Van Reenen: I first met Philip Hull about 20 years ago on the Nissan Hardbody launch, where he was serving as the event’s paramedic and apart from his contagious friendliness what struck me, was his huge passion for road safety.
But as co-founder of the South African Road Safety Foundation, Philip does a lot more than preach road rules. He also gives up his holidays, and a lot more.
For the past 39 years, Philip has, on most long weekends and holiday periods, stationed himself at the top of the Van Reenen’s Pass on the N3 leading into KwaZulu-Natal, volunteering his time free of charge to save lives and help stranded motorists on this beautiful but dangerous stretch of road.
In 2004, he was joined by Barry Niemand, who has become a regular volunteer over the holiday periods, and in more recent times, by Oliver Wright.
To find out more about what these guys do, I spent two days and an evening with them over the recent Easter Weekend. Although this time of year is usually very busy, and dangerous on the pass, the tragic KZN floods led to most holidaymakers cancelling their plans. As a result, the road was significantly quieter than usual and, thankfully, free of incident.
“You’re probably going to think we do nothing but laze around”, Barry joked while we were having a quick lunch and coffee at the Little Church & Tea Garden in Van Reenen, which has spectacular mountain views.
But joining them for patrols up and down the pass during that quiet time did provide the perfect opportunity to find out more about the difference these guys make in the community.
Which is a great deal more than saving lives, it turns out.
For many years, the team has been assisting rural schools in the area, often raising money to perform much-needed upgrades like building kitchens so that learners can have a decent meal at school.
On one such school visit, Philip noticed a girl whose face had been partially disfigured in a freak accident. She was shunned by her fellow schoolmates and had become so shy that she refused to look at people. Feeling that something had to be done for the child, Philip did some digging around and, long story short, managed to convince a renowned plastic surgeon and a private hospital to offer their services free of charge. The surgery was a success and her life is back to normal.
There is also a somewhat touching story about an elderly man who regained his sight thanks to donated glasses and, with great enthusiasm, immediately started reading out the number plates of the support vehicles.
My trip coincided with a visit to the Hope House orphanage in Harrismith, where we handed out ‘goody boxes’ for the children, containing much-needed essentials like shoes and beanies.
Handing these packages to the children, who received them with great delight, was a humbling experience. It is sobering to consider how many children are destitute in this country but also comforting to know that there are also many people dedicating their lives to making a difference.
Having kept its doors open against all odds, Hope House was born out of a desperate need to provide a warm and loving home for abandoned, abused and neglected children in the area.
Philip Hull and his team have also faced their fair share of trials and tribulations at the top of Van Reenen’s pass.
Apart from the gruesome side of the job that comes with attending to fatal road accidents, the team have also had to cover the costs of accommodation during their stay.
Many years back, Philip built a small help centre with sleeping quarters for his team just off the N3, on a piece of commercial land that had been lent to them. Unfortunately, the property was later sold and the new owner was not all that receptive to them being there. After being charged exorbitant rent, Philip and his team were forced to vacate the premises that they’d paid to set up.
Thankfully, the owners of The Green Lantern, a charming old hotel in the town of Van Reenen, have provided extensive support since the help centre was lost.
A few car companies have also supported Philip and his team over the years. Honda has given him the use of a BR-V and, in more recent times, Mercedes-Benz has come on board enthusiastically, offering the use of a Vito as a support vehicle for the Road Safety Foundation project.
The Vito also has a towbar that allows them to tow the stranded families and their trailers to where they need to go. Yes, that’s something they do as well – provide a helping hand to those who have broken down on the pass or damaged their vehicles.
Volvo has also supplied an XC60 to Barry for the Van Reenen safety campaign and other community projects.
While sponsorships of this kind are always welcome, Philip and his team do not accept cash donations for their work – in fact they don’t even claim from the Road Accident Fund for their incident response. They do all this work free of charge and, often, at great cost to themselves. However, having established relationships with the police and farmers has made the job easier to an extent.
Oh, and Volkswagen was kind enough to lend me a Polo GTI for the trip down to Van Reenen’s to bring you this story. This recently facelifted hatch is a lot more comfortable and mature than you might expect and I enjoyed its effortless overtaking ability and long-distance refinement.
After shadowing these lifesavers for two days I couldn’t help but wonder: Isn’t it easy to become discouraged and despondent about South Africa’s road users after seeing the reckless behaviour that has become so commonplace on our roads? Philip told me he remains positive by reminding himself that most motorists are sticking to the rules and driving safely; it’s just the handful of really bad ones that we tend to notice.
Thankfully for them, there are people like Philip, Barry and Oliver.
If you’d like to get in touch with Philip, e-mail: [email protected]