Home away from home
How many of us have had the opportunity to witness the magnificence of a full-to-the-brim truck stop in the dead of night? Recently, I was lucky enough to experience just that.
Imagine it: over four hundred trucks fill three parking lots almost to the brim; most of their cabs curtained up so the weary drivers can get some shuteye after many hours on the road. The dimly lit grounds are livened up by a stream of headlights, as long-haul rigs continue to pull off the humming N3 national road and filter in.
Their drivers queue for a diesel fill up, find the most convenient parking spot, grab a bite to eat and maybe a shower, and head back to their cab to get some rest. A bitingly cold breeze gusts around, the temperature is already in the single figures and dropping noticeably. And it’s only 21:30.
By 01:00, many of the early arrivals will depart once more. By 08:00, the grounds will be largely empty.
This is the nightly scene at Highway Junction Truck Stop in Harrismith. Oom Frik Neethling has been a manager at the facility for the past 14 years. He’s seen it all, but, along with the management team, has progressively made the operation more driver-friendly.
On site is a recreation hall that can be rented by the surrounding community, 12 showers and toilets with wash basins, an overnight laundry facility, the Highway Grill & Cafeteria, a clubhouse with an ATM, a small chapel where a pastor gives a sermon every second day, and a wellness centre.
Outside, prostitutes lurk in the darkness hoping to make a good turnover during the evening. They’re not allowed into the facility (nor are alcoholic beverages). That doesn’t stop some drivers from trying to smuggle them in, though …
“There are prostitutes outside by the hundreds,” says Oom Frik. “They’re a big problem. They even ask to be let in to the premises to visit the wellness centre in order to be tested and get condoms – then they disappear among the trucks …”
Between 20:00 and 06:00 security guards patrol the grounds with dogs. This has helped to keep crime and violence to a minimum and the “ladies of the night” out. (Life on the grounds is generally peaceful – ignoring the 450 rumbling trucks, of course.) The prostitutes are now not allowed onto the premises unless accompanied by security – and then only to go to the wellness centre.
Sadly, most drivers need to be encouraged to visit the wellness centre; so a representative braves the freezing weather to navigate the maze of trucks and canvas them to visit. Anything from testing for HIV/Aids and sugar levels, to treatment of ailments and chronic conditions are administered by the on-site sister between 16:00 and 22:00 each night.
A sign of the health condition of our country’s drivers is the fact that most of those who do visit the centre are currently on treatment for diabetes. This is not surprising when you consider their preferred meals, illustrated by the starch- and sugar-rich menu at Highway Grill & Café.
As we tour the grounds and take some shaky, shivery photos, Oom Frik imparts the general feeling towards the drivers: “We feel sorry for them; they’re just like you and me, but miles away from their family and on the road three or four months at a time.
“They often lose their vacations due to delivery schedule pressures. Your mindset about them changes – you become thankful for them. Without them we don’t get what we have in the shops.”
It’s the sad reality of the South African trucker’s life on the road and home away from home: shared amenities, poor health, few friends and no family. Indeed, it makes you thankful for their contribution.