Third Culture Kid: Wormhole to Childhood

“We can’t stop now, we’re making good progress.”

Anyone who is lucky enough to have grown up in a close-knit family unit is likely to have experienced the joy and frustration of family holidays. For me, they evoke nostalgic montages of Wonder-Years-esque home videos, sweltering beach trips and the excitement of early morning fishing. One thing that stands out in particular, though, is the car journeys. South Africa is big, really really big. Maps do not do the bigness of South Africa justice (being the country at the bottom of a tapering conical continent tricks the mind into thinking that it is about the same size as the UK).

This means that even a relatively short hop from one province to the next can involve punishingly long drives in excess of eight hours. Even the shorter journeys, such as our regular trips from our home in Port Elizabeth to seaside towns like Plettenberg Bay and St Francis could involve plenty of ‘are-we-there-yet’ moments. But, as I have discussed before, driving in South Africa is also immensely majestic and appreciable even at an early age.

My family and I recently relived these hazy memories by setting out in a 4×4 on a journey from Cape Town to the South side of Kruger Park in Mpumulanga. This is no short hop; it required three days of 5 o’ clock starts (sometimes hungover –a new addition to the family holiday dynamic). The first leg took us to my home town in Port Elizabeth, then up to my uncle’s home in Ramsgate in KwaZulu-Natal and finally up to Malelene gate at Kruger. This was followed by a further six days of almost non-stop driving. On the way back we took a more direct, but still very long, route through Gauteng, Freestate, Northern Cape and finally back to a desperately needed hot shower and comfortable bed back in Cape Town. All in all, we traversed seven of South Africa’s nine provinces in twelve days.

There is plenty to say about covering this vast expanse of such a magnificent country, but what is significant from a personal point of view is that being confined in a rolling metal box with my family for many many (really very many) hours was like entering a wormhole to childhood. The woozy early morning starts, junk food binges, crossword puzzles and dextrous thermos flask experiments over mountain passes felt eerily familiar, and we made a point (when my father permitted it) to stop at many of our traditional road haunts along the way. Stranger still, we all reprised our family holiday roles circa 1989-1996; my father ground us down with his constant sense of urgency and religious adherence to a carefully thought-out schedule and occasionally, in his more relaxed moments, reassured us that we were “making good progress”. My mother, more favourably disposed to luxuries than roughing it on the road, subjected my father to hot tongue and cold shoulder if she was deprived of regular tea-stops; but, to her credit, kept us entertained and alert during her stints behind the wheel through her daring and occasionally hair-raising driving skills, overtaking articulated lorries on hilly roads through old Transkei and narrowly avoiding running over friendly police officers at routine checkpoints.

As for my sister and I (with whose marvellous blog, Holly Goes Lightly, you might be familiar), we bickered. This is not to say we don’t get along. My sister and I are great friends and take regular road trips together ourselves, but something happens to us when we are around our parents – we revert to sniping childhood sibling rivalry. Confine us in a car with our parents for consecutive ten-hour stretches and you have a tinderbox situation resembling a cross between a National Lampoon road movie and Mortal Combat. I think I even heard myself say “she started it!” at least once.

That being said, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Having been away from my home and family for so long, I can’t help but lament occasionally that I have ‘missed so much’. My homecoming has been a combination of the new, the unfamiliar and the nostalgic and what better way to experience this intriguing contradiction than a pilgrimage to retrace my tyre-tracks with the people who I shared these experiences with (drama and all) all those years ago.