I love every day of my life. Life is precious.
Being a game ranger means you get used to constant scratches and bites and so when Philip Hull felt a ‘prick on his arm’ while opening a gate in Tuli block Botswana, he didn’t think anything of it . . .
Then he spotted a Black Mamba slithering down a tree beside him, and thought lucky escape! However, when he started to feel dreadful and noticed the puncture marks on his arm, he gave himself an intravenous injection from his emergency first aid kid and headed his vehicle in the direction of the border control office – crashing into a concrete block attracted the necessary attention before he passed out. In a series of lucky coincidences, the usual helicopter which delivered post to this rural spot had been replaced by a medical one that week and so a doctor was on hand and Philip was rushed to hospital in Johannesburg. During the six months he spent in hospital recovering, he had plenty of time to think about his good fortune and the remarkable team work which had saved his life. He came to the conclusion “I’ve been kept here for something”.
Philip founded Community Medical Services (CMS), 29 years ago, combining his love of cars, medicine and people. This remarkable voluntary group of paramedics, nurses and doctors monitors the Van Reenen’s Pass area of the road during peak traffic times – long weekends and holiday season. Their involvement began during the days when BMW had technical help stationed at the top of the pass, however after four years BMW withdrew. “We were in a quandary” says Philip, “we had seen the necessity of having medical assistance in the area with its difficult conditions and high accident rate. Van Reenen is quite a distance from Ladysmith and Harrismith, which means ambulances and help can take hours to arrive, so we decided to keep it going.”
At first the operation was financed entirely by Philip and his friends who carried the cost of supplying fuel, food and equipment. “We used to sleep in tents on top of the pass. During winter, knives were standard equipment as often we had to cut ourselves out of the tents to respond to an emergency – the zips were frozen solid!” he laughs.
The rewards of team spirit, companionship, the pleasure of helping innocent victims and the thrill of saving a life made it all worthwhile. “I was constantly amazed that highly qualified people were prepared to be woken at 2am in the morning go out in the cold and wet, to an accident never knowing what lay in wait.”
The team share many lovely memories too – “One winter, a chap had broken down in a beautiful El Camino which had overheated on the pass. We pulled in beside him and offered to tow him to the garage. He was adamant that his friend was coming to help. The friend duly arrived in an equally beautiful Ranchero and hitched him up. Before reaching the summit, the Ranchero had blown a head gasket and now they were both on the side of the road. Once again, the offer of help was made. Having no other options now, they asked what this would cost and were utterly astonished to find that it was a free service”. You don’t often get something for nothing, but on Van Reenen’s, thanks to Philip and his team, you do. This is a unique service in South Africa, offered nowhere else.
“Today’s world is all about self-enrichment,” says Patrick O’Leary of Fleetwatch, “Philip stands out as an exceptional human who gives freely of his time and money. Man, he is unbelievable – knowledgeable, passionate and a true leader.”
While conditions on the pass can be challenging in the snow and mist with poor visibility, most problems occur when drivers do not compensate for the conditions and continue to drive at high speeds. Philip established the Road Safety Foundation six years ago to raise road safety awareness. There are no quick-fix solutions and it will take long term, focused and sustainable activity to change the road safety situation in our country. “If our efforts save the life of even one person, our work has been worthwhile,” says Philip.
The group is well known in the Van Reenen community now and have delivered babies, attended to stab wounds and delivered blankets to cold and needy villagers. “We have quiet periods, where we are just sitting around, so we decided to adopt the school and try and help the local community too.” Philip recalls one cold old lady sitting in the gloom, saying over and over when they handed her a blanket “it’s so soft, it’s so warm.” After watching kids walking to school in freezing conditions, Philip arranged, in conjunction with Ansie Jooste’s Khanyisile Project, to distribute beanies, tracksuits and jerseys.
Attending to accidents in dangerous conditions means the team members have their own trauma to deal with too. To unwind and gather his thoughts, Philip likes to head for Kruger National Park. He knows all the out-of-the way loops, quiet picnic spots and hidden bird hides. Engaging in convivial conversation around the campfire discussing the day’s sightings is one of his favourite times. A passionate birder and keen photographer, he aims to count 200 species on each trip. “We have identified 130 species in our own garden, with the Yellow Crimson-breasted Shrike being a recent exciting sighting”, he says. Philip’s wife, Marilyn, rehabilitates wildlife, so they often share their home with a couple of cheetah cubs, a mongoose or baby squirrel.
Philip is handing over the reins of CMS to long-time colleague Barry Niemand. “It’s good to bring in new blood, fresh ideas”. However, far from retiring from his work in rescue, he looks forward to celebrating 30 years on the pass over Easter 2013, and then at least another 10 years contributing to this community and saving lives.