RoadTrip | Match made in heaven - Visiting the Sappi Forests in Subaru's new Forester

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2021 Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester
Ryan Abbott / RoadTrip

• The RoadTrip team travels to Kwazulu-Natal in the new Subaru Forester.

• The 3200km roundtrip put the Scoobie through various challenges, including torrential downpours.

• The Sappi Forests acted as focal destination.

For more motoring stories, go to Wheels24


Sappi, established in South Africa 85 years ago and now the biggest manufacturer of dissolved pulp in the world, recently received the first-ever sustainable forest management certificate for its local forestry operations. To find out more, we journeyed to the Sappi plantations in Karkloof, KwaZulu Natal... in the new Subaru Forester, of course.
Ferdi de Vos, RoadTrip editor

Why in the world would one want to undertake a 1600km road trip in one day? Well, when presented with the opportunity to learn more about best forestry practices (there is much more to it than just a lot of trees planted in rows, I promise you), distance does not really matter.

So, when we learnt that the South African division of Sappi Limited was awarded the first-ever Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) forest management certificate in South Africa, and with the newly launched Subaru Forester 2.5i S ES CVT on test, it just made sense to visit Sappi Forests to find out more about the science of sustainable forestry and how this certification was achieved.

A great idea, except that to do so, we had to drive from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal - a 3200km round trip. However, we are not easily deterred and left the Mother City at sparrows. Destination: Thistledown Country House and the Karkloof Country Club near Howick.

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A long-distance companion

The long-awaited bigger-engine Forester extends the 2021 range with the more athletic Sport model. The range-topping ES model represents the classic, contemporary Subaru traits of safety, practicality, and adventure. Its direct-injection 2.5-litre four-cylinder Boxer engine delivers 136kW, an additional 21kW over the 2.0-litre engine, and its maximum torque is 239Nm, an increase of 43Nm over the smaller engine.

This may not sound like much, but on the open road, it made a material difference - particularly when overtaking the convoys of trucks on the N1. Mated to the lightweight Lineartronic CVT transmission with Subaru Intelligent Drive (SI Drive), torque delivery from the engine was more linear, making it easier to maintain momentum.

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Inside the cabin, the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility was easy to use. The rear seat pockets were designed to fit smartphones and tablets alike, and USB ports for rear passengers were convenient. In addition, the wide-opening motorised lid made it easy to load our gear into the 520 litre, rubberised boot. 

With its easy gait at highway pace, Karoo towns like Beaufort West, Richmond, and Hanover sped by, and by lunchtime, we were close to Colesberg, with our fuel consumption averaging just under 9.0-litres/100km (Subaru claims 8.5-litres/100 km). In Bloemfontein, we filled up again, and at Winburg, we diverted onto the N5 over Senekal, Bethlehem towards Harrismith and the N3.

Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester

The Sappi chronicles

In the passenger seat, I had time to go over the Sappi chronicles and found the information quite fascinating. Formed in 1936 in South Africa, Sappi has evolved from a traditional pulp and paper company into a diverse business, now operating on six continents, with customers in over 150 countries, and it is the biggest manufacturer of dissolved pulp in the world.

Its Southern Africa division operates five mills with a combined production capacity of 102 000 m3 of structural lumber, 690 000 tons of paper, 633 000 tons of paper pulp, and over a million tons of dissolving pulp per annum, with almost all of this production being exported. 

Sappi Forest, a sub-division of Sappi Southern Africa, has access to 534 000 hectares of plantations, of which 394 000 hectares are owned or leased, and approximately 140 000 hectares are contracted supply.

READ: RoadTrip | Chasing the West Coast breeze in Suzuki's new Vitara Brezza

We were still about 400km from our destination, the Sappi managed forests in Karkloof, when we hit a series of huge thunderstorms, but the Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system and Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with Active Torque Vectoring worked a charm in the wet, slippery conditions. 

In the poor visibility conditions, the award-winning EyeSight driver assistance system kept us safe. But during hefty downpours and in the vast plumes of spray caused by big truck wheels, it stopped working as the cameras got covered by streams of water.

With the rain coming down unabatedly, the final stretch on the N3 over Van Reenen's Pass and into the Natal Midlands was even worse. It was exasperated by atrocious driver behaviour in the dark and numerous road works. We were relieved to reach Thistledown, where Norma and Norman Maguire warmly welcomed us.

Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester

Karkloof MTB trails 

After a good night's rest and a hearty breakfast the next morning, we made our way to the Karkloof Country Club to meet Matthew Drew, a top-notch mountain bike rider involved with the Karkloof Mountain Bike Club, Sappi, and tourism initiatives through Active Escapes, a company promoting tourism activities in the Midlands Meander region.

Drew was instrumental in establishing the Karkloof MTB Trails in collaboration with Sappi (as part of the Sappi Trails Programme) and local landowners. Having explored virtually every inch of Karkloof on his bike, he showed us the best places to access the plantations.

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The trails, with names such as Boogaloos, Bombardé, Boomslang, Soul Fly, Karkloof Falls, Super Tubes, The Bachelor, Skyfall, Rene's Rumble, Jewitt's Jive, Voodoo Lounge, and Batt Outta Hell, is graded from easy and moderate to advanced, making it popular with professionals and weekend warriors alike. The Sappi Karkloof Classic Trail Festival, this year (provisionally) scheduled for October, also takes place on these routes. 

With its huge boot, class-leading 220mm ground clearance, all-wheel-drive with X Mode, two driver-selectable programme modes (Snow/Dirt or D Snow/Mud), and Hill Descent Control, the Forester was in its element in this environment. It looked right at home in the forest setting. (Until recently, Subaru Southern Africa also sponsored MTB events and an MTB team.)

Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester

Benefitting tourism

Our photo session with Matthew completed, we headed back to Thistledown for a sumptuous lunch and to meet up with Zelda Schwalbach, Sappi Corporate Communications manager for KwaZulu Natal, Andrew Pool, Management Forester at Shafton Sappi Forests, and Werner Bosman from the Karkloof Country Club.

Over lunch, Zelda explained the Karkloof Trails project is part of the Sappi Trails Programme initiated a decade ago to formalise the relationship between Sappi and stakeholders who were using Sappi land for mountain biking, walking, and running. The overall aim was to minimise risk while maximising benefits for both trail users and Sappi.

Resulting in a world-class network of trails, it is now a highly valuable feature, benefitting tourism businesses in the area, stimulating job creation, and uplifting local communities. It also sets the bar for all partners committed to growing sustainable tourism around Sappi-owned land.

According to Andrew, all wood grown on Sappi-owned land is Forest Stewardship Council-certified, and approximately 135 000 hectares has been set aside to conserve the natural habitat and biodiversity in the forestry areas, including indigenous forests and wetlands.

Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester

Sappi Khulisa

He added the requirements for sustainable forest management, as set out in the PEFC endorsed SAFAS (Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme) standard, also makes forest certification more accessible to small landowners, including participants in the Sappi Khulisa tree-farming scheme.

Started in 1983, the scheme was established in KwaZulu Natal, covering the area from Mangusi near Kosi Bay in the North to Port Edward in the South. Since its inception, it has expanded to the Eastern Cape and now has more than 4000 participants, working over 27 000 hectares of land.

Andrew confirmed that it is now a successful job creation and entrepreneurship development model to create sustainable livelihoods in rural areas, with more than 1100 indirect rural jobs established. It forms the foundation of Sappi's corporate social responsibility and enterprise development focus, he said.

Werner said that the country club, with facilities such as safe parking, hot showers, a place to wash your bike, a café, and a bar, was ideally situated to enjoy the recreational activities in the area, as all the routes begin and end there. Supported by Sappi, it has become a social hub in the area and contributes to local job creation.

It is the perfect place to spend a day cycling, running, or walking the trails, and aimed at people with active lifestyles. The new Forester SUV - with easy-to-clean yet aesthetically pleasing boot material and wide-opening rear doors with slip-resistant side sill steps - fitted in flawlessly.

Subaru Forester
2021 Subaru Forester

Heading back

The following day, we tackled the long road back. With glorious weather and much less traffic on route, it was a pleasant journey - and even after spending 14 hours in the car, we were still fresh and relaxed, testimony to the comfort of the electrically adjustable leather seats and the drivetrain.

The only distractions were the over-eager Lane Departure and Pre-Collision Throttle Management alerts, sometimes interfering when not expected, and the intrusive engine noise when accelerating hard (due to the CVT). We rarely found a need to use the shift paddles behind the steering wheel.

Much like Sappi, Subaru is now considering sustainable mobility solutions, as embodied by a new hybrid model in the Forester range (not yet available locally) - the Subaru Forester e Boxer. However, after this trip to Forester's paradise, I can understand why owners are so fiercely loyal to the nameplate. 

Yes, the Forester may be considered bland and slightly bloated, but it is honest, able, and reliable - and the new 2.5 model adds on-road substance and proven off-road ability. It's a very pleasant long-distance cruiser.

Our vehicle: Subaru Forester 2.5i S ES CVT

Engine: 2498cc direct injection boxer petrol

Maximum power: 136kW @ 5800rpm

Maximum torque: 238Nm @ 4400rpm

Transmission: seven step CVT, active torque split AWD

0-100km/h: 9.5 seconds (claimed)

Top speed: N/A

Tyre size: 225/55 R18 

Wheel size: 18-inch, alloy

Fuel tank: 63L

Consumption: 8.5-litres/100 km (claimed)

CO2 emissions: 193g/km

Warranty: 5-year or year/150 000km 

Service plan: 3-year or 75 000km

Price: R629 000


We like
Improved engine/transmission combination, comfortable seats and good ride comfort, 4×4 ability, advanced safety systems.

We do not like
Noisy engine under hard acceleration, slow-reacting CVT, unexpected safety system intrusions.


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