A hair-raising race to Carolina

Hysterical French backpackers in a beeg ‘urry prompt a high-octane diversion.

IT was all very sudden, between Nelspruit and Machadodorp on the way to Soccer City for that concert. As the Bambi Hotel loomed up ahead in half-derelict glory, a maniacal, spiky-haired backpacker leapt into the road in a manner that would have severely dinged the bakkie had I not swerved to a tyre-screeching stop.

He wrung his hands and bowed – in supplication, not appreciation – making his way to the window, which I gingerly opened.

“‘Allo! I ‘ave zees probleme … I ‘ave to get to Caroleena in a beeg ‘urry,” he said. I pointed out that we were not going to “Caroleena” but to Johannesburg. He didn’t seem to find this important.

“We are in Amazing Race! You know it?” Animated. “We are weening. We must get to Caroleena or we are disqualified.” French and hysterical.

This was a first. “I will take you to Machadodorp. Only.”

A Gallic shrug and a pout; he scrambled into the canopied back with his glum duo-partner plus a cameraman and adjusted his hair for the next take.

In the spirit of the competition, I cranked up the bakkie, bound for the highway, followed by a minibus marked “SECURITY”. This was fun.

A tap on the window behind my head. I pulled it open. “Eef you see anuzzer concurrent, we stop to give zem zees drapeau!” shouted our coiffed competitor, waving a black flag.

His English was faltering so I answered in French. His face almost fell off in astonishment – and then he regaled me with the whole trauma.

They had been travelling for six weeks, through Egypte, Kenya and Tanzanie to Afrique du Sud. The race would end in Cape Town 10 days later.

He and his sullen friend were ahead and looking at 100000 euros. A million bucks. On this section, however, they were lagging and if they didn’t shake off the dreaded black flag onto another competitor, they’d lose a place.

This was serious. I speeded up further.

“There is another concurrent!” he blurted in confused Franglais, adjusting his hair for another filming moment. No. A couple of farmers chatting on the roadside. “Oh non. Excusez-moi!”

So how to get rid of the flag? The tension mounted as we approached the Machado Plaza.

“Voila!” Spiky again. “Ah, non. Les flics!” Traffic cops. How often have you wanted to give a black flag to a traffic cop? But we pushed on. I was about to dump them when everything happened at once.

“It’s Christian and Hubert,” shouted Spiky as we slowed down enough to dish them the flag – a classic TV moment captured by Cameraman, right there on the R36 by the BP garage.

Yet another pair stood on the roadside ahead of us and Spiky begged me, agitatedly, to overtake them and go another 5km. We’d just jumped two positions. We must stay ahead.

To hell with it, I heard myself say, I would take them all the way to “Caroleena”. What was a 70km detour? And who wanted to see U2 anyway? It was far more important to be on French TV. On cue, the camera poked through the window behind my head to film the way ahead with my face in the rear-view mirror. A red rag to a taureau!

We lurched dramatically through the potholes, overtaking coal trucks at full tilt. This was going to make great footage and my guys were going to win. The R36 was my own personal Kyalami.

In Carolina they climbed dustily out and begged me to help them find a lift to Ermelo but, Mon Dieu, it was difficult.

Eventually, the driver of a confused Corolla agreed and they set off, squashed next to a large wedding guest in the back seat, Spiky on Sullen’s lap in the middle, with Cameraman by the window.

“Au revoir! Merci!” Into the smoky Highveld sunset.

“Bonne chance!” Damn! I never gave them my name and address. I wonder how they are going to get my share of the winnings to me?