Travelling is not like riding a bicycle

My latest article in the Sunday Times Travel section… Published 15 October 2017


Haven’t had a holiday in ages? Travelling is nothing like riding a bicycle, writes Tamlin Wightman.

We hadn’t travelled all year. Not as a family or individually. Cabin fever had been setting in for months. During times like this, my aptitude for adventuring doesn’t just take a leave of absence. It goes to meet its maker. So as the nomad of the family, I was of no help as we headed, Mother, Father, Only Child, from Cape Town to the Grahamstown Arts Festival.

As the organiser of the trip, Mom was even more lost. For one, she thought that overnighting in a backpackers was a good idea. And a closed one at that, because booking the right date is only something the frequent traveller does.

The entrance hall of the Mossel Bay Backpackers taunted us with bright lights through a locked, bolted, security-barred door. It was 11 pm, the sky was black and the air cold. We paced the empty parking lot, wrapped in every woolly item we owned. It was the sort of lot you expected a Fight Club to emerge upon at any moment. At least our fall would be soft.

We crossed the road to a Protea Hotel we had spied. Inside, we approached the night manager and tried on the most forlorn of looks in an attempt to get the cheapest room. Their idea of cheap was not the same as ours and so, bar from sleeping in a car park, our only option was to continue driving.


Five hours of Rankin’s Rebus on Audible later, we arrived to a town on lock down. That’s what Grahamstown looks like at 4 am. Apocalyptic and forsaken. Except for the odd donkey chewing at grass brave enough to spring from a crack in the tar road. And the occasional line of locals queuing at a 24hr petrol station ATM, as though the town could run out of money at any moment.

Without anywhere else to go or anything to do, we simply had to wait. For the sleeping sun to rise, for the artists to begin the show. And because we had no clue of how to do this cross-country road trip thing, we tracked down another parking lot and passed out.

We woke up too bushed and crooked-necked to attend most of the shows we had booked and paid for. We attempted to resurrect the vacation with coffee. It was at the local Mugg & Bean, after my fourth Americano, that I realised that trying to travel after time-off is nothing like riding a bicycle and everything like drinking coffee. You have to keep doing it or you lose tolerance. You lose the knack.

The withdrawal from caffeine does to your brain what that from travel does – it turns it to mush. Next thing, you find yourself with Mother’s steel knee in your ribs and a stranger (resembling Tyler Durden after a fight) ogling you through the steamy car window while you attempt to sit-up sleep.

But as the milky brew took over my nervous system, I began to ponder something profound. I began to see the silver lining.

Perhaps we hadn’t been that awful. We had remembered the audiobook, after all. We made it to one show, one great show. And we had done what we had set out to do. We had bonded. Over the mishaps and exhaustion. Over the stillness of the road at night. Over wrong turns down dirt roads scattered with broken glass from shebeen brawls. Over the inevitability that it all works out in the end. Because, as they say, if it hasn’t worked out, it isn’t the end.