'It's a bit stressful': worse than usual loneliness for long-distance trucker

12 April 2020 - 00:00 By PAUL ASH
Truck driver Simon Mkhatshwa, left, and sugar logistics executive Lazarus Bereda, both of RCL Foods in Mpumalanga.
Truck driver Simon Mkhatshwa, left, and sugar logistics executive Lazarus Bereda, both of RCL Foods in Mpumalanga.
Image: Supplied

It is 4am in Cape Town and truck driver Roger Carelse is saying goodbye to his wife and two daughters.

Today he heads to the Northern Cape with a tanker loaded with 41,000l of fuel. He will sleep over in Upington, a nine-hour slog up the N7. Tomorrow he will carry on to Kuruman, offload his cargo and head home again.

When he gets home after three days on the road, he will shower and wash his clothes before he goes near his loved ones. Then, after his mandatory nine-hour rest period, he will head off again, perhaps to Klawer on the West Coast this time - an easy five- or six-hour return trip.

"The hardest part is leaving your family," says Carelse. "Three ladies alone at home."

Carelse has been a trucker for 26 years, the past three with heavyweight trucking company Crossroads. Now, as the country goes into its third week of lockdown, life is even tougher for SA's truck drivers.

While truck-stops at places such as Three Sisters and Prince Albert Road are still open for drivers needing somewhere safe to park for the night, their kitchens are closed and no hot food is available.

Carelse is lucky - there is a mini fridge in his truck and he can take home-cooked food that he warms up when he gets a chance.

Simon Mkhatshwa from Magogeni, dad of five and a driver for Malelane-based sugar carrier RCL Foods, has also resorted to taking his own food along.

"We have to prepare ourselves for the road," he says. Now his staples include Weet-Bix cereal and cooked food from home.

Essential equipment in the cab of Mkhatshwa's Volvo truck now includes hand sanitiser and face masks.

"We want to issue gloves but these are in short supply," says Lazarus Bereda, RCL Foods's sugar logistics executive.

For now, RCL Foods is supplying its drivers with sanitising wipes to wipe down steering wheels, dashboards and seats.

Bereda's job requires him to be at the depot when the trucks return, which means he is also at risk of getting infected. When he gets home at night, he strips off his work clothes in the garage before going into the house.

"I change everything," he says. "I sanitise everything. It's a bit stressful."

Crossroads Cryogenic driver Neil Prakasem has a front-row seat to the unfolding crisis as he delivers tanker-loads of medical oxygen to hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal.

"I've been driving for 14 years and I've been through it all," he says. "But it's shocking to find you're the only one on the road."

Most nights Prakasem is at home with his family. If not he pulls into all-night service stations where there is security and he can sleep.

As he has to enter hospitals to complete the necessary paperwork, he is fully kitted out with protective gear.

"You can say we are risking our lives," he says. "But we do it because we love our country and it would be inhuman not to."

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