A difficult farewell to Thomas

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Thomas aerial view

From the time that we started planning our Ultimate South African Road Trip, Bevan and I were looking forward to exploring our country’s west coast from Cape Town up to the Namibian border. Perhaps it is because we have grown up in KwaZulu-Natal that the west coast has this allure for us – it is on the absolute opposite end of the country and therefore somehow out of reach. It is also out of the way of any of the country’s major centres and not a stretch that can be explored en route to anywhere else. Visiting this distant coastline must be a dedicated exercise and this road trip finally provided the means to get out into arguably one of South Africa’s most unexplored places.

Because of our enthusiasm for this area we had wanted to begin our trip’s route on the west coast, but given that it coincided with the popular spring flower season, we realised trying to plan a fairly last minute visit during the region’s peak tourist season would be a little challenging. We decided that it would be best to visit it early in the new year, after a stop in Cape Town. And so it was, seven months after making those initial plans, that we found ourselves on the eve of setting off on one of our greatest and most highly-anticipated adventures when the unthinkable happened.

With a little over 400 000 km on the clock, Thomas quietly sputtered his last.

For us, it was a shocking experience, as all sudden deaths are. It started out with an innocent-sounding misfiring. We consulted a mechanic who changed the spark plugs, and we were ready for action. It wasn’t until the engine resumed misfiring a few days later that we thought there may be more to Thomas’s troubles. A second mechanic delivered the bad news: Thomas had failed a compression test. Two of his four cylinders were no longer firing and to drive him any serious distance would only cause more damage.

There was no choice – our journey with Thomas was done.

And so began the most frantic few hours of the trip. It was late afternoon on 28 February, and we were due to set off on a planned itinerary up the west coast the next morning. Calling on every ounce of our travel experience, creative thinking and combined network of Cape Town friends and family, we began the process of making a serious plan to continue the trip.

One private car, a Nomad Africa tour bus and small hire vehicle later (as well as three return trips between the lower west coast and Cape Town), and our trip up the Western Cape section of the west coast continues. Unfortunately the remote and off-road nature of the regions of the Northern Cape coastline that we were hoping to explore means that a small hired hatchback is not the vehicle of choice. Unless we can find another solution, the Northern Cape will have to wait.

For me, we are left in a bittersweet position for two reasons. The first is that with Thomas out of action, an integral and much beloved part of our story is missing. Thomas has been so much a character in his own right on this trip; small but eager and capable like the tiny tank engine he was named after. It feels incomplete to have to continue without him.

Thomas in the Karoo
On the road to nowhere outside Prince Albert

The other is that the success of the rest of our trip is going to come down to a lot of luck and even more creativity on our part. We have a plan for the Western Cape’s section of the west coast. After that, we have no idea how we will complete the Northern Cape’s coastline or our return route via the Garden Route and back to Durban. To fly home and cut the trip short by a month and by the entire southern coastline is unthinkable, so somehow we are going to make a plan. All part of the big adventure I suppose, but there is a part of me that is very heartsore that we won’t be able to close this chapter together with Thomas, and in the style that we imagined.

And so we are down but not out. The trip continues although in a different and very unplanned format. For now though, it seems fitting to reflect on some of the amazing memories and incredible places that we have adventured to with Thomas.

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