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Road to nowhere? Just the way I like it.



Most families fly to the Cape. But our family has always hit the road. What was originally motivated by budget has become a joy, so much so that some years, I enjoy the car trip “down” more than the destination.

They say that you shouldn’t get anywhere too fast, or you’ll leave your ethereal body behind. It explains why we feel so empty for a day when we arrive anywhere by air. But “slow travelling”, like “slow cooking” is something of a “practice”, like yoga.

Whether it be the grand grassy plains of the Free State, the Jack the Giant Slayer-like peaks of the Sneeuberg, or the craggy infiniteness of the Cape interior, the journey is a meditation, taking me slowly away from my daily drudgery.

Of course, packing the car isn’t sweetness and light. First, everyone’s luggage has to be squeezed into the back, then what seems like a month’s worth of fruit and avocadoes in those uneconomical-sized fruit boxes (my husband is a health nut), then some unfortunate loaves of bread which are sure to be squished, and a knife or two, which is sure to be lost. In the back seat go my by-now large teenagers with numerous electrical appendages attached and their heavy blankets and cushions, and in the front, under my feet is everything else that we couldn’t fit into the back.

Right at the back go two mountain bikes roped precariously onto a bike carrier designed for one sleek road bike at least 10 years ago. Needless to say, my husband can’t see very well out the back window, and depends on his side mirrors and sidekick – me.

We’ve had a lot of adventures this way. One trip, to Sutherland, took us over gravel road through the moonscape of the Great Karoo for an entire day, while our small boys sat in the back with just one bottle of water between them. We had no idea that there wouldn’t be a single other car for the whole journey through the heat and the dust. When we arrived, we discovered there was a far shorter and easier route to this small town from Cape Town. It seems some things have been kept secret from us Gautengers, no surprise!

Ditto Nieu-Bethesda, which has two roads leading to it from the N9, one a long gravel road of endless switchbacks, the other a sweet, short tar road winding between koppies. No need to ask which one we took.

On one trip, which passed through Meiringspoort, I booked a poetic Victorian house in the middle of nowhere for an overnight stay, with wrap-around balcony and an infinite view. The owners of the house, in the tiny town of De Rust, took one look at our trailer, and said, “We may have to accompany you to the property.” An ominous sentence. The road went uphill at a 30-degree angle, dotted with large boulders. Eventually, not being able to go any further, we had to do a three-point turn with our trailer on a slope, which required much reversing and grinding of gears. The noise brought out the locals from distant farmhouses in the valley. Needless to say, we discovered what De Rust had to offer that night.

Then, there was the romantic stone farmhouse I booked that was owned by the padstal between Aberdeen and Willowmore. Even the names of these Karoo towns will inspire trepidation in any seasoned South African traveller because of the utter nothingness that surrounds them, so much so that people have been known to see apparitions crossing the road at dusk. The farmhouse, it turned out, was a two-hour drive into the farm from the padstal – nothing for the owners, it seems, who are used to living in infinity. Romantic and authentic, but spooky as hell.

Of course, this kind of trip isn’t complete without a stop at a padstal – or a Steers service station – though these two destinations are completely different. Padstals are poetic, and sell things we aspire to enjoy on our mythical holiday, service stations are gritty with toilets and hunger. Usually, the further we get away from Joburg, the more service stations turn into padstals. However, there is one stop close to Bloemfontein, which combines both –Tom’s Place – a forested refuge on a lake, with “slap” chips and petrol attached. Nothing short of a miracle!

Taking three days to do what most do in a day requires a certain level of humility. You have to stop at the Spar in some tiny town to shop for dinner and interact with the locals, who inevitably are winding down for a boozy weekend; you get dirty; and something happens to your car; and on day three, you arrive sticky with sticks in your hair, wowing at the cleanliness and sheer austerity of your coastal destination. But at least your ethereal body is intact.

  • Julie Leibowitz is the sub-editor of the SA Jewish Report.

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