These are the pros and cons of hitchhiking


These are the pros and cons of hitchhiking

In his youth, ALI VAN WYK travelled all over the country by hitchhiking. Now he wonders if that era has gone forever.


IT was about 6.30am on a Saturday in the autumn (it might have been spring) of  1987 when a friendly overweight man of vaguely Mediterranean origin (Jewish or Lebanese) picked me up in his long, silver Mercedes at the old Durban road (R23) N3 offramp outside Heidelberg.

I was 16, maybe 17. I remember the man and his car so vividly because he said I could call my mom on his car phone. It was the first time I had seen a car phone — back then they were only for the wealthiest people. It was a bulky box built between the two front seats. The man's short fingers, covered in dark hair and gold rings, held a flat handset which was connected to the box with a coiled cord.

He was on his way to a coal mine somewhere in Natal, he said, probably Newcastle. His business was to rent out trucks and other large machines to mining companies.

I relaxed because I could sense the man didn't have sinister intentions. He just wanted some company, and he might have been concerned to see a young boy standing by the road with a mohawk hairstyle, a red shirt and shoes, and what was known back then as a “snow-washed jean" (a tight-fitting pair).

That was not my usual look on a Saturday morning. The truth is, about six hours earlier I had had a disagreement with my girlfriend at a party in a third-floor apartment in Sunnyside, Pretoria. I'd stormed out the door angrily, saying, “I'm leaving. See you at home."

Over weekends, we small-town kids would often travel 80km or so to Hillbrow, Springs or Boksburg, even 50km further to Pretoria, in a group on a bus for a party or to go to the discos.

Storming out of the party was childish and irresponsible, but I was 16. At the bottom of the street, I had to decide whether to tackle the 130km journey home through Johannesburg or swallow my pride and sneak back. I was on the corner of Troye Street, which led straight past Unisa and the Fountain Circle out of the city to the highway. I stuck out my thumb and the second vehicle stopped — a bakkie. I jumped on the back and we were off.

Lost and soulless

The bakkie dropped me off near the Gillooly's interchange on the N3 at about 2.30am. You couldn't have experienced anything as desolate and soulless in 1987 as the N3 outside Johannesburg under yellow streetlights at that time of night. By that moment, I had thoroughly examined the wisdom of my impulsiveness. Almost no cars passed by, and even in 1987 people were wary of picking up a lone teenage hitchhiker on the highway.

My red velskoene were at best party shoes, but I walked. From Gillooly's over the hill towards Heidelberg, past the big Germiston interchange, past the cement factory, past Alberton, and finally through the marshes of Spruitview until I saw Vosloorus's yellow lights in the smoky mist on the right. Eventually, another bakkie picked me up, and I saw the sun rise as we drove past Heidelberg. The driver dropped me off at the Durban road exit where the man with the car phone would later pick me up.

By 11 that morning, my girlfriend arrived home, sick with worry, and found me asleep on her bed in her room. It's a pity no one gave me a good klap.

It ran in the family

It's understandable that such stories can sound unbelievable and extreme today. It is important to remember that personal experiences and circumstances may differ from individual to individual, and that some practices were more acceptable or common in certain communities in the past.

Hitchhiking by middle-class children from the platteland might have been seen back then as a search for adventure, or exploring, or sharing a friendship. It's an interesting piece of history and brings back memories of another era. Our personal experience and perspectives often colour how we experience and remember things.

It didn't bother my father. He even encouraged it (much to my mother's dismay). I grew up with wonderful stories of my father's own hitchhiking exploits in the late 1950s. When he was 15 and in standard 8 (grade 10) in Brits, north-west of Pretoria, his father, a pastor, accepted a calling to a congregation in Newcastle. My father, Abrie, wanted to stay in Brits, so his parents put him in the school dormitory there.

Sometimes on a Friday afternoon he would hit the road with a rucksack, a sleeping bag and a quick thumb, and by Saturday morning at the latest he would be in Newcastle. I once asked him why he didn't become a paratrooper, and he said it was because he wears glasses.

One evening he rolled out his sleeping bag somewhere in the veld when the stream of passing cars had dried up. When he woke up the next morning, there were two ice cubes frozen around the lenses of his glasses. Without his glasses he was lost, and he had to put them in his mouth to get rid of the frost.

He also told me about the time it got dark on Friday afternoon before anyone had been willing to give him a ride. At a fuel station in Perdekop, the young Abrie asked for a lift among motorists filling their tanks.

He told me how he should have suspected something when the three men who agreed to give him a ride all got into the front of their Volkswagen Beetle (a Beetle has two front seats), and that he should have turned down the opportunity when he got into the back and heard the clinking of several bottles around his feet.

They had barely left the filling station when the driver brought the vehicle to a dramatic stop next to the road. All three men jumped out, with the confused schoolboy trailing along, and the driver took out a bottle of brandy. He then made a toast to their new passenger. The driver passed the bottle around so that everyone could take a decent sip (which Abrie politely declined).

Back in the car, they offered him a cigarette, but when he turned that  down too it only increased their curiosity about this peculiar young man who didn't want to drink or smoke. They told him it was okay as long as he showed them the border between Transvaal and Natal (he knew it was in Charlestown) so they could stop there for another toast.

On their way to the border, they stopped at every possible landmark — bridges, beautiful trees, exceptional road signs — to get out and have a drink.

Abrie, a religious young man (also later a dominee), sat in the back of the Volksie and prayed for his life all the way to Newcastle. As they swung down the Majuba Pass, his pleas increased in intensity, especially when the character sitting in the middle (on the handbrake) tried to throw his burning cigarette butt out the window, with the problem that the window was closed so the stompie bounced back onto the driver's leg.

The driver then summarily brought the Volksie to a halt on the side of the road so they could get out to roll some proper smokes. Followed by another toast. And yet another toast a few kilometres further, to celebrate a wildfire.

Absolute freedom, if you’re white

People around a braai often say things like, “You can't hitchhike these days. South Africa has become that much more dangerous." This is not untrue but not completely accurate either. It is true if you are a white man. South Africa has become drastically less safe for a white man to hitchhike.

Back in 1987, young white men were prized specimens. This demographic was a great asset for PW Botha, Magnus Malan, Adriaan Vlok and the rest of the cabinet. These were the men who were sent to the border with South West Africa to keep Swapo, the MPLA and the Cubans in their place and communism out of South Africa.

It was young white conscript officers who led the battle groups of hardened black Portuguese soldiers of the FNLA against the Angolan insurgencies of the illegal 32 Battalion of Colonel Jan Breytenbach.

It was young white engineers who worked in Christo Viljoen and Co's programmes at Technopark in Stellenbosch, where they designed new weapons. These were the men whom PW Botha sent to America to get doctorates so they could build a water network like the Israelis did. And so the list goes on.

The only people who could safely hitchhike on a motorway (the N-roads) in the 1980s were servicemen in uniform — I did so once or twice myself, using the areas clearly demarcated for the purpose. The public was even encouraged  in Southern Cross Fund advertising campaigns to give lifts to troops.

I suspect it has always been a dangerous business for black people to hitchhike in South Africa. Until 1986, black people's movements were regulated by the pass laws, which turned any form of travel into a nightmare, with the significant risk of arrest or harassment by the police. After 1986, the country was an unstable and dangerous place for black people for almost a decade, and since 2005 public spaces have become increasingly dangerous, even for white men.

I did know one or two young women who sometimes hitchhiked, but only over short distances during holidays up and down the Natal south coast. Black people regularly hitchhiked. My father made a point of picking up black people when he was driving by himself. It was an opportunity to have a conversation that fell outside the baas-and-klaas boundaries that dominated apartheid's race relations everywhere else.

Troublesome ooms

The only times I felt threatened while hitchhiking were when older ooms with amorous agendas gave me a lift. This happened quite a few times.

I hitchhiked all the way from Mpumalanga to the coast and back twice. One of the occasions was in the December holidays at the end of standard nine, when I had to join my parents on holiday in the Cape.

In early December, I stood outside our town and covered the 120km to the Vaal Tollgate with just two lifts. I had barely stuck out my thumb at my illegal spot just beyond the tollgate when a souped-up yellow Toyota Conquest RSI with dark windows came to a halt next to me.

It was Gary, and he was on his way home for the festive season. His home was in Boston in Bellville, and we later found out it was less than a kilometre from the Hardekraaltjie Caravan Park where my parents were camping. Gary was a “parate" young man with a short-sleeved shirt that stretched around his significant upper arms, and a hairstyle like a hedgehog's rear. During the day, he studied engineering at a technikon in Johannesburg, and at night he did not do badly as a bouncer at a popular night club in Hillbrow.

Gary talked without end as he blitzed the 1,300km to the Cape in under 11 hours. We spent more time in the oncoming lane passing other vehicles than in the regular lane, but Gary knew how to drive. He also bought me hamburgers twice.

Three weeks later, I started hitching from Wilderness back to Mpumalanga. I was longing for my girlfriend. It took a day and several lifts to get through Port Elizabeth, then Cookhouse and Cradock to a large filling station in Colesberg. I swallowed my pride and asked for a lift among motorists fuelling up.

The second or third guy, a dark-haired man with a moustache and tucked-in collared shirt in a new BMW 325i, said yes. I opened the back door, threw in my backpack and got in. No, he said, come sit  in the front, it's only us. After only about 10km he asked me if I could drive. Of course, I said. He let me get behind the wheel of his hot little car and told me to please drive as fast as possible. It was near the end of the December holidays and there were quite a number of cars with caravans and trailers going north. I gave that little BMW everything I had right through the night.

It was soon clear that the man was interested in more than mere platonic companionship. He told me he was an estate agent in Vereeniging and a bachelor, but that he had three adopted sons and raised them by himself. While he was speaking, he first put his hand on the handbrake between the seats,  then I saw it moving closer and closer to my leg. I was a religious child, and I silently prayed ever more anxiously as I passed one caravan after another at 160km/h. In my mind's eye, I saw how I would bring the car to a stop, jump out, quickly grab my backpack, and run into the veld if he dared touch me.

I think he sensed the tension because nothing happened after that, and with the sun coming up, he dropped me off in a street in Vereeniging.

Almost the same ritual took place exactly a year later, just south of Durban. I was once again on my way to my parents in a caravan park at Park Rynie on the south coast. An Indian man in an old sports car picked me up. His name was Rickie. We were barely on the road when Rickie asked me: “How's things going with the girls?", followed by a coquettish “Or is it the boys?", with an eyebrow that nudged in my direction. Luckily Rickie was the driver this time, not me.

I told him: “You know what, Rickie, it looks like this next offramp is the one where I have to get off." Rickie responded by rather sheepishly stopping to drop me.

Long distance for love

A few years later, when I was already at university, it was the turn of a truck driver, who cast clumsy hints in my direction. Like most of the previous times, I was hitching because of a girl. It was a long weekend and almost winter; I was in Stellenbosch and the girl was in Pretoria. One Wednesday afternoon in 1993 I just decided, screw everything, I'm going. I started walking, and by the time I reached the top of the first hill on the Paarl road I was drenched in rain. The sun was already setting when I stood next to the N1 at Worcester alongside five permanent-force members of the SACC (South African Cape Corps, an infantry unit) and put my thumb to work.

A big truck with wooden crates on its trailer stopped and the driver told us we could get on top while holding on to the chains they were tied down with. The next few hours were some of the scariest and coldest of my life. My clothes were being blow-dried by the icy Karoo wind and my hands got so cold that I could no longer feel them. When we got to Laingsburg, I quietly slipped off the crates and hit the road again.

Soon, a white guy in a big green Mercedes truck that said “Pilkington Glass" picked me up. The cabin was warm and luxurious, and there was even a bed behind the front seats. I was tired and cold and was hoping to get on the bed and sleep for an hour or two, but the man insisted I was there to keep him company and that sleeping would be out of the question. Before long he also showed me the vibrating stick that he used to massage his shoulders and back while driving. Who knows what else he did with it.

It was an exhausting day. He took me all the way to Pretoria, never doing more than 80km/h. I arrived at my girlfriend's front door looking like a half-drowned chicken.

One cannot remember the past exactly as it was. One remembers it around situations and incidents that affected you emotionally. I remember a large part of the 1980s through road trips, because they took me out of the security of a middle-class Afrikaner existence, and because they were exciting and unpredictable.

But if I found out that my 17-year-old son had been hitchhiking through two cities at night, I would lose it. It's sad that public spaces have become so dangerous. Even if it might just mean that things have become as bad for white men as they have always been for everyone else.

The other day I saw on our family WhatsApp group that my father had been hitchhiking again, from Cullinan to Rayton. He is now 81 and his car was stranded with a battery problem near Jan Ellis's garage. “Maybe I should have taken off my blue overalls, because people don't want to pick up an old man in an overall," he told me. “It's not the same any more. I had to struggle for half an hour to get a lift."

♦ VWB ♦

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