Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Road Botherer

So, I finally went and did the big road trip to Pietermaritzburg that I mentioned in the earliest posts of this blag. I had fun at my destination, but I thought I'd just throw out some thoughts about the drive itself, while they're still relatively fresh in my mind. That was the longest single drive I've yet undertaken (near as damn to exactly 1,000km in total, when I seldom do more than 50km is one sitting) and it was quite different to my usual driving experiences. If you do much long-distance driving yourself, then most of this may seem a little tame to you; if you haven't done this, try to learn from my mistakes, lest ye be kill'd on thy own first attempt, should ye happen to encounter similar conditions.

The first thing I noticed was how incredibly fucking long the trip was; this was an illusion, because I'd only covered my first 100km when I had that thought, and really had no sense at all of how much I still had left to go. The next 200-300km are all a bit of a blur, filled mostly with memories of making up silly songs and singing them in silly voices ("O! I once was a very young lad... At a point in time chronologically prior to now," etc.), before running seriously out of steam and carrying on driving much longer than I should have. I kept thinking, "Right, time for a break," only to miss all the convenient stopping points along the way. They don't give you too much warning.

It also doesn't help that you find yourself stuck in a very limited mental pattern after a while, where the whole universe is one of 4 steps:
1. Constant velocity in the left lane.
2. Acceleration to pass a truck that's starting to slow down at the bottom of a rise. If truck is already near the top, probably don't bother. (I was still passing trucks in my sleep that night, so repetitive was the action.)
3. Check distance travelled so far, do a bunch of mental arithmetic around that number and distances predicted on signs.
4. Swear at some asshole in an expensive car who thinks common courtesy and/or the law doesn't apply to those who've wasted more than a certain amount on buying a fancy car.

Noticing other things outside of those 4 takes a real effort after a while. The few things that routinely got through my skull after that pattern settled in were mostly sudden shock wossnames, like roadkill. I saw a dismembered goat leg pass under my car at one point, I think near Bergville. I also took in general changes in landscape and flora, but not closely enough to predict good places for rest stops.

Van Reenen's Pass was interesting, being probably the only interesting-driving section of the whole route (apart from the N12 in Joburg, which I know well and enjoy). On the way down there, the pass was lovely and bright and sunny, and more experienced drivers got annoyed with me for not rushing through at illegal speeds. Which was a damn shame, as I'd much rather have taken my time and enjoyed some lovely views.

And then on the return trip, Van Reenen's Pass was solidly misted up; I couldn't see more than 20m ahead of me a lot of the time, and so people were mostly less keen to drive up my arse, except for one: A police car came screaming up behind me, with no indication that it was an emergency (no ligths nor sirens), while I was already a bit over the speed limit, and sat right on my tail for about a minute, before veering sharply into the left lane (marked as a truck lane), clearly intending to overtake me. Just as he did so, a truck came into sight in that left lane ahead of us, no more than 20m ahead and moving far slower than us. Stupid cop couldn't possibly have seen it when he pulled away, but even when he must have seen it, he showed no sign of wanting to slow down. If I hadn't hit the breaks and made a space for him to pull in front of me, he would have had a choice between ploughing into me, ploughing through the trees and ramming right into the back of the truck. It later turned out that there was a police station about 500m further up the road, and that's apparently what he was in such a crazy, non-official rush to get to.

The last time I did that route was probably November 2001, my matric holiday, when I went down by bus with some friends. But I don't remember that at all (In the Army Now was the en route movie) because a nasty virus made me sleep and vomit through the whole holiday, and I have only about 23 minutes of memory from the whole week or so we spent down there (Summary: playing AD&D, going to the cinema to watch the first Harry Potter movie without actually being aware of the movie, buying cheap Black Sabbath CD, playing Tekken 2 at the local arcade, burying friend at the beach and giving him sand boobs. Not bad memories, just very few of them).

Before that, there were several family holidays down to the coast, and it's funny how many landmarks along the route have stuck in my brain since 1980-something. There's the knobbly hill (looks like erosion has turned it into a cone with a pillar sticking out the top, with a dome on top of the pillar), the little flat-topped hill I always thought was Table Mountain (Durban and Cape Town were the same place to me until I was about 5 or 6, but this hill is also waaaaay inland, I think just across the Gauteng-Mpumalanga border), the approach to Harrismith from the North, and the pines around Pietermaritzburg. The only bit missing from this particular trip was the bit where you get to shout, "I see the sea!" as you mistake some hazy, distant hill between nearer hills for water, and then the actual first sighting of the Indian Ocean. But I was ok with skipping out that step on this particular voyage.

I'm glad I did this trip for many reasons, but I'm specifically glad I drove myself down there, as it was a great experience. I've learned a lot about how this long-distance stuff is done (take more breaks, and then even more than that) and it's always nice to push your personal limits and get out of old comfort zones. But where shall I go next?

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