BBC Autos

This is the world’s toughest chauffeur

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"The best bodyguard is the one no one sees," says Pierre Dohrmann. "We should be grey, like a mouse."

Fair to say, it'd be tough to mistake Pierre Dohrmann for a mouse. Pierre Dohrmann has the stance of a retired boxer, sports a small ponytail, wears dark glasses and carries a gun in his belt. Even in his fifties, he looks quite capable of crushing your skull to powder with a firm headlock. Pierre Dohrmann is the former German special forces agent whom monarchs, celebrities and politicians call if they want to get around South Africa by car.

Today, however, Pierre Dohrmann is chauffeuring a rather less high-profile client: us. TG has hooked up with Dohrmann in the sinister surroundings of a grim multistorey car park to find out how pro drivers avoid trouble in what was recently declared one of the world's 10 most dangerous cities: Cape Town. And though he might have the appearance of a weathered big-screen hardman of yesteryear – perhaps played by Bruce Willis with a tasteful wig – it turns out the reality of high-profile security driving is a couple of continents removed from the Hollywood world of curb-bouncing car chases and shooting out the baddies' tires. Less Harrison Ford, more, er, Stuart Little.

Take his choice of wheels. Despite TG's visions of being spirited across the Cape in something resembling Obama's bulletproof Caddy limousine (“The Beast”), Dohrmann has rocked up in a decidedly D-list Audi A6. Perhaps noticing our disappointment, he assures us this is the real celeb-ferrier. Though he owns a glitzy, blacked-out Merc 560SEL limo, it's the A6 that has carried presidents, Hollywood A-listers and assorted royals (proper, crown-wearing royals, too – none of your 120th-in-line-to-the-throne here).

A 2.4-litre A6 seems pretty un-VIP, but, says Dohrmann, that's exactly the point. You know the bit where a star is bundled from a hotel, through a swarm of paparazzi, and into a massive limo by a gang of wardrobe-sized bodyguards? All for show. Charged with transporting a VIP from, say, a swanky hotel to the airport, Dohrmann will send the swanky limo round to the front entrance to distract the paps, stalkers and ne'er-do-wells, then sneak the VIP out the hotel's back door and into the nondescript Audi. "You want a car you can see a lot of in traffic," he explains. "Nothing too special. I have some laundry stickers we can put on the side of the car, too. Who would follow a car full of dirty sheets?"

We swing out onto the mean streets of Cape Town with Dohrmann behind the wheel. Under the skull-powdering exterior, he's as friendly an ex-special forces agent as you could hope to meet, with a fine line in extravagant blasphemy and an accent straight from Arnold Schwarzenegger's mid-Eighties catalogue.

So, I ask, what if, despite your best laundry-impersonation efforts, you haven't evaded the attention of a crazed fan, paparazzo or wannabe carjacker? Can you tell if you're being followed? "You can sense it," he says. "It's instinct. A strange noise, someone driving too close."

So what then, with your priceless human cargo on board, bogey on your tail and spidey-sense tingling? Floor it, and leave the stalkers for dead? Dohrmann shakes his head. "You think someone is following you? Don't speed up. 200kph? Bulls**t. Why do you have to go so fast? Yeah, I can drift, I can do the defensive driving, but why? You want to see if someone is tailing you?" Without warning, he pulls a full 180-degree turn around a roundabout, heading back down the road the way we just came. "That's what you do. Now count the cars coming towards you. One, two, three, four. Any of them coming back this way? No? We're good. If you suspect something, slow down. Wait, see what his activity is. Then you have the upper hand."

The “don't panic” motto is one, says Dohrmann, that applies as much to us mere plebs as to high-profile targets. Driving in a dodgy corner of the world? Think you're being followed? Don't veer off the highway and try to shake off your potential pursuers. Stay on the main road, head into the middle of town. "If you're using a satnav, never set it to go the shortest way," advises Dohrmann. "You'll end up on small roads in a dangerous place. Set it for the fastest way, on the highway."

So how dangerous is Cape Town, and South Africa? Tough to tell. Browse travel forums, and you're confronted with horror stories of violent carjackings and armed hold-ups. But on a sunny weekday morning, Cape Town's waterfront feels about as threatening as the Cotswolds: indeed, over the course of a week in South Africa, the most terrifying thing TG witnesses on the road is a disastrously ugly Opel Corsa pickup.

The reality probably lies somewhere between Kabul and the Cotswolds. Though most of Cape Town – and indeed South Africa – is entirely safe, in any nation where gun ownership is the norm and the divide between rich and poor is chasmic, there's potential for trouble. If you look like you've got cash and you drive into the wrong part of town, you've a fair chance of encountering someone happy to relieve you of said cash.

In fairness, Dohrmann doesn't talk up the dangers, nor aggrandise the risk, in the hope of attracting more business. "The rumours about crime in South Africa are worse than the reality. If you're blind and stupid, you'll get in trouble. But mostly it is common sense, being able to spot danger."

He's a man who can spot danger. For 18 years, Dohrmann worked for the German special forces in the rapid-response units, targeting terrorists, often in the dead of night ("You don't tend to need a gun if you get them in the deep-sleep phase, 2am to 4am. They are paralysed"). Then he headed for the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, helping the local police clear the slums of drugs. "That was a f***ing dangerous town," he nods. "Most of the time when guys wear a bulletproof vest, it is bulls****ing. But in Rio you needed it."

Dohrmann likes his cars, too. Likes his cars enough to drive all the way from Cape Town to Munich in a battered Mitsubishi Pajero a few years back. Just him and a friend, 11,000 miles in four weeks. A gang of bandits tried to hijack the Pajero on the Serengeti, driving their herd of cows across the road before attacking with machetes. He saw them off.

Back in Cape Town, we spirit anonymously through downtown, Dohrmann demonstrating a spooky ability to evade any traffic jams, roadworks or snarl-ups. All part of the job. Before delivering said VIP from swanky downtown hotel to airport, he will run the entire route alone the day before, scouting the roads for potential hazards. "I'm looking out for problem zones," he says. "Where are the traffic jams? Say there are roadworks, I'm looking for the construction tent. Or a police stop zone. Is it a real policeman?"

Though he always carries a gun, he's never used it in anger in South Africa. "I've never had to shoot. If you're well educated, you shouldn't need to use a weapon." Another Hollywood cliché smashed. Oh, and that car-chase scene where the driver leans out the window with a gun and neatly blows out the tires of the car in front? Again, mighty unlikely. "I'm good with a gun," he says. "But when I tried firing one while driving, I shot out my own mirror twice."

A few of the grizzled-bodyguard stereotypes do hold true, however. "When I go out for dinner, I always sit with my back to the wall, looking at the door. I can't hold a conversation, but I can tell you what every person in the restaurant is drinking and what brand of cigarettes they're smoking. Not so good for a romantic evening..."

And that attitude of mild paranoia pervades behind the wheel, too. "I don't wear a seatbelt," says Dohrmann, grabbing his loose belt as proof. "Makes it slower to get out." He pulls the strap tight across his throat. "And you don't want someone to lean in through the window and strangle you..."

This story originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of TopGear magazine.