I think my most defining lesson of adulthood is this: Nothing is ever so glamorous or easy as you think. As a child I needed more sleep than most kids (it is possible that my parents merely told me this so that they could get some peace and quiet but I give them the benefit of the doubt) but there was one morning on which I would awake, guaranteed, at 4am, buzzing as if I'd had six cups of coffee - this was Christmas morning. Nowadays, a day off like Christmas seems to carry more reason to stay in bed all morning than any other. As a child, everything was laid on - car trips, dinner, clothing - but now, having just returned from a day in which I spent nearly half a month's wages on food, a car service and a whole load of food and still having to find the energy to cook, I am beginning to appreciate the amount of effort it actually takes. The companionship of Bob and T-Bone is idyllic on the odd evening but earning cash for the vet and making sure they are looked after while I'm away often is not.
The fact that ease and glamour are the two overriding themes of just about all advertising is, I think, significant. As I get older and more jaded, I do anticipate obstacles and drudgery but even my increasing satisfaction in dealing with them doesn't live up to the images put across in adverts and movies. The great unaskables - how do the cast of Friends afford their penthouse suites when they sit in a coffee shop all day; why do retired, fitness-freak commandos chain smoke and never get cancer; how come so many beautiful women get orgasmic delight from using expensive cleaning products all day - are a given in the glittering world of publishing yet somehow far from the reality the purport to promote. I know all this, yet I love to pretend I don't. Until I discover otherwise, I do (partially) believe that OUTsurance will pay quickly and happily; I do think, when I pick it off the shelf, that Malelane mango concentrate will light up my mornings and, frankly, I reckon I'll have plenty of fun on a one-day drive to Cape Town as long as I spend a good half an hour at each One-Stop garage. And so it goes.
Cape Town! What a name! For originality and relevance it ranks right up there with Australia's "Big Sandy Desert", way above the hoplessly inappropriate "East London" and (I'm told) "Paris, Texas" - even if the latter did give the opportunity to Scots siren Sharleen Spiteri's band Texas to sell tickets to a gig in the French capital titled, wittily enough, "Texas, Paris". Kaapstadt is the birth-place of white settlement in Southern Africa, the source of the sea-dwellers, the Mother City (and not just because its veil of pondo fever makes everything take nine months to happen). When the opportunity came up to do a day's work in exchange for enough money to cover travelling down there I could hardly refuse.
As Pimane had finished his term with a few days' holiday from work in hand, it seemed perfect timing - even if it would be a fast trip. I pulled into Pretoria mid-afternoon on Wednesday, in plenty of time for an early dinner, a couple of drinks and an early night. At four o'clock the alarm went and we stumbled down to the car in the dark. It was still inky black and starless when we filled up in Roodepoort, just around the corner from St Barnabas, the school at which I taught when I first lived in Johannesburg. In the dark, we missed the view of campus from the highway but in all honesty we weren't looking - we were going on holiday, not to school! (For an explanation of my exclamation mark there, speak to any 12 year-old) I had calculated that the 1400km trip was going to take around 14 hours, which set arrival at around 6pm, discounting petrol stops, roadworks, lunch, wrong turns and the forty minutes it had taken Pimane to drag me out of bed and into my clothes. Small wonder, then, that my estimate was hopelessly inaccurate.
It was intensely misty for most of the way to Bloemfontein and mostly we spent the time concentrating on spotting which way the road was going and spotting fleeting and beautiful views whenever the road peaked briefly above the morning miasma. We were losing enough time, occasinally going as slowly as 60kph - which is actually slow enough to be below peak fuel efficiency, a lose-lose situation if ever I heard of one - so I'm afraid I don't have any pictures of the spectacular dawn. We reached Bloemfontein in time for breakfast but we weren't really hungry so we filled up and pressed on. Now, let me stress at this point that we had already done the distance from Jozi to Mbabane at this point, yet on this trip we had barely started off. As soon as the sun came up the mist disappeared but as we descended into the Karoo it was replaced with fog, which was (if you'll excuse the pun) mystifying given the bright, clear conditions either side of it. Mostly I kept my cool and drove smoothly enough that Pimane dozed off for a good hour, the lazy sod, and only woke up to me shouting abuse at three people towing caravans who refused to overtake a slow moving truck. To get across the full force of their hesitation, I should tell you that I overtook all four vehicles and pulled in with room to spare before the blind rise ahead without tipping 100kph. Deliberately, in fact.
Anyway, the kilometres rolled by (or rather we did) and I settled into a sort of semi-trance, my eyes clicking through the mirrors and occasionally straying to the outstanding scenery, such and infrequent as it was. The Karoo has the unusual characteristic of being totally flat with occasional rocky deposits (or intrusions) popping out of it. Needless to say, the road makes no concessions and ploughs straight through, at more than one point making perfectly obvious the origin of the term, "cutting". It's straight - oh, Lord how straight - and after a while a corner becomes quite an event, to be celebrated by cracking open a bubbly bottle of Coke or a packet of biltong.
Eventually I stopped being so surprised by how early it was and, as the sun swung around to be in front of, rather than behind, us, I began passing time by calculating exactly how many miles to the gallon we'd done, starting with a list of kilometres and litres per tank consumed, along with guestimates from the dashboard dials. Our ETA varied wildly thanks to the combined effect of my poor mental arithmetic and indecision over whether to stick to 100kph (60mph) for efficiency or 120kph (70mph) for speed. I was fully confident we'd be there in time for dinner, however, until we hit the first of no fewer than five roadblocks, where half the road had been dug up for resurfacing leaving a ten minutes one way, ten minutes the other, single lane on the other half. One guy in a sporty hatchback pulled a smooth move at one of these, reaching the back of the queue just as he saw the "STOP" sign change to "RY/GO" at the front; he then shot down the opposite lane and beat the truck at the front into the single lane section, burning off into the sunset at full whack while the rest of us crawled behind said truck at 60 or 70. I didn't count up the total time we wasted at these roadworks but there were a lot of them and some were definitely being generous with their ten minutes.
We stopped for lunch at one point, wolfing down horrid greasy burgers more as a way of shutting up our stomachs than as a culinary experience. I realise that a Frenchman would have driven into a likely looking dorpie and found a leafy outdoor restaurant in which to enjoy a sample of the local cuisine but to be honest I felt that the time and money were best saved for the coast and - more importantly - the local cuisine in the Karoo is not only available in Cape Town but nothing over which to get overly excited. Remember, this is an area in which potjiekos stew - yes, stew - competitions are held to alleviate the tedium of farming 2 and a bit million acres of maize.
Eventually the sun set and (ironically, metaphorically speaking) it dawned on me that we'd spent an entire day behind the wheel. This was a new experience for me. We racked up a thousand km from home shortly before it got totally dark and the driving became less reminiscent of a bad score in "Test Drive" ("hint - sports cars aren't for sightseeing") and more of a two-dimensional game of space invaders. The road stretched seemingly unendingly into the distance and overtaking stopped being exciting and became like a season of my Mother's favourite radio soap, "The Archers", about which she once remarked that one only needed to listen once in a month because for everything that happened there was a two week build up, a fortnight for everything to happen, and a fourteen day post mortem. Likewise, I spotted cars in the far, flat distance doing maybe a handful of clicks less than I was and would, for a while, be unsure of whether I was indeed catching them or whether they'd merely paused for a picnic and pulled in just over the crest of a hill. Then I would realise that I was indeed catching them and slowly, ever so slowly, their tail lights (what a luxury to be in a country where both tail lights are the norm instead of optional!) would reach a decent distance apart, the number plate would be visible and with a slight sinking feeling I would resign myself to the inevitable failure of the driver to dip his headlights as I passed, and pull into the ocean of unnecessary glare, leaning forward away from my un-dippable wing mirrors.
As we neared Cape Town Pimane remarked that we had only passed two toll gates, and both before Bloemfontein. This was only strange for him because to get from Pretoria to his home near Louis Trichardt in the Northern Province requires almost as much toll money as petrol cash. Shortly after he said this (probably because we had nothing made out of wood to touch) we had a great bit of psychology; first came a sign warning us of a toll gate ahead, then a sign advertising an alternative, toll-free road that was a whole 7km longer than the toll route. Then, just as one was making the decision that it was probably an exaggerated 7km because the toll road guys put up the sign, a sign "warning" us of a tunnel ahead. Now, normally I am unfased by a tunnel but after 1200km of bare road through scenery that makes a sheet of A4 look interesting it sounds like the epitome of glamour. So we paid the toll and cruised into the tunnel which was, as you can imagine, a total let-down, even with huge trucks thundering by and the windows down. I mean, how exciting can a long hole through a mountain really be?
Finally, a long descent into the city signalled the end of the drive. Feeling like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, only having traded my Harley for a Golf (and, yes, not demanding clothes from its owner, or shooting her, or anyone else and - God, you're pedantic - without wearing sunglasses), I cruised single-mindedly through the relaxed holiday-town-on-holiday winter traffic, directly to the Waterfront. (If anyone can explain to me why it's the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, I'd be much obliged. Is it just a spelling error?) Pimane was convinced that there was a Scrooge's there and I was excited by the thought in the same dead way that one gets excited about cornflakes in the morning. I knew that, in fact, I'd be all set once it was in front of me, but I just didn't believe it as I followed the little brown signs as carefully as I could. We parked and hurried through the cold air to the neon warmth of the mall. A quick tour of the food halls soon established that there was no Scrooge's in evidence, so I phoned their Johannesburg branch. Unsurprisingly for a Thursday night, they were somewhat hassled but even so I was shocked that they had no record of the Cape Town restaurant. I hung up and looked despairingly at Pimane. The only thing that had kept me going through the last few hours, namely a cold beer and a kilo of steak, was draining from my immediate future like hot water through a seive. It was also getting late, too late to go looking for another place in town. With a sinking feeling I realised that I'd passed up on a potjie lunch only to get a crappy calamari "dinner" at a sports bar.
Then I was struck with inspiration. The last time I was in Cape Town, nearly four years ago (blimey), I remembered going to a Belgian bar at the Waterfront called Den Anker, which served unremarkable continental food but stood out for its collection of imported Trappist beers. Drinking said beers, I should explain, begins as an adventure in taste but rapidly descends into outright coma as you rack up bottles of Qwak (8%) and Bush (12%) on the windowsill next to you. In fact, the last time I was there, my companion at the time and I were so drunk that we allowed ourselves to be roped into a street theatre performance - a decision the comic in charge immediately regretted as our mimed fist fight almost became the real thing when I drunkenly misjudged a punch and nearly floored a somewhat surprised (if thankfully anaesthetised) Chris. After sweeping the area for any potentially painful street theatre, I resigned myself to finding accommodation within stumbling distance and set off in search of Den Anker, treating Pimane to a breathless monologue about how fantastic it was as we went.
Well, suffice to say that he was thoroughly bored by the time I actually found it but I was immediately forgiven when the first round arrived and we got stuck into an enthusiastic beer-tasting session. I was amazed at how hard the first beer hit me and could only ascribe it to the long drive; I made a mental note always to drive down to the farm and back before next time I go to the pub. The food was actually pretty good, especially since I was ravenous, and made up for the fact that the steak weighed considerably less than a kilo. Still, more room for beer I suppose.
I was somewhat saddened when Pimane remarked that the waitress whose accent I couldn't place was English. Have I really assimilated that badly? We negotiated over purchasing one of their famous Qwak glasses - shaped like a very short yard - and she reported that the boss had turned down sixty US dollars only a week before but would settle for two hundred, as she put it with the exaggerated kick of the head and affected accent that seemed suddenly so reminiscent of society girls I knew in London, back when I was in high school, "SA rond", for a South African. I would have been knocked back by the combination of nostalgia, loss of cultural identity and confusion but luckily I was totally pissed and just said, "great stuff, it's a deal." It was shortly after this that, with the kind of timing that I would have said was significant had I not received a refund from a psychic only a month before, my ex-girlfriend called from the UK to ask how I was. I told her I'd track down a long-distance card and call her back later when I was a bit better suited to such conversations.
We paid the bill and stumbled out into the night which I'm sure was warmer than it had beem when we went in. On the way out of the Waterfront we passed a large pub which served - miracle of miracles - Guinness! I hustled a swaying Pimane through the doors and soon enough we were tucking in to more beer and chatting gamely with an aged coloured man who works in eduator training, strangely enough. I say that only because it used to be my job in Johannesburg back in 1999. We swapped anecdotes and finished the Guinness, forcing us to move on to spirits, in my case, and lager in Pimane's, and I started losing all control of judgment shortly before discovering a calling card in my wallet. Sure enough, I called Marie but - although I have to say that, given the fog of alcohol surrounding my memories, my opinion of the conversational topics is about as reliable as those of an eskimo in northern Greenland - I retained my sense of propriety and we merely exchanged fairly inconsequential news. I think she said she's finished university and is staying on with her current flatmates before going to the US for the Summer, but frankly she could have said she had killed them all and set fire to West Pier herself and I would be none the wiser.
Eventually the bar closed and we set off again in what now actually felt like a balmy evening, despite my body's insistence in shivering. We got to the car in pursuit of coats before the hike to Long Street but after an advance call established that nobody was awake to let us in, we passed out in the front seats.
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