Beware the dead camels, and please pass the salt

Abstract: There’s a new threat we need to talk about: dead camels…

Dinner conversation is drying up. And the culprit? So few new topics. When we chat animatedly over our lamb cutlets we prefer a subject that can be expressed as a word or phrase so it can be neatly packaged and passed on to the person sitting next to us – “what do you think of this Zuma thing?” or “isn’t crime getting out of control now?”

The reality is that ‘the Zuma thing’ is getting boring and ‘crime’ is offering few new twists to spark any discourse over dinner (unless of course you’ve just been robbed at a restaurant). While we’re at it ‘the war on terror’ has dragged on too long and ‘HIV/AIDS’ seems to be under control (as much as any rampant, ineptly addressed epidemic can be).

So what new topic can we talk about? Let’s draw up some ‘discussion qualification parameters’. First of all, it has to be current and pertinent otherwise people can’t relate to it. Secondly it has to┬ábe sufficiently shocking to raise a few eyebrows and engender at least a little heated debate, otherwise, it’ll just fall flat after one or two rounds. And thirdly, and more importantly, it has to be someone else’s fault, because if we can’t blame someone else then it’s too uncomfortable to talk about.

So what is current, pertinent, shocking and which we can blame on someone else? How about all these dead camels? No, not those carelessly cluttering up the dry riverbeds in the Sudan, I’m talking about those we dodge each day on the M1.

Because, believe it or not, that’s what those tortured and twisted bits of tyre that lie in our roads are called – ‘dead camels’. The reason is quite obvious: they’re black and made of rubber. Actually, it’s more to do with the fact that they often present themselves – just as you’re about to hit them – as humps in the road. They’re ‘dead’ because a live camel would possible move out the way before you hit it; and also because if you hit them you could be too. Dead, not a camel.

Now it’s important to clarify, in order to portion blame, that dead camels are not tyres per se and therefore the result of unexpected blowouts, but retreads and therefore their errant dispersal is the result of someone else’s negligence and intended experimentation with the expected.

East Coast Radio’s veteran traffic reporter Johann von Bargen uses a very handy analogy to explain the inevitability of retreads shredding. Think of a paper clip, he says. If you continually bend and unbend a paperclip you weaken it and it’ll eventually break.

Similarly, every time a retread rotates, where it comes into contact with the road surface it is compressed under the weight of the vehicle and then decompressed as it rotates back to the top. After this has happened a couple of thousand times it breaks and shears off, and then lies in wait for you to come speeding along in your low-slung luxury German sedan.

So whom should we blame? The trucking companies. They know that retreads shred, but they love using them because they’re cheaper than new tyres. Come to think of it these guys are also responsible for most of the other bits and pieces on the road we have to duck and dive around each day.

I’ve got a word for that too. If rubbish found floating in the sea is called flotsam why can’t we call stuff flung from the back of trucks onto the road ‘padsam’? That way, just before you hit it you can say “bliksem, padsam!”

Perhaps it’s time that legislation was introduced that banned the use of retreads by trucks. That way the traffic authorities could crack down on them and stop them spewing out dead camels; you know, the same way they have stopped taxis driving in the emergency lane!

Oh well, at least now we can talk about it over dinner.

Originally published in the Saturday Star, 16 September 2006