Dear Boss,

How are you? I’m fine. Thanks for asking.

Just wanted to let you know to expect a new expense sheet from me when I get home. In addition to my journalistic duties, I have also been seconded as the staff chauffeur for the entire Canadian press corps. Yes, I know. It’s a heady responsibility, and far more difficult than writing, but I think I’m ready to take this important step in my career progression.

Why was I chosen? I haven’t talked this over at any length with the other guys, but I think it’s got something to do with being stupid and … maybe just stupid.

As you may have heard, the South African roads resemble Mad Max. Or Escape From New York. Sort of half-Mad Max, half-Escape from New York.

First, everybody else on the road is insane. Or, at least, drives as if they are. ‘Lane integrity’ means nothing to these people. Probably because large sections of the highway have no lanes painted on them.

Second, many of their cars are not what we would consider road worthy. Nor are their driving practices. This occurred to me when we passed a hubcap-less miniature pick-up truck going 120 kph with a pair of matresses stacked on top of the bed. With two guys lying on the mattresses.

Made the long drive to Nelspruit yesterday with Morris Dalla Costa of the Sun papers – four hours in, four hours out. The four hours in were fine. The four hours out felt like four hundred years.

What’s the road to Nelspruit like? Pretty. Morris and I agreed that it looked like the Alberta Badlands. If the Alberta Badlands were on fire. From the smokey haze covering the road for all of 350 km, everything on the way to Nelspruit appeared to be on fire.

On the way home, we passed eight – eight – roadside grass fires. Not little, contained fires. These were grass-based forest fires licking the pavement. Any one of them would have caused a 25 km back-up in Toronto and prompted a Royal Commission. Here, nobody took any notice. Who are these grass firebugs? Or is lightning a serious problem?

Eventually, Morris remarked offhandedly, “Oh, there’s something you don’t see in Africa every day …something’s on fire.”

There was also the problem of directions. Our colleague at the Globe, Johannesburg-based Geoff York, advised us to get a GPS while here. Maybe we could give Geoff a little something-something out of the Star slush fund, because that may have been the most valuable advice anyone’s ever given me. South Africa’s roads were apparently designed by the same guy who put together the Minotaur’s place. Nothing makes any sense, and everything involves a 360 degree on-ramp.

Nelspruit undertook a series of improvements ahead of the World Cup. How nice. Sadly, they didn’t finish any of them. At one point, our GPS simply ran out of road. Ahead of us, twenty other carloads of people using GPS started making simultaneous, panicked u-turns. It look a little like the Golden Gate Bridge scene out of The Day After Tomorrow.

Morris and I, being experienced Africa hands now, proceeded calmly, counting on the GPS lady to adjust her way out of the problem. Then the highway ended. Just ended. At one point, there was highway. At the next point, there was a 20 foot high wall of dirt. The road was paved and marked right up to and under the wall of earth.

The four hours on the road in the pitch dark were exciting. Especially when people without working headlights or taillights begin trying to overtake at wild speed on an unlit two-lane highway. That concentrated my attention somewhat. Or when the guy pulled over to the shoulder and attempted to make an unsignalled u-turn while fleets of cars whizzed by at 155 kph. That was interesting as well.

Did I tell you we ran out of gas?

Well, not quite. But I admit getting a little impatient at one gas station because all the pumps are attendant-serviced, and there were no attendants. So everybody just sat there waiting. And waiting. And waiting. I lost my head – and drove away. Yes, it was foolish. Morris reminded me.

And suddenly we were on the middle of the pitch-black highway with the fuel warning blinking and Morris starting to emit a low growl like a cat that’s sensed a ghost.

But just as we began to mentally prepare ourselves for our nude corpses to be discovered at sunrise on the roadside, we managed to pull into a 24-hour place and refill. So we’re still alive.

For now.

I’m going to really appreciate that bonus.

All the best,

Cathal

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