Meet the angels of Van Reenen’s Pass, saving lives for 40 years and counting

Conditions down Van Reenen’s pass can be treacherous. Picture: Supplied.

Conditions down Van Reenen’s pass can be treacherous. Picture: Supplied.

Published May 26, 2024


Winding its way down into the beautiful green valleys of the KwaZulu-Natal highlands, Van Reenen’s Pass is a scenic stretch of road that also happens to be the country’s busiest transport route.

You may have admired its vistas on your last road trip down the N3, and perhaps you even stopped at some of its quaint attractions, like the Little Church or the historic Green Lantern Hotel.

But for all the good vibes it might evoke en route to your holiday destination, Van Reenen’s Pass is also a treacherous stretch of road, particularly in adverse weather conditions.

Philip Hull is a paramedic who is well aware of the dangers that lurk around each corner on this pass. For more than 40 years he and his team have been volunteering their December holidays and long weekends to save lives on this road.

Hull is the founder of a non-profit organisation called Community Medical Services (CMS) and co-founder of the Road Safety Foundation and today his team of Van Reenen regulars includes other dedicated medics such as Barry Niemand and Oliver Wright.

The CMS team have seen their fair share of tragedy over the years, witnessing harrowing accidents that would leave most people scarred for life. But saving lives also comes with its rewarding moments.

When that phone rings you never know quite what to expect, say the CMS paramedics. Picture: Supplied.

A few years back, while stationed at his help centre in Van Reenen, a man who Hull did not recognise at first limped in with two boxes of Easter Eggs for the team.

Two years earlier the man had been given a near-zero chance of survival after his car was crushed by an out-of-control truck. He’d also lost his entire family in the accident. But each year he arrived with another box of treats to thank the team for saving him, and in the process they got to track his progress as he rebuilt his life, eventually starting a new family.

“A lot of people do unfortunately die on our roads, but it makes you feel incredibly blessed to be in an industry where you can make a difference,” Hull said.

When asked about what inspired them to join the team both Barry Niemand and Oliver Wright said they are just happy to help where ever they can.

“It comes from a passion that we have to help people, and we just get the job done,” Niemand added.

Doing such work does involve a fair amount of emotional trauma that needs to be managed, but over the years the team members have figured out ways of coping.

“There is a little road that overlooks the pass, and quite often I will go sit there and process,” Hull added. “We all have our own mechanisms for processing what we’ve seen.”

Occasionally the team members will see a professional when needed.

Sharing the road with trucks

About 7,000 to 8,000 trucks traverse Van Reenen’s Pass each day and many of the accidents involve them. But until you’ve ridden in a truck you won’t realise how difficult it is for these drivers to overtake a slower truck, Hull told IOL.

He urges motorists to share the road with patience and to be mindful of how long it takes trucks to slow down.

“We are so impatient as motorists. People must just breathe and realise that being delayed slightly is not the end of the world.”

“80km/h is the speed limit (down the pass) for a reason. If you take the number of blind corners, potentially adverse weather conditions and everything else, sometimes even that is too fast.”

Be more patient when driving around trucks, the CMS medics urge. Picture: Supplied.

The CMS team have seen many fatal accidents where cars have come screaming around Van Reenen’s corners in the wet and lost control, colliding head-on with other cars and trucks.

Reaching out to the community

Saving lives on Van Reenen’s Pass is a highly noble deed all on its own, but that is just the tip of the iceberg of what this team does.

They are also regularly involved in community outreach projects in the vicinity of Van Reenen and Harrismith.

Handing out goodie boxes is all in a day’s work for the team. Picture: Supplied.

There are 11 rural schools in the area that they support as far as they can as well as an orphanage in Harrismith. Blanket and beanie drives are the order of the day in winter, as well as holiday feeding schemes during the summer holidays when the kids don’t have access to their usual school time meal.

A particularly poignant moment for Hull was watching a small child, of around eight years old, dividing his food into three portions to take home to his smaller siblings.

“You can’t describe it in words. It’s a different life to what we imagine. But we are very blessed to be in a position to help.

“On the one side there’s negative trauma from accidents and so on. But the community work gives us a sense of worth, even more so than being on the road.

“When it comes to kids it’s a different thing altogether, many of them have no support.

“We can’t help everybody that’s down there, but we do our damndest to help as many as we can,” Hull added.

He also recalls the moment he met a small girl whose face had been partially disfigured in a freak accident. She had become so shy that she refused to look at people. Feeling something had to be done for the girl, the team searched for and then convinced a plastic surgeon to mend her face free of charge.

The CMS team are volunteers and don’t claim from the Road Accident Fund, nor do they accept cash donations. However they do enter partnerships with entities that assist with donations.

Partnerships with car companies such as Mahindra and Stellantis have made it possible for the paramedics to do the work they do. Picture: Supplied.

Thankfully the Green Lantern Hotel at Van Reenen assists the team with their accommodation requirements after they lost the help centre they built to a highly unreasonable land lord.

Car companies such as Stellantis and Mahindra have also partnered with the team, the former supplying a Peugeot Landtrek and the latter assisting with an XUV 300 SUV. These vehicles prove instrumental in allowing them to continue the work that they do.

It’s hard not to feel inspired by the work they do. If you would like to get involved with one of Philip’s outreach projects, you can e-mail: [email protected]