I remember my childhood days quite fondly. As an eight-year old, I was squished between my two big brothers, my small frame restrained only by the rudimentary lap belt provided by my mother's 190E. For hours and hours I'd sit there, acting as an armrest for my larger siblings. Sounds terrible, doesn't it?

Well no, not really. I used to love getting into the car, watching the scenery through the windscreen, wondering where we were and asking hundreds of questions about anything that aroused my curiosity. It may come as no surprise then, that at the age of 24, I still absolutely love road trips. The idea of taking a car onto the open road and absorbing all the sights and scenes is still immensely appealing.

So when the opportunity to do a road trip from Cape Town to Johannesburg came my way, I snatched it with both hands. A full 2 303 km in Ford Rangers would be fantastic. Comfortable double-cab bakkies, with automatic gearboxes to make the job easier and a high seating position to enjoy the scenery being pushed past the windows. However, this wasn't just going to be any regular road trip. The entire journey was to be completed away from the velvety smooth tar of our national roads. Nearly each and every kilometre was to be travelled on gravel.

Upon arrival at Meerendal Wine Estate, the Rangers were lined up and ready to set off for the first leg. I decided to start the trip in the Ranger Wildtrack. With 157 kW and 500 N.m of torque, the Wildtrak would have no problem making steady progress on loose surfaces, especially with four-wheel drive engaged. Initially, the gravel roads just outside of Cape Town were reasonably smooth and easy to drive on. The Rangers, especially the Raptors, took everything in their stride, handling bumps and corrugations without fuss.

Our guide told us via radio that a stop was imminent. As we arrived in the small town of Moorreesburg, we entered a farm. There, the bakkies were all loaded with hay bales, which would be taken to a farmer in the Karoo where a drought had caused severe food shortages for farm animals. Interestingly, the hay bales further improved the road holding of the Rangers on the gravel roads, their weight pushing down on the rear wheels and aiding in cornering stability. Our first stop was Tankwa, one of the driest and possibly most desolate places in South Africa. To watch the sunset from the hill, low range was engaged and the Wildtrak scaled the incline with ease, as if it were crawling slowly in stop/start traffic.

The sun was up at 5:30 am and soon we needed to be on the move. Despite the day just starting, the temperature gauge read an alarming 25 degrees celcius. Day two saw myself and my driving partner switching to an XLT. While it shares its 2,0-litre engine with the Wildtrak and Raptor, the XLT has to make do with a single-turbo arrangement. While it may produce a modest 132 kW and 420 N.m of torque compared with the loftier figures available in the Wildtrak and Raptor variants, the XLT held its own, making impressive progress over the Ouberg Pass. Not a road to be scoffed at, it demands a capable four-wheel-drive vehicle with plenty of ground clearance. Even in the lowliest of Rangers, we tackled the pass with caution and ease, the electronics slowly guiding the XLT over rough terrain when needed. In fact, the only thing that did stop the Rangers were the pesky hay bales (sometimes the rough and rutted roads simply proved to too much for them).

After dropping off the hay bales, we set off to our lunch stop. As we approached Sutherland, something rather unexpected happened. A raindrop or two hit the windscreen. In most parts of the country, that's nothing to write home about but when you're in an area that hasn't seen rain in more than eight months, it's rather special. Once the drivers and Rangers were filled up, we set our sights on Nieu-Bethesda. The rain had turned the once dusty and rough gravel into a rather slippery, muddy road. Puddles formed in ditches, often spanning the width of the road. Our guide instructed us to adapt our driving styles to this foreign surface. Without the hay bales in the rear, this advice was even more important. Interestingly, to keep control through a large, deep puddle, you need to maintain speed. As the car dives into the water, it feels as if the entire vehicle is about to spin. While the mud and water washes over the car, and the automatic wipers fight to keep the windscreen clean, the four-wheel drive and traction control take charge of the situation and the South African-built bakkie is still pointing in the right direction. After a while, it even becomes fun.

On day three, we had a much easier journey. A mere 300 kilometres, but on far rougher roads. Adjusting our speed appropriately, we glided across the rutted surface, dodging Springboks and large stones in the road. Of course, this led to one or two tyre issues. Strangely, the Wildtrak I was piloting seemed to pick up a nail. With the help of our expert guides, this was plugged in no time. Unfortunately, one of the Raptors suffered a similar fate but needed a complete tyre change. This, too, was remedied in no time, and we were on the road again. The Wildtrak, as competent on gravel as it is, had to deal with a fairly loose back end, the smooth surface and fine dust proving a worthy adversary, trying to flick the Wildtrak off course every chance it got. By contrast, the Raptor ahead was as composed as a car could be in these conditions, shrugging off whatever the road ahead could throw at it. As we arrived at Otterskloof, the sun set on the Rangers, their bodywork and powertrains tinking away in exhaustion.

The last stretch was upon us. It was the final day, and the next stop was Johannesburg. Ahead of us was 800 kilometres of gravel, and I sure was thankful that I'd be in the Raptor. Employing the same engine as the Wildtrak, the Raptor has a trick or two more up its sleeve when compared with its lesser counterparts. Indeed, indpendent suspension and Fox shocks go a long way to making the Raptor the capable off-road machine it is. Surfaces that make other bakkies shudder go unnoticed in the Raptor, its compliant suspension soaking up the bumps and rattles so commonly associated with gravel driving. At times, it really does feel like the accomplished Raptor is driving along on tar. The way it deals with undulations and corrugations too, is a revelation. Puddles and standing water are waded through with ease, as if the Raptor is unstoppable. The standard Ranger XLT and Wildtrak are already competent on gravel, making the Raptor stand out just that much more.

As great as the vehicles were, this trip was about so much more. Being able to experience a road trip on gravel is certainly something I won't be forgetting any time soon, especially with all the natural beauty that constantly surrounded us. Much like the Rangers, our country surprised me and left me amazed by what it has to offer, by its natural beauty and ability to leave you in awe.



FAST FACTS

Model: Ford Ranger DC 2,0 SiT XLT 4x4 10AT
Price: R594 400
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, turbocharged diesel 
Power: 132 kW @ 3 500 r/min
Torque: 420 N.m @ 1 750-2 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,82 seconds (tested July 2019)
Top Speed: n/a
Fuel Consumption: 7,50 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 199 g/km
Transmission: 10-speed auto
Service Plan: S6/90 000 km
Model: Ford Ranger DC 2,0 BiT Wildtrak 4x4 10AT
Price: R706 800
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, twin-turbocharged diesel
Power: 157 kW @ 3 750 r/min
Torque: 500 N.m @ 1 500-2 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,10 seconds (tested July 2019)
Top Speed: n/a
Fuel Consumption: 8,08 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 195 g/km
Transmission: 10-speed auto
Service Plan: S6/90 000 km
Model: Ford Ranger Raptor DC 2,0 BiT 4x4 10AT
Price: R819 400
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cyl, twin-turbocharged diesel
Power: 157 kW @ 3 750 r/min
Torque: 500 N.m @ 1 500-2 000 r/min
0-100 km/h: 10,94 seconds (tested July 2019)
Top Speed: n/a
Fuel Consumption: 8,30 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 220 g/km
Transmission: 10-speed auto
Service Plan: S6/90 000 km