runs through them. It’s no wonder they’re just under R100k each. They’ve dubbed it Gifpyl, translated from Afrikaans as the ‘Poison Arrow.’ The time has come.
Together with the help of local colleagues, the Horn brothers have put together a ‘test-track’ for TopGear SA. The track extends from the outskirts of Malalane towards the hills beyond and then back again. Our sighting lap is conducted in a standard Toyota Hilux Legend 50 RS. It’s a 7km run that comprises a lot of what you’d typically find in a cross country race. The first section runs up and across a mountain side, fraught with huge ruts and rocky sections – there are literally boulders all over the place and the going is uncomfortably slow (in the standard Hilux). We’re in L4 for this sighter. The second section opens up into the sugar cane fields that paint the green into the lowveld canvas. The roads are far more open and dusty with some surprises along the way. The whole sighter takes us 30 mins.
Before the full bore mayhem, Werner straps me into the Navigator’s seat to give me a feel of the race car and more importantly to tack on some practical knowledge to my theoretical know-how. The run is, according to him, very slow but it’s at least 12 mins faster than our standard Hilux run including some stops to talk about corner entry and cornering lines. I’m surprised at how much more comfortable the ride is too but it’s when we catch some air over a crest towards the end of the route that I get seriously concerned. We’re doing about 120km/h at this point and I’m astounded at the hang time we achieve – before Werner announces, “you should be doing about 160 when you hit this section!” (insert wide-eyed emoji here).
Being TopGear SA, we can’t just go out on a drive and call it a day. We decide on a race of sorts. The intrepid owner and race driver will go out and set a competitive time around the 7km course. I will then strap in and try to get as close as possible to the time set by the pros.
To clarify, Werner is the navigator in the team. He is the one who sits beside his older brother Johan directing, coaching and guiding him over massive cross country stints. Technically he is the slower of the two. For this challenge, Werner is the one who straps into the pilot seat and after just one sighter, he sets a time of 04min59secs. It’s a time that has no reference for me just yet. It’s the first real ‘flying lap’ and the only thing I can garner from it is that I’m covered in dust from the final fly-by across the start-finish line.
The next moment is quite surreal. I am tightly strapped into the racing seat via a 6-point harness and it feels absolutely daunting yet enlivening at the same time. There lurks a fiery V8 growling beneath me and a mammoth expectation to bring it home in one piece. The throttle pedal at idle is oh-so-sensitive and every blip sends a shiver down my back. With Werner by my side as coach and trainer, I set off for my first sighter behind the left hand wheel.
I’m out the blocks at 50% pace (so I guess) and there are some immediate things that I need to shake. Firstly, caution – I need to be much less concerned about the car as I approach bumps and crests. The car eats them up without so much as a sweat, those expensive dual dampers making more and more sense now. The second thing is the brakes – they’re much more powerful than I allow space for and once again, I have to exercise less caution as I approach the turns. In essence, I need to trust that the car is much more capable than I’m giving it credit for – I need to go faster in other words and after just one sighter, straight into the fast runs I go.
My first flying lap is incredibly scary as I apply what I’ve learned. This Class T is race- car sharp considering I’m literally flying across the rockiest terrain of the first section of the track. Boulders are strewn into the air at every throttle input but my word its uncanny how everything feels so comfortable compared to what is taking place outside. As I emerge from the rocky canyon into more open territory, the speeds increase as the terrain changes. The rear is more loose now and I’m starting to feel like a rally car driver – sort of. The adrenaline is pumping through me as I get more acquainted with this mightily agile beast. That sound! Oh that sound is pure NA V8 glory. There is nothing in racing or on the roads that sounds like it, so visceral and intoxicating that you want to get onto the throttle as quickly and for as long as possible. This is my first and only real mistake – I brake way too late into a corner and have to engage reverse to get back on track. It’s a good jolt to my system – I’m high on the driving Nirvana but I need to be focused to get the most out of this extraordinary opportunity.
Onto the penultimate straight I go heading full speed towards ‘the jump’. “Keep it flat” calls Werner through the headset, but I just can’t. I let off a few hundred metres before the crest yet still, the Hilux flies over and lands with a gentle thud, its tail wagging ever so slightly, nothing that small corrections on the racing wheel can’t fix. Yes, I could go flat, I think - and I have one more run to try.
The second run is where the magic happens and I’ve begun to master a braking technique that Werner has taught me. It’s counter-intuitive at first because you have to left-foot brake while your right foot is pinned to the floor. What I learn is how much more composed the car is when I do this. It’s like a manual-input traction system – turn-in is assisted, the rear is less wayward and it creates an overall balance that makes all the difference.
I attack the rocks with much more vigour and in some moments, I feel, for the first time, that the car is nearing its edge. The bumps are hard and my body is tensely engaged as the car wrestles through these massive ruts and rocky switchbacks. The Hilux is roaring, beating harder now, sounding more aggressive than I’ve felt it under my hand. Opening up onto the dusty tracks, the sugar cane fields are flying by at a faster rate of knots and the tailslides are wider creating insane dust clouds that envelope everything in my wake. Werner is equally engaged, emphatically calling “Flat out here”, “Just a dab on the brakes”, don’t be scared here go for it”…
It’s a much cleaner lap this time round and yes, I hit that crest at somewhere between 144 and 150km/h. It feels like 5-seconds of airtime before we land where in reality it is nearer to 1.5-seconds. The landing this time around contains a little more drama than before but nothing to worry about. My final hard left onto the home straight is clean and fast and I feel like a driving legend as I cross the line.
The results are hardly the stuff of legend as I cross the line 17-seconds adrift of the pros. I feel ecstatic about my poor performance. Perhaps it is because I brought myself, Werner and the car home in one piece? No. It’s because I got to experience a mighty piece of engineering in the very environment for which it was designed. The Hilux Class T production car is an extremely intense machine that obliterates whatever terrain you can throw at it. It’s the very essence of what I love about driving – involving, intense, emotional and aggressive.
The debrief has me trying to fist bump the brothers in a gesture of immense thanks. It’s a little awkward though, as my hands are uncontrollably shaking from this most pure of driving experiences.
The real wow moment, is the realisation that this car is now in essence, a lesser machine than the current crop of FIA-class cars that do work in the series, the very cars that contend the Dakar race every year. Yet - at the time of going to print, the first race of the South African Cross Country Series had just been completed and the pair from Malalane Toyota had chalked up a class win and a strong 3rd place result overall behind the Ford Ranger of Lance Woolridge. The final result – under 4-seconds behind the leaders and ahead of some much bigger names in faster machinery.
Thank you to the team behind the scenes at Malalane Toyota and especially to the talented yet gracious Johan and Werner Horn for allowing me this insane opportunity. I know it wasn’t an easy decision. To Wynand Engelbrecht from Dusty Tracks - your knowledge, kindness and love of the land is inspiring. Marina Coetzee - Dankie baaie for making this happen for us.
Catch the Video of this TopGear SA Ultimate Drive here.