Like many people, there’s little I love more than a road trip. And it’s thanks to our blighted National Party government that South Africa has an excellent system of national and regional roads connecting the major cities and many of the smaller towns – they built it in the 1970s.
As teenagers in the 1970s and ’80s living in Joburg, my friends and I were passionate about road trips. On the first day of the school holidays, we’d pile into someone’s jalopy and head off to what was then the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga and Limpopo) or down to Durban, stopping often at laybys to eat warm apples and soggy tomato-and-cheese sarmies while sitting on grainy cement benches under solitary trees. Then, after a pee behind a bush, we’d hit the road again – hanging our feet out the windows and playing David Bowie cassettes at ear-splitting volume until the tape deck chewed them up.
Tackling the Transkei (now the Eastern Cape) was a real undertaking – because it was a supposedly independent ‘homeland’, it hadn’t benefited from the National Party’s road-building programme, and it was a perilous rollercoaster ride along a narrow potholed stretch of asphalt with plenty of free-roaming livestock to provide hair-raising encounters as you came around bends.
Breakdowns were common, and part of the adventure flagging down a passerby to take a message to the nearest town – where, usually, the only mechanic was drunk, hungover, surly or usurious (and often all four). Then there was the endless waiting at the roadside for him to come and tow you in, and to tell you that your cylinder-head gasket had blown or your engine block had cracked. Then you had to find a phonebox to call your parents…
Today everything is different. Petrol is so expensive that the one-time white middle-class national pastime of rondry (literally, ‘driving around’) is largely a thing of the past; few are the teenagers who can afford the fuel bill for a road-trip, and even for the better-heeled, the cost can be prohibitive. The welter of ‘one-stop’ service stations has put paid to the tradition of preparing padkos (literally, ‘road food’) the night before and eating it the next day at a designated layby; and, of course, to open-air peeing. If you do break down (although you probably won’t – cars are built better these days), help is a cellphone call away. Our national road system is in a state of apparently neverending upgrade and/or repair – there’s practically no stretch of road left that doesn’t have at least one stop/go in place, and some routes have so many that it can add useless hours to your trip. And our roads are far busier now, and awash with maniacs and truck drivers (sometimes, scarily, the two combined), so any long-distance car journey has to be undertaken with a fair degree of caution.
But road trips are still fun. On the recent one I did with my friend Marianne to Nieu-Bethesda, we came across this sign on the road between Uniondale and Willowmore: probably a welcome one in times gone by, when the nearest ‘one-stop’ wasn’t more than 100km away, but now something of an anachronism.