Parallel Worlds – road tripping

[words by Mark Eveleigh and Narina Exelby]

Early morning at a service station in Rio Grande do Sul – snacking on pão de queijo and short caffeine-loaded shots of cafezinho to fuel up for a 2400-mile (3860km) road-trip along the southern coast of Brazil. Somewhere beyond the opposite shores of the Atlantic, Narina (the other half of Parallel Worlds) is about to start her own long drive through the heart of South Africa (see her post below mine). We check in for a last virtual rendezvous to finalise our plans for a “Parallel Worlds” road-trip report. Back in the car the air is obviously thick with parallel worlds vibes: as I drive out into the slipstream traffic of Brazil’s southern highway, the voice notification on my GPS has inexplicably changed to Afrikaans. “This thing is taking on a life of its own,” I think.

Road tripping Brazil

[words by Mark Eveleigh]

Last year I travelled through northern Brazil. What looked on the map like a short hop from Sao Paulo to Belem took 48 hours by bus, and it took me the best part of two more weeks to travel up the Amazon to Manaus. Now I am back to explore the southern region on a drive from the highland air of Gramado (‘the Brazilian Switzerland’) to tropical Rio de Janeiro.

I’ve been on the road since before dawn and almost half of the world’s fifth largest country still lies between me and my destination. The cattle ranches of the southern border country – Gaucho territory to Brazilians – are now giving way to a region of rice paddies. There is no green quite as vibrant as the lush sparkle of rice fields. Here and there the paddies are salted with a sprinkling of white egrets, making the scene still more reminiscent of South East Asia.

Another couple of hours – and another caffeine shot – later and I am following a rattling truck loaded with chickens across the state border into Santa Catalina. Feathers blow against my windscreen in a lackadaisical blizzard as I pass roadside stalls selling locally produced arnica and butiá juice.

I take the slip-road towards the little coastal town of Garopaba and my wheels are soon hissing over hot, sand-blown tarmac. I pass the occasional whore, standing by the road, ostentatiously overdressed in fishnet stockings and stilettos under the 35°C midday sun. We spend the night at the house of Dudu, a surfer friend and a displaced Gaucho who has come to Garopaba to set up a shop. He fires up the “churras” barbecue and bemoans the sorry state of Santa Catalina steak and even the local charcoal. Dudu is a master “churrasqueiro” and the meal is actually delicious but, for a Gaucho, nothing compares with the deep south.

Billboards amuse me as I drive on beyond Florianopolis island the next morning: “Virus Company Jeans”, “Motel Libidu”, “Brazilian Girls Bar” and, inexplicably, the “Real Nob Hotel”. By mid-afternoon the air is already heavy with the tropics. The ramshackle wood shanties of banana cutters stand by the road. Living standards look basic in the extreme here yet almost everyone seems to be able to afford the luxury of a satellite dish, sprouting like an over-sized blossom from the front of even the humblest hut.

The road winds up into a region of fog-cloaked hills that are clearly too abrupt even for banana cultivation. Signs advise us that we are passing through a series of parks: PETAR National Park, Rio Turvo State Park, Jacupiranga State Park. The map shows that somewhere off to our west is a village that goes by the name of Eldorado. It is difficult to resist the temptation to explore but somewhere in the approaching darkness beyond the last banks of milky mist lies the immense sprawling concrete jungle of Sao Paulo and our night’s rest.

We sneak out of South America’s biggest city before dawn on a highway that is 18 lanes wide. We leave like thieves before the law-abiding population of this city of 15-million set out for their daily commute to work. About the time that the Paulistas are checking in at their various offices and factories, my GPS shows that we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. There is nothing on the highway to mark the spot where the line crosses and it is probable that even the inhabitants of the favela (slum) that sprawls along the road here do not realise.

We pass towns with evocative indigenous names like Guararema and Pindamonhamgaba and drive through the religious city of Aparecida with its gigantic church. Rio is surrounded by hills (and by the world’s two largest urban national parks) and we climb once more into the Brazilian mountains at Serra das Araras. The scarlet macaws after which these mountains were named are nowhere to be seen but we stop anyway to buy more bananas and delicious sugar-cane juice, flavoured with mango, or lime or passionfruit).

After 1200 miles (1930km) and a total of 25 driving-hours, we cruise past Rio’s famous Sambadrome. A police car filters into the traffic with its sirens wailing. “Divisão de Homicídios” is printed on the back window. Welcome to Rio.

We will have just three days before starting on the return journey – but for now, the moment is ripe for a brace of welcoming caipirinhas in the samba bars of Lapa quarter and a couple of days surfing Ipanema.

Road tripping South Africa

[words by Narina Exelby]

The Little Karoo is a low tide of shrubs. Every now and then one breaks higher and slightly more green than the rest, but for the most part brown clusters of grass roll into one another, ambling from spiky detail into a far-off blur of solid colour. In this vast semi-desert northeast of Cape Town, the road is straight and the sky is big. Out here it seems impossible for the clouds to cover all of the sky; they hang, dark, above the small hills that rim the horizon while a smooth blue sky domes above us. The road here is dead straight: a single carriageway guided by a row of telephone poles that loop wires – and with them thousands of conversations – into infinity.

Six hours behind us Cape Town is winding down from the working day. Our journey began at the base of what must be one of the world’s most recognisable landmarks and, with Table Mountain at our backs, we drove out on the N1 – the highway that connects Cape Town with Johannesburg – through the jaggered Hex River Mountains before winding along the sides of valleys, vineyards and orchards and on into the Little Karoo.

Our destination is the Drakensberg mountain range, and it’ll take about 15 hours over two days to drive the 1600km from Cape Town to Cathedral Peak. (By the time we get home, we’ll have covered 3 500km and travelled through five of South Africa’s nine provinces.) We drive through big sky territory deep into the wide nothingness of the Little Karoo and overnight at a town called Colesburg. By noon tomorrow we’ll have passed Bloemfontein and the landscape will have evolved into sheep farms and wheat fields. As we loop up and around Lesotho, the flatlands will become pimpled with mesas and buttes and we’ll pass towns more frequently. The road signs will point to places like Jagersfontein, Verkeerdevlei, Senekal and Fouriesburg.

Our journey is stippled with conversation, intermittent radio reception, general knowledge games, shudders of wind – it’s hard to resist winding the windows down – and spatterings of bugs. Our silences in this vast, brooding landscape feel only natural.

The drive through this empty centre of South Africa is easy going, but frustrating at times. Road works add a few extra hours to our journey, and trucks laden with heavy containers slow us down. But it’s an inspiring drive; one that boasts a lonely part of the country most tourists will never see. We stop every 400 kilometres or so – as necessary for fuel as it is for coffee – and seek out petrol stations that share ground with Wimpy, a fast-food chain that serves the best java on the road.

Just northeast of Lesotho, where the map starts to show Ladysmith, Dundee and Newcastle, we’ll turn off the highway at Harrismith and wind spectacularly down the Oliviershoek Pass and into the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park – our home for a week. In this Unesco Word Heritage Site, the sandstone and dolomite cliffs of the Great Escarpment plummet from Lesotho into the verdant, rolling summer of KwaZulu-Natal. This is my birth province, and I know the area well.

We decide to take a different route home. The road works have been frustrating and it’s almost instinctive that we continue our loop around Lesotho through the green, rambling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, where the tumbling Drakensberg streams gather force and momentum to carve the landscape, gouging the easiest route to the sea.

I made this journey often as a student. I know that it’s loveliest to pass through the genteel farming areas of Donnybrook, Boston and Underberg just after sunrise, and that at Kokstad we’ll enter the Eastern Cape. This next stretch of road is best travelled by day. Here, for the next few hundred kilometres, the hills will be scarred with erosion and red earth will show through the grass like annoyed skin. There are clusters of houses everywhere – painted in pinks, turquoises and yellows. Some are round, some square. Some built from brick, some from corrugated iron, some with old tyres on the roofs to hold them down. Clothes will hang on fences. Women will be wearing long skirts – often with aprons – and their heads beautifully wrapped in fabric; a quilt of mismatched colours and textiles. Men will ride rickety bicycles. Boys will mind herds of cattle and goats that graze casually on the sides of the highway. You have to drive with caution here.

It will be a long stretch, the first day of our return journey. We’ll pass through the busy towns of Umtata, Qumbu and Idutywa, where pavements disintegrate into ragged-edged puddles. Gradually, the vegetation on the hills of the Eastern Cape become a little more wild – aloes and acacia trees will gather the closer we get to East London and the famous Garden Route. Here, near the east coast, hills domed with forests dip into manicured pastures. We’ll head back down to Cape Town with the Swartberg mountains on our right and the Indian Ocean on our left, winding through the holiday towns of Plettenberg Bay, George and Knysna (where, we decide, we’ll spend the night), and through the palette of fields that is the Overberg. All the time, getting closer and closer to Table Mountain.

Of course, it would have been quicker for us to fly. But we wouldn’t have been able swallow massive gulps of early-morning air as we travelled with the windows down. Or banter with petrol pump attendants in their mother tongue. We’d not have drunk as much coffee, taken as many photographs, or watched the country unfold beneath our tyres. And that’s just what a road trip is all about, isn’t it?


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