So there we were, driving into Cape Town along the N2 during morning rush hour - just Ben and me. Oh, and we were in the old 1956 Ford 4x4 he seemed to be turning into hot rod, only it still looked pretty basic to me. Ben was in the middle of expounding some new article of faith he'd just picked up on the internet, about colloidal silver as a treatment for arthritis or something - when my attention was distracted by hooting, and the sudden appearance of a minibus taxi at my left elbow. The driver's window was literally centimetres from mine as he rode in towards us from the left shoulder of the highway, intent on bullying us out of the way so he could get his vehicle into our lane after cutting in from the off-ramp we had just passed. A favourite taxi trick, that: make as if to leave the crowded highway, by-pass all of the slow-moving traffic in the left lane, then pull in late and aggressively.
"Good!" I heard Ben grunt, and he shifted down and did something with a lever near his left knee. He stared straight ahead with a half-smile as we edged forward parallel to the now-blaring taxi, whose driver and passengers were gesticulating at me through my closed window. I was getting to feel really uncomfortable when the taxi abruptly pulled away forward, doubtless to force its way in further ahead - to the accompaniment of the scream of ripping metal as half the near side panelling of the minibus was ripped away. I was so fascinated I almost missed a hisssss-click sound as Ben fiddled at his knee again, and we were alongside and then passing a now stationary and very ragged-looking minibus with a dumbfounded driver. Now Ben gave a sideways glance, smiled at me and said: "Bugger should be more careful passing an old bakkie like mine, hey?"
I got the fright of my life then as the taxi reappeared next to me, hooting furiously, with the driver brandishing what looked like a monkey wrench out of his open window. There was a nasty thud as he caught the bodywork, and he was just taking a swing at the windscreen when Ben pulled the wheel hard over left, shifted down and gunned the engine. Suddenly we were running as one, with the big bakkie effortlessly pushing the taxi off onto the verge. I saw the driver furiously wrenching the wheel, trying to push back but to no avail. He accelerated, and Ben simply kept pace; braked, but we were seemingly locked as one, now running on the grass. Then we were stopped, and people were beginning to boil out of the minibus on its opposite side - the driver staring at me from centimetres away, his eyes wide in disbelief - when blue lights and a siren of a traffic police car directly ahead of us brought some calm. I found myself letting out breath in a rush, and Ben just sat, smiling ahead. One of the two cops who got out ran to the passenger door of the taxi and grabbed the driver; the other came to Ben's window shaking his head.
"Ja, boet" said the man in question, rolling down his window. The cop shook his head again. "Jy!" he said. "Wat nou? I suppose he tried to ram you for nothing, like before?"
"Ja, what can you do when these people do things like that - lucky I was able to pull him off near you guys, hey?" said the grinning Ben. "And you saw everything, am I right? If you can't find the spanner, he dropped it back there - should have his fingerprints on it, hey?"
The cop took a long, hard look at him again, then shook his head. His attention was diverted to his colleague, who seemed be having difficulty subduing an increasingly agitated taxi driver who was only half handcuffed, in a clump of anxious passengers. He waved us away, then, saying "Bugger off, OK? Just go - I'll find you for a statement later. Let me sort out this mess now!"
Ben waved, and then leant down; there was another hissss-click, and then we were moving off back to the highway. I heard a muffled clang, and looked back in time to see a crumpled piece of minibus with a neat hole in it, spin off onto the grass. I thought a while, as we waited on the shoulder to rejoin the slow-flowing traffic.
"Ben," I started. He just glanced at me and smiled. "Ben", I said again.
"You knew the cops were going to be there, didn't you?" Another smile.
"And you've got a…a hydraulic spike or ram, or something, that you ripped that taxi with, don't you?" He nodded encouragingly.
"…and you knew the cops wouldn't see that because we were around the bend from them when you used it, but that if the taxi tried anything, they would see them? And you've done this before a few times, maybe? " He laughed out loud then.
"Ja - and it's a compressed air ram, with a stainless steel spike. Works well, hey?" Then he gunned us smoothly in front of a lane-changing taxi that other folk were avoiding, to the inevitable outraged tooting. He then slowed to the pace of the car in the right lane, I assume to cancel any advantage that the taxi might have still gained from being in our lane. "I've got one for the other side too - and you saw how easy I pushed them off the road?". I nodded, and so did he. "Close to two ton of steel in the chassis - low down for good centre of gravity. That, and big tyres for traction. And seven litres of V8 up front, four-wheel drive, diff lock and low ratio. Man, I could have pushed them all the way to Muizenberg! And did you see the bumpers on this thing?" I had, and had thought they looked pretty solid compared to the chromed metal they should have been. "Railway sleepers, front and back, covered with fibre glass and painted. Extra thick side panels, too, with steel bar reinforcing. And you saw the bullbars on the front? I got them off a delivery truck they used to use in the townships during the riots. No-one's going to get me from the front."
My turn to shake my head. "Ben, what's this all for? I mean…"
He looked sideways at me a while. At last: "You know, the taxis get away with murder, have for years, and now all the other drivers are starting to drive like them. Because there aren't enough cops. You know - like that", he gestured ahead of us to the bridge over the railway line, where two taxis were cutting in from the left at the last possible bit of space on the off-ramp before the Armco barrier started. "Ja, now - watch this", he said, glancing up into the extra-large inside rear-view mirror, and shifting down.
I heard the taxi which was behind us pull out onto the off ramp, then it was accelerating alongside us. I heard the big V8 quicken its lazy beat as Ben tapped the accelerator to close up the gap in front, and then suddenly it was happening again, with a taxi centimetres from my window, blaring its horn, a gesticulating taxi driver shouting. I flinched or something, because Ben said "Just relax, pal, he's going nowhere", and kept our relative positions - us, the taxi and the car in front - fixed as we trundled up to the bridge. The taxi made one last surge as we hit the upslope of the bridge, only for Ben to edge level, still centimetres away, until the taxi peeled off down the offramp, with one last defiant howl of the horn. "Ja, bugger, let's see you get to town quickly now", muttered the pleased-looking Ben.
I realised I was holding my breath again, and let it out carefully. "…so I thought, why don't I help to teach them a lesson if I can?", Ben continued, as if nothing had happened. "Especially after one of the bastards wrote off my car here on the N2 about two years back", he added, almost as an afterthought.
"So you…armoured up the bakkie and now you play vigilante?" He nodded, smiling.
"Ben…what if one of them tries to shoot you or something? You know they often carry guns, even an AK sometimes!"
He tapped the window in his door. "See this? Special police issue, for Special Protection Unit cars the politicians use. Pretty much bulletproof. And - " he made a quick grab under the dash - "I have this", as his left hand came back with what could only be a sawn-off pump-action shotgun. I could only shake my head.
"So what do they call you down at the Shunter's Arms - Bulletproof Ben?" I asked.
He laughed. "No, man - Bullbar Ben. They call me Bullbar Ben the Taxi-Killer."