As a Brit it’s always struck me as strangely futuristic that South Africans refer to their ‘traffic lights’ as robots. That feeling is emphasized this morning as the ‘robots’ change to red and the space-age SUV I’m driving eases to a halt, without me even touching the brake, and automatically silences its engine.
The lights change again, the engine starts and, with just a dab at the accelerator, my vehicle moves away, pacing itself with the flow of the traffic moving downhill towards the world-famous surf beach in Jeffreys Bay. I’m now on Woltemade Street so I dial in ‘Park Assist’ mode on the ‘InControl’ touchscreen, allowing the car’s sensors to start searching for a space and giving the vehicle permission to figure out the manoeuvre for itself.
I’m at the controls of the most futuristic car I’ve ever driven and, at this moment, I’m parked on the first plastic road on the African continent. I step out of the car onto a gently sloping road that, apart from the lack of potholes, looks no different to many others along the 800km route I’ve driven from Cape Town. Yet this section of new-era blacktop represents a revolution in the field of engineering: Scottish company MacRebur estimates that around 54 000 single-use waste plastic bags were used for every 100 metres of this road.
‘The benefits of plastic waste in road-building are multiple,’ MacRebur’s co-founder Gordon Reid explained when the road was unveiled in Jeffreys Bay in October 2019. ‘Both non-degradable plastic and bitumen – a vital component of the asphalt mix – are produced from petroleum. One tonne of MacRebur mix contains the equivalent of 80 000 plastic bottles and a waste plastic road is more flexible, meaning that it can cope better with contraction and expansion resulting in less maintenance.’
Hennie Botes, the Jeffreys Bay engineer who worked on the project said: ‘From the moment we blended the product, we could see that the better elasticity could only benefit the resistance against cracking and potholes.’
Since 2016 MacRebur has built roads in 15 countries and it’s hoped that before long we’ll be spending a lot more time driving on waste plastic. To the uninformed eye there’s nothing obviously different about the surface and, while Kouga Municipality deserves kudos for their obvious commitment to infrastructure and the environment, Woltemade Street is unlikely to become one of the Eastern Cape’s prime tourist attractions.
So, after a short stroll along Africa’s first plastic road to take some snaps, I make my way back to the car. The Jaguar E-PACE is one of the most advanced luxury SUVs on the market. It’s so cool that, had I taken the time to download the Jaguar app, I could have turned on the aircon to pre-chill it. Instead, I contented myself with brazenly kicking the E-PACE on the rear end, which automatically raised the tailgate so that I could drop my camera bag inside.
Jaguar had lent me the vehicle to review during a road trip from Cape Town. I’d taken a detour via the Cederberg, the Little Karoo and the Garden Route and my respect for this growling cat was growing with every mile. Britain’s Top Gear declared the E-PACE ‘the best-looking, best-handling small crossover in the world’.
But that’s in a country where 4x4s get their roughest use at a village fete. I’d been keen to test drive it across rugged African roads and I knew the Cederberg and open spaces of the Little Karoo would offer that opportunity.
I’d been rounding Chapman’s Peak when I already realised that I was sitting in what might be the sportiest small SUV on the road. I switched to Dynamic mode and the dials changed from cool blue to glowing red. The overall adrenalin level in the car seemed to surge another notch when I pressed the accelerator and the 2-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine growled like a real jaguar.
As a control freak, I soon had my fingers dabbing at the alloy paddles behind the steering- wheel; it didn’t take long to realise, however, that the nine-speed automatic gearbox actually seemed to anticipate the demands of the road better than I could.
I’d never imagined that an SUV could be so much fun to drive on the road – without access to a racetrack (how long will it be before we start seeing plastic roads on the F1 circuit?) – and I was still a long way from testing the full potential of a 300bhp 4×4 that can see off 0-60mph in 6.1 seconds.
The E-PACE’s bigger sister (the F-PACE) has outsold all the manufacturer’s other models and there is now an all-electric version (the I-PACE) on the market in South Africa. Among the E-PACE’s other accolades, it holds the world re- cord for the longest barrel-roll stunt in a production vehicle.
It’s a sign of Jaguar’s confidence that the sportscar company chose to break that record in a 2 400kg SUV. It’s not a stunt you might want to replicate but it has a bearing on even the most cautious of drivers. ‘The vehicle is almost totally indestructible,’ said stunt driver Terry Grant.
In terms of safety, Jaguar seems to have thought of every- thing: the E-PACE has ‘Blind Spot Assist’, automatic ‘High-speed Emergency Braking’ (with pedestrian sensing) and even a ‘Driver Condition Monitor’ with a little icon that lights up to tempt you with an image of a steaming cup of coffee.
I found one irritating niggle: the car’s ‘Lane Keep Assist’ control allows the steering to give you a gentle nudge when it senses you drifting over a lane. It’s a very smart and safe system if you’re spending drowsy hours on boring British motorways but on the sweeping curves of the Cape Fold Belt it’s fun to be able to straighten on the bends slightly. I was already on the home stretch towards Pietermaritzburg when I finally pulled over to scour the 250-page instruction manual for the override setting.
This is clearly a car that turns heads as easily as it turns corners. When I stopped to get the dust rinsed off, the owner of the wash centre insisted on moving it into the bay herself. In her enthusiasm she refused to charge me the full price: ‘One of the best things about my business,’ she said, ‘is an opportunity to drive cars like this.’
‘Mine too,’ I smiled.