The long and winding road

WHEN we were much younger, a holiday involved getting in the car and driving to a destination, often overnight so that the kids could sleep in the car while we took turns to drive.

The wide open spaces we travelled through were just the boring bits that had to be endured while entertaining fractious kids on the way from A to B.

Photography involved the use of expensive film and processing, so only the most dramatic landmark merited a stop to record it for posterity.

Since then, the kids have flown the nest and we are older and, if not wiser, certainly lacking in such stamina, which has forced us to take a more leisurely approach to road trips.

Now the road is not a means to a destination, but is the destination itself, and digital photography has enabled us to become rather more prolific in our picture taking.

As a bonus, the regular photo stops allow opportunities to stretch our legs and ease stiff and aching joints – ideal for those of us who have left spring-chicken status behind.

We have evolved a rhythm of travelling that entails having a certain amount of time we can be away, a vague idea of somewhere we would like to go and a list of things we might want to see along the way.

We make few, if any, advanced bookings and just start heading in that direction, doing our best, wherever possible, to take roads we have never travelled before.

Nothing is cast in stone and often we never make it to the intended destination, because we find so many other fascinating things en route.

On one trip to Lesotho a couple of years ago, it took us three days just to reach the southern border because we were travelling through remote and beautiful parts of the Eastern Cape, and had no idea our own province was so lovely. We stopped endlessly to take pics and enjoy the fresh air and surroundings. With this type of travel, because there is no pressure to be anywhere at any time, the holiday begins the minute we start the car to embark on the journey.

We sigh with pleasure, shake off the mantle of daily pressure and demands, and gently ease into a laid-back relaxed sense of well-being, tinged with the expectation of unknown discoveries and treasures to be unearthed. Even the most sedentary trip becomes an adventure.

There is no rush, so encountering slow drivers or other obstacles along the way does not result in rising blood pressure and frayed tempers, but is rather an opportunity to take in the surroundings.

Similarly, dirt roads are not a deterrent; in fact to be honest, many are better than some of the tar roads we have travelled recently. Anyway, they just mean you travel slower and it’s easier to stop for lots of photos along the way.

Even getting lost is not a train smash, just another new road to investigate, and maybe even a new destination if it is too much trouble getting back on track.

For many decades, if the Karoo was mentioned to me, a stereotypical image would come to mind, born of a couple of interminable trips from Zimbabwe to Cape Town as a child.

They were long and tedious mid-summer ventures in the back of an old heap long before air conditioning was an everyday item, and when the most riveting in-car entertainment was “I spy with my little eye”. To my pre-adolescent mind, this was especially hard on the endless straight road that ran across the flat surface of the Great Karoo, with no need to divert left or right from one horizon to the next, since there seemed to be little to divert around.

Once one had exhausted “flat topped conical hill, windmill, sheep, small bush, heat haze and blue sky,” there seemed little else worth I-spying.

However, I am glad to report this perception has changed radically in recent years, with our new approach to travelling.

The Karoo has not changed, it is still pretty much about flat-topped conical hills, windmills, sheep, small bushes, straight roads and blue sky, but having changed the way I view things, it is now completely captivating. For us, one of the unexpected aspects of travelling like this has been the utter delight of meeting such fascinating people. We are usually so “peopled-out” by the time we go on leave that we have always been rather anti-social travellers, a quiet spot away from the crowds is our ideal.

But when, in the middle of nowhere, we encounter some colourful local character who is able to give us an insider’s view of a place, or tell fascinating stories of their life, or about some little hidden gem that the tourist guides have overlooked, it enriches the journey immensely.

A recent jaunt into the heart of the Great Karoo resulted in meeting some of the last remaining San alive today, while admiring their ancestors’ rock engravings at Wildebees Kuil outside Kimberley. We were also treated to true Namaqua hospitality on a farm where we ended up while in search of corbelled houses built of stone by the trek-boers two centuries ago.

A real highlight was running into an unrecognisable old friend who used to be an uptight and image-conscious fabric rep in the interior design industry and who now wanders around in baggy shorts, bearded and barefoot, hosting the most extraordinary junk emporium in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere.

On a recent meander, we covered seven provinces and 4200km in 11 days. We have wonderful new memories, and an inexhaustible supply of photos to keep us busy until the next time. Mmm, which direction we should head in then?

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