Join Ciro De Siena as he recounts his recent road trip to Lesotho behind the wheel of a Ford Mustang...
When we received the invitation to travel to Lesotho for the first-ever Mustang Road Trip on the African continent, I initially felt confused. Why would anyone want to drive a fleet of Mustangs to Lesotho? Visions of scrambling up dirt roads fighting for grip in the country with the highest low point on earth didn’t seem like a particularly good idea. So, of course, I accepted.
Departing Cape Town on the red-eye, my trip began with a 5:00 am uber to Cape Town International Airport and I watched in horror as the N2 inbound resembled a parking lot – at 5:15 am. My flight to Johannesburg was painful! I had a busy Sunday and completely forgot to check-in, resulting in the cruel and unusual punishment of occupying the middle seat for 2 hours.
By the time the wheels hit the ground in Jozi, I was cramped, sleepy, annoyed and yet to have a coffee, which multiplies any negative morning emotion by at least a factor of four.
On the road
A total of 7 Mustang's welcomed us on what would be a memorable road trip to Lesotho.
Thankfully, breakfast was the first item on the agenda and rounding the hotel to the rear parking lot, we were greeted by the sight of 7 Mustangs parked perfectly in a row. After a mercifully brief briefing, we were on our way.
With plans to swop cars between the members of the media over the next few days, myself and my driving partner, Pierre Steyn, group editor of the travel titles at Media24, were not phased in the slightest to be driving the smaller-engined 2.3-litre 4-cylinder Mustang for the first leg.
In a stroke of genius, Ford had ensured that all the Mustangs were fitted with heated and cooled seats, which, as I would find out over the next 4 days and 1 200 km, is quite possibly the best invention in motoring since the windscreen wiper.
A beautiful scene somewhere in the Free State...
Gauteng’s urban sprawl quickly gave way to the rolling green pastures of the Free State. South Africa’s agricultural heartland, the expansive vistas are framed by increasingly tall sandstone cliffs. The Free State is often derided as a sort of no-mans land, a “fly-over state” in American parlance. But the reality is that it has a unique and endearing beauty. At this time of year, the road is framed on either side by a seemingly endless carpet of Cosmos blooms; a delicate white and purple flower, the seeds of which farms in the area export all over the world.
It is, however, particularly difficult to take in this beauty on some stretches of tarmac, especially as the driver, as some roads in the area are absolutely littered with potholes. Fortunately, no one in our 12-car convoy suffered a puncture, which was frankly miraculous, but we were encouraged to keep longer following distances to the car in front to allow for more time to react. However with no shoulder to speak of, combined with oncoming traffic, dodging the potholes is often a test of faith rather than driver skill.
The Ford Mustang 5.0 Fastback GT pulls into Rosendal, home to only 70 people!
Our first stop was a town I didn't know existed until we turned left off the N5 and a large, hand-painted, sun-faded sign declared that we were now in Rosendal. Pronounced “Roo-sin-dal”, the local glass-blower informed me that it was a town of 70 people. Only 70! There was one tar road through the middle, with wide dirt boulevards darting off east and west, each road featuring a rough centre island dotted with tall trees, in many instances creating green and leafy tunnels.
Lunch was in a curious old home, the dining tables surrounded by antiques and bric-a-brac, the buffet table housed in a personal library, surrounded floor to ceiling with dusty literature. The food was innovative, yet homely, and everyone was delightfully fussed over by the owner, a short, square man in perhaps his 60s. Whispers of his fame quickly spread as he was recognised as the star of a long-running South African soapie which I’ve never watched. It turns out this was his country hideaway.
The Mustang fits like hand to glove on this stud farm in Moolmanshoek.
Departing Rosendal earlier than planned as the crew had discovered the town had run out of unleaded fuel, we hopped back on the N5 and cruised towards the Moolmanshoek stud farm. A fairly tricky dirt road led us down to a ravine, where a beautiful old sandstone building was perched on perfectly manicured lawns.
We were told to get our cameras ready while welcome drinks were poured. The sun had dipped below the mountains behind us and across the ravine, the sandstone cliffs gradually glowed a warm orange as the last of the sun’s rays lit up the cliffs.
A distant crack of a whip reverberated through the cool evening air and the sound of hooves grew louder. Seemingly out of nowhere, a herd of perhaps 50 horses barreled towards us, running past the cars which the Ford team had parked on the lawns. It was a phenomenal spectacle; an experience which you felt as much as you witnessed, the vibrations of the stampede rushing through the ground and up through your feet.
The horses wandered back towards us and the cars, some came up to the guests for a closer look while a few licked the windscreen of the cars, curious about these metal oddities which had been parked on the tastiest piece of lawn.
Onwards and upwards into Lesotho
Lesotho provided scenic views and roads that would make any car enthusiast giddy with excitement.
After a delicious braai washed down with one of my favourite red wines, the next morning we were back on the road! The convoy, led by one of the friendliest and most capable tour managers I have ever met, made its way to the Caledonport crossing on the South Africa/Lesotho border. The Ford team had sorted our paperwork long before the trip and we breezed through the border post, with customs officials and tourists enthusiastically taking photos of our convoy. This has to be one of the most hassle-free borders anywhere in Africa.
Lesotho immediately felt different. Round, thatched huts dotted the hills. Goats and cattle wandered confidently onto the road and we must have entered the first village just as the schools closed for the day, as hundreds of young learners cheered and waved us through into the countryside.
Another stunning setting, a worthy place to stop and soak in all the beauty Lesotho has to offer.
At this point, my driving partner and I found ourselves in a bright red convertible Mustang, with the same smaller engine as our previous set of wheels. I am really not a fan of travelling long distances with a convertible, so with the roof in place, we meandered through the increasingly steep Lesotho landscape. The gradients escalated quickly and in no time at all we stopped for a photo opportunity, gingerly parking the Mustangs on a tiny layby, the sound of a river drifting up from below.
It was at this point that I suggested we drop the roof and that turned out to be a particularly good idea. The mountain pass became a series of tight switchbacks, with some stretches of road roughly chiselled into the rocky mountain. The road was flanked by waterfalls and deep, rocky streams, and occasionally a hairpin bend would feature a pothole the size of a jacuzzi.
Mountains, waterfalls and sinewy tar provided for an entertaining drive but potholes were an ever-present danger.
The convertible was now really coming into its own. With the sun setting behind us, not a breath of wind in the air, and perfectly clear conditions in a country famous for its low cloud cover, we climbed high into the mountains. Pierre had long since started kneeling on the passenger seat, snapping gorgeous pics of the convoy navigating the pass, while I was simply enthralled by the experience, the slow rate of progress allowing me to stare out of the top of the car at the peaks which were once a faded foreground in the distance.
Climbing that pass in a convertible immediately took the top spot in my (thankfully substantial) list of best motoring experiences of my life. The excitement among the group was palpable as we stopped at a viewpoint at the top of the pass and shared our experience. And then the other side of the viewpoint caught our attention. An impossibly vast valley stretched out in front of us, with the road carved delicately into the slopes. Across the valley, a truck crossed the landscape, rendered miniature by the towering mountains above and below. Having not visited too many mountain ranges, the scale of this landscape, for me, was previously unimaginable.
Afriski Mountain Resort in Lesotho, a place to relax and enjoy.
We made our way to the Afriski Mountain Resort along the road we had traced with our fingers from the viewpoint, but this stretch opened up into much faster sweeps with a significantly gentler gradient. This was a perfectly surfaced black ribbon of tarmac, the beneficiary of massive Chinese investment. This was pure driving nirvana! With barely any traffic on the roads, we powered along, conscious of the fact that we were driving at nearly 3 000 m above sea level.
The Mustang is not a particularly sporty car in terms of handling, but now with independent rear-suspension (finally), it offers more than enough for all but the most hardcore drivers to enjoy themselves on a road like this.
Whatever its prowess, these cars had ensured that, quite casually, we had just traversed the highest tarred road in Africa. The Mahasela Pass’s highest point is at 3 222 m above sea level, a staggering 2 200 meters above the top of Table Mountain. At this altitude, I began to notice that my sinuses were increasingly unhappy about the situation. The air was thin and the temperature had dropped substantially.
The allure of the Mustangs attracted local Basotho men from the mountains to get a closer look.
We pulled over and arranged the cars for a rather special photo opportunity, when all of a sudden, around 20 young Basotho men, camouflaged against the landscape in their widely-renowned blankets, came barreling down the hill towards what must have been an absurd sight: 7 American muscle cars, brightly coloured in some instances, perched high atop the Kingdom in the Sky. Hugely enthusiastic about posing for photos, we shared wonderful moments as we all posed around the cars.
We overnighted at Afriski, sharing the lodge with a contingent of particularly unfriendly Germans who were conducting high-altitude testing of yet-to-be-disclosed Mercedes Benz SUVs. Their test cars were covered in that highly technical camouflage which car makers are so famous for, and finding myself giddy at the prospect of being a spy-photographer for the day, I snapped away at the prototypes while their drivers not-so-subtly death-stared me. It was genuinely thrilling.
'Monster rolling' is a fun but potentially hazardous activity to do at Afriski, but it's definately worth it.
The rest of the story is probably of little interest to you, I’m sure, but it was essentially a sequence of red wine, dinners, a wonderful night’s rest, breakfast, driving...rinse, lather repeat. Although a highlight was “monster rolling” down the slopes at Afriski, which is a thoroughly enjoyable form of coming very close to severely injuring yourself. You’ll have to Google it.
Thoughts on the Mustang
The Mustang is a 'one of one' car with no direct rivals to speak of, making it unique in the SA market.
It was a hugely enjoyable trip, and I as sit here on the plane, bashing out my story before I land back in Cape Town, I have to report on the vehicle which made this all possible, mostly because that’s what I actually get paid for.
The Mustang is a curiosity in our market. It is sometimes compared to the usual German suspects, cars such as the BMW 440i and Mercedes C-Class Coupe. The reality is it is an entirely different proposition to those uber coupes from Europe’s powerhouse economy.
For me, the Mustang is one of one, a car with no segment to speak of, which is not necessarily a positive or negative circumstance. When Mustang launched, I was expecting GM to watch very closely as rumours of a right-hand drive Camaro made the likelihood of that car being introduced into South Africa slightly more realistic. The Camaro and the Dodge Challenger are the Mustang’s natural rivals, but without those on our showroom floors, it occupies a unique space in our market.
Perhaps the Mustang's most endearing quality is the way it effortlessly devours tar, it simply excels at cruising.
Ford is at pains to point out that the Mustang is not marketed as a luxury coupe, nor is it marketed as sportscar. In truth, it does a decent job of being both, but not an excellent job of being either. But what it really excels at, is cruising. The large, naturally aspirated V8 is, in some ways, a bit of a dinosaur, but it’s a lovable dinosaur. Lazy, with lots of low down torque, at 120 kph the engine is ticking over at barely 2 000 rpm, requiring the gentlest effort from your right foot to keep the show on the road. In fact, it cruises so effortlessly, neither myself nor my driving partner used cruise control once.
With a suspension set up biased towards comfort and large lounge-like front seats, the car seems to float over road imperfections in a way the highly strung, sportier Germans would battle to achieve. Importantly, the Mustang also doesn’t feel as fragile as the average German sports coupe. It handled some properly difficult conditions and each car emerged unscathed.
The Mustang V8 automatic is the one to go for, but it's pricey...
At nearly R900 000, the Mustang you want (V8 auto) is pricey, especially given the interior trim which does leave a little to be desired. My biggest gripe is with the engine start button, which looks and feels cheap. The driver’s interaction with that button is arguably the key emotional connection with the car, and the experience is cheapened by the button itself, which is a pity.
Arguably, the road trip is a dying convention. The advent of budget airlines, the ever-rising price of fuel and the very real dangers of travelling on South African roads has relegated this once-staple part of South African life to, perhaps, an after-thought for many motorists.
The reality is that we live in a phenomenal country, with varying, beautiful and dramatic landscapes that are best explored from the seat of a car. And it turns out that a modern Ford Mustang is a particularly enjoyable car to take you wherever your heart desires. Even if that place is the highest tarred road in Africa...