Dad had traded in his trusty little 1,000cc Opel Kadett on a used Mercedes-Benz 180 Ponton. It was then the only car on the road that could maintain sixty miles per hour (100kmh) all day without running a main bearing. In fact, it could sit at top speed all day and beg for more. It didn’t overheat or burn engine oil. In the 1960s, that was almost miraculous.
So, early one morning, we were woken and dressed in our best attire. The tiny stars twinkled and the man in sickle moon nodded. The Merc wafted along the gravel farm roads with aplomb. We felt no jerks or bumps as the soft suspension ironed out any irregularities. Soon, we hit the tarmac to cover the 900km to Montagu. In about 550km, we would make a short stop in Beaufort West to visit my uncle & aunt but also to fill up the fuel tank.
Nobody in those days had money for overnighting and we often drove a thousand miles in one day. We didn’t stop every two hours but pressed on. However, if the driver felt fatigued, he’d pull over at what I had called a “hungry table” by the roadside. These little concrete fixtures were a friendly sight, sometimes under shady trees but mostly out in the open.
The car’s cavernous trunk was laden to the hilt with suitcases derived from their honeymoon in 1956 on board HMS Athlone Castle. There also was a basket with cookie tins filled with the South African tradition of padkos, or travel food. Out came cold sausages, lamb chops, chicken, meat balls we call frikkadelle in Afrikaans, sarmies, boiled eggs, rusks and even fruit cake. Fresh fruit, usually apples and oranges. Filter coffee from Stanley thermos flasks. Maybe a short stroll in the arid Karoo veld would follow while the Bernoulli effect of cars approaching and disappearing in the distance entertained the inquisitive mind. Telephone lines singing a singular note.
Few had the means, in those days, to buy pies or other take-aways. We packed our padkos, our own food, as we grew it ourselves. Nobody bought prickly pears, we had our own. Ditto peaches, strawberries or grapes. Not to mention quinces, plums, apricots, figs.
We would go at a steady 75 miles per hour, which is 120km/h. If we went to greet relatives in Kimberley first, we would drive via Beaufort West and stay over at my aunt’s. The next day, by 5am, we would be far down the N1 highway or whatever that main route was called back then. Narrow and some parts were wide enough for one car only. If another approached, both had to drive with one row of wheels on the gravel shoulder and share the middle. This had, of course, a deadly effect sometimes as several accidents were caused this way.
We would often travel at night and arrive before breakfast or by mid-morning. Cars didn’t have radios and the portable Panasonic Nippon had to find an FM signal in those vast open spaces. We kept our eyes peeled for FM towers up on faraway mountains or hills.
Never did we run a flat or had a car break down. The old Merc was very dependable even by the time it had run up a few hundred thousand miles. Dad apparently became bored and sold it.
Travel along remote roads was safe, we never met with misfortune and banked great childhood memories. The only scary parts were mountain fires in Hex River Pass at night and I feared for the hapless little steenbok and other animals. There was a road sign warning against veld fires and on it was a little antelope shedding a tear while engulfed in flames.
We never slept in the car, fighting with siblings was taboo and we never read. Early in life, we learned to observe and learn.
Travel was an excellent way to educate kids.