Back to top

Van Reenen’s Pass patrol

1 July 2009

  • Philip Hull (standing), with two of the medics who work at Van Reenen’s Pass, Barry Niemand and Ansie Jooste. The Landy carries a host of emergency medical equipment to assist accident victims on the notorious pass.

Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst

“The toughest aspect of the work we do, is dealing with children.” Philip Hull, along with partner Petro Kruger, are the heart and brains behind the Road Safety Foundation. Philip takes a moment to stare at the never-ending stream of cars roaring past the Foundation’s “rustic” control post, at the top of the infamous Van Reenen’s Pass on the border of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

He remembers a particular accident scene. “The owner of a large SUV had four new tyres fitted to his vehicle before embarking on a holiday trip from Gauteng down to the coast with his family. In one of the corners a tyre burst, the driver panicked and braked, and the SUV rolled. We picked up the family’s toddler about 20m from the wreck. She had been securely strapped into her child seat, but in the rollover the inertia reel seatbelt holding the seat released after the initial impact, sending the seat and the little girl flying. Only the mother survived,” says Philip.

Talking to the former rally driver and ardent road safety activist, it quickly becomes clear that it requires a special kind of volunteer to do what Philip and his team of highly qualified medics do.

“We’ve seen the most gruesome there is to be seen. Decapitations, burnings… everything. But dealing with injured children still has the biggest psychological effect on all of us. What is even more disturbing, though, is people’s attitude towards transporting children. We often find that parents are securely strapped into their seats… with their children sitting on their laps.”

And Philip sees a lot of cars go past their control post. Up to 3500 per hour going in both directions, in peak holiday periods.

But why is Van Reenen’s Pass so dangerous? It’s just a 48km tar road in pretty good condition, compared to some other roads, albeit with quite a few bends.

“There are a lot of reasons. Firstly, there are a lot of heavy trucks, as it is the main road artery linking Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. And a surprising amount of truck accidents can be traced back to driver fatigue, as single-vehicle accident statistics tend to show.

“Other factors include rain and mist, and badly maintained vehicles. Speeding is another major problem, and from our control office one can hear the cars screaming past at night at crazy speeds,” explains Philip.

“Not so long ago a lady in her 60s was driving home after visiting family. She was driving at the speed limit, in her lane, doing everything she should have been doing. The next moment a Toyota Corolla with four passengers rammed into her car from the front. The driver was driving way beyond the speed and his own limits, lost it around a corner, and the lady’s CitiGolf happened to be in the way. She died on impact, as did three of the Toyota’s occupants,” Philip says.

It’s easy to get dejected and depressed about the subject of road safety and saving lives in Van Reenen’s Pass. And actual photographs of accident scenes does induce a momentary feeling of “I’m not going to take this road again. Ever”.

But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom. The fact that Philip and his team of 11 highly trained medical volunteers are actually stationed at the top of pass to save lives, is good news in itself.

Where did it all start?

“In 1983, when alcohol was first introduced in our local petrol, it wreaked havoc with some fuel-injection systems. So BMW South Africa created a temporary base here, to assist its customers who experienced problems with the fuel.

“I got involved back then, and it was soon clear that a need existed for an emergency medical response set-up too. BMW agreed, and we started Community Medical Services, offering voluntary medical assistance to motorists,” says Philip.

The former medical student and business executive says that over the years the initiative received support from many different companies. As a non-profit organisation, it relies solely on contributions from the private and business sectors.

“We used to stay in tents, and in the freezing winter months it was almost impossible to unzip the door to respond to an emergency call! Recently we built the very rustic control centre with the limited funds at our disposal, but it sure beats the tents!” laughs Philip.

But why here? Why not in the comfy surroundings of a nearby town?

“The main reason is logistics. Harrismith, which is in the Free State, is about 31km north of our location. Ladysmith, in KwaZulu-Natal, is about 50km south of our control centre.

“So, during emergencies, it first has to be established under which province’s jurisdiction the accident took place. Then the emergency personnel are dispatched, but with the distances they have to cover, and with a lot of fog around, it can take more than an hour for help to arrive on scene.

“We fill that time gap, to be on scene in that vital period directly after the incident. It makes the difference between life and death in many cases,” Philip explains.

How do Philip and his team get to the scene of an accident?

“We have several response cars, including a Volvo S40 station wagon and a vintage Nissan Sani V6. I’m fortunate enough to drive a Land Rover Discovery TDV6 S manual, sponsored by Land Rover South Africa. It is kitted out with all the lights and medical gear.

“I’ve done 30 000km and average 8,7 litres/100km, which includes responding to emergencies, as well as 4×4 work,” says Philip.

Off-road? Van Reenen’s Pass looks pretty much tarred to us.

“It’s also used for our Khanyisile Children’s Foundation project, in the Van Reenen’s area. We regularly visit schools in the remote mountain areas, and for that we certainly have to call upon the Disco’s 4×4 abilities. We assist the school children with food, educational tools, and whatever else we can provide.

“Ansie, the only member of our crew who works on the projects full time, visits the rural schools about three times per week to check up on them, and assist where needed,” says Philip.

Besides being a qualified medical person, Ansie Jooste is a person with a passion for what she does. Her late husband, a traffic officer, was killed 11 years ago by a speeding motorist while he was manning a speed trap near Ladysmith. Since then, she has devoted her life to road safety, medical assistance, and the upliftment of the local community. The latter is no easy task.

“These people are extremely poor, and it’s the children that suffer most. Basic necessities like food and water are scarce, and diseases like Aids claim a lot of adults in the region. So you end up with one frail grandmother with almost no income who has to look after a bunch of starving kids,” says Ansie, who speaks fluent Zulu.

Her initiatives include starting up a comprehensive database of all the children at the eight schools she looks after. She takes photographs of each child, and records all their details.

“A while ago I assisted a family with a burial. The next week I approached sponsors for pens and pencils for the schools. And the following week I was trying to source some more nutritional food for the youngsters. So it’s a never-ending cycle to try and help the local community,” adds Ansie.

And how does the Landy handle the rough tracks winding to the desolate schools?

“It handles the dongas as well as it handles on the road, which is with ease. When it rains here the tracks turn extremely muddy and slippery. But the Disco takes it all in its stride. I also use the weathered Nissan Sani 3.0 V6 4×4 to get up and down the mountains, but I must say that with the Land Rover its not nearly such a big effort. It makes it rather easy,” Ansie smiles.
Philip agrees.

“It’s just effortless. It’s extremely comfortable on the tar, yet highly capable off-road too. Of all the response cars I’ve driven over the years, it rates as one of the best.”

Just then, the two-way radio in the “control room” comes to life.

“Code blue, one pedestrian, at 38km. Please send ambulance to assist,” said a distant female voice over the airwaves.

Philip and his team didn’t move, even though they listened attentively to the call, even turning up the volume. What’s happening? Aren’t they going to jump in the Discovery and assist?

“It’s a code blue. The pedestrian is already dead. Nothing we can do for him or her.”

Van Reenen’s Pass had just claimed another victim.