The best way to get to know someone is to take them on a road trip. Even if it’s someone you already know…
If you had to make a Top 10 List of South Africa’s most memorable driving roads, the N3 from Gillooly’s Interchange in Joburg to the Engen in Harrismith probably wouldn’t be on it. The thought of rounding the puffing industria of Germiston and then crawling towards the featureless horizon of the country’s least-exciting plateau somehow just never captured the collective road-trippers’ imagination. But that 300-odd kilometre tribulation of national tar ranks at the top of mine. For me, it was where road trips began.
And they always began at 4am. Margate was usually the destination: a place so mythical and sublime that my father feared it would disappear if you arrived after noon. At least that’s what I suspected. It’s the only fathomable reason for having to leave so early. He was in charge of the timetable. And packing. And driving, of course; it was the 80s. My mother was the padkos manager, a Tupperware of tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches and fudge nestled at her feet.
I don’t remember all that much about the actual holidays, except that the ocean made my hair frizzy. Those dark hours on the road stand out more. Cat’s eyes whizzed towards us like shooting stars and the tyres rumbled softly on the asphalt and nobody said a word until the sun crept over the horizon and the neon light of the Harrismith Engen came into view.
In a strange twist of fate, I recently found myself on that very same highway with my mom. I was plotting a road trip for this issue (see page 50) and she had a weekend free and it sounded like a good idea.
We rounded Germiston at the very reasonable hour of 11am. At about 11.15am I realised it could well be the longest we’d be spending together in a car since those holidays more than 20 years ago. You see, if you’re lucky, family road trips turn into grand family holidays at seaside cottages bursting with cousins and uncles and significant others and their significantly newer babies. But sometimes they don’t. Sometimes your family shrinks, or it grows in another direction, or people move and things change and you get together when you can but it’s always too brief and there’s never enough time to get to know the people you already know.
And there’s no better place to remedy that than the inescapable confines of a car. Cripes. What if we run out of things to talk about? What if we don’t agree on the volume? What if we get into an argument? There’s nowhere to go. We should have taken a plane. At least you can get up and walk to the bathroom. Now there’s just the road, an endless horizon, and sheep.
‘Do you remember when we used to go on those early-morning road trips with Dad?’ Mom says. ‘Yeah, you know for the life of me I still don’t know why we used to have to leave so early. The coast is only five hours away.’
‘Me neither. It’s like he thought Margate was going to disappear.’
And we both laugh. And then we talk. And then we crest South Africa’s least-exciting plateau, still talking. We talk about the past, the future, and everything in between. And then somewhere near Clarens, with the sun low in the sky, we stop talking and both just stare out at the road ahead and listen to the tyres rumble softly on the asphalt.
And then the golden-red Malotis rise up in the distance and bare their sandstone chests and I realise that sitting in silence in a car with my mother feels like the most natural thing in the world. And why wouldn’t it? I used to do it all the time.
Read more in the September issue of Getaway.
Our September issue features 11 amazing beach cottages, two ways to see the Klein Karoo, a windswept 4X4 drive in Namibia, our guide to swimming in Greece and much more!