It’s10.15pm in Eldos. Google tyd (time).
Knots of hoodie-clad youngsters are spilling from the shadows onto the streets of Eldorado Park, and the search is on.
This is the searching time, the junkies explain. The time to find the right person to hook you up with a gauge or a kopskoot – a hit of tik to start the night right.
Five minutes earlier there was no one on the streets; now there are - that’s Google tyd.
From her car Daphne Ruiters watches the arrival of yet another Google tyd on the wind-up to a Friday night jol in Eldorado Park.
Ruiters isn’t her real name, as she fears for her safety.
She is here to take us on a tour of a community in the grips of a crystal methamphetamine epidemic.
In the back seat is Jeffrey. They make an unlikely pair - Jeffrey a tik addict and Ruiters an anti-drug crusader. Together though they are on a mission to find the girls who have disappeared into the lolly lounge drug dens that dot Eldos.
Jeffrey, like Ruiters, doesn’t want us to use his real name.
There haven’t been any calls to find missing girls yet, but the night is young and Ruiters keeps her BlackBerry close.
We are in “Las Vegas”, the junkie nickname for this part of Eldorado Park. “Here no one sleeps, there is always something going on,” explains Jeffrey.
In the shadows behind garden walls and on street corners, the merchants stand. They are the drug dealers who peddle gauges - small plastic packets of tik that go for about R50. The streets may be alive now, but it appears the cops might have missed a trick.
On the way to Las Vegas we passed a Soweto police tactical response team kombi parked next to a house. It was a raid on a lolly lounge, explained Ruiters. But the cops were early; Google tyd was still 45 minutes away. There would be no drugs, according to Jeffrey.
“Someone will phone them about the police coming,” he says. “They won’t find anything.”
There are a lot more cops these days on the streets of Eldos. The drug problem has reached the media, and Jacob Zuma has visited.
We drive from Las Vegas into Kersiesdorp, where the streets are darker and the neighbourhood meaner.
“I wouldn’t let you get out here, it is dangerous,” says Ruiters.
She points out lolly lounges; from some of them she has rescued teenage girls. Girls prostitute themselves for gauges of tik. They stay there for weeks on end.
When they finally leave the lolly lounges, some are HIV-positive, while others have lost their minds to the paranoia brought on by crystal meth.
The lolly lounges appear so ordinary, just like any other house on the street, where perhaps the family have switched off the lights and gone to bed early. The curtains are drawn.
“If you go in there you will find 20, 30 people,” says Jeffrey.
Sometimes it’s the lolly lounge owners who help Ruiters out.
“They will phone and tell me that the girl is there,” explains Ruiters.
“They will keep her there untilI arrive.”
As we drive through the streets, Ruiters has an eye out for one girl who was reported missing recently.
This girl is 13, but Ruiters doesn’t believe she is in Eldos, but rather that she is on the run.
The girl, with four other teenage accomplices, stole drugs from a merchant. One of the girls was beaten up, says Ruiters, thrown from a moving car, and found dead.
Ruiters doesn’t know the fates of the other four.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Jeffrey remembers a time when cat was the suburb’s drug of choice.
Tik, he says, became big about five years ago. Suddenly it was everywhere, he recalls. The product was good too.
The high from the odourless smoke back then was much better than today.
In Extension 3, an old Toyota Corolla begins tailing us. The car keeps its distance, but follows Ruiters’s haphazard route through the suburb. Finally she stops the car and switches on the emergency lights. We wait.
The car accelerates past. Clear intimidation.
“That is what they do,” says Ruiters.
It is after midnight when we arrive at Ruiters’s home.
Google tyd still rules Eldos at this late hour. Groups of hoodies slink up her street, a few dart into a nearby house, searching for a known merchant.
But for one girl the search is on for something else. The girl stops next to Ruiters’s car. “What are you doing, Tracy?” asks Ruiters.
“I am going to smoke a zol, Aunty Daphne,” she replies.
“You must stop, Tracy. I am going to phone your mom and tell her you are coming home,” says Ruiters.
“I know, Aunty Daphne, I will stop. I will go home, I promise.”
Tracy steps away and walks up the street, looking for that joint.
“She won’t go home tonight,I know her,” says Ruiters.
“I have known her for two years now, ever since I pulled her half-naked out of a lolly lounge at the age of 15.”
Fighting the darkness:
For Candice*, that first pull on a lolly pipe was the most dangerous; that puff could be the one that turned her mad or killed her.
Candice was a tester.
Every time a new batch of lolly or tik arrived, Candice would be handed a glass pipe loaded with crystal meth.
She would light it and inhale the odourless smoke. From that first hit, she would know if it was good or bad.
If it was okay, the batch would be deemed safe and the pipe passed around.
Candice never got the really bad stuff, but she knows of others who did.
“One tester I know went mad after he smoked,” says Candice.”I was afraid to smoke, but because of the craving, I wanted it.”
This was the only way that Candice could support her crystal meth habit. She even got her boyfriend onto tik.
Candice has kicked her four-year habit. She is five weeks clean, but every day is a battle not to go back on tik. Candice wakes up with the craving and she goes to bed with it.
But she is determined to stay clean for her unborn child.
Before she got clean, Candice woke up in a hospital after she overdosed. She can’t recall the circumstances surrounding that OD; she heard that she took tablets. After she was discharged, she went to stay with her sister, but then she ran away. Finally she got help from anti-drug crusader and counsellor Daphne Ruiters*.
“You smoke it once and you want it more and more,” she says. “It makes your mind work, but you can’t smoke when you are alone.”
Now Candice wants to become a counsellor. “I want to help the kids; I want to speak to them because it’s all still so fresh in my mind.”
* Not their real names