Between Clocolan and Clarens, there is a road sign I have never seen before: just an exclamation mark. In many ways, it encapsulates our 11-day round trip from Cape Town to the Kruger.
It's pitch dark, we can't see where we are going, because the road has no lines, no cat's eyes, no verge, and it is narrow – and this in the middle of a rainstorm between Fouriesburg and Clarens. That's when I wonder what on earth we are doing, and why we are here.
No number of road signs, or warning signs of any kind can prepare you for everything this country has to offer – from the heart breaking poverty, to the magnificence of an African sunset in the Kruger, cows and chickens and kids and also women with brightly coloured umbrellas next to the national roads, the sight of a large herd of elephants crossing a river, cowboy taxi-drivers, the Golden Gate Park. In this country, the agony and the ecstasy, Hell and Paradise, are never far apart.
READ: Kruger Quick Guide: A first-timer’s guide to SA's iconic wildlife destination
I feel as if I somehow have to try and explain all of this to my three 20-something travelling companions: my sister's daughters from the US (plus one fiancée from Australia). I planned this 11-day trip, after all. It is at the exclamation mark on the R26 in the Eastern Free State that I give up trying to do this at all. I have lived here my whole life and I still don't really understand this country.
As with all major undertakings, the idea for this one started small: what about a weekend away when Kim, Ingrid and Cameron come to visit? What does it matter that I haven't seen them for years?
This quickly morphs into an 11-day expedition to the Kruger in my 13-year old Hyundai Tucson.
Our trip takes us from Cape Town along the scenic route (read mostly off the major national roads) through the Karoo, the Eastern Free State, right up to the Kruger and back – the last 2000 km minus a back window, but more of that later.
With four of us, luggage space is limited, and we are certainly not going to make fashion statements on this trip. Nor are we taking much food. We plan to hunt and gather, so to speak, as we go.
Never ask Kim or Cameron about the grey BJ's burger in Bethlehem, but do ask about the vetkoek and mince in Barberton. And the braais in the Kruger.
And Harrie's Pancakes in Graskop.
And the lamb in Nieu Bethesda. I could carry on, but for your sake, I won't.
The lowlight was Ingrid trying to cook pasta in a cup of boiling water the one evening when we had no kitchen. Al dente does not begin to describe it. The raw curry powder she added didn't help either. By the way, we found out in the end that Maggie 2-minute cheese noodles do indeed go well with biltong, in case you wondered.
Six nights of accommodation are booked in the Kruger Park – obsessive online checking finds us some cancellations – and a 3-day/2-night road trip on either side would get us there and back and we would get to see much of the country. It is to be the scenic route, some gravel roads, some secondary roads, and some very small towns (Nieu-Bethesda, Clarens, and on the way back Wakkerstroom, and a farm outside Cradock).
So far so good.
Kim, Ingrid and Cameron make fantastic travelling companions – funny, uncomplaining, interesting, interested, patient and kind. And I am not just saying this because they are family and they know where I live.
When you are driving 800km in a day, a petrol station with a well-stocked shop, a friendly attendant and a clean toilet is just quite simply heaven. Road trips make one's parameters shift significantly. But we quickly find out that not all petrol station toilets are created equal.
You find the good, the bad and the ugly. The ones where you have to go and search for an attendant to ask for the key (always large and attached to a piece of crumpled and stained cardboard) are the worst: chipped tiles, wet floors (you hope it is water, but know it is not), no paper, no toilet seats, and certainly no soap.
But desperation quickly makes you drop your standards, and we go nowhere without our own paper, courage, and Ingrid's bottle of hand sanitiser.
A rule of thumb: if there is a torn and tatty sign on the wall asking you to leave the toilets as you found them, you can be sure the previous 50 users did just that. And added a bit of squalor of their own.
Then the R2-toilets. Always relatively clean and empty – but more often than not, the R2 slots don't work. No fun when you have been crossing your legs and praying hard for the last 50 km of potholes.
And then, bless their souls, the attendants who keep toilets spotless, shining, papered, and dry. There's a special place in heaven for you. You are indeed a traveller's friend.
We quickly learned to avoid toilets in stand-alone garages not part of major chains. Some of them are downright creepy and remind strongly of the start of horror movies, flickering single neon light and all. Rather do your thing by the side of the highway.
The winner? The Engen outside Worcester. The loser? A nameless and faceless place in Carolina. Just don't go there. But desperation is an ugly thing.
Some roads were paved with good intentions many years ago, by the looks of it, others were just plain gravel with no social pretensions. Avoid the 80km stretch between Klaarstroom and Willowmore – there are no warning signs of deep and sudden ditches. And lots of warnings when there is absolutely nothing to fear.
The back road to Nieu Bethesda is also not for the fainthearted. I was driving on both of those, but Cameron dealt with worse nightmares to come like the 2-hour stretch on the N1 in the pitch dark, and the deadly 02:00 home stretch – I was immensely grateful for the many times that I did not have to deal with the stream of massive trucks, impatient taxi drivers and manic drivers, who don't dim their lights. All hail to Cameron, who got us back in one piece. I guess the Australian Outback was good training.
I am amazed our road death toll in SA is not higher. Secondary roads (anything with an R in front of it) we find range from fabulous to total death traps. And the driving skills of the average driver get an F.
But the views everywhere are astounding.
So are the potholes. The municipalities who bother to warn you about potholes have fixed many of them – it's the ones who say nothing that should have you worried. Such as between Fouriesburg and Clarens, and Volksrust and Wakkerstroom. Also, the smaller the towns, the more treacherous the unmarked speedbumps close to the welcoming signs. I am surprised my car still has shocks.
One minute after entering the Park at Crocodile Bridge, we see elephants and lions. The bar is set very high – too high, I fear. But the Kruger does not disappoint.
This is my sixth time there, and never have I seen such an array of astonishing things: from large herds of elephants (23 of them crossing the river at the aptly-named Olifants), baby elephants being given a dust bath, lions (three times), countless giraffes, zebras, impalas and wildebeest, genets, jackals, a cheetah chasing an impala, hippo fights, sunbathing crocodiles, baby hyenas, buffalo up close and personal, owls, eagles, vultures eating a carcass, and countless troupes of monkeys and baboons - often busy raiding the camps.
Kim spends hours watching fascinating insects, birds and lizards – the Small 5, no doubt.
We do the Sanparks accommodation thing – family chalets and tents.
We just don't have the equipment for camping. We manage river views in Lower Sabie, Tamboti, and Letaba, and it is nothing strange to see and hear families of hippos from the verandas. The chalets have aircon – welcome in 37-degree heat. It rained in Tamboti, for which we were grateful - the heat would be a problem with just a fan.
But it is a true paradise where you can see a buffalo from your veranda while sipping a glass of red wine.
The jumping tree
A loud crash announces that I have just backed into a tree in Orpen rest camp. There is glass everywhere, as the back window has caved in. My first real smash in 36 years of driving. It is a Saturday, and the nearest town is Hoedspruit – no pulsing metropolis. Nothing is open anyway. The insurance company can't do much either right now. I have visions of disaster, of a holiday cut short, of some grim emergency accommodation somewhere and of us squeezing into some rental car.
Between Zimbo and Wonderboy (2 employees at Orpen), pieces of glass are removed from everywhere, and 3 thin sheets of plastic are stuck over the back window by means of duct tape. They come suspiciously prepared, and I find out that particular tree next to the ladies' toilet frequently has victims.
I am panicked, but it turns out the car is mechanically fine, there is no damage to the suspension, and we head for Letaba with slightly flapping plastic between us and the Big 5.
And as if on cue, not 5 km down the road we see the sighting of the trip – a cheetah crouching, and stalking, and chasing an impala right next to the road. The impala somehow managed to get away, but it was an incredibly close call. As was our crash.
It is a holiday of sunset braais, of picking up family stories and connections, endless open roads, good red wine, thunderstorms, sneaky potholes, rainbows, petrol station pies, animals, animals, animals, industrial plastic over the back window, kind strangers, visiting hyenas, and the full spectrum of petrol station toilets.
I would do it again tomorrow.
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