Sherryl Clark
South Africa, 1977

These days Kombi vans are either vintage restoration projects or trendy hires splattered with rude, fake graffiti, but in 1977 a Kombi was the first and only choice for two girls on a road trip around South Africa. My friend Raewyn and I set off from Johannesburg down the long highway to Durban, our last visit there tainted with memories of an atrocious stomach bug and a grotty hotel room.

This time we couch surfed with Kiwi mates and then headed on down the coast towards Cape Town with an addition to our van from the boys – an antique 8-track player and half a dozen 8-track cassettes. Even in 1977 this equipment was so out-of-date that there was no way to add to the music collection we’d been given. We were stuck with the boys’ playlist, most of which never saw use.

Our trip was during the time of the 1970s oil crisis. Back in New Zealand, we’d had carless days. In South Africa, petrol stations were only open on certain days and we became obsessed with hoarding our petrol and finding ways to extend it. One method involved turning the engine off and coasting down the long hills to Port Elizabeth, our next stop. Past PE, we followed the coast road, one of the most beautiful I have driven, to the sound of The Doobie Brothers on 8-track.

Image sourced from pixgood.com

Image sourced from pixgood.com

Now, every time I hear Rockin’ Down The Highway, I’m immediately taken back to the swooping curves of that road, the brilliant sunshine and blue sea, and wave after wave crashing on the rocks below us. All I have to do is turn up The Doobie Brothers and close my eyes.

In Cape Town we parked behind a block of flats where a friend lived, and with no access to a toilet, early morning dashes upstairs to thump on his door were common. And he didn’t always wake up and let us in! We decided we just had to visit the local nude beach, only accessed by parking at the top of a cliff and climbing down over the rocks. It wasn’t especially memorable, but returning to our van and discovering it had been broken into was.

Raewyn’s traveller’s cheques had been stolen, as had some cash, our supply of wine and some shoes. Strangely, the 8-track hadn’t been touched! We took ourselves off to the local police station to report the thefts (necessary so Raewyn could get the cheques replaced) and were ushered into the station commander’s office. What was this about? Had we broken some kind of law? Were we in trouble for the nude beach visit?

No, he just wanted to meet us, talk rugby and find out more about us and our trip. Hearing we were facing a long drive back to Johannesburg, still with the constant worry of eking out petrol along the way, he signed a special waiver form that we could present to any petrol station and get them to open up and serve us, no matter what day it was.

Halfway back to Joburg, out in the middle of nowhere, that waiver saved us from being stuck on the side of the road for days. The grumpy man who had to open up and fill our tank was not impressed by us at all, but couldn’t refuse the official piece of paper.

We were relieved to hand over our Kombi back in Johannesburg. By then, it seemed to be sucking up a gallon of oil for every gallon of petrol and leaking in odd places. Someone told me later that it was probably the hill coasting that had caused the leakage problems.

To this day, I have no memory of what other 8-track cassettes were in that collection, but The Doobie Brothers still act on me like a time machine, zooming me back to those freewheeling, sun-filled days and Kombi adventures.

© Sherryl Clark. Sherryl writes and teaches fiction and poetry, especially for children and young adults. For the author of over 60 books, this debut Stereo Story is a rare foray into non-fiction.

What were 8-track tapes?