It is shortly after 6am that Google Maps lets me down for the first time. I type in the name of my photographer's road to be told it doesn't exist. The car is packed and I am desperate to start driving. The one thing the packing list apps don't do is make sure you haven't left your walking shoes or toothbrush behind in a moment of oversight. Having gone back inside three or four times to check already, I am starting to feel like a fanatic urged to walk three circles before turning on a light switch.
It is already bordering on 30 degrees Celsius and I fumble through the archives of countless planning e-mails carefully allocated to their folders on my phone (oh, light switch fanaticism) in case I am getting it wrong. A phone call later and a nearby landmark keyed in, I make my way to Tania's house with a sleepless night of travel angst behind me and blissful adventure-filled days ahead.
Tania's father had very kindly printed out Google directions in hard copy form of a route he felt would be safer for two women travelling alone (can that really be called cheating?). Strike two, Google Maps. I'm sure there were plenty of online forums that would have revealed the better route but, admittedly, that hadn't featured in my thinking when looking at the benign blue-lined course in the build-up to our departure. It just goes to show that a bit of local knowledge and father's care never goes amiss.
Out on the highway, we bubbled over with excitement in a way two girls on the open road would. My carefully arranged road trip playlist and audio book collection on my phone were quickly muted and replaced with the avid chitter chatter that comes with shared anticipation of a new experience. That kind of freedom - the kind you feel with your foot on the accelerator through changing horizons further and further away from the familiar – gains momentum with surprising force. How far could we go? What amazing things would we see along the way?
It didn't take long to realise we were not alone in the car. A third voice chimed in from time to time – the bossy one of the group, unaffected by that contagious sense of freedom. "Go north-west," she said. I'm sorry, I forgot my handy compass in my other pants. My phone has a compass, but I was disinclined to start fiddling with it while driving a car that was not my own. We Googled how to find north using a stick, the sun, and shadow. I memorised the exit we needed to take and allowed the voice of our invisible third passenger dubbed "Faith" to become white noise in the babble of our excitement – "recalculating" as we disobeyed her dashboard commands.
And then the time came to turn off the main road and, with it, the urge to be a little more alert. Farmlands opened up on either side of us and a wrong turn could have landed us out yonder with the hope that Faith would come to the rescue. We made sure the car's fuel tank was filled and made our way through small towns with markedly similar spired churches along main roads, anticipating our arrival by a quick look at Google Maps. Our desire to fill the car with homemade padstal fare went unfulfilled and we stopped off at a shopping centre for a much-needed cool drink and bathroom break. We exploded with laughter as over-zealous Faith exclaimed, "Go north-west" from the caverns of my handbag as I walked into the bathroom stall.
Now, I am one of those beings that find pleasure in little things. High on that list of little things is the judder of soul and car tyres as a road turns from tar to dirt, a comet tail of red dust in your wake. On highways and district roads in Africa, my imagination always removes the road, harking back to an unexplored terrain. "Be a pioneer," it urges, "See it unspoilt through their eyes". Somehow capillaries of dirt roads through humble villages and bush extending to the kissing point of land and sky lend themselves to that sentiment.
There is also a lackadaisical element to roads of beaten red earth and stone. Coming over a hill to an opening of seemingly endless hills, what need would there be to fight the compulsion to step out of the car into the heat, breathe it in, take as many panoramic photos as my phone capacity would allow? Out there, there's no fear of missing meetings, but there was fear of missing lunch and a few extra hours to explore our first stop, Fugitives' Drift Lodge. So on we drove, driven by a different kind of hunger to the one that would govern any ordinary day. Faith told us we were getting close but, spotting the inimitable form of Isandlwana like a beacon of untold stories in the distance, some inner GPS was at work.
One minor u-turn a few kilometres down the road from where we needed to be, we were welcomed at the gates of Fugitives' Drift Lodge with a personalised letter retrieved from behind the low doorway of a Zulu hut. It informed us that a 20 minute drive was all that stood between us and the end of the first phase of our road trip. It took slightly longer than 20 minutes as, around the first bend, some giraffe and their calf observed us with unstirred ambivalence from amongst the aloes.
As we pulled up to the lodge, we handed over our keys and the safe passage of our luggage to our room to a pair of high-spirited volunteer guides and were welcomed into the shady sanctum of the reception area at Fugitives' Drift Lodge. Inasmuch as a road trip is exciting in and of itself, it is the arrival at your destination that makes you feel you are entering the wardrobe or, in this case, a gateway to a land of red-coats and shield-wielding Zulus, activated by the shifting cogs of knowledge and imagination. To read more about our time at Fugitives' Drift Lodge, click here.