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Surf and Safari with the 2018 Jaguar E-Pace Along South Africa's Sunshine Coast

Surf and Safari with the 2018 Jaguar E-Pace Along South Africa’s Sunshine Coast

JEFFREY’S BAY, South Africa — “DAMN, SKUNKED,” I thought as I looked at the nearly flat water of the famous World Surf League championship tour spot. That’s the risk you take when you travel to the other side of the world and plan just one day to score some waves.

Not all was lost. About 30 minutes down the road from J-Bay is St. Francis Bay, a co-star in one of the most famous scenes of 1966’s legendary surf film, “The Endless Summer.” While there wasn’t much on offer there, either, a nearby rocky point further south at Cape St. Francis served up head-high waves supported by strong offshore winds—the surfing equivalent of a perfectly paved twisty mountain road. And with only two other surfers in the water, it was the equivalent of that road with no other cars to be found.

Photographer Robin Trajano and I needed roughly two and a half hours to get to these famous surf spots from our base camp in the scenic town of Knysna, a place famous for its oyster festival and, more recently, the annual Jaguar Simola Hillclimb taking place that weekend. The upside of the long drive was that we had time to get acquainted with our chariot, a Caesium Blue 2018 Jaguar E-Pace.

This was our third day in South Africa, which began with an overnight stay in Johannesburg—the nation’s equivalent of New York City. The next morning we caught a flight to the coastal industrial hub of Port Elizabeth, where we collected the E-Pace and set off for our first destination: Shamwari Game Reserve.

South Africa is a left-hand traffic country due to its British colonial heritage; fortunately, it largely uses the same road signs as Europe, save for region-specific ones like “elephant crossing,” and it didn’t take me as long to wrap my head around driving on the left side of the road as I thought it might. Trajano appreciated the quick adaptation, as neither of us fancied the thought of a wrong-way head-on collision.

My previous experience with the E-Pace was spent primarily during a pouring rainstorm on the autocross-esque mountain roads of Corsica, which didn’t allow the small crossover to put its best foot forward. Like its F-Pace big brother, the E-Pace handles corners by rolling into them and then rolling back out, going with the flow of gravity instead of fighting it, making the conditions in Corsica akin to riding on a small boat during a storm.

South Africa’s smooth highways, on the other hand, offered a comfortable proving ground. Our range-topping P300-spec E-Pace packed the 296-hp version of Jaguar’s 2.0-liter turbo-four, which comes mated to a nine-speed automatic that sends power to all four wheels. The engine also puts down 295 lb-ft of torque starting at just 1,500 rpm—more than enough to briskly shove the hefty-for-its-size 4,175-pound vehicle.

The E-Pace’s sporting pretensions mean its ride isn’t exactly cushy and tire noise levels are elevated, especially on rougher pavement. But during the hourlong drive from the Port Elizabeth airport to Shamwari, neither the ride nor interior NVH proved uncomfortable or out of character for a vehicle in its class. In fact, with a phone streaming our favorite Spotify playlists into the Meridian audio system using Bluetooth (with our international data plans conserved thanks to in-car Wi-Fi), we didn’t hear much else anyway.

What was obnoxious, however, was the incessant whistling coming from the roof rack and twin-board coffin case strapped to it. It wouldn’t have been that bad had the rubber grommets typically found in the middle of each crossbar not gone missing. Thankfully the presence of cargo on the rack mitigated the racket, so we mounted at least one surfboard for each long drive even though the compact E-Pace comfortably fits most shortboards inside when it’s not stuffed with luggage.

The Jag also acquitted itself well over dirt roads on the way to the reserve’s entrance and from the main gate to our lodge. We stayed at the reserve’s Long Lee Manor, an Edwardian complex that once served as, well, the manor of the former farm that has since become the game reserve. Because the area was once farmland, wild animals had to be reintroduced from elsewhere; the original wildlife had long since been wiped out.

While there are still places in the world where you’re allowed to don the pith helmet, load the fourbore elephant gun, and party like its 1869 for the right amount of money, Shamwari, which spans an area of 25,000 hectares (or 96.5 square miles—roughly the size of Sacramento, California), is all about conservation, and the reserve expends considerable resources on anti-poaching efforts.

We arrived at our lodge in the early afternoon and had a little bit of time to get situated before the evening’s game drive—the technical term for the “photo safari”—we came for. Our ranger was an affable fella named Abel who has spent his entire career at Shamwari and clearly enjoys his job. Of course, it’s hard not to when a day at the office consists of off-roading a diesel Toyota Land Cruiser through beautiful terrain looking for animals. The reserve’s trails aren’t particularly challenging, and we had no trouble navigating some of them in the E-Pace during a photo shoot later in our stay, but daily use of them would surely wear out most road-oriented crossovers in a hurry.

Shamwari’s modified Land Cruiser 79 pickups feature an open cab with a folding windshield and a three-row people carrier in the back with enough space for nine tourists. The open configuration is excellent for game viewing but doesn’t have a lot of protection to keep animals—say, baboons or lions—from jumping into the cab. This is where a good ranger comes in. Although the animals are familiar with the sight and sound of the vehicles, they’re still wild animals; it’s the ranger’s job to avoid startling them or triggering aggressiveness—and also to know when it’s time to book it.

Sharing the observation cab with four other adventurous patrons, we came across our first find, a sleeping lion, minutes after departing the electric fence that forms the lodge’s perimeter. The lion didn’t react aggressively to our presence, but the engine and camera shutters annoyed it and it soon moved to the top of a nearby ledge. More lions were on the sightseeing menu later that evening, including a particularly rare treat: a literal catfight that broke out between a group of females and a younger male attempting to insert himself into their pride, with an older male running in to sort matters out once he heard the commotion.

The biodiversity proved greater on the next morning’s game drive. Sightings included numerous herds of warthogs, zebras, giraffes, springbok, several rhinos, various birds, a cheetah, and an elephant.

Once back at the lodge, we met up with a different pair of rangers assigned to be our escorts for the E-Pace photo shoot, one to drive a Land Cruiser with Robin in the back, the other to guide me as I drove the Jag. Although the animals we encountered weren’t used to the crossover’s blue paint or the sound of its gasoline turbo-four, they didn’t immediately scatter the way they would had it been a flesh-eating feline.

After we wrapped for the day, we strapped the surfboards back on the roof and set off on the roughly three-and-a-half-hour trek west to Knysna. All in all, this region of South Africa is an exceptionally beautiful part of the world with friendly people, unique wildlife, and amazing topography that is absolutely worthy of your hard-earned vacation time. Despite the long travel time from Southern California—at least 30 hours one way when you include airport lines and layovers as well as flight time—I’ll definitely be back someday. Next time, though, I’m giving myself more than just one day at J-Bay.

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