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Top 13 road trips

I love to travel, and I’m always looking to do a bit of travel writing. I find road trips are a very good way to see a country or even a continent, and we’ve done quite a few over the years. All of them have been great, but here’s our top 13.

1. Bush trucker

Africa. I’m still not sure whether this was a major road trip or a minor expedition, but if it’s the former it has to come top of this list. The route was just short of 6500km and took in South Africa, then Namibia (a favourite of ours, see below); Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, finishing off in Botswana again – we even set foot in Angola, but that was just a cheeky visit thanks to an obliging boatman in Rundu.

We opted for a rental Nissan 4x4 for the journey, equipped with a roof tent, Engel fridge, one-hob gas cooker and lots of stuff to get us out of deep sand – such as high-lift jack and spade – and also a compressor so we could tweak the tyre pressures to make sure we didn’t get bogged down in the first place.

There are too many highlights to list fully but wild camping in Namibia and Botswana (the latter amidst a herd of elephants) stand out; as does the drive along the Skeleton Coast to Terrace Bay (and all the desert driving in Namibia actually); hiking in lion country in Zimbabwe with an armed ranger for protection; Victoria Falls (breath-taking); arriving in Zambia via the Kazungula Ferry across the Zambezi: coming face to face with a group of hippos while in a dugout canoe in the Okavango Delta; the friendliest speeding ticket ever in Zimbabwe; The Matopos Hills (magical); Bulawayo; getting stuck in with the 4x4 in Botswana in particular; Zambezi beer and Windhoek Draught. As always the people were friendly almost everywhere. Don’t watch the news, just go to Africa! 

Some pictures here        

2. European Odyssey

Marco Polo. That’s the name given to the series of features for The VW Golf magazine that were the by-product of this trip, a three-month journey in an ancient £300 ‘bread van’ shaped VW Polo in 2004. The route took us down through France and over the Alps into Italy, and then down the east coast to Bari, where we caught a boat to Greece. Then we drove up through Greece and into Turkey, down the Gallipoli peninsula and around the coast before heading up to Cappadocia, which was where we turned back. A long drive back across the Turkish interior followed, and then Istanbul during the rush hour (which was fun!), before driving back to London via eastern and western Europe (Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France). Memorable moments? Losing the exhaust in Turkey then having it fixed for around 10p; being caught in a dust storm and almost collecting a parked car; Czech beer; The Pelion at Easter; taking in a lap of the old Pescara road course; the ruins at Pergamum and the amazing Travertine pools at Pamukkale; Bulgarian border guards ripping the guts out of poor little Marco because they thought we might be drug smugglers (to do with the Indian visas in our passports, long story); and simply taking our time – we had a lot of it, and the car struggled to do much more than 60mph anyway.

3. Up the guts

Australia. There is something immeasurably satisfying about driving across a continent, especially when it’s one that’s as sublimely empty as Australia. We took what might be thought of as the zipper route – or ‘up the guts’ as it’s called in Oz – Adelaide to Darwin along the Stuart Highway. The trip was just under 4000km, but this included a few detours: Flinders Ranges; Uluru (Ayers Rock); King’s Canyon, and Kakadu. For the first time we didn’t use a car, but a motorhome; a VW Crafter, which was fast enough to overtake three- or four-trailer road trains (amazingly long articulated rigs) with ease, yet also very comfortable. There were some long days of driving and a few wonderful dawn starts – there’s something very special about starting a long day on the road just as the sun rises. Most of the kangaroos we saw were dead by the side of the highway (51 of them in fact), but we did get close up to one with a joey early on, and saw plenty of wallabies, while there was no shortage of salt water crocodiles (the dangerous type) at Kakadu. Highlights? Canoeing in Katherine Gorge; walking around Uluru; tea and Tim Tams; watching as a dust devil formed in front of our eyes then spun past like a whirling dervish just feet from where we stood; Cooper’s Pale Ale; swimming at Edith Falls; 150 Lashes (nothing to do with Mosley, it’s a beer) and cooking snags on the van’s fold out barbi. Some snaps here.

4. American dream

Route 66. The granddaddy of road trips; from Los Angeles to Chicago, and then we drove on to New York, so by journey’s end we had crossed the entire continent. The car was a Chevrolet Monte Carlo, a bit bouncy, but comfortable. Following Route 66 was not simple, though I believe it is easier now as this trip’s become popular lately. That said, much of it is hardly used by regular traffic these days, and while some stretches run parallel to the interstates that superseded them, others curve away into the hills and valleys and quite often through genuine ghost towns. We even found a couple of early stretches which were just dirt tracks. Small detours took us to the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam, while a larger detour took us to Las Vegas – which is as fake as Dubai, but a lot more fun. There’s plenty to see along the way, and it was a great way to discover small town America. Listening to the car radio as we went, the stations switching as we crossed county lines, was an education, too – especially the quite frankly frightening Christian broadcasts. Memorable moments? Shooting a full magazine from a Kalashnikov AK47 in a gun shop; Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo; big steaks and huge portions; driving through New York to drop off the Chevy at the end of the trip; a drugged up gangster showing me his gun – in a friendly way – in LA; the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest; Amish country; and the biker bar at the Devil’s Elbow, the ceiling hung with bras donated by customers. Jassy did not donate.

5. African tracks

Nambia. Many travel around this amazing country in a 4x4, but to upgrade would cost £400, the same price as a long lens for the camera we needed for photographing game, so … Anyway, I was pretty sure a VW Polo would be up to the task, having enjoyed a previous adventure in a much older version (see above). Most of the roads were gravel, dirt or sand, but the Polo was great fun and didn’t miss a beat, apart from a broken fuel gauge which we only realised wasn’t working (stuck on ‘full’) when we were in the middle of the desert hours away from human habitation. Highlights? Driving for hours across vast swathes of the Namib Desert without seeing another vehicle, and stopping every now and then simply to soak up the silence. Hiking over and through the towering and beautiful sand dunes at Sossusvlei was pretty remarkable, too. And then there were the animals, and getting our little Polo up close to a breeding pair of lions as they flirted playfully, and then had a vicious tiff. We were lucky enough to see the ‘Big Five’ (elephant, lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo), but the giraffes were a particular favourite. Driving along the Skeleton Coast was pretty cool, too, as it was a long-held ambition. But best of all were the people, in Namibia and South Africa (we bookended the trip with a stop in Cape Town and then a mini road trip from Johannesburg to Kruger and back). Africa’s much friendlier than the news would have you believe. We’ll be going back, for sure.

Check out the pictures here.

6. Mille Miglia

Italy. Research trips often make the best road trips and this was no exception. This was the first – and at the time of writing only – time we made use of a satnav. Glad we did, too, as it can be difficult to find your way through Italian cities (we still managed to get lost in Rome and Florence). We followed the route of the fabled Mille Miglia road race (not the new one that rich people do, but the one that stopped in 1957). As the name suggest, it’s 1000 miles – Stirling Moss completed this in just over 10 hours in 1955! We started halfway around the course, in Rome, and the hire car was a Lancia Ypsillon – a rather rubbish runabout but I was quite glad it was a Lancia, as that was the car that won in 1954 in the hands of Ascari, the year featured in the novel that’s now almost finished. Highlights? The Futa and the Raticosa pass; spending a night in Ferrari’s home town of Marranelo; the hidden gem that is Brescia; the Mille Miglia museum in that same city; Tivoli; Rome; and the food and wine everywhere, but especially in the vineyard we stayed in in the hills above Verona.  It was also interesting to see a preserved stretch of old Mille Migia road, just the loop of a hairpin with the old cobbled surface, above Antrodoco, near Rieti. It gave me a clear idea of just how much the corners have opened out with the road widening over the years, and also just how much more of a challenge the route would have been in 1954. 

7. Alps and autobahns

Alpine blast. Eight countries, eight days, taking in some of the best Alpine passes – just the way to try the new MX-5 out while getting in some First World War research for a new project. First stop was Verdun, via the old grand prix circuit at Rheims, then it was into Switzerland, though Lichtenstein, and on to Italy, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France. The passes were brilliant fun in the Mazda: Fluela, Stelvio and Grossglockner the best – particularly the last. We did have one near miss on a derestricted section of autobahn outside Munich, when the rain suddenly started to fall and an old bloke in a Passat simply lost it in a straight line and pinballed from barrier to barrier right in front of us when we were doing around about 120mph. Close one, that, and the driver was very lucky to climb out with just a hobble and a white face. Verdun, The Somme and Le Cateau, were interesting and moving, as old battlefields always are, but the highlight of this trip was really the driving.

8. Swaziland and Zululand

Sourthern Africa. The last casualty of Isandlwana? I’ll get to that later … A Toyota Corolla hire car and a 10 day loop that took us from Johannesburg to Swaziland, then down in to KwaZulu Natal, then back up to Jo’burg. Swaziland’s a nice little country, and it was here that we had one of our best wildlife experiences ever, in Hlane, on foot, coming within five metres of a rhino with a baby. The mother shifted quite aggressively, and we had to crouch down to pretend to be bushes – rhinos really should go to Specsavers. Back in South Africa we had an encounter with a smaller creature that was almost as exciting. Our guide showed us a trapdoor spider, again with young. It was quite surreal; a mark on the path, nothing more; looked a bit like a knot in wood. Then he lifted the hinged hatch, which actually almost seemed manmade, like a rubber grommet over a Smarties tube, which itself seemed plastic-white on the inside – but it’s actually made of silk. The spiders were inside; no Smarties. Hluhluwe-Imfolozi was impressive, one of the most beautiful reserves I’ve visited. And then there were the battlefields: Rorkes Drift and Isandlwana. We were taken on a hike along Fugitives Drift by a Zulu guide called Tulani. It was interesting to get a very different take on the battles and also an insight in to current South African politics; he was great company, too. I was so wrapped up in the conversation I tripped over a root and landed very heavily. Thought I’d broken my arm, and crossing the Buffalo River at the end of the trek was tough, as was the drive back to Jo’Burg – where we also visited Soweto. All in all a more thought-provoking trip than other African adventures, perhaps, but also hugely enjoyable. Oh, the thunderstorm in Pho-Pho was pretty memorable, too, as was the Bunny Chow near Durban: curry in a hollowed out loaf of bread. What’s not to like?

9. Bear necessities

Canada. Vancouver’s a nice city and a great place to start a tour of British Columbia and Alberta. The hire car was a boring Toyota I Forget, and an automatic at that, but it did the job. Some of the scenery was almost unbelievably spectacular, especially in Wells Gray Provincial Park, where they have some of the most amazing waterfalls tucked away, which are hardly mentioned in the guidebooks. We saw bears here, too, which was exciting, but not quite as exciting as hiking through the forests knowing they’re around. The Icefields Parkway, which crosses the Canadian Rockies, was a spectacular day’s drive, and going out on to a glacier in a special ice explorer (basically a bus with giant wheels) was memorable. Other memorable moments include eating poutine (chips topped with gravy and cheese curds, far better than it sounds and a Canadian delicacy), the steaks in Calgary, and drinking excellent craft beers.  

10. Balkan loop

Balkans. This was a quick loop through Croatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and then back to Croatia for a third time, chiefly to scout out locations for a novel, checking a few facts and enjoying a little October sunshine in Istria. We found some excellent driving roads, with the journey from Bihac in Bosnia to Senj in Croatia being particularly good, as was the hairpin-riven Vrisic Pass over the Julian Alps in Slovenia. Highlights were Slovenia and the old WW1 fortifications we found clinging to the mountain sides – it must have been a special kind of hell fighting a war in that environment in the winter – and then the more modern reminders of conflict in Bihac, where some of the houses still bear the marks from the Bosnian war – it’s sobering to see up close just what sort of damage modern automatic weapons are capable of. Also, we will never forget the turquoise Soca River, nor the amazing change on crossing the border from Croatia into Bosnia. To think this was once the same country … But just by thinking that you soon realise why it no longer is.

11. Magical history tour

Germany. This was our first road trip really, back in the days when you could take a hire car on to the Nurburgring, so we did. I’ve been back to the ’Ring a few times since, sometimes in pretty quick machinery, but nothing quite beats the very first lap in a little Ford Fiesta. It was a research trip really, starting in Brussels, then stopping near Koln, then we followed the Rhine for much of the way down to Stuttgart, and on to Bamberg, then Zwickau, and right back across Germany to Aachen, then back to Brussels – beer lovers will know from some of those place names that this was also a bit of a pilgrimage. Highlights included our laps of the ’Ring, the Trabant museum in Zwickau which is in the factory where the pre-war Auto Unions were built; being in ‘East’ Germany when it still seemed a little different from ‘West’ Germany; the beers in Bamberg; and for me perhaps the most memorable of all, finding the memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer at the spot where he died after crashing a streamlined Auto Union during a record attempt on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn in 1938. Oh, and let’s not forget the pretzels in Schorndorf, possibly the best in the world.

12. California kicks

Pacific Coast Highway. This is the road that links San Francisco to Los Angeles – although we had been to LA before and time was short, so we just went as far as Santa Barbara. The things that really stick in my mind from this one were some great nights out in San Francisco, Alcatraz, staying in a log cabin in Big Sur – and some very good hiking there, too – Hearst Castle, and spotting whales out at sea. The best of the driving was an early morning blast from Big Sur (we stopped there again on the way back) to the airport at San Francisco. Oh, Santa Cruz was good fun, too. It somehow reminded me of Barry Island … well, a bit.

13. Kiwi caper

New Zealand. After a week in Queenstown on the South Island we managed a small road trip on the North Island in a borrowed MX-5. Rotorua and Napier were the most memorable stops and Auckland’s a very nice city, too. Not really anything to do with road trips, but while in Queenstown I did try a bungee jump, which had always struck me as a very ‘bad faith’ box-ticking sort of thing to do. Ironically, it made me realise I wasn’t afraid of heights after all, just aware that I was free to jump, and the height is not even slightly scary when you’re attached to an elastic band. So, Sartre would have been pleased. If you don’t understand this you need to do a bungee jump, or a degree in philosophy.  

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