Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Going for the jugular

We’re conservative when we should be brave, we underestimate the cars we drive and we underestimate ourselves. Both are capable of more than we sometimes care to imagine, as Nick van der Leek discovered, driving a Chrysler Neon up Naudesnek

I will show you you’re so much
Better than you know – Sade, By Your Side

Overall, South Africa is marginally ahead of the world average with 135 cars per 1000 of population, this despite one stubborn citizen purposefully going without a car. Believe me, being without my own car for just over a year in South Africa is no picnic. It’s tremendously frustrating. By September I am on the verge (again) of breaking up with my girlfriend (after yet another fight over this not so innocent sounding question: “Wanna come pick me up?”) and two months later, having survived plenty of near death experiences on a bicycle, I am finally on the verge of tears.

The world may or may not be on the verge of some kind of fossil fuel crisis, but I’m going down with a car. That’s my decision. It may be getting late at the Easy Motoring Party, but it’s not over. There are a few (probably bad) reasons for my intransigence: the fluctuating possibility of heading back overseas after a 4 year stint overseas, the price of oil that seems on a collision course with $100 (well, it seemed almost certain in August) and third and most important, if I am going to buy a car I want to buy something special. I guess I am one of those people who care about the environmental impact of hundreds of millions of cars on the world’s roads. Since I’m looking not only for value, at a low price, but also something that’s practical and energy efficient, I let a few good deals slip by. But as Christmas approaches, I start reaching for back issues of TOPCAR and Die Volksblad’s Motoring Section on a daily basis. I’ve got my heart set on the Yaris, but right now I can’t afford it.

In the end it is a confluence of events that does it. What probably got the ball rolling in a big way was me making conversation at a farewell party for a friend. ‘I’ve found the car I’m going to buy,’ I tell them, ‘and I’m about to clinch a sweet deal.’ I tell them more about the car (a second hand Tazz with 18 000km on the clock), then I start self congratulating myself (and my listeners also offer polite pat on the back support) when my buddy, a second hand car salesman, interjects, saying: ‘I can get you a much better deal than that.’
We have a short conversation which boils down to this challenge from me: ‘Prove it and I’ll buy it.’
Well plenty of time passes, at least two months, and finally one day his call comes through.

His timing is perfect. I’ve just emerged on the other side of another carless weekend where I’ve had to pass up the 94.7 cycle race. Adrian calls to say he’s bringing around a silver Chrysler. I register, but I’m not sure what I’m registering. Before we’re done talking on the phone I’ve noticed that Adrian sounds pretty upbeat. This could be it, I’m thinking.

Now I realise Chrysler isn’t a very well known brand in this country. Adrian says he’s bringing me a Chrysler Neon, and the world ‘Neon’ conjures (in my mind anyway) a dinky toy car like a Chevy Smart or a Ford Ka. When the Chrysler pulls up at right angles to my driveway I feel my eyes fill up – not with frustration – but with this long silver fish. It immediately jumps in my stomach, stirring some chemicals down there. Hope? Love? Ambition?

Getting into the soft leathery gray cockpit brings back my dad’s Mercedes, and why not, Chrysler, I’m sure you’re aware, is now owned by the same company that owns Mercedes. Any lingering frustration is soothed away by the cool, smooth ride. While we’re swooshing like a soft breeze through suburbia, I’m remembering Chrysler advertisements from somewhere. What’s the tagline? Oh yes: Inspiration comes standard. I like that. I also like that this car has won plenty of awards in the States. I’m not surprised. It certainly oozes potential; it certainly sparks with promise, and has enough gadgets inside to rival an Audi or a Beemer.

There’s something else. I like that this isn’t a Tom, Dick and Harry car. It’s not pretentious either. It’s simply something fairly rare and stylish in this country. So why isn’t it a success story here? Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing one anywhere, ever, before this one that’s cruising smoothly under the gentle pressure of my slipslop.

Naturally I have some reservations about a brand that is still largely unknown in my neck of the woods. I mention this to Adrian. He calls the local John Williams to inquire about parts (they’re very expensive) and after a few minutes of driving we spot a navy blue version spangling hot summer light back at us as it swings into a corner. The Neon has some of the biggest front and rear windscreens you’ll see on a sedan. It’s got a touch of the Mazda MX6, but otherwise it’s its own creature and a motor vehicle that’s unique and affordable has got to be special.

But still, something doesn’t feel right. It’s like an incredibly hot woman comes onto you, out of the blue, and you’re looking over your shoulder and then back at her like: ‘Okay, what’s the catch?’ This feels like that. The Chrysler is purring, and apparently perfect. I’m looking for a defect, a noise, but she’s smooth as silk. Except for the tires that need replacing, my buddy has brought me a car that just looks too expensive. I’ve been holding out for a budget car – maybe a Tazz or at best, a bargain basement Yaris. Something small and quick, but not just cheap. I want value. A fairly tall order, and Adrian has come through on the value, but this is big enough to be a family car. And Adrian’s offering me less than the trade in price, by a few thousand. I trust him, but he is still asking me to stretch out of my comfort zone, financially I mean.

On the other hand I am also kind’ve flattered that he associates this car with me. ‘When I saw this car, I immediately thought of you.’ Those are his exact words. It’s taking me a while to buy into the idea too, because buying a car is an emotional choice. It’s a declaration of intent, it’s a declaration of one’s manifest destiny, and it’s a declaration in rubber and metal of the body and bones driving it – whatever we may pretend otherwise. Since I’m an aero-junkie (I do cycling time trials and triathlons for fun, where lightweight aero components are key), I instantly buy in to this car’s low aero profiling. And I like the Neon’s smooth but confident, and original, understatedness.
Long story short, I buy the car – in cash – the same afternoon, within a minute or so of the bank closing. ‘If there’s a catch,’ I am thinking, ‘I’ll find out this Christmas, when I finally get myself and my girlfriend out and about and on the open road.’

For my girlfriend the car is love at first sight. She says: ‘I’ll be able to sleep while you’re driving.’ That’s a helluva compliment coming from someone who still has facial injuries from a brutal car accident (in which her sister died) when she was much younger. She still has scars pretty much everywhere. She immediately gets in and starts pressing the window buttons, a big smile lighting up her face. ‘I love you,’ she says, pulling at my hand, kissing and hugging my arm and then my neck. (Thanks car, I’m acknowledging inwardly).
So now that I have a wagon to whisk me and my beloved to Holidayland; all that’s left is a little something called insurance.

On 22 December, 2007 at 2:55pm I hand in the signed documents (to the only occupant of an evacuated building), and walk away feeling queasy. It will only be Tuesday or sometime next week before these documents get processed, I’m thinking. Not ideal. Better drive extra carefully anyway, not take any risks I’m telling myself, especially seeing as though there are now 136 cars on the road, for every 1000 of us.

Day 1
When you’re lost and you’re alone
And you can’t get back again
I will find you darling and
I’ll bring you home – Sade, By Your Side

We depart at 8:15am on a Sunday, the 24th. We decide to drive from Bloemfontein through Clarens to see my sister. My sister works on a Nature Estate on the most Southern Spur of the Drakensberg. The Estate is on the Mooi River, and it’s called The Bend. You have to drive around Lesotho, skirting big mountains with names like Champagne Castle, to get to the thatched mansion. My sister digs it because she gets to ride horses whenever she wants to, and she and her three horses get free board and lodging. She manages the guests and makes sure the weddings that happen there are picture perfect. I’m also meeting my father there, but after Chrismas together I reckon we’ll quickly hit the highway for the beach and then swing back.

It’s a day that pours with rain right across the country. The heavy rain goes on right through the Free State, and it doesn’t let up after our stopping for lunch in Clarens. The car is handling the deep puddles of rain with elegance and wit – something that gets slippery and difficult whatever you’re driving at speeds in the wet approaching 100km/h. My girlfriend sleeps and the rain just plays its soft tunes on the Neon’s roof.

And it’s while we’re on the road in the rain (and there’s nothing to see, and no one to talk to) that I conceive of this heinous plan: instead of just heading back the way we’re coming, we’re going to circumnavigate Lesotho, hugging the escarpment as closely as mechanically possible (maniacal laugh). It’s a simple strategy, but in the end, one that will require plenty of courage, grit and determination (from man, co-passenger and machine). My girlfriend sleeps on, curled like a fetus on the passenger seat, with no idea what has taken root while being whisked over slick wet roads.

After Nottingham Road, she wakes up and darkness is falling. I feel a little uneasy: have I taken the wrong turn? Am I still on the right road? I am about to call my sister when I spot the sign, and turn the low nose of the Chrysler onto an exceptionally muddy road. Little do I know this is to be the theme of hundreds of kilometres to come. But it’s Christmas Eve, and so far we’re driving just the manageably short dirt section from the tar road to The Bend. Here I meet the sister I haven’t seen in two years. ‘Nice wheels Nick,’ Candice grins, arms unfolding upward like wings when we arrive. ‘Yours too,’ I say, giving her a hug, and introducing my girl. While they are getting to know each other (girls never seem to waste time going into girl-talk-conspiracy-mode) I stroll towards my sister’s little chariot. She obviously needs a good, tough little car to handle these rough roads day in and day out, and it looks the part. High off the ground, zippy and used to dirt.

When I ask Candice about her car, she gives me the low down. 2005 Fiat Palio Go, 1300, with mag wheels and 30 000km on the clock. She calls it ‘my little 4x4’ I assume because she feels she can drive it anywhere. She kicks the Goodyear tires meaningfully, explaining their longevity over dirt roads as opposed to other tires. She also points out that its suspension has been raised slightly and she uses the word ‘smooth sailing’ to describe her trips on and off tar along the Midlands Meander. She says the raised suspension also allows her to load up the tjor with 3 x 40kg bags of horse feed when needed, without, she illustrates helpfully ‘the car’s back bumper shooting sparks on the tarmac’. It’s something I’ve experienced a few times in the Chrysler, which has a damn low suspension, not helped by the plastic wind scoop perhaps just a big hand – as opposed to a foot – off the ground, and set back, just behind the front spoiler.
But Candice hasn’t stopped talking about her Fiat. She says she can’t push much faster than 140km/h (she’s a redhead), and describes it as fuel efficient but not conducive to fornicating in the backseat. Meanwhile, this car talk has sent my girlfriend wandering off to smoke something on the steps of our converted barnhouse.

With the cars hovering in the grass outside, flecked with mud in the gathering gloom, we go inside and leave the sleeping mountains to the stars and a big feta moon.

Day 2
You know me better than that – Sade, By Your Side

During the drive to Balgowan, I remind myself and my girlfriend that the reason we’re here at all, the reason why my sister left Port Elizabeth and is now co-coordinating weddings and booking in guests in these incredible surroundings is thanks to a trip I made here in January 2006. I drove across Lesotho on a photo-journo assignment for an outdoor magazine, and ‘The Bend’ was one of the places I stayed over. Matt, son of the owner, had let slip that they were looking for someone who could work with horses and people and do the secretarial stuff: I called my sister and bob’s your uncle, Candice got the job.

PineTop Lodge is where we had our Christmas lunch. It’s near Balgowan and that famous boy’s school, Michaelhouse. At the dinner table are British flying instructors who live in Saudi Arabia, and doing their thing at a Top Gun school for the Saudi Air Force. One of the guests is a sprightly old woman who worked with Smuts once upon a time, we’re told, and is one of South Africa’s first fighter pilots. Champagne flows, the food is delicious, and we play a game where Christmas gifts are passed around and numbers allocated, with those allocated ‘7’ having the final choice to choose what they want (meaning, swapping their inferior gift with your own if it comes to that).

It’s an enjoyable day spent lounging in conversation with interesting people one might never see again. When we leave, I notice Dad’s Mercedes, an old white ship that seemed to me, as a young teenager, something like the Titanic of cars. When we wave and drive down the tree lined driveway, I feel a sense of my own realization. The car maketh the man, and the Chrysler speaks appropriately, for the moment, about where I am, and in particularly, where I am in relation to the old man.

While my sister and girlfriend trade cigarettes back at the barnhouse, I venture outside and see at least two streaks of light as high up meteors burn themselves to white hot streaks of chalk dust in the deep midnight sky.

Day 3
And if you want to cry
I am here to dry your eyes
And in no time
You’ll be fine – Sade’s By Your Side

When we leave ‘The Bend’ it’s 9am and already warm, muggy and overcast. I put the aircon on fullblast, and as I do so, that the Chrysler becomes noticeably less powerful. We try to avoid the N3 and its tollgates, meandering pleasantly through Hilton Road (and its impeccable schools). We stop at a bank in Edenvale to cash a Christmas cheque. I give my girlfriend half the cash, as per the instructions in the Christmas card, and put the rest into the Chrysler’s almost empty 60 liter tank. Fuel consumption is slightly less than 10km/per liter, which is to say, quite thirsty.
As we drive, pregnant clouds loom over us. We drive along the Comrades route (some incredibly steep descents), and find the South Coast, with Margate and the rest jam packed and miserable in this weather. Rain pelts down on holiday traffic, until the roads are reduced to ruby’s traveling one way, and diamonds the other. We make about 20 stops at random guesthouses, and finally, in need of a break (and we are on holiday after all) we scoot out the car at Ramsgate for a little walkabout on the beach. There’s a pleasant smell in the air, the aroma of nature, of forest, of soil and of the sea. It’s nice to feel the foam croarsing under our toes, and the sea breeze lift over a solemn sea.

It’s getting late when our sugared feet are back in the car. We do some more reconnoitering but everywhere is full, even as far as Port Edward. So we head to Kokstad, and I make the mistake of choosing to drive on a secondary road (on my map it is two thin red lines) that runs parallel to the N2, through fenceless Transkei, on a night where low lying clouds settle like giant spaceships over the landscape. The alternative, I learn later, was a thin green line on the map linking Port Edward to the N2; a road which the map wrongly indicates as inferior to our road of choice.

The potholes on this road are like the mouths of monsters suddenly opening in the tar – sometimes as wide as the lane, and being a cyclist I have the reflexes of a cyclist but it’s not enough: I dig the left side of the car into a deep grave dug into the tar. Gloom has settled over the landscape, and worse, clouds park over the road, reducing visibility even more. GHHHRAMMMmpffff. Again, the whole car jerks, and for a sickening second I am testing the steering wheel to see if the wheel alignment is still okay. It is. But now I am doing rerun’s of my jaunt into the empty insurance building. Yes, it’s quite possible that I’m not insured at all. GHHHRAMMMmpffff. My girlfriend is soon in tears, and it is getting scary for me too. She’s demanding we turn back, but I’m saying what that pilot says in Star Wars (just before Darth Vader blows him up): “Almost there…almost there…”
It’s dark now, there’s a gash of worry across my forehead. Apparently we’re not far from the N2, and the smooth tar tempts driving at say, 100km/h, but then suddenly there’s this chunk missing from the road again: GHHHRAMMMmpffff. This road through the undulating armpits of hell seems to go on forever, with mists getting thicker and steamier, the potholes swallowing up more and more of the road. From Magushani we take a connecting road towards Fort Donald (which on my map looks a bit like a railway line with its alternate shading, suggesting a very poor road). It turns out to be a very decent road, except that it takes us into the nucleus of a cloud, so that we can only see 10 metres or so in front of us. Nevertheless we see ghost cars racing out of this miasma as though these foggy curtains were covering only us, like the puffy interior of a motorway coffin.

Somehow we make it to the N2, and soon after, we arrive in Kokstad. After a dozen calls to guesthouses we find place at the one we drove by first – The Old Orchard B&B. It’s past 10pm. We quickly collect some Nando’s for dinner, then settle in to delicious white linen, glad to be alive after a harrowing drive, and safely in bed; the arms of sleep take us somewhere beyond our long, and difficult road.

Day 4
You think I’d leave your side baby
You know me better than that
You think I’d leave you down
When you’re down on your knees
I wouldn’t do that – Sade’s By Your S

The next morning is bright and beautiful, the nightmare drive cleared away into the deep vaults of sleep. A new dawn, a new day, and it starts off with a wrong turn, but it doesn’t seem to matter, because my girlfriend and I are fully engrossed in a lively debate about life, the universe and sex. We’re discussing something I read about couples who complete in triathlons being more compatible and supportive of each other because they schedule time to train and relax together. We’re driving from Kokstad to Swartberg, soothed by the sounds of Sade’s Lover’s Rock, and as we turn towards MacLear, I realize Swartberg is where my journey through and around Lesotho ended, in January last year. So this is full circle for me, I realize meaningfully. Because somehow it is very meaningful that I find myself here again, perhaps not entirely by mistake, to do the other half of circumnavigating Lesotho. And to do Sani’s alter ego.

There are mists and the dirt roads are sometimes troublesome, but after the terror in Transkei, which has perhaps prepared us for today, the road seems remarkably manageable. We jump onto then off strips of tar around small towns, and on a stretch of tar on the R56, just after Mount Fletcher, a traffic cop stalks onto the road from behind a roadside Acacia.
He is quite a large and imposing fellow. He asks me for my driver’s license. I give it to him (something he apparently didn’t expect), and we’re on our way again.

I mention to my girlfriend that corruption is so bad in Nigeria that there are roadblocks every couple of kilometres. The police find fault with your vehicle, and you’re supposed to bribe them in order not to go to jail. You pay and then drive on to the next roadblock.
TIA: This Is Africa.
My girlfriend reflects that the N3 is not much different: you drive a few kilometres, pay some money, drive some more, pay some more. TISA: This Is South Africa.
Okay then.

We’re approaching MacLear now and the last 50km are bad. They’re constructing a tar road, so there are two dirt roads, one under construction, the other, the one we’re on, in much worse shape. The scenery at least is good. Streams become roaring, toiling torrents in the unseeable chasms below the road, we spot the brims of two large waterfalls. The landscape, with its rolling emerald hills, lowing cattle and low lying clouds reminds me at turns of the Scottish highlands, minus the bonnie heather. Meanwhile the road belches itself onto the smooth tar once again at MacLear. We arrive hungry and mildly traumatized just after noon, and turn in to the Royal Hotel for lunch.
We sit on the veranda, the Chrysler standing sleek and still alongside towering 4x4’s. I eat a chicken schnitzel; my girlfriend is having pork ribs. The Royal Hotel has photos on its walls dating back at least a hundred years. In this country, that’s a lot. There are pictures of whitewater rafting that appear to be taken on the Colorado River, but they’re local drops, and impressive too.

I ask our waiter about driving to Rhodes from here, about the condition of the road to Rhodes.
But I start with this leading question: “Does the road get better from here to Rhodes, over Naudesnek?”
“No, it gets a bit worse,” he answers, more to my girlfriend than me.
So we leave the few strips of tar that crisscross MacLear, and begin to haul ourselves over dirt road that is blood red in the rain. The mist covered mountains and pine forests are beautiful to drive through. A bakkies passes us, its occupants ogling us (are we crazy?) before turning off the road, and heading towards a distant farmhouse. We climb higher and higher. But it’s different to last night’s ghoulish drive. The mist is almost a blinding white, filled with sun. Trees, road, and us, filled with this unnatural light.

We drive slowly, but we wouldn’t be going much faster even if it was clearer. We stop for the occasional magical picture, then drift deeper, through the silky mists, fingering our way softly through the countryside.

Then we climb beyond the fingers and see a massive bluish escarpment rising innocently, like a blue wave in a gentle summer sun, beckoning to our road. We pass a sign board that indicates the little hamlet of Rhodes is just 70 something kilometres away. I don’t mention to my girlfriend that we’re traveling at less than half that speed most of the time. The road becomes more muscular, the bare knuckles of its spine increasingly exposed as we climb further and further up. The middle-mannetjie scratches the bottom of the car, but a car is not a dog. Getting the Chrysler’s belly scratched isn’t comforting. I mount the middle-mannetjie, which is getting worryingly deeper, and perch the other set of wheels just off the road. Now we’re traveling at 20km/h, and I am hyper vigilant for rocks that might be hiding in thick grass. Some way up we encounter the shining bodies of cattle, their muscles flashing in the sun. A bakkie is parked with its nose inside an open gate, and the farmer is nearby, doing his thing. I hover, and he walks over. “Am I going to make it with this car?” I ask him, after a brusque two-way hello.
“You can go anywhere if you drive slowly. Just don’t drive too fast, that’s all.”
We wave and continue up. The old guy certainly has guts. I somehow imagined him telling me to turn around. Perhaps I wanted him to?
Anyway, the road is now much too steep to even contemplate a u-turn. And wow oh wow, the views unfolding around us are spectacular.

Doubt nevertheless lingers, as we dodge boulders and the car does another quick rendition of the GHHHRAMMMmpfff Symphony I have to choose my line carefully, and my girlfriend makes some helpful suggestions. There are some sections that seem impossible. Once or twice I yank up the handbrake and check out the strata dead ahead, then I guide the silver Neon on a line. Easy peasy. And so, we make it up the highest pass in South Africa. It’s exhilarating at the top. We spend some time absorbing the stupendous views. Cool, thin air, nags at us. We have this all to ourselves, because not a single vehicle passes us on the way up. I jump onto the sNaudesnek sign and my girlfriend snaps a picture. Who would have believed it?

I fear going down may be just as tough, or worse, but it’s not. We fly down softer soils on the other side. Even so, it takes us around 3 hours to cover those 70-odd kilometres.
We’ve speeded up coming into Rhodes, leaving toiling dust behind us, flying towards the flaming sunset ahead of us. We create a furious snake of dust that disappears into the mountains, heading in the direction of Barkly East.

Day 5
I’ll be there
By your side baby – Sade, By Your Side

We’ve slept in a huge B&B in Barkly East, thanks to a woman at FK’s Pub who overheard me saying that I didn’t feel like an overnight drive to Bloem. We’re almost home, but not in a hurry to get there. My car is covered in a powdery dust, almost like makeup, and the same color, so I find a roadside hosepipe and do some quick TLC to get back the silver shimmer. There. Now we drive to Lady Grey, and after a late breakfast we visit a secret rocky pool gurgling down a koppie under the tangle of riverine forest and boulders. See, this is the stuff you’d never know about unless you took a little time out on a trip.
We drive around the backstreets, photographing the old buildings and some of the locals. This is something one never usually does. People usually take the shortest route to their destinations when on holiday, and do it as quickly as possible, creating chockablock roadways and visible roadside carnage for all their intransigence.

After Lady Grey we head to Sterkspruit, and then Zastron. The mountains are becoming drier and more rugged. But I have never seen this part of the country before. At one point my girlfriend let’s out a bloodcurdling wail. Oh, I interpret, cow on the road. I slow down and let the big grey fella lumber across. Thanks for the warning I say, tongue somewhat in cheek.

Just about everything in the Chrysler Neon is electric. My favorite game is to tuck the mirrors close to the body of the car when we start going over 140km/h. It’s the equivalent of a triathlete’s aero position, although when the mirrors tuck in they appear to whistle more than when they’re open, like bak-ore. And so we whistle back into Bloem, the tar melting in the heat, but the occupants of this silver spaceship ice cool.

I’m impressed with my Neon’s roadholding. It’s a solid, reliable car, and I like the extras: twin airbags, a tachometer, remote locking, headlamp beam leveling, excellent sound from the stereo. It’s supposed to have a maximum speed of just under 200km/h, but fearing I may have done some damage to her innards, I only touched on 160km/h at one point. I can’t overemphasize the importance of good tires for a trip like this. Naudesnek will really hurt your vehicle if your tires aren’t right. The car is more than adequately comfortable, but a little too sluggish for my liking. Knowing that parts are very expensive I sent the car to John Williams on the 2nd of January for a quote. They quoted no damage at all, not even to the exhaust.

So here’s the punchline. Having come up with the nerve to go for the jugular, and haul my sexy-assed car over Naudesnek, we got through all of that, undamaged. A day goes by. I wake up late on the 31st of December, the car having been baking in the sun all morning. I come up with the brilliant idea of throwing water on the car to cool it off. A crack about as long as your arm, and in the shape of a vertical grin, creeps from the dash almost to the tinted area of the roof on one of the biggest windshields you’ll come across on a sedan. And Chrysler parts are very, very expensive. On the 3rd of January I call the insurers. They can’t find the documents I left, they’re not anywhere.
12 January, 2007. 4:24pm. My cellphone chirrups. They’ve found the documents. I’m insured, and what’s more, I’m inspired. It comes standard after all.

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