Rugged mountain passes and roads less travelled: 1 000km adventure in the Kia Sorento

Published Dec 7, 2022


Rhodes, Eastern Cape – Perched along a rocky stream high up in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg mountains, at 2 505m above sea level if you want to be exact, Tenahead has the distinction of being the highest mountain lodge in South Africa. And getting there is an adventure.

Those of us living among the hustle bustle of the nation’s busiest cities often crave isolated getaways like this. But the isolation in this part of the country is startling. Even more arresting are the panoramic views, and feeling on top of the world becomes a literal sensation.

So what exactly were we doing here? Kia invited us to experience the new Sorento on a travelogue that would take us through some of the country’s most spectacular unpaved mountain passes.

I’ve often shrugged at people who buy bakkie-based SUVs just to take the kids to school, when a more sophisticated unibody alternative like the Kia Sorento can do the daily grind and December road trip in greater comfort and more safely, which we’ll get to later. And although the Sorento is not what you might call a hardcore 4x4, you will be surprised at how far it will take you off the beaten track, and that’s exactly what this road trip sought to prove.

Our first overnight stop, Tenahead Lodge & Spa, is situated near the summit of Naude’s Nek pass, which is South Africa’s third highest mountain road, connecting Rhodes and Maclear. But to keep things interesting, we approached Rhodes from the Free State side via the even more challenging Lundean’s Nek pass. Skirting along the Lesotho border, the scenery you’ll see here is nothing short of breathtaking.

Further up Lundean’s Nek we encountered some rocky sections, and although some of our crew experienced momentary wheel slippage in the one 4x2 variant, the vehicles sailed through with minimal effort. We were a little concerned about the Sorento’s 175mm ground clearance, which in all fairness could have been a bit higher, but it still proved sufficient for the rugged dirt paths that we encountered.

The Kia Sorento rode comfortably over the tar surfaces as well as the rockier paths that came later in the day, and noise insulation proved impressive too. After arriving at the lodge just before sunset, my co-driver and I weren’t as fatigued as we perhaps could have been after spending the good part of 11 hours on such a variety of surfaces.

Although this is a relatively isolated part of the country, there are still plenty of interesting places to stop for a bite or a cup of coffee. Our lunch stop was the ONS Hotel in Zastron, which was recently refurbished to its former glory by a highly enthusiastic owner and it’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Breaking our journey later in the day was the charming Walkerbouts Inn in Rhodes, which is steeped in history and its owner Dave Walker will tell you pretty much anything you need to know about the area. It also has a cosy pub called Thankshalot, which we weren’t able to take advantage of as the first section of Naude’s Nek, up to Tenahead, beckoned.

The following day we departed the lodge for the downward section of the pass and despite earlier forecasts of heavy rains, which threatened to turn our journey into a muddy challenge, the sun was out and the sky a bright blue sparsely decorated with puffy cumulus clouds. This allowed us to take in the scenery on the way down the Naude’s Nek pass in all its glory.

We were lucky because mist is all too common here and also keep in mind that if you’re tackling this pass in winter you’ll probably have snow to contend with.

Our hosts arranged a quick stop at the Naude family farm at the bottom of the pass, where we learned a bit more about the history of this interesting stretch of gravel, over a strong cup of coffee. The original pass was a rough track built by the Naude brothers in the 1890s, using picks and shovels. Not only did it significantly shorten the distance between Rhodes and Maclear, from 160km to just 32km, but it also made it easier for the farmers’ sheep to move in and out of the mountains to graze.

In 1911, the pass was turned into the more formal road that we know today by an engineer called George Mandy, but it has fallen into disrepair making it impassable for normal hatchbacks and sedans.

Much of our journey’s second day was spent on dirt as we meandered our way towards our lunch stop in Himeville in KwaZulu-Natal, after which we tackled some twisty tar sections to our overnight stop in Hilton where the trip concluded.

The Sorento felt sure-footed on these pothole riddled sections of tar road and our take-out from the journey is that it handles well for an SUV on tar and dirt surfaces.

There’s a real safety factor here too, if you think about it. On a wet or slippery surface, and when you need to make an emergency manoeuvre, you want a lower centre of gravity and on-demand all-wheel drive. A bakkie-based SUV, on the other hand is a lot more top-heavy and typically only operates in rear-wheel drive mode at higher speeds, which is a recipe for disaster.

By all-means, if you want to tackle hardcore 4x4 trails then you need a traditional ladder-on-frame SUV with low range, but we’re sure 99% of you don’t, and this is where a unibody SUV like the Kia Sorento makes so much more sense for its superior safety and refinement.

We also like the fact that the Sorento is offered only with a diesel engine, which is Kia’s extensively updated 2.2-litre “Smartstream” CRDi motor that produces 148kW at 3 800rpm and 440Nm from 1 750 onwards. Power is delivered smoothly through an eight-speed dual-clutch automated gearbox, with a relatively low first gear ratio that allowed for easy crawling over the rockier sections.

You can also choose from various on-road and off-road driving modes, including “Mud” and “Snow”.

Although the Sorento is not a performance SUV by any stretch of the imagination, it is comfortably powered and there was only one overtaking instance in KZN where I wished it had a bit more power.

Fuel consumption in our vehicle amounted to about 7.5 litres per 100km, which was impressive considering the wide variety of surfaces and speeds.

Having moved upmarket in its latest incarnation, the Kia Sorento is luxurious, with all variants shipping with leather seats, dual-zone climate control and an electric tailgate. The range-topping SXL flagship that we drove, ups the ante with a 12-speaker Bose surround sound system as well as a panoramic sunroof and Smart Cruise Control.

The Sorento is comfortable, spacious and luxurious, but if I have to nitpick, I think the cockpit design, as functional and user-friendly as it is, looks a bit too fussy and the abundance of shiny piano black plastic isn’t all that easy on the eye.


Driving the Kia Sorento along some bucket-list mountain passes in the Eastern Cape and KZN was an experience of a lifetime and highlighted this vehicle’s composure on a wide variety of surfaces.

Sure, it’s not a hard-core 4x4, but you’d be surprised at how far a vehicle like this will take you, and in great comfort and safety. Although it’s no longer an affordable option, with prices ranging from R813 995 to R998 995, it is still a compelling alternative to the unibody SUVs from the premium manufacturers, all of which cost way more than a million.