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  • Mercedes-Benz 380 SE: The W 126 series S-Class in South Africa.
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    W 126: Wafted through the desert of Africa.

    Philipp Wente went on a South African road trip via Beaufort West to Cape Town with the W 126.

    Text and Photos: Philipp Wente

To Cape Town by land.

Most visitors probably approach Cape Town, the dream destination in Africa’s far south, from the air. The landing approach to the city, which nowadays extends from the deep-blue ocean to high up in the slopes of the mighty Table Mountain, is one of the most spectacular on earth. While the arrival by land does not produce this spontaneous aha-effect, it remains ingrained in the memory with its thousands of fascinating impressions. Especially if the route passes through the “Land of Thirst”.


The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 380 SE (W 126) in Beaufort West, the “heart of the Karoo”.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 380 SE (W 126) in the African desert on its way to Cape Town.

Through the semi-desert landscape with the W 126.

Ideally the journey will start in one of the best long-distance saloon cars ever built, the 380 SE (W 126) from the first series. After just a few hours of relaxed cruising in a southwesterly direction you reach Beaufort West, a small town also known as “The heart of the Karoo”. In the Khoi language, “Kurú” means “dry, harsh and unforgiving”. The Karoo is a region of semi-desert in the high plains of South Africa.


Land of Thirst.

The Khoi call it the “Land of Thirst”. And you quickly realise why: on both sides of the road, for dozens of kilometres now, dried-out river beds, not a tree to be seen, only a few shrubs bowing in the wind. And that wonderful reddish-gold sand everywhere, the perfect backdrop to the 380 SE with its champagne paint finish (colour code 473). Like a diamond that absorbs the surrounding light and reflects it a thousand times more brilliantly.


The semi-desert landscape Karoo is a plateau in South Africa and is also called “Land of Thirst”.
  • Deep gorges and dramatic mountain passes can be found again and again in the Karoo, the semi-desert landscape in southern Africa.
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Deep gorges and dramatic mountain passes.

Unlike on the highly frequented Garden Route in the south of South Africa, it is still easy to get lost here. Not only because the GPS system entices you to take rough tracks through seemingly endless nothingness. But also because the Karoo imposes its own rhythm on travellers, tempting them to take excursions into deep ravines or over dramatic mountain passes. The next filling station is at least one hundred kilometres away.


Fortunately the Karoo has so far been spared the ravages of large-scale tourism. Instead it is the dropouts and creative-minded people from the major cities of Johannesburg or Cape Town who follow their ideal of a slower-paced life amidst farmers and sheep breeders. These are also the people who have established studios, galleries, guesthouses, restaurants and cafés in the sleepy villages and small towns along the few asphalted roads.


The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 380 SE (W 126) in the African desert in the evening.

The jewel of 1979.

After hours of exclusively “harsh and unforgiving” landscape, it is time to take a break. Over fresh coffee and freshly baked cakes in one of the lovingly decorated cafés, the eyes are inevitably drawn to the champagne-coloured gem parked at the roadside and by now covered with dust. Which was not always the case: when the W 126 model series was presented at the 1979 Frankfurt International Motor Show, the conservative S-Class public of the day was taken aback, lamenting that Mercedes-Benz appeared to have fallen prey to the plastic age, producing a new car which was so plain and bare. And indeed, it could hardly have contrasted more with the preceding model W 116. Compared to this opulent and imposing model with its double chrome bumpers and Baroque body lines, the aerodynamically smoothed W 126 with polyurethane bumpers seemed almost plain.


Creation of a design icon.

As we now know, Bruno Sacco, then head of the styling department, had created a design icon. His W 126 combines classic elements with modern lines, and every detail fits perfectly. In the end the customers were inclined to agree: 892,123 examples rolled off the production line up to 1992, including 74,060 coupés. In the luxury class segment it was the undisputed world market leader. And to this day the W 126 is the most successful luxury class saloon ever built. It still knows how to impress today. Even at standstill. And definitely when driving: via classic Baroque wheels, the silky-smooth engine transfers its 160 kW (218 PS) to the asphalt more elegantly than any other vehicle of this era.


The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 380 SE (W 126), which has become a design icon thanks to Bruno Sacco.
The Mercedes-Benz S-Class 380 SE (W 126) crossed the river Monument, passing animals in the direction of Cape Town.

Smoothly towards the southwest.

The unbelievable smoothness of its progress still fascinates to this day. And we glide on towards the southwest. In De Doorns, which is already in wine country, we cross the Monument River. What a coincidence, how fitting it is to drive across this bridge with this elegant, timeless masterpiece by Bruno Sacco, the W 126-series S-Class. It remains a true joy to drive to this day, roaming the world, gliding over the asphalt. To the extent that one even loses sight of the actual destination, Cape Town, just a little.


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The Silo on the waterfront.

Which would be a pity, as Cape Town came into the possession of a pearl around one year ago. Or more precisely: a world-famous pearl of contemporary architecture which opens up new perspectives on Cape Town, South Africa and the entire continent – The Silo on the waterfront. Under the direction of London architect Thomas Heatherwick, work began in 2014 on converting a long disused, 57-metre high grain silo dating from 1921 into a museum for contemporary African art and a luxury hotel. The exterior form of the light-brown concrete building was largely preserved. The rectangular, higher part of the building is adjoined by 42 cylindrical former grain silos, each 30 metres high and arranged in a square.


The toal area of the nine-storey museum is 9,500 square metres, of which 6,000 square metres are display areas. There are also 18 classrooms, a sculpture garden, restaurants and a museum shop. The higher part of the building houses The Silo Hotel, which is regarded as the best and most expensive hotel in Africa. And The Silo is indeed a superlative 5-star hotel. The vast rooms extend over 2 floors, their diamond-shaped windows and large balconies offering magnificent views of the old harbour with its frolicking seals, the waterfront, the elegant World Cup stadium, the Lion’s Head and Table Mountain. The roof terrace goes one better, boasting arguably the best panoramic view of Cape Town, the bay and the entire Table Mountain massif.


The view inside the silo on the waterfront in Cape Town.

A view inside.

After taking in so much of the surroundings, it is definitely worth a look inside The Silo. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA), which opened in September 2017, boasts the largest collection of contemporary African art worldwide. It was commissioned by German manager and art collector Jochen Zeitz and built as a joint public- and private-sector project. Not only the art on show is a delight to behold. The building itself is also breathtaking: the cylindrical silos have been opened up under the roof to create a “cathedral-like” atrium.


A functional building turned into a jewel.

It is not least because of this that the Zeitz MOCAA is already believed capable of attaining a similar standing to the Museum of Modern Art, the Centre Georges Pompidou or the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. A delight to behold. And with delightful views, too. It makes one optimistic to see how architecture has transformed an industrial building, a silo, a long disused landmark, into a true gem. Let us wish it similar success to that enjoyed by our W 126.


The converted silo on the waterfront, which is now a museum and luxury hotel at the same time.