Lost in the Karoo

A beautiful late afternoon game drive in the Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

A beautiful late afternoon game drive in the Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa

Or why you should never let anyone drive for you.

I handed over the driving in Colesburg. I had been behind the wheel since 4am and now that I had broken the back of the distance to Cape Town I was ready to take my place on the back seat for a nice nap while one of the others drove.

I woke up just in time to see a sign flash by at 160km/h that said: “Port Elizabeth” with my friends happily chatting away in the front, clearly unconcerned despite my rising panic.

“Um, Port Elizabeth. Guys, is that right?” I asked, thinking it wasn’t, but not certain since this was the first time I had ever made this particular trip. This was in the days before GPS, when adventurers had to rely on road signs and their own mad lack of self-care to get anywhere, and the sign as we entered Colesburg had assured us that Cape Town was still some distance away, but on that road.

We pulled over and an old battered map book was dragged out, hissing, from its spot under the driver’s seat. As two of us stood outside the car stretching our legs, the driver poked about in the book’s yellowing innards for a while before she sheepishly admitted she had taken us on the wrong road and we were miles from where we should have been. What’s more, the petrol tank was now only a quarter full and judging by the vast amount of nothingness around us, we weren’t necessarily going to make it to a petrol station.

As the only one who hadn’t gotten us lost, I took over the wheel again. Consulting the map, we turned down a major side road it indicated and which we were assured should lead us back to the N1. Fifteen minutes later, this road became a dirt track, but with time now a concern, I kept my foot flat on the Fiat Uno’s accelerator and we tore into the unknown with a cloud of orange dust rising behind us.

There were no other cars in sight as we hurtled down this road, urging the miles to run out before the fuel did. Thirty minutes later, it became obvious this was not going to happen. The road stretched out before us to the horizon and the petrol light was now beaming at us like the evil eye of the HAL 9000 on 2001: A Space Odyssey.

At the next farm gate, I turned left and we wended our way about a kilometre to a small farmhouse, the only building we had seen in some time. We pulled up at the front door and were immediately greeted by a tall man – his moustache huddled and shivering under his nose like a Maltese Poodle that had just done its business on the rug – and his equally skinny wife, who shook our hands, heard our story and invited us inside.

Yes, of course, they could sell us a few litres of petrol the farmer said as ice-cold drinks, and a homemade cake appeared as if from nowhere. We sat politely making conversation about our lives in Johannesburg as the farmer and his employees backed a tractor up to our car to syphon enough petrol to get us to the main road. No sooner was it done, than they both urged us to stay for a meal, but with Cape Town still miles away, we insisted we had to leave.

“How much do we owe you?” I asked.

“Nothing. It’s just a couple of litres of petrol, don’t worry,” he said, refusing my repeated offers of pay.

As we took off down the long driveway, I watched in the rearview mirror as everyone clustered together to wave us on our way, which is probably why we were well on the road before I noticed the dial on the petrol tank now pointed to full.

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