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Vehicle Review: Mazda BT-50 Conquering Sani Pass

When TourismTattler was presented with the opportunity of reviewing the MAZDA BT-50 4×4 Double Cab, it was a given that we’d choose something that could be considered a challenge – especially when the marketing blurb makes claims like ‘chart new territories’ and ‘conquer the outdoors in style’. By Tessa Buhrmann.

So with challenge accepted, my hubby Daryl and I booked a weekend away in the southern Drakensberg so as to traverse the steep and zig-zagging Sani Pass.

Hikers, nature lovers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts will be familiar with this mountain pass located in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the uKhahlamba Drakensberg mountain range. Rugged and rocky, this gravel mountain pass is the only direct road linking KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho – it originally served as a trade route between Himeville and Mokhotlong, and has evolved over the years from a path for pedestrians, horses and donkeys to what it is today.

Editor’s note: According to photographer Mike Eloff’s blog, the first car to ‘drive’ up Sani Pass was in October 1948, when an ex-spitfire pilot by the name of Godfrey Edmonds, and a group of local workers hauled his Willys Jeep to the top in over 6 hours, along with a huge supply of rope to pull it up and sleeper wood as makeshift handbrakes. Sadly, much of the road has been tarred since 2006 and according to Wikipedia, the final phase of tarring is due for completion in 2019.

Our journey began in Durban where the BT-50 felt quite at home in its suburban environment, perfect for those carting, carrying and coffee moments, albeit a little large in the parking department for me. Once on the open road though it lightened up dramatically offering a comfortable ride, thanks to the double-wishbone layout with coil springs on the front suspension and rigid axle with leaf springs in the rear, all whilst still retaining a chunky feel.

This chunky solid feel certainly came into its own as we began the climb from the grass-clad lower slopes and rocky peaks of KZN to the alpine vegetated plains and peaks of Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom. The road up to the SA border post offered ample opportunity to test out the manoeuvrability of the BT-50 as we dodged rocks and ditches – this lower section has a long easy gradient and numerous look-out points. Be advised that this is a 4X4 route only and valid passports, proof of vehicle ownership and insurance is required. The route up Sani Pass climbs to an altitude of 2876 m, and on-route the beautiful Mkhomazana River valley slopes get steeper as the road gains altitude.

The higher one gets the steeper the incline – in certain sections, the gradient is as steep as 1:4 – requiring much concentration and a steady hand. The Mazda BT-50’s 110kw of power and 470Nm of torque made traversing the rocky inclines a breeze, as did the 6-speed auto gearbox which had us in the right gear for each situation.

When one gazes over the edge and sees vehicle wrecks dotting the landscape, it is comforting to know you’re in a vehicle with advanced safety features like Dynamic Stability Control, Traction Control System, Hill Launch Assist and Hill Descent (great for heading back down again), amongst others. What’s more, for true peace of mind, the BT-50 is equipped 4W-ABS, Emergency Brake Assist as well as front, side and curtain airbags.

As the fresh mountain streams and waterfalls turned to ice the relatively mild weather grew icier with a wind chill to match. The final few hundred metres of this epic climb was by far the most challenging with switchback following switchback, each getting increasing steeper, rougher and tighter – all handled with ease by the BT-50 and its auto box. Soon the reward of level ground and the Lesotho border post beckoned, and with taxes paid and passports stamped we proceeded into Lesotho on what is now a really good tar road to experience the icy snow on the higher peaks.

Well, we had certainly charted new territories, and conquered the outdoors… all that was left was to toast this successful challenge with a local Maluti beer.

My final thoughts on the Mazda BT-50?

Definitely still a ‘bakkie’ but with the finesse and comfort of an SUV, giving great ride comfort no matter where the trail leads.

Watch the video below as we put the MAZDA BT-50 through its paces on an epic trip up Sani Pass:


Price:    R555 700 (Incl VAT)
Engine: 23.2 litre, five cylinder, turbodiesel
Compression ratio: 15.5:1
Maximum power: 147kw @ 3 000r/Min
Maximum torque: 470nm @ 1 750-2 500 r/Min
Fuel consumption: 9.7 l/100km (claimed)
Warranty: 3-year unlimited km factory warranty / 3-year roadside assistance / 3-year service plan.

For more information visit www.mazda.co.za

About the author: Tourism Tattler correspondent Tessa Buhrmann is the editor of Responsible Traveller magazine.

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