Journey from fear

2010-07-19 13:37

“Police! Police! Close the curtain! Close the curtain!”

We pull the curtain behind the driver and lower our heads. A few quiet but tense minutes pass. The thumbs-up comes and the curtain is opened again to reveal the stark landscape of the Great Karoo on both sides of the tarmac.

We are driving to Johannesburg from Cape Town. Joseph Chikati (37), his wife, Blessing (37), their four-month-old daughter, Nyasha, and Memory, a woman in her 20s.

She is allegedly returning from visiting her brother but her intimate knowledge of truck stops suggests something sinister.

In a scene similar to the festive season ­migration scores of people carrying huge bags of luggage sit along the N1 highway heading north from Cape Town, hitching lifts from passing trucks and bakkies. However, the mood is tense, nothing like the jovial mood of the festive season.

Chikati is one of them. He looks on wearily as truck after truck roars past without stopping. He is hoping to be in Johannesburg at least by afternoon the following day, stay over at a relative’s home and then catch a bus to Harare the following day. But there are stories of people spending a whole day and night waiting for a lift and he’s worried.

It’s mid-morning on Thursday as he stands along the freeway while Blessing sits on the pavement at the busy garage and truck stop cuddling Nyasha.

She is surrounded by huge bags carrying virtually the family’s entire lives.

The foreign nationals fear taking the train for fear of being attacked. Also many cannot afford the fare. Just after midday, as hopes for a lift begin to fade, Blessing calls her husband and explains that she’s struck a deal with a truck driver.

We rush to the truck stop nearby to be met by a muscular man in his 30s who shall be known as The Truck Driver. We strike a deal. The trip will cost R200 a head for me, Chikati and Blessing. Nyasha will travel for free but the luggage will cost R100, a total fare of R700.

Excited, we find space for the huge bags underneath the truck’s trailer, then one other large bag is carefully thrown inside the trailer with the truck’s cargo. We hop onto the truck and head north out of Cape Town.

“Close the curtain!” The Truck Driver yells as we approach a tollgate where many other people are gathered along the road with mountains of luggage.

The Truck Driver is not allowed to carry passengers. If his employer finds out he could be fired. If the police find out they could fine him R500 for each passenger. And if an employee finds out and tells on him, he could be in trouble. But he does it anyway. It’s good business.

“I usually carry five passengers a trip. That’s R1 000 a trip and if I do five trips a week then I have R5 000,” says The Truck Driver.

But we need to stay ahead of the game. So each time we see a traffic police vehicle ahead, approach a tollgate or drive through a town, then those of us seated behind the driver quickly close the curtain.

Also, nobody must speak when The Truck Driver is on the phone with his employer, who calls often to check how things are going. It would be disastrous if Nyasha cries during such a call but she turns out to be a quiet, sweet angel who is only alarmed by the truck horn.

It’s crammed in the truck with bags of provisions battling for space with four adults and a baby. We nibble on roast chicken Blessing has prepared for the long trip. There isn’t much conversation but as the truck meanders through the rugged landscape of rural Western Cape, Chikati expresses relief that at least his family will be safe should anything happen after the World Cup.

We head into the night after a brief stopover in Laingsburg. We reach the town of Beaufort West two hours later.

It’s a chaotic little dorp bustling with trucks, buses and travellers cramming into the tiny shops. A half jack of brandy costs R70 from the myriad of hawkers crowding the town’s filling stations. Faced with the prospect of lying curled up in a truck on such a cold night, the price doesn’t really matter. A man needs spiritual intervention.

Just after 10pm The Truck Driver pulls up onto the side of the road a few kilometres after the town of Three Sisters. He draws the curtain and slides into bed with Memory.

Blessing and Nyasha turn the driver’s seat into a rather uncomfortable bed. Chikati finds space on the floor between passenger and driver’s seat while I wriggle like a yogi in the passenger seat. The wind howls eerily in the darkness. It’s freezing outside, so venturing out of the truck is not an option.

After an uncomfortable night of twisting and turning in that crammed space, we hit the road again at 5:30am the next day.

The curtain-pulling game gets underway in earnest again, but just like the previous day, we encounter no problem with the police.

After a long day of being tortured by the monotonous landscape of the Free State and north Western Cape we finally cross into Gauteng. Relief and delight as we spot Blessing’s cousin’s bakkie parked on the side of the road.

After more than 1 000kms and 26 hours crammed into a stuffy, slow moving truck we pile the luggage onto the back of the bakkie and watch as The Truck Driver pulls off heading to ­Johannesburg with Memory.

Another long journey to Harare awaits...

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