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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

No run for the mill road trip

What makes the Comrades special

The best part of a road trip, I reckon, is getting up way before dawn and hitting the road when the sunrise is a mere faint pink blush in the sky. The smells and sounds of a country awakening at that time of morning will be forever imprinted on your memory cells.

Another special enjoyment a road trip brings is looking back, from your destination, with a sense of awe – and achievement (Wow! That’s some distance we’ve covered…). There’s the sense of looking forward to the stops, to the “padkos” and the little reward at the end. Let me take you along one of my best-remembered, if not favourite, road trips.

As with all journeys, preparation is key and this particular trip, although shortish (at around 90km) requires a commitment of at least a year and more than 1 000km in pre-journey mini trips. Back in my day, we would work on 2 000km but times, as they say, have changed … One thing you don’t require is any special route planning. GPS not needed because there are plenty of direction boards and, even if you’re the man who doesn’t like to stop to ask for directions, there’ll be plenty of voluntary tour guides to help you.

Comrade Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega
Comrades Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega

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The unique smells and sounds of the road trip

Padkos? More specifically Pad drink… you won’t have to plot these small interludes, because there will be plenty of them along the road, sometimes just 1.5km apart. As you prepare to set off, from the KwaZulu-Natal provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg, you will be assailed by the peculiarly unique smells of this road trip, known to some as “The Annual Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Pain”. There is the bracing aroma of sweat from tens of thousands of armpits, fighting against the whiff of farts and Wintergreen to as sault your olfactory senses. If there are birds which want to begin their “dawn chorus”, they are drowned out by talk, laughter.

The nervous shuffling of feet and the ever-present rustling of plastic rubbish bin bags, because Maritzburg is chilly on the morning and they make for cheap, disposable jackets. There is a rather special sequence to beginning this road trip. First, you will hear the theme from Chariots of Fire, a quiet re minder that your chariot for this road trip doesn’t have wheels.

The journey unfolds

Then comes the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, followed by Shosholoza to push you the last bit of the way into the emotional patriotism you need to make you forget the insanity of what you’re about to embark upon.

Then comes the recording of a madman crowing like a cock (tradition, you see). And, if you’re lucky being close enough to the front, you might hear the gunshot which signals the start of the road trip. Initially, there is a sensation of being at sea, or floating down a gently flowing river, although this is of human bodies and not water.

Comradse Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega
Comrades Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega

You won’t see much those first few kilometres because, let’s face it, Maritzburg is never going to trouble the scorers on the World’s Most Beautiful City pageant. It’s not long, though, before you’re into the rolling, scenic hills of KZN. You barely notice the terror of the route the other way around the 2km-long Polly Shorts hill. It’s all downhill from here, you might think – because Durban, the final destination, is by the seaside.
That’s when you wonder that, when people say this particular road trip goes through the famous Valley of a Thousand Hills, most of them are on this route. It’s supposed to be down, but you’re often climbing… that’s the nice part of this road trip… it makes you re-think your fundamental understanding of “down” and “up”.

Outside Maritzburg, it gets lonely on the long distance, but as you wind down into the half-way point at Drummond, leaving the N3 highway and its assorted chicken farms behind you, there are people to encourage you. This is easy, you will think, buoyed by all the enthusiasm. No, it isn’t, you will find out a few hundred metres later as the road tilts upwards. Closer to Durban, going over Botha’s Hill on the old national road, look out for the smartly attired boys from Kearsney College cheering you on.

Comrades Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega
Comrades Marathon: Picture: Michel Bega

The final stretch and reflections on the journey

It’s just under 40km to go… a piddling distance by any wheeled vehicle standard. Field’s Hill is a scenic, twisty downhill route which, in places, offers you glimpses of the sea. Don’t waste this opportunity by worrying about your agony. All things must pass… Easing your way through Pine town, you’ll be cheered by more people and the feeling that the end is in sight. It is not. It is still 20-odd km away.

And remember this is the “Down” road trip as you strain up Cowie’s Hill, 45th Cutting, before breasting Tollgate. Now it is all downhill. If you still have the awareness and mental ability you may take in the decaying fringes of the Durban inner city, wrecked by neglect, corruption and failed governance… When you finally cross the line in Kingsmead stadium, you probably won’t be able to hear yourself think for the tsunami of cheers and encouragement.

No matter how well you’ve managed your fuel consumption, though, there is going to be very little left in the tank. Grab yourself a Milo, or a Coke and have a look at the pathetically tiny medal you have collected. Is that the return you expected for so much effort? Actually, it’s more than you expected. Not many other road trips are so involving… and consuming. It won’t be long before you’re planning again: it’s “Up” next year.

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