Classic cars are a huge amount of fun on a Sunday morning in pristine weather, particularly before it gets too hot. The fun decreases somewhat in extreme temperatures or in traffic.
The fun all but disappears at night.
After a day of exploring Route 62 and spending far too long at each stop, we were in trouble. The sun was making better progress towards the horizon than we were making towards Graaff-Reinet.
Fatigue was starting to set in after a day of being battered by the sun and wind. Thankfully, the Alfa was going perfectly. Well, other than the brightly shining “generator” light which had mutated from a sporadic issue when we commenced the trip to a constantly burning reminder that we were in a 50-year-old car that hadn’t done a trip of this magnitude quite possibly in decades.
The thought of a fine dinner of Karoo lamb and an ice cold frosty was keeping us going, helped by an aptly named dam that we had passed earlier in the day:
People talk about the Karoo in such a negative light whenever the Cape Town – Johannesburg route comes up in conversation. “Boring” is the word most frequently used.
Graaff-Reinet is in the Klein Karoo and the roads out there are absolute gems. The sparse vegetation creates an eerie beauty that can be seen for miles, punctuated by rocky hills and long shadows in the late afternoon. It is many things, but boring isn’t one of them!
As late as we were, you only live once. We were going to arrive in the dark no matter what we did at this point, so we decided to enjoy the Karoo sunset experience by stopping for photos against the quintessential Karoo backdrop – a windmill.
The route to Graaff-Reinet joins up with the road between the Eastern Cape and Beaufort-West. It was early January, so literally thousands of migrant workers were returning to the Western Cape after visiting their families in the Eastern Cape.
We slotted into the row of Toyota Quantum taxis towing small trailers, incredibly grateful that we were lucky enough to be in the Alfa instead of in a squashed taxi having left our families behind for months at a time. South Africa may be a land of great inequality and contrast, but there’s a love for the landscape and natural beauty that is shared by all her people.
The love for classic cars is equally shared, based on the smiles and waves we received from the various onlookers.
The moment of truth had arrived – it was time to flick the stalk on the steering column and see if the lights were still working. We had spent plenty of preparation time on the lights, but you never know with Italian electrics…
With an encouraging thud, the stalk moved into place and the Carello lenses luminated the Karoo darkness. With no real idea of whether the alternator was working properly, we were in a race against time to get to safety before we ran out of electricity.
By now it was well past 8pm and the hotel had phoned us to check that we were still coming. A short while later, we arrived in Graaff-Reinet with our hearts bursting for the little Alfa that had performed magnificently throughout the first day.
We had conquered mountain passes and caused commotions at every stop. Just over 650kms of the finest roads in South Africa were behind us. Route 62 would forever be part of us.
The hotel parking was devoid of any lighting, which isn’t a problem in your new BMW X5 with numerous interior lights to help you with your luggage. Of course, the Alfa has absolutely nothing of the sort.
With dead phone batteries not helping the situation, we offloaded everything in the darkness. There is nothing glamorous about scratching around in a dark boot after nearly 12 hours in transit. We reeked strongly of Eau de Classic Roadtrip, the new fragrance by Carbs and Coffee offering a hypnotic mixture of petrol and man sweat. Yummy.
The hotel receptionist didn’t seem nearly as fond of Eau de Classic Roadtrip as we had hoped, which is probably because she had to wait for us to check in way after the cut-off time. The kitchen was about to close, so we couldn’t even shower before dinner!
After literally begging the restaurant manager, he agreed to feed us despite it now being well past 9pm.
Lamb, beer and happiness ensued.
With the benefit of charged cellphones, we reported back to our family and petrolhead buddies. It was strongly suggested that we take the Alfa up the Valley of Desolation at sunrise, which is just outside Graaff-Reinet. It didn’t sound like a particularly good place to drive an Alfa with a dicey alternator, but then again nothing about this roadtrip was sensible anyway.
Day 2 would be much longer (820kms) and unfortunately the word “boring” does find application here, with most of the trip on the N1 through the fields of the Free State. It’s beyond us how the Karoo section gets all the flack, but the endless mielie fields don’t.
With that rather dreary reality ahead of us, we decided to wake up early enough to follow the recommendation of sunrise photos. A very early check-out later and we were off, with a first stop outside the incredible church in Graaff-Reinet for a photo in the morning light.
It was absolutely freezing. After sweating in the car on day 1, it was hard to believe that we were now desperately wishing for heat as we trembled our way out of Graaff-Reinet. The only words spoken were various expletives used to confirm to each other just how cold it was.
The Valley of Desolution is probably lovely at sunrise, but we aren’t sure how anyone could ever find out. Sunrise was at 5:30am but the Sanparks gate into the Camdeboo National Park (which sounds very Australian) would only open at 6am.
Knowing that we would need an hour to do the Valley properly, we couldn’t justify sitting in the freezing cold waiting for the gate and then only getting on the road to head home after 7am.
We decided to drive in the freezing cold instead of sitting in it, at least appreciating the exceptionally beautiful area around Graaff-Reinet along the way.
The N1 beckoned. I was exhausted, having done all of the driving thus far. Dale staged a welcome intervention, threatening to remove me from the driver’s seat physically if I didn’t hand him the keys at the next stop.
Dale is on a very, very, very short list of people who I trust with my car. He owns a 105-series Alfa himself, so he knows exactly what to do and what not to do. Other than the facts that I could play DJ with the JBL Bluetooth speaker and get some much-needed rest, a further benefit of riding shotgun was the comic value of realising how badly my headdlining sags on the driver’s side. I’m short enough to not notice, but Dale spent many hundreds of kilometres further polishing his already shiny cranium. Headlining indeed…
There really isn’t much to write about once you get on the N1 towards Bloemfontein. Petrol gauge stress reared its ugly head again as we got closer to Bloem, so we panicked and aimed at the first petrol station possible. It turned out to be a truck stop with probably the scummiest take-away food joint in the Free State. A toasted chicken and mayo for 20 bucks should probably not be trusted.
Of course, that didn’t stop us taking advantage of a cheap meal.
Fearing for our health, we got back on the road for the home stretch. The alternator was clearly just fine, despite the generator light still burning. Perhaps the Alfa’s heart was just glowing with happiness at being given almost 1,500kms of pristine roads to explore over 2 days…
One final stop for petrol outside of Johannesburg and we were done. We pulled into my in-laws’ house in Constantia Kloof, absolutely exhausted and once again offering Eau de Classic Roadtrip to our legions of adoring fans (all three of them, if you also include the dog).
The Alfa had done it.
After a quick inspection, we discovered that one of the wheel centrepieces had somehow fallen out between the final pit stop and Constantia Kloof. The car had marked its territory somewhere on the N1 between Vereeniging and Roodepoort.
I suppose if we include oil droplets, it had marked its territory the entire way from Cape Town to Johannesburg, almost leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow on the return journey.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of accomplishment that came over us. The car had easily done 120km/h when needed and the alternator hadn’t packed up after all. It had thrilled us in the mountain passes and gotten us to safety in the dark. We had not swung a single spanner on the entire trip.
The reliability of Alfa Romeos is a debate that will never stop raging. One thing is for sure though – 105-series Alfas are downright bulletproof.
The 1300 engine would now go into retirement. A fire-breathing period-correct 2000 engine awaited the Stepnose, having been expertly rebuilt by the brilliant Roy Prando. In some ways sad, in others incredibly exciting. It was the end of a 50-year era and the start of something new.
They say that something inside your heart changes when you lay eyes on your firstborn child. I hope to experience that one day, but I also think the same principle applies when you go on an adventure with a classic car and it performs in a way that just shouldn’t be possible.
The bond between man and machine is unbreakable.