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[MY TAKE] Family road tripping in South Africa

For our family after various experiments, holidays which are in our own car, at our own estimated departure and arrival times, beats the rush of early morning wake-up calls, after a late night of checklists, to make a boarding time that is non-negotiable.

The passport gathering and associated paperwork, airport gongs, badly marked parking levels and elevator buttons not aligned to floor levels, patronising announcements about unmanned baggage and security risks and very definitely the eerie dread of a silent airport.

One hand on a child, one eye on the flashing information board and then a leap of faith that two of the children are bringing themselves and their bags in our direction. The responsibilities and stress travelling by plane with 4 children is too much (for me). Angelina Jolie does it with grace, full sunglasses and two more children, but thankfully I am not her. I always sense that she is that poised swan on the lake with the busy blurry treading of water under the surface. Children don’t come with remote controls.

Four children implies four carry-on bags and four check through suitcases which usually contain the apparatus they signal to me to find for them in their on-board luggage (which they packed). It is a story. It is our normal and to the understanding, or irritation, of all the child-free or business travellers, there are few choices but for them to see or ignore the busy.

The menu on board (which we always forget to pre book) will contain nuts (or traces) or seafood because those are some of the allergies we live around and what would a trip on a contained plane be without me hunting for antihistamines and having to squeeze past the legs of three or four of the grumpiest people on the plane or planet? Whether our kids are seated with us (we usually book three rows behind each other) or whether they are scattered about, there are always pressing questions, a tissue search or help needed with onboard technology, consistently for 10 to 11 hours.

No thank you, maybe when our nest is empty.

Our home, chores, schedules, school runs and sport activities are run like a military operation, with everyone having their own responsibilities, which usually starts with themselves and their own things. In a public domain it is too hard to manage those expectations and even harder to have none.

Out last memorable and lesson-filled overseas holiday was Christmas 2014. The kids have some of their best memories from that trip. When have you ever walked into a quiet street on a misty morning and seen a donkey, a real baby dressed in swaddling clothes and living, breathing parents Mary and Joseph. On their way to a nearby church for a live nativity scene!? We followed them and were caught in the softest and most magnificent fall of snowflakes. Their first experience of snow. It was magical and Christmas and I’m glad we gave them that.

However, to date nothing beats driving up and down our coasts, through our own country. You feel part of everything, a belonging, a knowing and there is mystery in all the things you thought you knew and once you experience it, you learn something more intimate and juicy.

Thanks to Google we can find out what to expect before we go, but our family still prefer an atlas and Post-its, the fun is endless even if our teen children are rolling their eyes or sighing. We do let them choose the music though. At least the first three songs.

This holiday we started by meandering from Cape Town at 5am. I have not done that since my parents were the drivers. It is actually the best time to be on the road. You are awake and ready for dawn to crack. She comes gracefully and smoothly and quickly and if you look about you will miss the grand opening of a new day. By the time we got to George it was 8:15am. At the petrol station we stopped for coffee and met fellow travellers who have learnt this secret of early morning get-up-and-goes. We nodded at each other knowingly, one stranger suggested I have the chocolate brownies as he popped back to collect his second one and we had a long conversation about our travel plans. We would not have had that conversation at 3pm.

We also met the stares of those off to work, their faces saying: “Are you guys insane not using a winter holiday and sleep-in day to have some coffee at a garage?.” I guess the privilege of being able to go on a road trip is that you meet all circumstances. Driving through the towns leading us to the Eastern Cape we saw many different scenarios. Each one an opportunity to discuss with our children our and other people’s realities. The elderly gogos working the fields from early morning until after 5 at night, the children with dusty school shoes walking for kilometres to and from school: generally they are holding hands, fooling around and very pleasant in spite of not having a mum to drive them about. Big lessons there, just through the observation.

So many women and young girls and boys pushing or pulling wheel barrows filled with fresh water in big heavy plastic cartons. Where does the water come from? How far must they walk if we don’t see any sign of civilisation between us, them, where we come from and as far as we can see ahead of us.

A small village near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape.

Late at night we see people walking for miles and miles to and from work. Where do they work, what do they earn, what time must they be at work tomorrow again? Among the beauty of our drive is the reality that a whole world exists that we have no relation to. People making do with a little and getting on with it. For our children to see donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, chickens and even saddled-up horses grazing the paths of the N2 is fascinating. Mostly they have a herder, sometimes they are free range. It is remarkable.

We spent some time in St Lucia, which is the oldest world heritage site in Africa, surrounded by other world heritage sites. Our plan was to stay over for the night and we knew no history of the town. Our guesthouse owner must be the best brand ambassador for the village. We ended up on a two-hour boat cruise looking for hippos and crocs and we found them. He told us not to walk anywhere at night as the hippos and wildlife are nocturnal and roam the streets. I thought: “what a fantastic marketing blab!” It was intriguing, even if I had my doubts.

That night we drove to the boat club for dinner and as we took the corner from the guest house, the biggest hippo out of water ever was casually walking along with a row of pink flowers down her back… she had obviously waddled through a hedge. We were flabbergasted. We went for dinner and decided to do our own night safari investigation about these nocturnal activities in this otherwise sleepy town. We drove down to the jetty where two hours before we had watched two men fishing and were met by the spooky eyes and rocky noses of two curious crocodiles just watching us. We took a few roads less travelled and two of the 7 hyena in the town crossed our path through the fog lights and just glanced at us to make sure we were seeing what we thought we were.

The hippo in St Lucia definitely trumped the donkey and nativity scene in New York. Seriously, a donkey can be seen in the road on its way to nowhere almost anywhere along our route. Some are in teams pulling a wagon and hurrying drivers about their business on the dusty roads of the Karoo.

I appeal to more South Africans to explore South Africa. There is nothing like it. It is pure and peaceful and you get what you look for. The grass is green where you water it, local is lekker and getting home and feeling more at home than ever in Africa is a feeling not a cache of photos will suffice. So many foreigners enjoying our country, our camp sites, our great hotels, cuisine, cultures and warm hospitality. We should all take some for ourselves. It is right here on our doorsteps. No emergency exit rules to follow, no flashing floor lights to guide us out of the plane. The horizons, the mountains, the valleys and the long roads are paths that lead us home.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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