After spending a wonderful weekend in Pretoria, celebrating my birthday with special friends and spending time watching my son play cricket, we were back on the road travelling home early on Sunday afternoon.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat of my Combi, which has been slightly modified, enabling me to sit upright with support. Sexy Legs was driving and my care assistant was sitting on the backseat.

Although I was feeling a bit heavy hearted after having to drop my boy back at boarding school, Sexy Legs and I chatted away happily, reminiscing about the fun-filled weekend when the Combi suddenly started losing power. It came to a complete standstill, a few kilometres further. In my best, I-told-you-so voice I immediately admonished him for not stopping to put fuel in earlier like I’d suggested. But he assured me that there was still plenty of fuel.

Minds racing, we looked at one another for a couple of seconds. Sexy Legs tried to restart the car. And again. And a few more times. No luck.

 It was cold outside, pouring with rain and it felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. I checked the time. It was just after 1 o’clock, so we must have been travelling for just over an hour.

Grateful to be living in an era of mobile phones, we made a few phone calls to some friends and my folks. Sexy Legs held the phone to my ear as I struggled to explain to a friend exactly where we were. I couldn’t really recognise any landmarks in the surrounding veld. Distracted by the story-sharing of the weekend’s events, we weren’t really taking note of our exact location all the time. I knew we were on the N4 highway. I also remembered seeing a sign a few kilometres back, which indicated that Emalahleni (a.k.a. Witbank) was 37 km away. So I guessed that we were approximately 30 km outside of that town. (Note to self: Invest in a GPS or be more aware of landmarks and informational road signs whilst travelling).

Hoping that I’d given sufficient information, we sat and waited. In the meantime, Sexy Legs tried to locate the fuel pump and poked around at various other things to try to establish what the problem was.

Although Sexy Legs had managed to pull off to the side, we could literally feel the Combi shuddering as cars sped by with a zoom-pause-zoom-pause-zoom, one after the other.  There is always more traffic at the end of a weekend and people travel really fast on the highway.

Despite our flashing hazard lights, very few cars even slowed down.

At that moment, for different reasons, both of us were hoping for a car to pull up behind us, for somebody to stop and come to our rescue, preferably someone mechanically-minded with the capability of fixing a car to get us back on our way as quickly as possible. For me, it was about the physical challenges of being a quadriplegic stuck on the side of the road indefinitely. For Sexy Legs, it was more the responsibility he felt as a man to meet the expectation of loved ones to get me home safely and on time.

At the same time, in sharp contradiction, I also wished for everybody to keep going past and leave us alone. For many South Africans, there is an intense, very real fear of the possibility of evil intention of anybody who may stop under the pretences of wanting to help. Also, I knew that if roles were reversed, we would also not stop to help strangers on the side of the road for fear of being attacked, which is an unfortunate reality in our beautiful, crime ridden land.

It left me feeling guilty and so sad, realising just how much we live on the defensive in this country.

Disappointingly, and gratefully, nobody stopped. We were stuck, but safe.

About an hour later, my friend’s brother, who lived in the area, arrived with some fuel, as instructed, just in case.  I was still convinced that this was the problem.

Glad to be sitting snugly in the car, I watched as the two men stood outside in the cold drizzle, bravely suffering the spray of water off the passing traffic. They peered into the engine, both looking considerably puzzled. Neither one wanted to openly admit that they had no idea what the problem was, before finally deciding to siphon the fuel into the tank.

Sexy Legs hopped back into the car as soon as they were done and tried to start the car. I think at this stage, even he was hoping that it was something as simple, and embarrassing, as running out of fuel. But the engine still refused to start. Our hearts sank.

It wouldn’t help to get a kind friend to come and collect us because it’s not easy to load me into a normal car, and I don’t go anywhere without my wheelchair which is quite bulky, unable to fold-up and won’t fit into just any car.

I called van Weten’s Breakdown Service, a tow truck company. My friend had already contacted them on my behalf, so they were expecting my call. The truck would be on its way to fetch us just as soon as it returned from the scene of an accident.

There were three choices – we could go to the closest town which was Witbank, go back to Pretoria or come home to Nelspruit. The last option was obviously the most expensive. My thoughts jumped back and forth, considering the various options.

As time ticked by, the gravity of the situation took hold of me.

I’d had a cup of Milo and my care assistant had emptied my bladder at 11 o’clock that morning. I’d estimated that we’d be home around three-thirty. But at that time I was still sitting, unexpectedly, at the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck with no means of having a pee. We’d had nothing to eat since breakfast as we intended on buying a snack along the way, when stopping for fuel, and then having a proper meal at home later in the afternoon. I had one bottle of water in the car but was too scared to drink any out of fear of not knowing when I’d be able to go to the toilet again.

Feeling helpless, emotion overwhelmed me and I became tearful. I immediately got annoyed with myself because I know from experience that tears do not solve anything. Finally, I made the decision that I needed to get to my own home with everything that I needed to carry out basic bodily functions, for my own sanity and peace of mind, irrespective of the cost.

My care assistant was still trying to dry my tears when a car pulled up behind us and a man got out. I could feel myself panic. Before he could even speak, I was wondering if he was armed and if he wanted to rob, rape or murder us. I was filled with guilt when I realised that he was a genuine, good Samaritan. Although he was not really able to help us, it was nice to know that there was somebody, just one person out there that cared enough to stop to find out if we were alright.

Eventually, at 4 pm the big, van Wetten’s flatbed truck arrived to collect us. The Combi was winched up onto the truck with me still sitting in the front, passenger seat and my care assistant, next to me in the driver’s seat. I prayed that the cable would hold our weight as I heard it groan through the loading process.

It was scary, but exciting. We were high up on the truck. Looking down at the cars speeding by, that seemed so intimidating before, making me feel more vulnerable than ever, were now small in comparison. I felt like the Queen of the castle.

Sexy Legs got into the cab of the truck with the driver to show him the way. As he turned back to wave at me, I smiled from ear to ear, so happy to be heading home, at last.

That feeling was short-lived.

Being paralysed, one has no control over one’s body. Despite being secured by a seatbelt and no matter how experienced the driver, I was at the mercy of every bump in the road which, at that height, felt like I was captive on a wild, runaway horse. My care assistant could barely keep herself from bouncing around without trying to hold on to my body which was jumping all over uncontrollably. I worried about breaking skin or injuring soft tissue and developing a pressure sore but there was nothing I could do about it at the time.

Because of the cold, rainy, overcast weather it got dark quite quickly so we could see nothing more than the red brake lights and bright headlights of the traffic.

It was the bumpiest, coldest, most uncomfortable and outrageously expensive ride of my life.

We eventually arrived home at 8 o’clock on Sunday night, tired, cold, hungry, thirsty, desperate to pee, but safe. And for that I am grateful.

Sexy Legs carried me to bed – to my own bed. What more could I ask for?


**My Combi is 15 years old. Please hold thumbs that they manage to find the fault and fix her up because until then, I’m stuck without transport – not even able to go to the shops or anywhere else, for that matter. **

About Tracy Todd (Brave Lotus Flower)

Author of Brave Lotus Flower Rides the Dragon – an intimate and inspiring memoir of a quadriplegic. Inspirational Speaker. Teacher. Counsellor. Wife. Mother. Animal lover. Although I need a wheelchair to get around, it is most certainly not what defines me.
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10 Responses to Breakdown

  1. Hii
    Sudden Breakdown of cars create lots of problem, we need trustworhty car recovery london and breakdown recovery service which come up in time and help us.


  2. catherinewright says:

    This is really like sudden problem and we do not understand what to do not……….Once i stuck near billet road in mid night then I called it best car recovery service.They were awesome in that


  3. Jodi says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog after donating to help an old friend get some “new wheels”. And here I am 2 hours later having read your blog like a book, completely addicted. You are remarkable and truly inspiring. Thank you for your frank honesty about what it is to be a quadriplegic. And for having the strength and courage to go on. So many people who face much less physical hardship give up on life everyday, yet you punch it in the face and keep on going. I am very proud of you. Staying positive and moving forward has gotten you where you are today. You motivate me to do more with my body and to appreciate it and care for it. So many people do not respect their body. It is sad that you were not one of them yet were dealt this hand of cards. Kudos for you and your amazing maternal sense to forge ahead, elegantly, gracefully, and proudly. Your son is really a lucky guy to have you in his life. What a role model!

  4. Bill Watson says:

    Being away from home no matter how far one sometimes wishes for someone else to click the red shoes together and immediately be transported back to “home”. So glad you are in a safe environment and the familiar. Let’s put off the visit until December.

  5. What a harrowing ordeal Tracy! So glad you made it home safely albeit after a long, emotional and exhausting trip.
    Best of luck with your combi – I am sure it will be able to be fixed. Wish I knew of somebody to help.
    Have a beautiful weekend.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  6. Rolf says:

    What a story, Tracy!
    Sorry to hear that you had to go through this ordeal, but it certainly made for fascinating reading, lol!
    You make your stories sound so vidid, and I felt as if I was right there with you. The implications of a quadriplegic being stuck on the side of the road seemingly indefinitely may not at all be obvious to other people, but you certainly got that message across.
    Also, although I had heard before about the dangers in South Africa because of the high crime rate, the description of your emotions while waiting out there felt so shockingly real. For someone like me, who lives in what is probably one of the safest countries in the world, it’s kind of hard to comprehend that this the reality for you. I feel sad also that although the majority of people may have no bad intentions at all, most will be reluctant to help for fear of being robbed or attacked.
    But thanks for sharing, Tracy. You have given me another glimpse of life as a quadriplegic and life in South Africa.

  7. Tracey says:

    Never a dull moment! So glad you are safe and sound and hope they get your car fixed for you soon! Also hope that it’s something small and not too expensive 🙂

  8. This was pretty scary and suspenseful to read and imagine you going through. But you’re smart and resourceful. You made wise decisions. Your safety and comfort are more important than saving money in an emergency. Reading as an outsider, there was even the comic relief of the well-meaning (but clueless) men poking around the engine.

    I’ve worked so hard on being able to cry more easily, because it does solve something very important. It releases and expresses frustration and anxiety in the healthiest way, so that you can THINK your way out of problems. Otherwise emotions overwhelm, and obstruct you from acting. There’s also a restorative energy you release by the temporary acceptance of, and submission to, feelings of helplessness.

    You’ve proven a hundred times that you aren’t entirely helpless. Your communications skills and personal qualities draw others to you. Those alliances are tools you can use in place of the parts of your personal vehicle that aren’t operable currently.

  9. Dear heaven. Felt like I was holding my breath as I read this whole sorry story. Too awful. Fortunately, VW is an almost indestructible breed of vehicle,so I hope they can indeed get the old lady ticking over again. If not, we’ll have to go rob a bank or something similar to get you another one. Dang, dang, dang…

  10. eastcoastjac says:

    Oh wow, Trace!!
    My sister and I broke down very close to where you were when we came up for the 20th reunion. I remember how nervous we were about accepting help, so I can only imagine it must have been ten times worse for you not being able to get up and run!
    So glad you’re safe!

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