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    Off the beaten track: With the 350 SE in South Africa.

    Guest feature

    Text and photos: Philipp Wente

A metropolis in the middle of a national park.

South Africa. The southern-most country on the continent where the human race began. The mother country. A direct flight to the only metropolis situated in the middle of a national park. With around four million inhabitants, Cape Town is the second largest city in the country after Johannesburg. And a dream destination for generations. Even the landing approach to Cape Town International (CPT) airport is an experience: to the right, the turquoise-coloured ocean and on the left Table Mountain and Lion’s Head at the foot of which Cape Town is situated. Starting from here, I am going to drive through the Western Cape region for the next two weeks. Without a defined destination. Or to be more precise: without a defined travel destination. The aim: just to travel.

Cape Town: A direct flight to the only metropolis situated in the middle of a national park. It is the second largest city in the country. And a dream destination for generations.
Mercedes-Benz 350 SE: With an S-Class W 116 off the beaten track in South Africa. Even after 38 years the 350 SE still looks sovereign and elegant.

W 116 in silver green metallic.

I have arranged to meet Marcus Hoelper at the airport; a German who earns his living renting classic Mercedes-Benz vehicles through his company Retro Rentals to tourists, photographers and locals. He is waiting with his 350 SE (W 116) in silver green metallic, but needs to leave soon for the next handover. So his instructions are brief: drive on the left, obviously. It’s a right-hand drive, of course. “Have you ever driven on the left?” “Yes, yes, I’m an England fan and I’ve been to India.” “Good. The spare wheel is in the boot. Oil too. Please check the coolant regularly. Any more questions? No? Fine. Then have an exciting time. Have a good trip. See you in two weeks.”

Sovereign and elegant, almost glamorous.

So here we are; the 350 SE and I. I take a good look at it from all perspectives. Its lines: clear. In contrast to modern bodies, the surfaces are of an almost simple structure. Chrome trims, aluminium, the baroque wheel rims, the wonderfully discreet colour – all that gives it a sovereign and elegant, almost glamorous appearance, even after 38 years. I stow away my suitcase in a boot the size of a cellar and go to the driver’s door … oops, that was the front-passenger door. So over to the driver’s door, I sit down in the armchair-like seats and adjust the mirrors. And start the V8 engine which snarls distinctly for a moment and then turns over rhythmically and almost without vibration. Indicate right and our adventure can begin.

Mercedes-Benz 350 SE: With an S-Class W 116 off the beaten track in South Africa. Even after 38 years the 350 SE still looks sovereign and elegant.

The V8 is the rhythm section.

Nelson Mandela Boulevard, M2, leaving Cape Town. Past Woodstock. Palm trees waving in the wind remind me of the flailing hair of the hippies during a Janis Joplin concert. The V8 is the rhythm section. A monotonous humming sound, only interrupted by short solos consisting of aggressive snarls when overtaking. The accompanying theme: the rustling of the palm trees in the wind. I pass the exit at Stellenbosch on the left. Maybe I’ll drive to the Winelands later. For the moment, I’m enjoying the smell of freshly burnt stubble from the fields. A pleasant barrique flavour hangs in the air.

Close to Strand, I take the R44 in the direction of Betty’s Bay. On the left the steep mountains, towering up into the heavens. They rise up from the turquoise ocean on the right. In between runs one of the most beautiful roads in the world, which they have named the Whale Coast Route. Spacious beaches, devoid of people, black flags with sharks drawn on them. On the horizon, far beyond the Atlantic blue, you can make out the Cape of Good Hope and the Twelve Apostles in the haze of the day. See you soon, Cape Town.

Mercedes-Benz 350 SE: With an S-Class W 116 off the beaten track in South Africa. Even after 38 years the 350 SE still looks sovereign and elegant.

The shimmering road.

Baboons squat by the side of the road. The older ones gaze stoically towards the cliffs. The ocean doesn’t seem to be their thing. But it is mine. I drive on, mountains to the left, the ocean to the right. After days of sand and sea, of white and turquoise, I am drawn inland. There are many vineyards and fruit plantations and a lot of brown, barren landscape. From the top of the Tradaouw pass, the road is steep down to Barrydale. Putting the automatic into “N”, the downhill race can begin. The 350 SE starts rolling. And gets really fast. The tight bends allow a maximum of 120 km/h. A brief speed rush. And then I arrive in the valley: back to “D”. Drive and dream at around 70 km/h. I drive for what seems like an eternity without seeing a single soul. The road shimmers and my thoughts clear.

One of the most enchanting roads.

“Rise early,” I was advised. While the valleys are still dark, the highest peaks are just being caressed by the first light of the day. To the left lies the Swartberg Pass in the direction of Prins Albert. Gravel. The whole way, uphill, downhill, gravel. For 27 kilometres. Birds are standing aimlessly around on the road with dassies dozing next to them. Gemsboks are startled because usually no car drives this way at this time. The last clouds are disintegrating above the mountain range. The sky is nothing but blue from now on. It is cool up here. It’s an archaic mountain landscape, rough, barren, brown and black only, untouched. Of a simple, almost overwhelming beauty. Zigzagging steep bends, sometimes bordered by stone walls, sometimes with nothing. And then again and again, there is the view. It must be one of the most enchanting roads that man has ever built.

Mercedes-Benz S-Class 350 SE (W 116) in South Africa: It’s an archaic mountain landscape, rough, untouched. Of a simple, overwhelming beauty. It must be one of the most enchanting roads

Into the light, with a star on the bonnet.

In Prins Albert, I treat myself to a copious breakfast as the sun comes up. Afrikaans houses from the 18th century decorate the main road of the cosy, small town. Before setting off back, I drive to the only fuel station. Here in Africa, the following rule applies: always start your journey with a full tank, with enough oil and with at least 5 litres of water. So, back to the Swartberg Pass.

At Eerste Water, a river with crystal-clear, cold mountain water, I have a break. The freshwater crabs as big as a man’s hand and the many small fish which are endemic to the region show no reaction to my feet in the water. Driving uphill, I drive straight into the sunlight: the star on the bonnet seems to melt into the grey-coloured gravel. I’m enjoying every moment.

All statements in this article are personal opinions and impressions of the author and sometimes not of the Daimler AG.

Image gallery.