My love for maps goes back to road trips growing up. Four kids in the back seat of the sky blue Citroen that heaved and swayed its way to the Transkei, then in the avocado and cream coloured kombi with the 8-track tape deck playing Bob Dylan or Frank Sinatra, depending on whose turn it was to choose the music.
We had one of those map books that provided hours of idle entertainment on our way to who-knows-where. How far is it from Pretoria to Upington? The distance chart would show you. Now, how far is it from Kakamas to Pretoria? Go to page 26, track down Kakamas, see how far Kakamas is from Upington, do the maths and loudly share this little pearl of wisdom with the rest of the family – whether they wanted to know it or not.
Paper maps also have a downside. Those huge fold-outs could only really work when spread out on the dining room table. They would invariably deteriorate on the folds, leaving the whole country in tatters.
Later, when I started traveling as an adult, the joys of a map would often be found in a guidebook. The thrill of pulling the Rough Guide to Rome from the shelf in Exclusive Books and poring over the layout of the Vatican Museum while sitting in a coffee shop in Pretoria knows no bounds. That’s why, when we planned to walk the Cotswold Way in the UK, two years ago, I couldn’t wait to get hold of Walking in the Cotswolds or some other such title.
But The Engineer, who I’ve been married to for 30-odd years, had other plans. “We have an iPad, we both have smart phones, why on earth would you put a guidebook that weighs 500 grams in your rucksack?” Well, I don’t know … I like to touch something real? Even I thought the reason rather lame, so I conceded to start a 100 km walk, spanning five days, with just electronics to rely on.
It started out quite well. Google maps can be trusted in towns and villages but things become rather tricky when you are deep in a magical forest and you ask Google to help you decide whether you should turn right at this tree, or continue on to the next one. Google somehow doesn’t want to commit on this score.
So it happened on day three or four that we set out early from the B&B, planning to breakfast in a little hamlet called Birdlip. Google sort of pointed us in the right direction, but luckily there was a sign post, covered in moss, that said: Birdlip 4 miles. We followed the track but soon got confused. Google was also rather vague at this point. We soldiered on, becoming hungrier by the minute. Two hours later we hoped to see Birdlip around the next corner but no such luck. I officially became a Google maps hater when we eventually saw a signpost in the middle distance that said: Birdlip 4 miles. I can’t say for sure, but using a trusty guidebook with a detailed map and a description where to turn would certainly have got us there. Sad to say, I never saw Birdlip, and most probably never will.
So, we started this year with a wonderful road trip of the Northern Cape. After just one day of relying on Google maps, I hopped into a convenience store in Nieuwoudtville and bought a map book of Southern Africa. Joy, utter joy as we drove off and I could track how far it is from Kakamas to Pretoria, using the distance chart, the map on page 26 and doing the maths using my iPhone’s calculator.