My wife Robyn and I have recently returned from a trip to South Africa - not a holiday really as it isn't an easy country to visit and it isn't easy being a tourist once you are there.

Our reason for the trip was family related - Robyn is a keen genealogist and has family ties to Barberton, a town in the Mpumalanga province, 360km east of Johannesburg.

Robyn's family are Kiwis, but her grandfather fell in love with South Africa after fighting in the Boer War and moved there with his wife and first child in the early 1910s.

He trained as a lawyer in Pretoria and ended up in practice in Barberton, served on the council and was town mayor for a year.

Advertisement

Four children were born in South Africa, including Robyn's father Ian Grant.

In 1924 her grandfather died suddenly from a burst appendix and after he was laid to rest the family moved home to New Zealand.

Almost 100 years later, Robyn was the first in her family to return, visiting Barberton to find what we could about the family there and to find the grave of her grandfather and an uncle who died at the age of two.

Barberton became famous in the 1880s because of the discovery of gold - but the mountains around Barberton are the oldest in the world, dating back 3.5 billion years.
They have recently developed a Geo Trail which explains the rock formations that can be seen and dates them back to the earliest times.

It was mission accomplished to visit the town, find the grave and experience the community where her family had lived. One of my hopes while in South Africa was to find a classic car museum or such-like and see some of the unusual cars that were specific to the country - cars like the Ford Fairmont GT, Ford's V8 Capri Perana and General Motors' Vauxhall Viva based Chevrolet Firenza. But that didn't prove easy either - and I saw nothing classic on the road.

I did get my hopes up in Barberton when I saw a 50s GM styled car sitting outside the private Barberton History & Mining Museum. It reminded me of a Vauxhall, but only had two doors.

It turned out to be a 1952 Opel Olympia.

The model was first developed by the German car maker in 1935 and named to honour the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Advertisement

Early models had a 1.3 litre side valve engine and 3 or 4 speed transmission.
Power was 18kW and top speed 100km/h.

In 1937 it got a 1.5 litre ohv valve engine with 27kW and top speed of 112km/h. It remained mechanically the same through until 1953 when production ceased.

By 1930 Opel had been acquired by General Motors, which had also bought Vauxhall Motors in England five years earlier.

Many Vauxhalls were, and still are, based on Opel designs and it is evident the Olympia from the mid 40s and 50s influenced the design of the Vauxhall Velox and Wyvern.

The owner of the 1952 Opel in Barberton plans on 蘇ot rodding' his car - he is going to restore it but install a European V8 engine he has spare in his collection.

Inside the museum were old bikes - not my favourite machines, but sometimes they hide a great story, and that was the case.

The Zundapp was a bike built by a German company founded in 1917 that built motorcycles, mopeds, microcars and aircraft engines.

German Zundapp bike (right) and Austrian Puch MS50V moped (left).
German Zundapp bike (right) and Austrian Puch MS50V moped (left).

Most importantly, in 1931 Zundapp and Ferdinand Porsche developed the Type 12 Prototype - the first Volkswagen.

Three prototypes were built - Porsche used a flat four engine, Zundapp a water cooled five cylinder radial engine.

All three were destroyed during the war.
The Puch MS50V moped was built in Austria by Steyr-Daimler-Puch. The mopeds were built from 1954 to 1982 virtually unchanged - the world's longest built moped.
The V model had a larger fuel tank and stronger rear suspension and was built from 1958.

A collection of bikes in various states of repair.
A collection of bikes in various states of repair.

If you ever find yourself in Barberton it is worth visiting the museum - it is more of a shrine to men who can't throw anything out, plus check out their 4WD Dusty Tracks Off Road Adventure Tours.

Editor at large Dean Taylor on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geo Trail between Barberton and the Eswatini (Swaziland) border, with the trusty, but underpowered, rental Toyota Corolla Quest.
Editor at large Dean Taylor on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geo Trail between Barberton and the Eswatini (Swaziland) border, with the trusty, but underpowered, rental Toyota Corolla Quest.

As explained, Robyn and I were in South Africa on a family quest - so our rental car for five days was appropriately a Toyota Corolla Quest.

Driving in any overseas country can be a challenge, and in South Africa the main issue was safety.

"Lock yourself in."

"Don't stop for anyone, not even Police."

"Don't upset other drivers."

These were the words of advice we received before and during our trip - but they weren't really issues at all.

We did lock ourselves in - in fact the car did it automatically - but we didn't put ourselves in any dodgy situations, so we never felt threatened.

No officers of the law, or impersonators (which is also an issue) tried to stop us. In fact at a major Police/Immigration/Customs roadblock on a busy highway where cars, vans and buses were being emptied and searched we were waved through.

It seems rental vehicles have an identifiable registration plate and we obviously weren't the target.

And in terms of upsetting other drivers, and although I have known to be a bit aggressive and impatient at times, there wasn't much to get upset about.

We had been on guided tours before we picked up our rental and I quizzed our guides on local rules.

One was the 'stop' rule. It worked like in the United States - first in, first served no matter if you are turning or not.

There are no complicated 'give way to the right unless...' rules to worry about.

Everyone stops, nearly, and a quick look to work out your number and then you go. It works - even better than a roundabout I thought because like many places, indicating seems to be optional, but it doesn't matter.

The other 'rule' was that if someone behind you is going faster than you, pull over if you can and let them through. Wow - there's a thought.

The passee pulled over, the passer went on their way and flicked their hazard lights in appreciation, the passee flicked their lights in appreciation of the appreciation.
Wonderful.

However, indicating you want to change lanes in rush hour Johannesburg is a waste of time. The international rule of 祖lose the gap' applies.

But if you just start changing lanes you'll get through - even if you want to cross five lanes just for fun.

What was good was the cost of the rental - not much over $100 for five days, fuel - about $1.60 for 97 octane, and great national and regional roads and a 120km/h speed limit (we spent over $50 on tolls though).

The Quest, however, had an old school 1.6 engine and six speed manual.

The engine was underwhelming enough without the added problem of South Africa's smoke from numerous fires and endless coal fired power stations, and altitude.

Accelerating in any of the top three gears was pointless. Maintaining 120km/h a challenge - but it was roomy, cheap and reliable.