The Great South African Road Trip

Date:26 June 2013 Tags:,

My family used to leave for our summer holiday well before dawn. My three sisters and I would curl up among the suitcases and pillows and promptly fall asleep. Waking up as the Sun rose and watching my dad expertly guide us down the highway always filled me with excitement, mingled with a snug sense of security. That feeling remains the goal on any good family trip. You want the thrill of striking out for new territory but the confidence that no undue mishaps will befall you along the way. Getting that balance right requires just a bit of planning – and making the most of today’s tech.

Prepare your chariot
The week before a trip is a good time to give your car a mechanical once-over. Check tyre pressure and tread depth (including on the spare), and change the oil, if needed. If your kids are the right age, they can help with these tasks. It’s never too soon for them to start learning the responsibility of taking care of a car. And give the car a good scrub down and vacuum as well. A long trip with a car full of kids can be hell on any vehicle, so you might as well start your car off clean. There’s not much that can go wrong with a modern car that you can fix on the spot. But it’s still a good idea to have a basic tool kit, along with emergency items such as flares and a flashlight. Enroll in a roadside assistance programme, such as the AA’s, if you don’t have one already – the side of the road is no place to negotiate with a tow-truck driver.

Keep tech in perspective
These days it is common to see families barrelling down the highway with each kid wrapped in headphones and lost in a movie or video game. There’s no question that DVD players, game devices and the like can make long drives easier, but all this distraction comes at a price. When will these kids learn to whine and squabble like my generation did? Seriously, though, think twice before using digital entertainment as a universal kid silencer. Turning on the DVD player every time children get slightly restless is a bit like pacifying them with big, sugary drinks; over time they will demand that any hint of boredom be immediately washed away with a flood of empty-calorie entertainment.

Set boundaries in advance about how much time to allot to movies and video games. And look for entertainment that the family can experience together, such as kid-friendly music and audio books. My three boys have listened to several volumes of Harry Potter, and the entire Lord of the Rings series (yes, we’ve taken some loooong road trips). Listening to these classics – instead of watching them – builds vocabulary and gives a family the chance to pause and discuss the stories as they progress. There are also quite a few good podcasts for kids; try The Radio Adventures of Dr Floyd and Stuff to Blow Your Mind.

One of my favorite pre-holiday rites as a child was to load up on comic books and magazines. Having some reading material your kids choose for themselves might make them less cranky during those no-movie hours. Also note that most modern cars have windows; it won’t kill kids to look out of them once in a while.

Embrace connectivity
Older kids will want to keep phones in hand to stay in touch with their social networks (that is, the group of people formerly known as friends). Instead of battling that impulse, embrace it. Before you leave, set up a trip blog on or Tumblr and ask one of your progeny to be trip historian – writing updates and uploading pictures along the way. Twitter and Instagram are also great for documenting any adventure.

For parents, smartphones and tablets make a whole new style of travel possible. When I was a kid, the evening search for a suitable motel was an anxious ritual: my dad would turn off the highway at the latest possible hour, and we’d cruise a likely commercial strip studying signs and facades. Today, making a hotel or campground reservation is as easy as pulling out the tablet in the late afternoon, selecting a destination an hour or two down the road, and securing your accommodation on-line.

Older kids can also be enlisted in using the Web to search out offbeat roadside attractions or quirky restaurants. Ronnie’s Sex Shop, on Route 62 near Barrydale, is a legendary stop-off (and no, it doesn’t involve carnality); there are many others. The more you can venture away from the national-road zones of fast-food uniformity, the more interesting your trip will be. has great recommendations for diners and dives, and apps such as Google+ Local can automatically find restaurants and other attractions nearby. But most of all, use the Web to enhance your knowledge of the world you’re passing through: how old are the Drakensberg Mountains? How long is the Orange? How high is Du Toit’s Peak… and who was Du Toit?

Lead, don’t follow
GPS is a crucial convenience for route planning, but it can only show where you’re going. It can’t reveal all the surrounding terrain – and what you might be missing while passively following its single-minded lead. For that kind of context, nothing beats paper maps. On long trips a regional road atlas is great. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on back roads (or off-road), you can get exquisitely detailed topographical maps from South Africa’s mapping and survey directorate, National Geo-Spatial Information, which has offices in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Pietermaritzburg; its Web site is

Get the kids involved in map reading, picking routes, and setting the itinerary. Once you’ve selected that perfect side road or detour, GPS can help you find it. Also, use navigation apps tactically. The crowdsourced Waze app for iOS and Android provides up-to-the-minute traffic alerts, road hazards and speed traps. It’s the digital equivalent of the CB radio.

Think local
One of the best things about travel is that you aren’t at home. Encourage your kids to notice what’s different. Turn on local radio; try regional foods. And by all means, buy as many knickknacks, bumper stickers, and pointless souvenirs as possible. Give kids a daily allotment for these items so they can start learning to stay within a budget. Our digital world is great at providing information and helping us make connections, but when it comes to preserving memories, tangible objects are hard to beat.

In my garage hangs a Thule car-top luggage carrier that’s provided service for thousands of kilometres of family trips. It’s plastered with stickers promoting every tourist trap and landmark from the many cities we have travelled to and through. My boys are older now and starting to take trips of their own, but sometimes I go out and look at those stickers: “This car climbed…” Yes, it did.

Nationwide chain stores with extended hours mean you can pick up anything along the way, but too many stops eat into travel time. Here’s a recommended checklist to help you pack for most situations.


  • Reflective road triangle
  • Signal flares or flashing LED lights
  • LED torch
  • First-aid kit
  • Distilled water
  • Empty fuel can
  • Emergency cellphone
  • Emergency food


  • Pliers
  • Duct tape
  • Screwdrivers
  • Spare fuses
  • Funnel
  • Jumper cables
  • Tyre gauge
  • Knife
  • Spanner set


  • Phone charger
  • Reusable water
  • bottle
  • Sanitary wipes
  • Power inverter
  • 12-volt
  • Y-splitter
  • Travel pillows

Bonus items:

  • Sunglasses
  • Beach towel
  • Frisbee
  • Skateboard
  • Kite


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