SMOKE: A Tale Of Two Highways

Originally published: 7 June 2004

As a kid I used to make an annual trip with my family from Pretoria (in the north of South Africa) to Cape Town (in the south-west), and we would always take the biggest highway in South Africa - the N1.

Then I moved to Cape Town and as soon as I could drive was making trips east along the southern coastline of South Africa to Grahamstown via Port Elizabeth, along the second biggest highway - the N2.

And the two highways have completely different characteristics - you could be in two different countries depending on which route you take.

The N1 is far more majestic than the N2, but it's also a lot more harsh. There's a special intensity to the sun as it bakes the highway in midsummer and rolling through the Karoo - with its offbeat towns that time forgot and the sparse orange sand spotted with clumps of dry bush - is a special experience unto itself, at 3pm on a December afternoon.

We would start off in the early hours of the morning - car laden with provisions and children - and drive for 50 kilometres in the direction of Johannesburg.

The grey light of dawn would be hovering like a pall over Ponte Tower and we'd go right past the awakening giant and head on south down the blacktrack.

We'd catch the sun lighting up the tops of the mine dumps, which I always found a very depressing and stark image, and then we'd be out of the industrial areas and cruising into the morning.

From Joburg it's not far to go until you reach the Vaal river - the border into the Orange Free State - and the landscape becomes farmland with huge tracts of lands strung together by thousands of wooden telephone poles and marked by white stones on the side of the road with distance points marked on them.

If you're lucky enough, you run into a Free State thunderstorm. You can see them from far away - huge cloudbanks hovering over the very end of the highway. Once inside them the air turns a dusky yellow colour as the lightning bolts tear the murderous clouds in half.

There's not much to see or do in the Free State - there are long gaps between towns and the rest is as flat as a pond. You can see as far as your eyes will allow you, but all you'll see are endless farmlands.

Once you get to the capital - Bloemfontein - you know you're on the downhill slide to the end of the province, and once you cross the border you have a brief spurt through the Northern Cape, which is dry and dusty and filled with heat hazes and people walking from nowhere to hell along the side of the road, and then you're into the Western Cape and the home stretch.

We would always hit the Karoo some time in the afternoon. If temperatures were a millibar under 40°C I'll take a Colt .45 to my head and end the lies right here and now.

The Karoo is the most memorable part of the drive, as it is dry, barren, depressing yet beautiful, and by the time you hit Three Sisters - and are a hop skip and jump away from route marker Beaufort West - the sun hangs like a huge orange ball in front of you, calling the way home.

From Beaufort West the ride in to Cape Town is about three hours. As you exit the Karoo through Laingsburg (famous for the flood that all but wiped it out in 1981), Matjiesfontein and Touws River, the scenery starts getting greener and the wind a little cooler.

You go through Worcester and the Hex River Valley, drive through the Huguenot Tunnel under Du Toitskloof Pass, head through the winelands to Paarl, Franschhoek and finally the outskirts of Cape Town.

You go over some pass and when you crest it - as the dusk has fallen and the lights of the city have come on - you see Table Mountain rearing up into the night sky, and nestled beneath it the beautiful Mother City.

It's an arduous journey and a hot one, and although you get the relief in the late afternoon of driving through greenery, for the most part the journey is flat and featureless, and somewhat depressing.

Not so the N2, however.

I made the pilgrimage from Cape Town to the Grahamstown Festival four years in a row in the early 90's, and although the journey isn't as long as the trip to Pretoria, it's a full day nonetheless.

Only this time round you are never much more than 100 kilometres from the Indian Ocean to the south, and indeed you kiss the coast on a number of occasions.

You go over Sir Lowry's pass on your way out of sight of Cape Town and wind your way past places in the Overberg mountains like Grabouw and Swellendam.

The road is often covered in dense mist in the early morning and negotiating the twisty mountain passes is not advised with a lungful of sativa, a desire to test the limits of your car's roadholding capabilities and a sound track involving Jim Morrison pumped to the max, on the back of a monster hangover after two bottles of Jack and 80 straight Kents the night before.

You start feeling better along the Garden Route which has some of the most beautiful scenery on Earth, and you start entering fairyland as you get to places like George and Knysna.

Further up the road you cross the border into the Eastern Cape as you pass the mystical Tsitsikamma Forest and from Storms River - with it's enormous bridge and world's tallest bungy - you're on a one-way ticket to Port Elizabeth.

I've never liked PE - I've always found it too grey and windy, and I've had numerous bad experiences there - so it's always a relief to turn north and head up past the sewage factory and into the heartland.

It's not that far to the sleepy town of Grahamstown and once you start seeing campers parked on the side of the road, wigwams getting erected and posters appearing on trees - you know you've arrived and the party can get started.

The overwhelming impression you get of the N2 is one of greenery and scenery - she's a thing of beauty, and far less demanding on you than her older brother, the N1.

Both roads take you across the breathtaking expanse of our country and both tell you a completely different story. Yet both stories are uniquely South African and should be read by one and all.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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