A few years back, two friends of mine, John and Sarah were on holiday in South Africa. They were in the prime of life, and things could not have been better. Married for just under a year, they were wonderfully in love, had a large group of devoted friends and family, excellent jobs and prospects and barely 2weeks beforehand had discovered that Sarah was pregnant with the first child they both desperately wanted. In the grand scheme of things, life really could not have been any better for them.
John had spent some time growing up and working in South Africa, and was definitely not the average naive tourist. It was late morning and driving through a remote, scenic and fairly un-touristy area of South Africa they came across an old woman by the side of the empty road, looking for a lift to the market in next town. Both having hitchhiked in the past and with space in the car, they had no compunction in slowing down to offer her a lift. Indeed, though always careful who they stopped for, they had already given lifts to locals several times on the trip.
Details of what happened next will necessarily always remain hazy, but in general terms 3 or 4 drunk men suddenly appeared from their hiding places near the road and attacked them. Amongst much else, John ended up with some stab wounds and was knocked out, whilst Sarah suffered a much worse ordeal. The men and the old woman then took off in the car with all their papers/possessions, leaving them badly injured in a ditch by the side of the road.
Luckily, John and Sarah were found not that long afterwards by a passer by who raised the alarm. Both spent several days in hospital, but the baby was lost. Perhaps understandably, neither was ever the same again. Both were shells of their former lively selves. They divorced 2 years later and Sarah committed suicide - at the 4th known attempt – soon afterwards. John moved and melted away in an attempt to start some kind of new life. Nobody I know has any idea what became of him, or where he is. It is a horrible, horrible tragic tale.
I bring up this horrific story with great reluctance, and only as an – admittedly extreme – illustration of what can happen when you let your guard down. I have hitchhiked extensively over the years: Indeed, tales of Matt and I hitching around obscure parts of Europe and Asia with Erik, our wonderful (if now sadly deceased) giant inflatable camel have gone down in local legend, and at least one border post still has our photograph up over 10years later.
Normally, I have no problem stopping for hitchhikers although I obviously will not stop for every last one, rather using gut instinct as to whether to stop or not. But in South Africa, despite us normally having the whole back seat spare, I refused. I am sure that the vast majority – possibly absolutely all of them - of people were genuine, and i felt especially bad leaving old ladies or women with babies by the side of the road. But I just could not stop. One incident 5years ago has meant that I (and many others who knew John and Sarah) will never be able to stop for a single hitchhiker/local in South Africa, and will indeed regard all with perhaps overly deep suspicion. And that is a very sad thing.
* note that due to one of the couple having a very distinct and unusual name, the names have been changed to protect identities and to avoid causing any accidental offense by bringing up the whole tragic episode again.