We were just outside Tzaneen, on the R71 to Phalaborwa, a road that serves little purpose other than to cleave the mopani-veld in two and allow you to get to the Kruger National Park as quickly as possible.
Just how quickly, became apparent when a man in a smart brown uniform leaped onto the tarmac up ahead, waving his hand excitedly in the air.
This is a sight that always makes my heart sink to my knees, whether or not the person is wearing a uniform, and I just managed to steal a glance at my speedometer as I shifted my foot from the petrol to the brake. I was doing 90km/h, or thereabouts. Which wasn’t a problem, since this was a 120 zone, right?
I drifted into the minibus taxi lane, took a deep breath, and cut the engine. In the back seat, the children were yanking their iPod buds out of their ears with looks of just-awoken confusion on their faces. We weren’t there yet, and neither, from the look of it, were we at a Caltex One-Stop or an Ultra City.
In the passenger seat, my navigator gritted her teeth and asked me how fast I’d been going. I was hardly doing anything at all, I said, knowing full well that a more precise answer would follow shortly.
Then the man in uniform was leaning down and looking in the window. He was a burly man, brimming with official good cheer. “Good morning, good morning!” he said, “how are you?” I said I was fine, thanks, and established that he was fine too. Then he asked for my driver’s license.
“Do you know how fast you were going?” he said. I shrugged. “About 70 or so?” He told me: “Ninety-four point seven. In a sixty zone.”
I feebly said I hadn’t seen the 60 sign, which was true, but not very useful. The traffic officer asked whether I would like to see the reading.
Usually, I decline such invitations, on the grounds of my innocent faith in RADAR-assisted speed-tracking technologies, along with my reluctance to enter into protracted arguments with Public Prosecutors in small country towns. Also, the trap was all the way on the other side of the road.
Then again, I needed to stretch my legs. I looked right, left, and right again, and crossed the road.
There was another, slimmer traffic officer sitting on a folding chair behind the RADAR machine. He was busy breaking off a row of Beacon Hazelnut chocolate, from a big slab wrapped in chintzy, Christmassy foil. I greeted him, and he showed me where to look. In big red digits, it said: 94.7. Okay, fine.
The burly officer sat down on his own folding chair, in the shade of the mopani tree, and reached for his clipboard. He peered at my license, and asked me where I was from. “Joburg,” I said, as if that explained everything. He smiled, and began writing things down.
I stood ready to answer all the usual questions, hoping to make a quick getaway, and wondering whether I would be able to pay the fine on www.payfine.co.za. And then something happened.
I had my back to the road, so all I saw was a flash of uniform as the slim officer dashed across the road. Then I heard some shouting, and the burly officer stood up, with a look of alarm on his face. “Eissshhh!” he said. He handed me back my license, and said “You can go”, and then he rushed across to a light-blue VW Golf, parked on an incline a few metres away from the RADAR.
I didn’t know what was going on, but I seized my license and the opportunity to get away. I hopped behind the wheel of our car, belted up, turned the key, and pulled off smoothly.
I looked at the traffic officers. They were waving, this time in a friendly manner. The burly officer raised both his arms in the air, in the manner of someone who has just won a bout in the ring. I looked in my sideview mirror and waved back.
I turned to Amanda, as we cruised along the highway at less than 60km/h. “What just happened?” I asked. Well, she had called over the slim traffic officer, and asked him whether he would be nice to us, in exchange for a piece of important information. Then she had told him, pointing across the road: “You left the lights of your Golf on.”
And so we continued our journey, happy to live in a land where the traffic police are open to a little friendly negotiation, and the R71 leads you all the way to the Kruger National Park.