At 1 152 m long, the Hennie Steyn Bridge on the outskirts of Bethulie in Free State holds the distinction of being the longest road/rail bridge in South Africa.
Not the sight to start with
Considered at the time of its construction as a marvel of engineering, the 51.5 m arch deck bridge that carries the R390 over the Gariep River is undeniably a feat worth celebrating in the same mould as arguably the town’s most famous son, the legendary actor Patrick Mynhardt who passed away fifteen years ago.
It was not to be though. As our Ford Everest convoy crossed the span, it became clear that the only feat worth celebrating was the fact that the bridge still stood.
As with nearly all of the country’s railways, the overhead traction equipment had been vandalised or stolen during the level 5 lockdown in 2020.
This remained an unfortunate sight as we progressed through Burgersdorp on tar and then gravel through some stunning scenery to our overnight stop, the almost unspoiled hamlet in the forest that is Hogsback in the Eastern Cape.
Ford Everest takes you places
The dismay at the state of the railway-end of the bridge, but also the incredible fauna and flora that greeted our convoy a few hours later didn’t come as big surprise though. For all its challenges, there is always something to admire about this country we call home. Especially in the comfort of a Ford Everest.
This perception very much also rates as the unofficial mantra of the 2022 Rally to Read event that kicked-off the previous day in Johannesburg.
Supported by the Blue Oval since 1999, the event, first held in 1998, is aimed at providing reading and writing materials to disadvantaged schools with pupils from grade R to 3 and then 4 to 7 as identified by the Read Educational Trust.
With 2022’s marking 25 years since the first Rally to Read took place in KwaZulu-Natal, a different approach to celebrate the occasion was needed.
Scaling mountains in a Ford Everest
This came in the form of a road-trip at the end of February organised by Ford’s off-road whizz, Gideo Basson from Red Moon Adventures, which finished in Gqeberha. It is there where assembly of the engines used in the Ford Everest and Ranger takes place.
In addition, the decision to use the Everest occurred mere days before the unveiling of the all-new Everest, as well as coinciding with all models now featuring the FordPass smartphone app introduced on the Ranger and EcoSport last year.
The first day of our trek was also the longest. Waiting in the parking lot of the Protea Hotel outside OR Tambo International Airport, our steeds; a pair each of the single-turbo Ford Everest Sports and the bi-turbo XLT and Limited.
Seated rather than climbing
A Sea Grey example of the mid-range Ford Everest was selected and once on the move, it immediately showed it talents.
While very much on the aged inside despite the new tech, it remains a functional environment.
Aside from the eight-inch SYNC 3 enabled infotainment system in the Ford Everest prevailing as still one of the easiest on sale today, the seats never elicited a groan of discomfort from my driving partner and I, nor did the lack of some luxurious found on the Limited at any stage hinder.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was how the Ford Everest ironed-out the prevailing conditions that range from smooth tar, to badly patched section and then gravel.
Simply put, the Everest, contraire to its name, flattened rather than climbed bad surfaces while remaining refined.
These attributes, together with the frigid climate control, resulted in the tiresome N1 highway disappearing quickly as we turned off towards the Bethulie where a rather interesting overnight spot awaited.
Crossing borders in the Ford Everest
Before hitting the hay, we stopped to watch the sun set over another engineering marvel, the Gariep Dam this writer last “visited” as a kid.
At the time, all of the dam’s sluices were open as capacity stood at 100.6%. Together with the setting sun, it made for an evocative sight.
With the sun starting to hide its face though, it was to head to Bethulie itself and it’s take on a Royal Hotel.
However, unlike the stately designation, this hotel had the hallmarks of a different kind of theme; 130 000 books and 80 000 records lining the hallways and every wall of the lounge and dining room. A different kind of unique it certainly is.
The run-down state of Bethulie stood in complete contrast to Hogsback though.
Nestled in a never ending see of green, it most certainly came as a break from the usual hustle and bustle. Unsurprisingly, that night, the heavens opened, an occurrence seemingly limited to this enclave and not the rest of the province.
In wet conditions, it was time to get serious as we headed towards Gqeberha where our supplies waited for delivery to the various schools the following day.
The breath-taking scenery soon made way for the city at the Eastern Cape Motors dealership were the loading of colourful crates carrying books and stationary, plus other toys such as soccer balls commenced.
It was also here that that our group got split up into four teams heading to two different schools each scattered across Nelson Mandela Bay.
Being one of the few not required to vacate his vehicle as it had been allocated to the team I eventually ended up in, my Ford Everest was soon packed to the roof, literally.
Joined by an additional Ford Everest or two, a pair Ranger FX4s, a Ranger Stormtrak and a Ranger Raptor provided by the dealership, we left town and after a jaunt through a section of the Addo Elephant National Park as storm clouds started to gather overhead, we made our way towards the Zuurberg Mountain Village.
Perched on top of said mountains overlooking Addo itself, the climb up from the valley floor had a distinct Pikes Peak Hillclimb feel to it, though without any heroics being displayed as we negotiated the myriads of hairpins.
An early rise the next morning saw us heading from the lodge 67 km up the ever deteriorating R335 passed Addo to our group’s first school, the Empumalanga Primary School in Motherwell on the outskirts of the city.
Known as one of the most dangerous areas of Nelson Mandela Bay, the enthusiastic welcome our convoy received belayed the challenges this seemingly well sorted school faced.
Catering for 1 038 learners, the school, only the previous day, had its electricity cut off and some of its learning paraphernalia stolen.
It therefore came as a sober reminder as the pupils performed a song-dance routine, blissfully unaware of what had transpired the previous day.
With a now slightly emptier Everest, we headed towards the innards of the Friendly City and the Mzomthsha Primary School in Kwazakhele.
Having grown up down the road in Despatch and being familiar with the route we were taking from Motherwell, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of apprehension as Kwazakhele is the effective gateway to the city’s gangster and drug riddled Northern Areas.
The same sense of welcome and appreciation, however, awaited us as we entered the dilapidated hall build back in 1959.
It was in fact more of an eye opener than Empumalanga given the school and its 13 staff being equipped with even less to teach in a secure environment.
Our delivery done and with my Everest looking sparse, we headed back to Zuurberg where we to depart the next day from back to PE and our flight home.
Not just for the show
As per the Rally to Read’s stance, the project goes on for the next three years with the eventual aim of providing 7 000 books to the eight school’s combined 3 000 learners. Since 1998, a total of 44 290 learners and 1 353 learners have benefited from the initiative.
On the back of the R1.1-million invested into the project, a further R1.3-million came the way of Ford Motor Company Southern Africa with interested parties or individuals being able to donate any amount by clicking here for complete details.
“With South Africa’s high levels of poverty and unemployment, the most important tools that we have to empower and uplift the people of this country are education and literacy”, Ford’s Government Affairs and Transformation Director, Esther Buthelezi, said.
“Youth unemployment is one of South Africa’s most serious challenges, and our involvement with READ Educational Trust and the Rally to Read plays an important role in our efforts to tackle these issues head-on”.
Aside from its 25th edition, the 2022 Rally to Read in the Ford Everest was also my second after the original in 2019 that took us to Mpumalanga.
Being right on home’s doorstep though, it was more of a humbling experience witnessing the hardships of areas I knew all about in the flesh.
In truth, it hit harder than that first trip three years ago and re-installed a sense of “be grateful for what you had and have” attitude shared by everyone else who participated.