Roald Dahl is probably the reason I will always, given half a chance, drive rather than fly. One of my earliest literary memories is of being six years old and transfixed by his story The Hitchhiker. If you haven’t read it, it’s a wonderful tale about a virtuoso pickpocket and a nasty policeman who gets outsmarted in a surprising way. But the star of the story for me was the narrator’s brand-new BMW, a powerful blue machine with matching leather seats and the kind of power that threatens your licence.
They speed along on the road to London (a different era), until a cop with a chip on his shoulder threatens to spoil the fun. But I digress. That story was probably in the back of my mind when, almost 20 years later, I bought my first car. My driving history begins with a road trip. As someone who’d worshipped Jeremy Clarkson (back when he had a curly mullet and wore leather jackets, long before he took up farming and casual racism), I did things properly and bought the most impractical car I could find. It was a big, blue BMW with a large V8 under the hood. It roared gloriously and consumed petrol in a frightening way, which was fine, because it looked sinister and had a deep burble you could hear from several streets away.
The first thing I did with it was to drive it from one end of the country to the other. It was my first time driving somewhere with nothing but my own wits and a plan to be sitting someplace very different at the end of the day to where I was when the day began. I thundered across the provinces, stopping only to fuel myself and the car, passing trucks in the dry Karoo and listening to Miles Davis as the sun set on the flatlands of the North West. I reached my destination tired and ready to do it all again. It was probably the most free I’ve ever felt, then or since.
It’s become a cliché to talk about cars as instruments of freedom, but the cliché persists even as the gathering storm clouds of environmental crisis, threatened energy resources, war, and viral epidemics conspire to change our travel habits. The bald fact is that there are too many cars on the road right now. More people should take public transport. Cities shouldn’t be arranged around the needs of the car — an outdated, toxic, and land-hungry 20th-century appliance. That’s the unemotional, rational argument, and one with which it’s hard to argue in an age of ride-sharing and millennials who choose not to drive. But cars have never been about rationality, not really.
But while we still have the chance, pick a weekend, pack a suitcase, and drive somewhere you haven’t been
When journalist Tom Wolfe declared that cars were “freedom, style, sex, power, motion, color — everything”, he captured the heart of the matter. Sure, for many of us, cars are an appliance and travel a drudging necessity. South Africa is a country of vast distances, and the road trip is part of our national makeup. Many of us are migrants who live between places located hundreds or thousands of kilometres apart, and road-tripping can thus become a begrudged necessity. But that’s not the sort of trip I’m talking about. I’m thinking of the kind of road trip where you start off at one place, watch the light and the scenery change through the vista of your windshield, and emerge somewhere far off, with your car ticking away from a day’s drive. I’m thinking of the kind of trip that takes you past unfamiliar, one-street towns and through scenery where the only soul is (always) that one man randomly walking from someplace to someplace else.
Nowadays, people shun the road trip because they fear boredom. Once the Instagram snaps have been taken and the playlist chosen, what do you do with yourself? But this is the wrong approach to take. Driving is exactly the freedom to escape, to seclude ourselves from the world in an escape pod of our own controlling. You can wax nostalgic about the trips of your youth (they were never that good) or invent new memories. You have options.
Certainly, in the age of the pandemic, the desire to travel has to be balanced against the anxiety engendered by other people and their contagions. Theoretically, flying ought to be safe, but if you don’t need to fly, why would you? Think of how much you miss from the air. In any event, air travel promises, with gross inexactitude, to save you time. But air travel is a con. The great lie — that time is the greatest luxury — is cruelly exposed when you forsake the bliss of your own hermetically sealed car to take part in a compacted parody of suburbia in the sky, being herded with strange strangers and abused and crammed and made to wait, all to save a few hours you probably won’t use profitably anyway.
Of course, not everybody should drive and, given the ongoing protracted death of the car (electricity and automation won’t save it), fewer people will, over time. Perhaps, like rail travel, the road trip will become the exclusive province of those who do not adhere to the dogmatic view that travel is about convenience. But while we still have the chance, pick a weekend, pack a suitcase, and drive somewhere you haven’t been. Loved ones optional. I promise, you’ll enjoy it.
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2022.