When I was a kid, we would drive across the country to spend Christmas with family. Those were the days before cars could easily and safely cruise at 120km/75miles per hour. Before airbags and seatbelts. Before shatterprufe glass and brakes with ABS. We would get into the family car and point it south. Setting sail for the sea; and raucous, multi-cousined chaos.
I remember lying on the back seat. Cracked leather smell and plenty of room from the four of us. sofabrother and me on the long bench seat. The two small ones nestled on pillows in the foot well. The drive was 1 200 kms or so (800 miles in back then): and we would split the journey over two days – excitedly sharing rooms in a roadside motel midway, stealing tiny Lux soap bars from the housekeeping trays. My mom with a roll of motel toilet paper in her bag: “just in case”.
We would lunch on the side of the road: perched on concrete stools, eating our ‘padkos’. Sometimes savoury mince pies, baked by Glennie, still a little warm in their tinfoil or maybe vienna sausages to be dunked in tomato sauce. Other times: hard-boiled eggs (still in their shells) with salt and pepper in twists of paper towel, or cheese and ham sandwiches – slightly soggy from the waxed paper wrappers.
I don’t remember what we drank – but it wouldn’t have been anything fancy: probably no-name brand ‘oros’. Fizzy drinks (as my mother still calls them) were saved for the Holiday. We knew Uncle Raymond would be buying crates of gaudy coloured “Hubbly Bubbly”. The stubby bottles served individually, ice-cold and full of colourants. That green ‘crème soda” could stain lips and tongue for a full two days.
My Father would drive most of the way, and that car would sway and hum through mile after mile of highway – the wheels whaaaaaaapppping beneath us. Mark and I would bicker about him breathing on me (something I still hate today – by anyone). We would sing “I’m a little Noddy man” to the kids, play endless rounds of i-spy and stop every couple of hundred miles to ‘stretch our legs’. The kids would run around with their cloth nappies hanging down their little bums – and my dad would pee behind a tree.
Then back in the car. Crunching over the gravel to M1 – my dad would swing the VIP wide onto the tar and we’d get an ETA from my mom: “so don’t keep asking me!”. Gradually we would all quiet down: until eventually, there were four sets of rhythmic breathing. I’d sing to myself … pop tunes I’d heard on the radio, Roy would whistle. I loved it – I felt safe.
I remembered all this as we drove back from McGregor today. The weather had changed and the Nans figured there was no chance of a swim. So they hacked about in the garden with their uncle. Chased the dogs around. Ate their body weight in whatever they could find, pinched fruit from local trees, argued, laughed and then said: “let’s go home after lunch”. So we did.
Japer and Hannah fell quiet as we left the village. I drove, shuffling songs on my iPod: singing along to Carly, Barbara, Neil, Flo and her Machine, Bob and Beyonce. Jack finished his bit of travel sinew and snuffled off to sleep in the seat next to me: snipping and jerking as he dreamed.
When we reached the tunnel that would take us back through the mountain to Cape Town, I realised I was ridiculously happy. And with that realisation came a quick wash of tears; suddenly I was back in the warm-quiet as my Dad piloted that big, beige Valiant across South Africa.
The kids woke and smiled at me, stretching their sweet selves, Jack yawned: “Suzie, are we home?”
Yes, my loves, we are.
(Photos: vista copyright c&s, roadside picnic area SA tourism, Chrysler Ad copyright Chrysler)