Its 4.30am. For once, even the N1 highway between Jo’burg and Pretoria isn’t jam-packed with traffic. To the east, the first smudges of pink confirm that sunrise is not too far off.
On the colour screen, the navigation system has drawn my planned route as a blue line, running north from Johannesburg to Pretoria, then bearing east, past Witbank and Middelburg, before plunging down the escarpment and into the welcoming, subtropical heart of Mpumalanga.
To see exactly where I’m heading, you need to zoom in on the map until you can follow the line as it curves and sweeps along the R540 from the sleepy fishing hamlet of Dullstroom to the bustling, grungy heart of Lydenburg.
Then, continue to trace the route as it wiggles its way northwards along the R36 towards Ohrigstad. And finally, follow it eastwards as it works its way up the R533 until, just before the crest, you see the small, weathered signpost: Robbers Pass.
Of course, there are many great driving roads and mountain passes in Mpumalanga: the historic Long Tom Pass, the remote but thrilling Steenkampsberg Pass, the always damp and always tricky Kowyns Pass. But Robbers is special – fast and sweeping on one side of its 1,778m summit, tight and twisty on the other.
From a driving perspective, it’s like having the best of both worlds on a single stretch of road no more than 20km long; a ribbon of tar that starts off with some lazy bends, then winds the corners ever tighter, until it becomes a roller-coaster ride on the way down towards the sleepy town of Pilgrims Rest.
The new Audi S3, launched only a few weeks ago at the Johannesburg International Motor Show, seems to have the perfect credentials for a hell-for-leather onslaught on that 20 km stretch of torturous tar: 206 kW and 380Nm, quattro all-wheel drive, fat rubber, and a suspension tuned for grip and composure.
But first, I’ve got to cover the 380km or so to get to Robbers, much of it on mundane, ruler-straight highways. My early start has meant missing most of the traffic, and as I head down the N4 towards Middelburg, I’m grateful for the S3’s creature comforts.
The high-backed, form-hugging bucket seats not only promise support when you start flinging the Audi around bends, but actually provide long-distance comfort, too. The climate control system pegs cabin temperatures at just the right level. And cruise control means you’re less frequently tempted to floor the throttle.
In fact, long-distance travel in the S3 is very much a civilised affair. The hatchback offers the same pared-down elegance and intuitive ergonomics as the rest of the A3 range. Admittedly, the big 18-inch alloys and low-profile performance rubber create more road rumble than expected, but then, this isn’t a soft-sprung limousine, either.
Things get a little more interesting once you veer off the N4 at Belfast, and after negotiating the potholes that seem intent on swallowing the town whole, you get to zoom through some pretty countryside before arriving in Dullstroom.
The trout fishing haven has more eateries and watering holes per square kilometre than most places I know, but at 6am, it’s every bit as quiet as its name implies. The next 57km, from Dullstroom to Lydenburg along the R540, is even more rewarding – as long as you don’t stick a wheel into one of the craters posing a potholes long the way!
Much of this road is fast and open, with smoothly cambered sweeps that are too inviting to pass up. The S3’s responsiveness to even small throttle inputs is a revelation: midrange take-up is instant, and there’s always some extra urge on offer.
Speed also wakes up the chassis. At a steady freeway pace, the Audi has the easy heft and casual composure of a car capable of much more. Yes, there’s enough feedback from wheels and suspension to ensure clear communication between car and driver, but it’s a discussion that isn’t particularly interesting.
Shovel on some coals, however, and the dialogue becomes a lot more urgent. The fat-rimmed steering wheel comes alive in your hands, and you can feel each wheel working to grab enough grip.
Lydenburg is a mess of big trucks, sticky traffic and too many four-way stops. And the stretch of R36 that follows isn’t particularly inspiring, either. But then, finally, the R533 looms: we’ve arrived on Robbers Pass’ doorstep.
At this point, it’s advisable to pull over onto the verge, and to make some key adjustments. Firstly, switch the Drive Select system to ‘Dynamic’ mode. This sharpens the throttle, adds weight to the steering and ensures the snappiest gear shifts possible.
Next, switch the stability control system to sport mode, allowing the chassis a bit more leeway before the electronic nanny steps in to spoil the fun. Then, strap yourself in as tightly, make sure you’re sitting close enough to the steering wheel to dial in plenty of lock – and hit the start button.
The S3 is one of those cars that understates its talents until you start approaching the upper reaches of those capabilities. It’s the reason why the Audi can be accused of lacking soul or emotion during normal, even brisk, driving.