The magic slowly goes out of it, like that candle in the wind desperately clinging onto the wick. I’m talking about the quality windshield time of the long distance road, time spent on the contemplation of life, of reason, of being, of loved ones living and dead, and all things ethereal.
And for me, one jinxed car in particular turned out to be the strongest arctic blast to that candle, one that had a habit of courting danger on my behalf. A Mercedes Benz W124 260E.
In my world, fear is an on/off switch, a bit like losing your temper. Can last for a split-second, or a few moments, but the intensity of the emotion is always the same. And pole position in this race of fear goes to the 260E as it entered the sweeping curves of the Hex River valley. Curves unexpectedly sudden which greet the unwary who find themselves lulled by kilometre after kilometre of uneventful motoring which only the Karoo can bring. With the speed-control set at a steady 138 km/h, enough to cover ground at an acceptable rate while not attracting too much attention, my level of relaxation was up there with lounging beside a resort swimming pool, cocktail in hand. Not only this, but the last time I had done this trip, I was in my 190E 2.3 Sportline and that car could shrug off the unexpected without batting an eyelid.
But not the 260E. Woah! That’s too fast. Don’t brake. Try keep it steady. Nope, the tail’s wagging violently now. I can’t hold it. Have to brake. Or should I? I’m going into a spin. There’s the Armco barrier and after that a steep drop. I’m spinning yet again. I’ve stopped. I haven’t hit anything. But I’m straddling the road, and it won’t start, not at 1st turn. Nor the 2nd. Will other motorists see me in time?
Pure fear, from beginning to end. The sort that hangs in your clothes and that you can smell on yourself for hours.
And that car hadn’t finished with me yet. There we were, a Renault Scenic with a family on board and I, alone in the 260E en route to my sister in George. Again the Karoo. Again I find myself in relaxed and contemplative mode. It was late afternoon, the sun in my eyes, the road in shadow. Slowly I haul in the Scenic. On a long straight, I begin to pass it at a fuss-free pace. Then I see it. An enormous tortoise, neck outstretched, directly in my path.
I have long understood and resisted the urge to swerve in such circumstances. In any event the Scenic was alongside. A split second of fear, then wham! That reptile exploded as it was hit 1st by the single mould bumper and spoiler (which it destroyed) and then by the sump guard (which made short work of it). It was all rather revolting as I had to dig bits of shell and yellow flesh out of the engine bay. Still, could have been worse. I could have hit it with a wheel.
Against these incidents, its demise was fear-free. The suddenness of a severe head-on collision saw to that. Fear had no time to come to this party. Shock never made it either. The experience was over in an instant. There was none of the ‘experience in slow motion’, none of the’ life flashing before my eyes’ that people speak of. Just one almighty bang and lunge forward against the seatbelt followed by ‘debris’ pelting the (unbroken) windscreen. The white W124 260E would never again turn a wheel. And with that our tempestuous relationship was finally over—although to be fair to the car, I escaped completely unharmed, seatbelt bruised ribs aside.
Inevitably there’s more to it than just the sins of one car. The N1 from Johannesburg to Cape Town is now a life and death battle with articulated long-haul trucks. There’s always one ahead that forces you to plan the overtaking manoeuvre well in advance, and that’s not relaxing. Durban to Johannesburg is plain congested, the tolls too frequent and too costly, and the policing over-zealous. So much so that I think it takes the form of wilful extortion, with traps purposely set at the foot of long declines with a speed limit of 80 km/h when 100 would be just as safe. Adventure is dulled by these realities.
There are, of course, still roads less travelled to restore faith in windshield time. Roads such as my ‘tortoise’ road. But they are less travelled for a good reason. They connect towns, not cities. Equally, if I were to be handed the keys to any exotic supercar that you care to mention and told to drive the Johannesburg-Cape Town or the Johannesburg-Durban route with gratis fuel and no concern for stone-chip damage, I would never refuse. But that wouldn’t be a relaxed trip, would it? It would be a raw adrenalin pump drive with a devil may care overtone.
For me, adventure turned unhappy reality came no stronger than a 2005 motoring trip to Vilanculos in Mozambique. The brochure said that the road was passable to cars. It wasn’t, especially not for a low-slung hard riding, handling biased 190E 2.3 Sportline. At one stage I was dragging the belly of the car in sand at walking speed, petrified that we would get stuck, or worse, run out of fuel—consumption at walking pace in sand isn’t good. At another we were breezing alone nicely (and recklessly as it turned out) on a relatively good stretch until a long deep rut appeared which we hit with such force that it felt like a collision. On the return trip, we picked up a dose of water-contaminated fuel which threatened a spluttering halt. And you don’t want to do this in Mozambique, not back then, not if you wanted to see your car again. Enforced side to side swerving to keep the mix at a barely combustible level was called for, with a motor coughing and misfiring all the while.
There’s a well-appointed service station just into SA that sells nectar of the gods. I bet that business is brisk. The decent empty roads after that (they would be on New Year’s day) made for, ahem, strong progress from then on.
All told, I’ve had my fill of unpleasant surprises at the wheel of a car. Now I avoid long-distance driving at all costs. The plane takes the strain. Call me unlucky. Call me a coward. You could even accuse me of being a bad driver. I just think I might be getting on a bit and love my present car too much. And that’s just fine. I will no longer subject myself or my car to the shake and stir that long-distance driving has come to mean to me.
And contemplating life? Have you tried the window seat of an aircraft with a glass of wine in front of you? I can recommend it.