Ever since I was really young, my family has always taken the road less travelled. I mean this in the most literal sense. Whenever going on holiday, while the rest of Johannesburg was queuing in traffic down the N3 to Durban, we would take the route via-via, taking three times as long to get there, but enriching the trip with all sorts of interesting sights along the way.
My parents even bought me something of a map book-come-travel guide which listed loads of small towns together with their history and… erm… highlights. By the time I was 10 years old, I could quite easily plan a route between Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth with an overnight stop while avoiding all highways. Pretty impressive in a world where internet was still dial-up and navigation apps were but a fantasy mentioned only in science fiction novels.
It’s with this background that I started planning a camping trip to Sabie with Mrs. This was going to be a 5 night epic, complete with a couple of mountain biking trails, a half day hike to one of the numerous waterfalls in the area and some day trips to take in the sights at Bourke’s Luck Potholes, God’s Window and, depending how flush we were feeling by the end, a romp through the southern part of the Kruger National Park. This was all going to be accomplished the old fashioned way. No highways – just us, our map book and the joy of SA’s small back-road towns. So with all the camping equipment tetrus’d miraculously into the back of the car, bicycles securely attached to the bike rack, playlist and snacks at the ready, we were on our way.
Now, there are two major issues with South Africa’s back roads. Firstly, they are not maintained very well. With potholes the size of Vredefort crater having swallowed large chunks of them, there is a high possibility that we did, in fact, drive into one and I am now corresponding from an alternate reality. Secondly, nothing is signposted. I’d imagine that this is directly related to the fact that if no one is using the road in the first place, no one needs to know where they are.
We ran into our first real trouble between Pretoria and Middelburg. The road we were on was parallel to the highway for a while, before gently veering off to the left. We drove for a while before we spotted our first road sign which politely advised us that we were heading straight towards Groblersdal. We were travelling in the wrong direction! We reverse engineered our route and somehow found ourselves in the middle of the informal settlement outside of Middelburg. We could see the town in the distance, so I employed the “as long as we’re going in the right direction” technique, only for the dirt road we were on to disappear suddenly into large body of water.
Now firmly behind schedule we finally made it to Middelburg and located the necessary road sign on the other side of town. It had been a frustrating morning and so once we were confident that we were now back on track, Mrs settled down for a nap. This was a mistake.
About an 40 minutes later, she opened her eyes just in time to see the first signpost since we left Middelburg. It would seem that Groblersdal was runner-up to Rome in the “all roads lead to” competition.
Several irritated cigarettes were consumed on the side of the road as I tried to explain what had happened. There had only been one turn off which was marked by a burnt out warehouse. The map book revealed no new clues as to where we were supposed to be, so we decided to give “burnt warehouse road” a go.
It didn’t take long for us to realise that this seemed to be the route favoured by toll-avoiding 18-wheelers. In a move we didn’t think was possible, the roads also took a severe downgrade in quality, giving the illusion that only 6 of those 18 wheels touched the road surface at the same time. Ironically Guns ‘n Roses “Paradise City” chose this moment to pop up on the playlist as drag-racing trucks levitated past us. We were officially over it. Never have I been so happy to see a road sign as we finally turned towards Lydenburg.
After a record setting 9 hours on the road, we pulled into the camp ground. We joked about the story we could regale to our friends as we set up camp, started the braai fire and cracked open our first overpriced drink from the campsite shop. Perhaps we should have been more mindful as we were clearly tempting fate…