It was early Saturday morning when Dadonator roused us from our whiskey-laden slumber. Must've been around 5am, even though he wanted to hit the road by 4:30, he must have recognised that Bruce and I would be of little to no use as back-up drivers without an extra hour.
We were leaving Pretoria, barely 24 hours after landing in Joburg and driving through there to visit my Pa in hospital. The night before, I was determined to stay, but there was no need. And my dad would need assistance behind the wheel if he wanted to get back to Cape Town by Saturday night. We started the trek well before sunrise, with dawn chasing our backs, yet dark enough to still feel like night time. Me, in my brother-in-law's Mazda 2, which he graciously loaned me for the trip to Pretoria at 1am on Friday morning, Dadonator in his Jetta (the one just before the current model) hurtling along to North Riding to drop Robin's car before beginning our homeward journey.
The stopover at Robin's place was brief. He had a 6:30 flight to Cape Town to catch, and we wanted to hit Kroonstad by breakfast time. Once there, we managed to catch some Super Rugby action while downing Steers and too-milky coffee at the petrol station diner. It hit me that it had been a while since the three of us had watched a rugby game together, and far too many years had passed since my dad, my brother and I had been on the long road together. It must have been more than a decade ago. Far too long. Far too long to not do what had been such an integral part of our young life. The long road. The packed cars. The skottel-braais at picnic spots at the side of the road. Sitting on pillows and bedding that hours before had kept out the cold that creeps so easily into a car in the dead of night. The cold that lingers long after the sun has risen and sits golden ahead of you, casting a fiery orange glow on everything.
I took the wheel from Kroonstad. The 1.4 TSI is a marvel of engineering. Mated to a six-speed manual gear-box that manages cruise control surprisingly well, it seems this car was built for trips like this. Bruce went into hibernation in the back seat. Dadonator got some shut-eye. Bear in mind that the last time I drove this route was back in 2008 in a Toyota Hilux 2.7 with Robin Adams. It was a company car that we had volunteered to drive to Cape Town after spending a rather long time working from the Johannesburg office. Back then, it was -7 degrees outside, Robin was behind the wheel, we were devouring a bag of apples, singing Kylie Minouge's "Put your hand on your heart" and Adele's "Cold Shoulder" - apparently the only two songs Robin and I had at the time that we both didn't mind listening to for more than a thousand kilometres. It was around 3am. I wasn't paying attention to the road and chose instead to focus on not freezing to death, despite the heater being on full blast, drying my eyes and making me drowsy.
So this time, four years later, it was me driving, in daylight... and I missed the turn-off. One lane slips off along the N1 to Bloemfontein, the other along the R34 to Welkom. In my defence, there was an old Ford F150 bakkie towing an ancient caravan three sizes too big doing all manner of drifting across lanes, so I was less focused on the signage than I was on not dying. But along the R34 we went.
Dadonator stirs from his light slumber and says "this doesn't look at all familiar". I said that we'd get to Bloemfontein eventually. The road was smooth and empty, we avoided much of the roadworks and the ubiquitous trucks that make travelling at a constant 130km/h virtually impossible. We saw some bits of the Free State that we'd never before laid eyes on. Through mining towns and fields of lucerne, freshly cut so the ground looked like a vast stubbly face of an old man who hadn't shaved in a few days. When we re-connected with the N1, Dadonator suggested I pull off as he'd found another back route on his Blackberry's GPS that would bring us back onto the N1 at Three Sisters. I looked across the car at him, he looked to the back seat to find my brother still comatose after two hours of driving, then back at me. I could tell his tired eyes had a glint of excitement in them despite the dark sunglasses he wore. A smile crept over his face only now beginning to show some semblance of ageing. It struck me that I hadn't looked at his face for too long. He could tell what was going on in my head. I barely nodded my ascent before he broke my gaze to look at the road and said "take the N8". His voice lacked the confidence of a man who knew where he was going, but bore all the wonder that had been welling up inside me simultaneously... the prospect of adventure.
We followed the N8 for what seemed like forever. On the road, time passes slowly, but one tends to notice its passage more coherently, so that by noon, it feels like it should be 3PM. With nowhere to go but home, with nothing to do but drive and drink in the beauty of South Africa, and nothing to concentrate on but the road and harmonising John Denver songs with Dadonator (he's so good at that), it's one of the closest things to bliss I have found.
Following the N8 as far as Petrusburg, we peeled off along the R48, a road that at times is so straight with surrounds so uniform one scarcely feels like you're moving at all. The grass grows tall right up to the edge of the shoulderless road, so the car's turbulence causes it to wave behind fluidly. That image in the rearview is something I can only describe as serene. There were potholes that needed dodging, sure, and at times I found myself driving on the wrong side of the road, if only to preserve both my dad's Jetta's suspension and my brother's continued and inexplicable death-like sleep. Follow the R48 along Google Maps and you'll find stretches so straight it defies old-world road engineering.
It's along this road that we stumbled upon the delightful town of Koffiefontein. Once a diamond mining boomtown, it's a shadow of its former self. It's lost its glint. It's sheen is gone. But the small-town dorp feel of the place is a suitable veneer for the deep economic problems so evident just by driving through it. This place has a rich and shadowy history. I'd like to go back some day. We thought, based on the name, that we could grab a cup of the strong stuff, but we were disappointed and decided to continue. The R48 then took us through majestic flat-topped koppies completely uniform in their height, as if someone had heaped up the ground with their hands and then, in one fell precise swoop with a Katana, lopped off all the peaks in one lateral blow. We crossed the mighty Orange River exiting the Free State and into the Northern Cape on a bridge that can only accommodate one vehicle at a time. We had yet to see another car since leaving Petrusburg. It was completely vacant. We could have been the last people on earth, but for the aeroplanes thousands of metres above travelling through air so cold and windless, their jet-stream vapour trails hung in the air for hours at a time.
Hanging a right at Philipstown, we could've continued straight on to meet the N1 at Hanover via the R389 but this was an adventure, dammit. On towards De Aar where we failed to find a place to stop and eat. Heading out of the town I looked over at Dadonator, who again read my mind and said, "let's keep exploring, boy". We met up with the N10 and stopped over in Britstown. I fell in love. There's a hotel there where we stopped for coffee and scones. A whistle stop, really, as the afternoon was dragging on and dusk would soon be upon us. We didn't want to be on unknown roads at night. This hotel... majestic. Its stucco walls are peeling, its cuisine is French, its garden is gorgeous, its courtyard Italian, its wines magnificent. If I ever get married again, it's happening there.
The final stretch of the adventure would take us to Three Sisters first along the N12 and then peeling off onto the R398 through the Richmond district. Dadonator took the wheel from Britstown. I preferred not to sleep, and decided on helping him stay awake. Talking, singing, laughing, feeding him Fanta, biltong, water and Doritos while Bruce slept on in the back seat. It was just before reaching the N1 that I witnessed one of the the most beautiful sunsets I had ever had the privilege to see. Purple, orange, gold, bronze light streaming across the Karoo from the west painting the Three Sisters, those iconic koppies outside Beaufort West, in a palette far too beautiful to find words to describe.
I looked over at Dadonator's weathered face, concentrated solely on getting us home safely. Then out to my left at an oasis in the semi-desert. Lush, green and alive amidst the dry, arid flatlands where dinosaurs once walked. In that moment, I was entirely content. I must have sighed, because when I looked back at Dadonator, he was looking at me. We didn't have to say "it's been too long" or "I really miss this" or "that was an awesome adventure". No, words would have ruined the moment. Just a feint smile, a nod, and the memory of those words as we left De Aar.
"Let's keep exploring, boy."