Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust-struck, PART 5

Hout Bay Cape Town South Africa
Located on the Cape peninsula, Hout Bay was named by the first settlers for the thick forests of valuable wood found there – “hout” means wood in Afrikaans. This breathtaking valley is where I grew up.

Although my family had a beautiful home in Hout Bay (my father is an architect), we weren’t what you’d consider a wealthy family. Our travel philosophies were a testament to this: we’d rarely fly anywhere, we’d almost always stay in our caravan, and lunch was taken on the road and more often than not consisted of soggy jam sandwiches, floury apples, and sweet coffee. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for these early thrifty travels, though, because they defined my perception of luxury.

To me, as a kid, luxury was a hunk of biltong to chew on for hours during our long, tiresome road trips around the country. It was getting to sit down and eat at a restaurant, even though my concept of haute cuisineat the time was a toasted cheese and tomato sandwich. But the very pinnacle of luxury, the Mount Olympus of all treats, was getting to stay in a hotelroomwhere my parents’ snores could be shut out by a door, rather than bundled into our tiny cots in our tiny caravan.

Living large

old hotel room
Maybe a slightly embellished representation of the kind of old hotels we’d stay in…

On the odd occasion we did overnight in hotels, they were ancient budget establishments, usually named something like “The Standard Hotel” or “The [insert one horse town’s name] Inn.” These were places with creaky wooden floorboards, ancient paintings of forgotten people, furniture that would belch out decade-old, musty air when you sat in them, and cracked porcelain bathroom basins.

In other words, they were in desperate need of an accidental electrical fire so that they could be burned to the ground, completely redesigned, rebuilt, and refurnished.

To me, however, they were luxurious and the excitement of sleeping in a hotel superseded any kind of miserable reality that might entail. In other words, I was taught to be happy with what I needed rather than what I wanted.

My parents were and are not misers. My father is one of the most generous human beings I know and will never, ever turn down the opportunity to buy you a chocolate bar whether you want one or not (or a cheeky shot of tequila on a trip to Hollywood, Los Angeles).

Tequila! Hollywood, Los Angeles

But to my parents, traveling is about spending 14 hours a day on the road, in the bush, or tramping through foreign cities. It’s about feelingthe climate – the humidity and the heat – rather than banishing it from your experience, and eating where the locals eat for a fraction of the cost of some fancy restaurant. To budget travel is to live like the majority of locals live and it’s to leave that city or country with a lasting impression of its supreme beauty, charm, culture, and cuisine…but also its struggles.

There’s a lot to be said for staying in a luxury hotel – to be sure, I’d likely choose that over slumming it – but it does provide somewhat of a sterile travel experience. And what could be better than playing pool, drinking tepid beer, and getting to know fellow budget travellers in the rec room of a hostel?

Disaster

On a caravan trip up the Garden Route – so called because of the region’s lush, verdant forests – along the east coast of South Africa, disaster befell us. Cresting a particularly hilly hill a few tens of kilometres from the epitome of one-horse towns, Heidelberg, our caravan caught a tail wind and began to fishtail violently from side-to-side. It felt as though my mother, who happened to be driving, was yanking the wheel from left to right, which she was but out of sheer desperation to counteract the forces of the fishtailing caravan on our little red Toyota corolla.

Totally out of control, the car lurched sickeningly from one side of the highway to the other before the caravan swept right around in a massive arc, ending up at right angles to the car and forcing us into a deep ditch on the far side of the road. I remember my mother’s hysterical concern over her precious cargo on the back seat juxtaposed by my dad’s eerie calm, who immediately set to work rationalising what had just happened to us.

To my mother: “We must have caught a tail wind. You should have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes – that would have pulled the caravan back into a straight line behind the car.”

I don’t recall my mom’s precise words but they were probably something along the lines of “gaan kak”, the Afrikaans equivalent of “get fucked!”

Sitting there on the back seat, emotionally rattled but physically unharmed, the strangest thing happened. Our high drama on the highway began attracting an audience but not of people – we were in the middle of nowhere after all. From far and wide and seemingly out of the crackling white horizons, tall, comical-looking birds materialized and began loping over to the fence to ogle unashamedly at our appalling situation. Ostriches! Before long, we had drawn a crowd of the world’s largest birds.

Ostrich birds South Africa

Silver Linings

Our caravan, which was bent at a torturous angle to the car, was quite simply and totally fucked. There was no way we were going to make it to our holiday destination. To make matters even more uncomfortable than having just been in a potentially fatal car accident – not to mention blatantly stared at by a gaggle of stupid-looking birds – we found ourselves stranded under the blistering countenance of the African sun. Oh, and being sometime in the 1990’s, none of us had a cell phone to call for help.

I don’t recall precisely how we got out of that mess but I believe that another car arrived soon after our accident and kindly offered to drive my father to Heidelberg, where he could hire the services of a tow truck. Thereafter, we found ourselves in this tiny Karoo town with nothing other to do than languish, for three days and three nights, in a hotel room. My parents were in hell – the trauma, the expense, the boredom.

I was in heaven.

Rags to riches

I unpacked my entire suitcase into the closet as a way of claiming my new space, had a greasy cheeseburger and undercooked fries in the nearly deserted hotel restaurant for dinner, and drifted off to sleep trying in vain to read the Old Testament bible (the ones that were always nested in the bedside drawers of hotels).

To this day, staying in hotels excites me, although my perception of luxury has changed somewhat. I’ve had the privilege of landing a job that sends me to wonderful places in and around Cape Town to stay in luxurious hotels and guesthouses, all of which are four stars and higher. One such assignment sent me to a five-star luxury resort in the Welgevonden Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province (northeast South Africa). Another to a five-star guesthouse in Paarl, one of South Africa’s oldest towns, where I drowned in expensive sheets and delicious local Méthode Cap Classique (our equivalent of Champagne).

Wander Woman Thea Beckman
Yours truly opening a bottle of MCC, a South African sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir grapes in precisely the fashion as Champagne.

In spite of this unbridled, exquisite assault upon my senses, I remember how excited I was as a kid to be able to stay in a hotel for three nights, even if it was a terrible car accident that landed us there in the first place. I have, however, given up on trying to read the Old Testament since then, or any bible for that matter.

Unless I’m in need of a sleeping aid, that is.

 

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Travel Memoirs of the Wanderlust Struck, Part 2

This is the story: a chronicle of my life’s adventures and those of my parents, who imbued in me a curiosity for the world. Over the course of the next however long it takes, I shall be delivering this story to you piece by piece, in succulent little bite-sized hors d’oevres of adventure and awesomeness. This is the second instalment. Let’s go….

Caravanning

South Africa road trip
Gravel path somewhere in the middle of South Africa’s “Little Karoo”

In between major travel adventures, my family would hitch our tiny, cramped caravan to our bright red Toyota Corolla, pack up a weekend’s worth of clothing, invariably wake up way later than intended on the morning of our departure (the Beckman men are always late) and go camping.

Over weekends and school holidays, we’d hit the N1 or N2 national highways out of Cape Town and drive for what would seem like an interminable amount of time before drawing up at some campsite, caked in dust, and just about ready to murder each other. At the age of about 11, I discovered the blissful joy of reading and so I would typically occupy myself with a book. My brother had, concurrently, discovered the blissful joy of pestering me and so we’d usually end up in a backseat brawl to which my father would shriek: “If you two don’t knock it off, I’m going to turn this car around…”

In this manner, we crawled our way around South Africa, rigging up our caravan and its attached canopy tent and spending days at a time living like hippies. Our family caravan had two narrow cots for us kids to sleep in and a dining section that converted into little more than a three-quarter sized bed for my parents. Each day invariably began with a loud fart from my father, followed by the smell of gas (propane) as he turned on the stove to make morning tea. A cup of sweet rooibos tea and a buttermilk rusk later, my brother and I would barrel out the caravan to a crisp, dew-kissed morning with unlimited possibilities for play.

South Africa landscape
Desolation Valley, South Africa

We explored the length and breadth of South Africa in our tiny caravan, from its East coast, rendered lush and green by the warm Agulhas current that courses adjacent to its coastline to the dry, desolate, yet dramatically beautiful West coast. Patchwork quilts of farmlands become landscapes dominated by rugged mountains and outlandish rock formations, which then give way to vast tracts of interior that are virtually featureless, save for a scattering of dry shrubs and the odd koppie. The towns here are decidedly one-horse; the kind of places where ostriches serve as guard dogs. It was pure magic.

South Africa road trip
A backyard in the tiny town of Sutherland, South Africa. This town also happens to be home to the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – the South African Large Telescope (SALT) – because here in the Karoo (a semi-arid region), there is so little light and other pollution the telescope has maximum visibility.

Again, I can’t tag any place names to the snapshot memories I have of those early adventures but they imparted in me a sense of scale and a corresponding sense of humility. South Africa is a staggeringly vast country with a diverse collection of landscapes to explore and the lessons this early travel taught me were indispensible.

It’s not all about you

toddler tantrum funny

Kids tend to think that the world revolves around their tender little bodies and needs. It’s why they sulk or cry when they don’t get what they want – the injustice is too much to bear! Yet, as a kid, travel taught me that there is an enormous world out there where comfort is, for the most part, a rare commodity. It exposes you to the cruel desolation of the deserts, the stifling heat of the tropics, the desperate poverty of cities, and the disquieting strangeness of foreign cultures, cuisines, and customs. Rather than shelter me from these humbling experiences, my parents had me participate in the discovery of it all.

Then, of course, there’s the discomfort of traversing the planet’s truly vast countenance. Hours spent in hot cars pestered by annoying brothers or cramped buses, airport departure lounges, and long-haul flights with nothing to do other than stare at the other passengers with the big, googly eyeballs I was yet to grow into. And, again, rather than shelter me from this discomfort, my parents taught me to be patient and to endure the punishment because the reward was the thrill of exploring new places. My early travel experiences became the framework for a worldview that is rare amongst children. And it was all okay because I could trust my parents to keep us safe, feed us when we were hungry, and let us fall asleep in their laps when we were tired. What more could a kid need?

Certainly not an iPad.

View from plane

Learning your insignificance

We all like to think that we are important in our environment. As children, we like to feel like the beating heart and soul of the family and as hormonal teenagers, we strive to be socially, physically, or academically revered at school. Finally, as adults, we work hard to be respected within the workplace and community. It’s therefore understandable that many people are intimidated by travel. Aside from the fact that we aren’t typically comfortable with strangeness, the vastness of the world takes the importance you’ve spent your entire life cultivating and makes an utter mockery of it.

You think you’re important? Go to a foreign country where nobody knows you and nothing revolves around you and see the world in motion completely outside of yourself. It’s humbling. This probably explains why most of my life’s epiphanies have taken place at 37,000 feet, whilst flying for hours over staggering tracts of glittering ocean, ice shelves, and deserts. There is a whole world out there and down there and it carries on irrespective of me. The only conceivable reason why this might sound depressing to some is ego. Let go of your ego and the world becomes a rich source of experience, education, and thrilling, unforgettable adventure.

It is all too easy for humans to become mired in their own comfort zones, which are awfully small if you have never set foot outside your own city. At an early age, travel made me aware of and comfortable with the vastness of the world and its treasure chest of new places, people, languages, foods, cultures, and views. That vastness has beckoned to me for as long as I can remember. And it’s thanks in no small part to my parents’ narrative of their own travels and the innumerable trips, both local and international, they took us on.

Thailand beach