Renault Duster Road Trip Report
Arguably, one of the Coronavirus pandemic’s worst side effects has been… Cabin fever. With travel restrictions starting to be lifted, now is the perfect time to start planning your next trip - and we’re happy to share our notes for the epic north to south drive we took at the end of 2019. Click the title of each day's route to see exactly where we went, and to download the GPX files. As a bonus, they include food stops, although the pandemic has also claimed a lot of small businesses, so best check to see if those restaurants are still around…
The drive was, very basically, a round trip from Jo'burg to Cape Town-ish. The whole idea was to avoid the main roads, and because of the car we had, we wanted to avoid tar roads as far as possible. There were constraints - the main one being time - but ideally, we would take a long, slow drive down using a combination of rural tracks and less popular routes, and then a quicker drive home using the national highways.
If you’ve ever wanted to take some time to discover the lesser known South African towns while taking the lesser known routes, this is where you’ll find some ideas of where to go, as well as some tips on how to best find your way there - because this kind of trip takes a bit more planning than you might think. Hopefully this story will help you shortcut some of the frustrations we experienced in the planning stages. If you already have your own planning strategy and you're here just to check out the routes, you can skip the next little bit.
First stop: Google Maps.
Using the web-based version is pretty easy - just punch in your destination, and then drag the route onto the roads you want to use; and, of course, you can use a combination of satellite view and street view to to check just what you’re getting yourself into. But what you can’t do - with Google or Apple Maps or Waze - is plan the exact route you want, save it, and then recall it later to get turn-by-turn navigation. Google will save your route and create a map, but without navigation.
This was a frustration that led down a rabbit hole of forums, websites and apps, but we eventually found a combined solution that gave us exactly what we wanted. The first part was Tomtom’s online route planner. Works pretty much like Google maps, and also has a very cool feature that allows you to adjust the twistiness of the route: so, enter Jo'burg as your start point and Cape Town as the destination with the windiness setting - yes, that’s what its called - set to full, and it’ll choose what it thinks is the most adventurous route, which is a great way to start. From there, you can adjust the route by dragging and dropping waypoints. Once we were happy with our route (we were aiming for between 300 and 500km a day) we saved it, then exported a gpx file, which is required for the second half of the solution.
Important to note here that what follows is a product punt, but we did pay full price for it, and it worked exactly like it said it would. InRoute is a route planning and navigation app from Carob Apps. It has a desktop and smartphone version, will sync routes between devices, and it allows you to plan and save any route you like, and then get turn-by-turn nav while you drive. You can plan your route by dropping waypoints on a map, from which it'll create a usable route by joining them together. Alternatively, just import a gpx file. A big plus with InRoute is that it works offline - once your route is saved as a bookmark, you can forget about cell signal, which can be dodgy in a lot of those further out places. The downside: it’s only available for Apple, and it’s not free - the subscription fee was seventy bucks a month. And… It’s based on Apple Maps. I know a few people will have a lot to say about that, but I’ll say that even though I had my doubts, we saw every town that we planned to see, and made it back home… But we did have to make one or two minor detours.
With routes planned and bags packed, we headed out to the tiny Western Cape town of Aurora - a 15 hour, 1400km drive… If you go there directly. Our drive would be a bit longer - 1700km over 5 days. Along the way, we’d stop in a few towns that few people have heard of, let alone visited, and we’d be giving the Renault Duster a chance to show off its compact SUV skills.
The Renault Duster TechRoad packs a 1500 diesel with a dual clutch gearbox and front wheel drive. I had driven the car previously, and when Renault offered the car to us for the trip, I immediately had flashbacks to the underwhelming diesel / DSG combination: at lower revs, it has a disconcerting shudder, and it can be a little indecisive at times. But I also thought that this type of trip - taking in as much dirt as possible, over an extended distance - would be a great opportunity for the French compact SUV to prove itself as a decent option for those who actually go adventuring in their SUVs.
The TechRoad spec replaced the Dynamique 4x2, and basically adds some cosmetic changes inside and out. There are 17” wheels and red highlights for the bodywork, to go along with what is a pretty muscular looking package, and on the inside, more red highlights on the air vents, seats and around the gear shift. It’s a very nice looking thing, the Duster, and as we traveled on and it got more and more mud and dirt on it, it actually began to show a genuine bit of attitude - so much so that we had a few hardcore off-roader drivers take a decently long look at us from behind the wheel of their kitted out 4x4s!
Our trip out of Jo’burg started early one Friday morning. The Duster packed nine days’ worth of supplies very neatly into its 478l boot, and we set off for what was planned to be the longest tar stretch of the whole thing - there’s generally no way to navigate your way out of a big city without using a decent amount of highway. We headed west on the N14, and after 215km, took our first turn onto dirt towards Wolmaranstad, with the ultimate destination being Hartswater, just across the Northern Cape border.
Between that turn and our eventual arrival, the Duster faced its first major challenge: a stretch of properly rained out dirt that was dotted with soft mud and pools of water. Seeing as it’s a front wheel drive, I was ultra cautious in approaching the obstacles - I even got out of the car once or twice to check the way forward. But, with a bit of confident driving, the Duster’s easy torque delivery and some impressive performance from the original spec Bridgestone Dueller tyres, there really was very little effort required, and ultimately, almost no delay in our progress through the Northwest Province mud fields.
Arriving in Hartswater, we found ourselves in the centre of the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme - at 370 square kilometers, it’s one of the biggest irrigation schemes in the world. Its 1200km long network of canals feeds six towns and the surrounding farmland across the area. Which is all very exciting if you’re a farmer, but for the traveler, it means something else: Hartswater produces exceptional olives and pecan nuts, and the chance to sample those alone is a very good reason to visit the place - or at last take a detour there.
We didn’t hang around though; on day two, we again hit the road early, headed for Prieska. On the way there is the tiny town of Douglas, famous for not much more than being the place at which the Orange and the Vaal rivers converge; there is a lookout at the exact spot, and it's worth a look, but you don’t need to spend too much time there. From Douglas, you can hit the tar R357 straight to Prieska, but… This was not that kinda trip.
This part of the route included a bit of a gamble: Google’s street view isn’t available for a lot of dirt roads, and there’s only so much info you can guess from the satellite view. But, heading north out of town, just after you cross the Vaal river bridge, there’s a dirt road to the left that looked too tempting to avoid. It’s a pure rural road, connecting to nothing but the farmland and, eventually, the R386 to the southwest. But it follows the course of the Orange River very closely, and promised 127km of spectacular scenery. In the end, it didn’t disappoint, and even included the discovery of a humble abandoned church that provided an opportunity for a bit of exploration. It was also easier to navigate than we’d expected, adding to the impression that the Duster was more than capable of taking on the journey.
Once we’d rejoined tar, we were 20km out of Prieska when the first bit of drama struck. A piece of debris punctured the left rear in just the wrong place - the shoulder of the tyre, meaning the sidewall was damaged and we’d have to replace the tyre. Not an easy prospect on a Saturday evening, in a small town, during the week between Christmas and New Year. Amazingly though, rolling into Prieska on the Duster’s full size spare, we found two tyre shops prepared to help us after business hours. Unfortunately, neither had stock of the tyre we needed.
(Well, that was the plan anyway - the route attached to the link is the actual route we drove.)
Seeing as we were short of a spare tyre, we played it safe and temporarily abandoned dirt roads until we'd resolved the issue - which we did, eventually. Heading down the N12, we tried our luck in Victoria West, but with no tyre shops open on a Sunday, we continued on to Beaufort West where we found our replacement. It had taken us 370km down the N12 and the N1, and the easiest route back to our original track was via Fraserburg - which unveiled one of the biggest surprises of the trip: the Fraserburg pass.
Even if you aren’t planning to do dirt, a detour on the Fraserburg Pass is definitely worth it - 100km of really great tar surface and just the right amount of twistiness, on which the Duster delivered a surprising level of involvement and agility. It was also a chance for us to check out the onboard sat nav, which is part of the Duster’s standard Media Nav infotainment system. With cell signal being as weak as it was, it was far easier to punch in Sutherland as a destination, and ask the system to avoid highways - and it delivered us the roads that we were looking for!
On the other side of Fraserburg, we continued along the R356, traveling for about 100km on dirt before arriving in South Africa’s coldest place: Sutherland. If you have any sort of fascination with stars, planets or the universe, Sutherland is a great place to see and learn more about it. Every corner of the small town has a galaxy-related theme; there’s the planetarium, a bunch of guided stargazing sessions, and if you’re really hardcore, you can take a tour of the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere: the Southern African Large Telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory, just 15km out of town.
This was the midpoint of the first half of our trip, and we’d spent, on average, 7 hours a day on the road. The Duster had stayed comfortable throughout, and the standard Apple CarPlay was turning out to be a real highlight.
Just one night in Sutherland before tackling the longest single day on dirt: our next stop was Clanwilliam, 316km away - 220 of them off the tar.
We headed northwest to Calvinia via the tiny outpost town of Middelpos. It’s a point at which you could choose to test you and your car’s 4x4 skills by opting for the challenging Gannaga Pass, which takes you through the Tankwa National Park, then on the Cederberg Pass into Clanwilliam.
But with only two wheel drive, and having already had a puncture, we chose the easier route: taking the R354 out of Middelpos, following a wide, smooth dirt road all the way to the R27, at which point we turned left towards Calvinia. From there, back onto dirt on the R364 before taking on the short Botterkloof Pass through Doringbos, then rejoining the tar through the magnificent Pakhuis Pass - 21km surrounded on every side and at every point by the magnificent Cederberg Mountains.
It was a spectacular day’s drive - surprisingly good roads, the most epic Karoo scenery, ending with jaw dropping mountain vistas and a night in Clanwilliam. Again, it was a chance for the Duster to deliver an enjoyable level of involvement on the tar, and real sure-footed ability on the long off-road sections.
The next day was the last of the south-bound drive, after which point we would spend two nights at our destination of Aurora, before heading home via the national roads. Heading out of Clanwilliam, the obvious route is the N7, but there is a bit of a hidden gem on the eastern side of the town. The Ou Kaapse Road winds its way for about 30km along the edge of Clanwilliam Dam, then another 30km alongside the Oliphants River to Citrusdal.
It’s not the easiest dirt road, with severe corrugations in parts, but if you take it easy, you can admire some great scenery along the way. The roughness of the route, and the sheer amount of rough road driving we’d done, really had us thinking that when we rejoined the tar after our exit from Clanwilliam, there would be a rattle or two inside the Duster’s cabin, but… Nothing.
We did a short stretch on the N7 before turning onto the Paleisheuwel Road - a part tar / part dirt track that twists through Western Cape farmland, crossing a few railway lines along the way. From there, tar along the R355, then the final dirt stretch along the R366 before arriving in the sleepy not-quite-seaside town of Aurora. In total, our final day was divided pretty evenly between on road and off road.
The Drive Home: Back to Normal
Our route home was a little less adventurous, purely because of time constraints. We followed the national roads back to Jo’burg, via Murraysburg near Three Sisters, and then a two night stop in Clarens in the Free State. The only part of the trip worth mentioning was the R701 which runs past Gariep Dam, and into Smithfield. From there, it’s dirt towards Wepener (with a good viewing stop at Knellpoort Dam), before ending at the R26 to Clarens.
We designed our road trip to be as adventurous as possible, within the constraints of a two-wheel drive soft roader. Still, even the best-planned routes throw up challenges, but the Duster dealt with everything - the blowout, the mud, the long daily distances and everything else that came its way - with real ease and comfort. In total, we covered 1700km, with almost 900km on rougher than expected dirt, and the Duster did a great job of packing in our stuff, keeping us comfortable and helping make the whole experience unforgettable. As a bonus, total fuel consumption was just 5,4 litres/100km.
Before we wrap it up, just few quick notes: first, our experience of small town service was amazing. Over what was essentially a holiday weekend, we had three people and a police sergeant in four different towns trying to help us find a tyre, which we eventually did. It was an episode that could have so easily gone the other way, so we’re grateful to everyone who helped out. I’ve mentioned the navigation app we used, but we used another app that was equally impressive: if you’re looking for somewhere to stay on your South African road trip, check out Lekkeslaap. There’s a website at lekkeslaap.co.za, as well as an app for iOS and Android. Tons of listings all over the country to suit any budget, integrated payment, sms notifications and reminders - it just works, and makes planning your accommodation so easy. A local app we can all be proud of.
And finally - if you’re planning a road trip, my heartfelt advice is: leave the national roads behind. Avoid the highways. You may not have a 4x4 or a soft roader or anything suited to dirt, but there are thousands of kilometres of lesser-known tar routes and towns that are worth exploring. Take an extra day or two - or three - it’ll be totally worth it.
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