Camdeboo

Groenhol. Somehow, the Afrikaans equivalent of this does not do it justice. The Plains of Camdeboo are magical. Placed in the middle of the Karoo, this is land of legend and splendour. In ancient times, our ancestors trekked the land and saw the future in the stars that paint this sky. In more recent times, Pauline Smith and Eve Palmer documented life in this beautiful landscape in their classic South African novels. More about Eve a bit later…

After a brief sojourn on the R75 Mohair Route, I turn east onto the R63 Blue Crane Route. This road takes you down through the real Plains of Camdeboo. It’s a desolate road of bleak Platte land with the Camdeboo Mountains to the north and nothingness to the south. It’s a landscape that tests your mind at the sheer beauty that this desolation provides. This land, however, is not desolate and is home to many a South African that lives his or her life in this solitude.

Pearston lies about 70km south-east of Graaff-Reinet and, well, it’s a town that characterises the nothingness of this land. To call the town laid-back would be wrong – it’s just so much less. It had the vibe of a town that has long since died but was just not buried. It’s obvious that poverty is the main industry of this town – something that saddened me. While Jozi grows from strength to strength, economic strides taken by South Africa do not permeate this society.

I couldn’t find a place to eat in Pearston. That is partly my problem – I never enter establishments that have a dog outside. I leave the town with a bit more sadness than I entered it with. However, every town has a story and as I left, I encounter the strangest site. Standing outside a house, much like a Janda pole, is the flag of Cyprus happily dancing in the wind. Sometimes, you really can’t explain things…

“The Plains of Camdeboo” by Eve Palmer is one of South Africa’s great novels. Detailing life through several generations, this book is a quintessential South African novel. Beautifully written, Eve details life here on these exquisite plains. My pilgrimage took me to the Cranemere Farm that provided her with the basis of her novel. Generations of Palmer’s have lived here and descendants of Eve still inhabit this oasis in the Karoo. I’ve seen the book at several second-hand bookshops – it is a highly recommended read.

Musings on the Valley of Desolation

I recently read an article in Wild Magazine – the magazine to accompany the Wild Card that gets you entry into all the National Parks for a year. It had a picture of a baboon eating an animal it seemingly killed. I knew that baboons are omnivorous and are capable of murder when the need arises. Most people do think they only eat fruits and berries but the reason why we are told to keep away from these animals is exactly because of this – they ARE capable of killing!

My last post about the Valley of Desolation was just pictures – the stunning beauty of this geological formation required it. Getting those pictures was quite a mission in itself! The drive up to the valley – the actual “valley” is at the top of a mountain meaning the Valley of Desolation is actually what is below – is amazing. It’s a mountain pass cut in the 1920’s for the cost of around R2000. I’ve had arguments with people on the value of infrastructure especially roads and the way used to determine how much money a piece of road has generated. Seeing that since the 1920’s, several millions of people have driven up to the valley, I think it’s safe to say this road HAS made the municipality a fair share of money. Back to the road, it’s a breathtaking drive cut as close to the mountain as you can get. On the one side of the road –sheer rock face. On the other – a verge-less sheer drop. Put one tyre wrong and you are no more. No correspondence will be entered into. Luckily, the road is well-kept tar but yikes, the hairpin bends on nasty inclines test every driver. If you have no care for natural beauty, I suggest going up the mountain just for the drive.

Reaching the summit, I had the normal task of sun-chasing. I crave sunsets and well, I didn’t want to miss this one! The Valley of Desolation has several lookout points and a hiking trail that takes you to most parts of the summit. The summit is pretty big and the hike would normally take you almost an hour to complete. Seeing that I got there late, I ran up this superlatively rocky hiking trail with my off-road sandals that aren’t really meant for off-road use and my short sleeve t-shirt worn in the middle of winter. I got to the first lookout point, and was frozen in awe. I took quite a lot of pictures there and spent a great deal of time just sitting in silence admiring the wow. Oddly, for maybe 20 minutes, I was the only person there. I guess you could just call that perfect. However, the viewpoints’ placing meant that I would miss the sunset – a cardinal sin punishable by death. The hiking trail appeared to go to the far end of the summit. I ran. I approached a fork and took the path less travelled as the other led to the parking lot. Well, it appeared to be a path. I ended up with a magnificent view but alas, it was a dead end with thick tree cover with many crevices and no real view of the sunset.

I stood for a while admiring the view and figuring out what to do next. The quiet is pierced by the unmistakeable bark of a baboon. I’m in awe, yet again. That awe is interrupted by a second bark by the same baboon. This time, it’s closer. My brain jolts and I wonder whether there is a reason for the bark getting louder. The third is unmistakeably MUCH closer than the other two. A large grey speck appears in my field of view. It hits me. I bolt! I keep running through the non-path through undergrowth and low branches. I can hear the barks following me! At this point I am freaking out and going over situations in my mind. The baboon has the advantage of living in this wonder of nature and does know the area better than I do. I keep running whilst the baboon barks from the shadows. However, the intermittent barks aren’t getting louder – which is a good thing. By this time, I am on the path and my odds of escape are better. I get to the other side of the trail as the barks trail away. I encounter some people and everything is safe.

I did trespass on the kingdom of the emperor of this valley. It has been his to rule for many years – and before that, it was his ancestors that saw over this glorious land. When one enters his kingdom, one must respect the kingdom and its way of life. I got away and perched on a rock on the other side of the valley. In the distance, he still barked – signalling to all those in earshot that he is the true ruler.

You can’t leave the summit – especially whilst witnessing the extraordinary palette that the sky presents to you. The winter sky, however, erases all light with great swiftness. My new found friends and I make our way to the car park. Well, except, this doesn’t go as planned and we veer wildly off-path. The light disappears faster and faster but we eventually find a path. Jumping into my car, I face the splendour of the mountain pass with more failing light. Moreover, the scenery on the descent marvels the mind even more – the panoramic view of Graaff-Reinet at night was truly stunning. I reach the bottom safely – but by then, it is night. I think to myself about my horrifying experience (it was for me – don’t judge me!!!) at Hluhluwe a few years ago where we were in the park after dark with buck jumping over the car. All of a sudden, a magnificent Eland crosses the road in front of me, then another. I’m in awe, yet again. Two others are scared away by the light and I use this opportunity to get to the gate, which I got to just in time.

Why I hate National roads

Leaving Gariep Dam, I had the choice of taking either the N1 or the R58. Seeing that the detour to the power station was scheduled later than I expected, I took the National route from Gariep Dam to Colesberg.

This stretch was a meagre 44km in total. And, I mean, even though it is the country’s premium National Road, how bad can it REALLY be? Here’s my list. It is that bad!

• It sucks.
• Traffic!
• No real scenery.
• You are speed restricted. Not that I condone travelling over the legal limit but on a National Road, you can have three lanes and the speed limit will be 80kph. Furthermore, traffic cops are everywhere and even if you aren’t travelling fast, you always end up braking when you see one of them meaning a less efficient drive.
• It sucks.
• There is no risk travelling on a National route. Everything is shown to you like a pre-schooler. There is no chance of you hitting a cow as the freeway is fenced off with electric wire that can make a medium-well steak out of said cow in seventeen seconds. Every hazard has a sign warning you about the hazard and a sign warning you that you are going to see a warning sign. You don’t need to calculate how much petrol you need seeing that there is a garage every five kilometres.
• Caltex Star Stops, Engen 1-Stops, Shell Ultra Cities, Total Petroport and whatever they call those Sasol jobbies. Excuse me whilst I go puke.
• You can’t just stop in the middle of the road and look around in awe at nature’s beauty.
• Construction never ever ends.
• It sucks.
• Rest stops are designated. It doesn’t matter that there is an exquisite view of a dam and mountain at one point – the freeway dictates that you must stop 2km down the road with a marvellous view of a koppie with half its side levelled out.
• BMW X5’s – these don’t take R-roads. It will damage their 4×4 suspension and there is nobody on those roads to cut off.
• You can’t travel at 80kph when you want to enjoy the view because said BMW X5 will have its bright lights, fogs and stadium-strength roof-mounted spotlights glaring at you if you do.
• It makes you sleep.
• It sucks.
• If you are on a single-lane freeway and encounter a truck, you’re screwed. The traffic means that you are following that truck all the way to Beitbridge (even though you just got out of the Huguenot Tunnel!)
• Too many sign posts telling you everything you don’t need to know and more.
• Mountain passes are WAY too tame. Van Reenen’s Pass is easier than driving up my driveway and the Tsitsikamma Toll Route, um, it bypassed SEVEN mountain passes.
• Did I mention it sucks?
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Why does the back seat keep falling down?

There are portions of the Gariep Dam where one can stand and look to the horizon and all one will see is water. But it somehow doesn’t have the grandeur associated with the ocean.

My brief stop at the Gariep Power Station has made me rather hungry and I stop at the hamlet of Gariep Dam (as I said before, it’s a town!) for some kos. The town is so pretty. Originally built as a temporary establishment for workers building the dam wall and power station, the town survived and now is a quaint little outpost offering accommodation for those intent on exploring the wonders of the dam. To cater the tastes of the out-of-towners, a marina has been developed where you can park your catamaran.

I stop at Lance’s Coffee Shop for a quick bite before I head south. It has a real good feel but somehow the food here lacks the love of the tannie from Cheeta Padstal. I hope that this love that’s put into purchased food doesn’t die of with these old tannies. The whole production line approach to food works and is what makes KFC and Steers such popular franchises. But the love, they lack…

The N9 towards Graaff-Reinet has been christened the Camdeboo Route. Starting of as a potholed bore, the road sucks you into the Suurberg, Sneeuberg and eventually Camdeboo mountain range. Camdeboo is an ancient land forming part of the Karoo Supergroup – more particularly, the Beaufort Group. Before the dinosaurs were even thought of, ancient pre-reptiles and pre-mammals roamed this beautiful land and they have subsequently died here. More recently, the Khoisan lived off these lands. The name Camdeboo apparently means, “Green hole,” in a Khoisan dialect. The settlers merely took this name and applied it to this area even though, this being the gateway to the Karoo, there is not a lot of green around. Nevertheless, the name evokes such mystery, splendour and awe. Just before Noupoort, you encounter Table Mountain. I wonder if this fooled travellers of old.

As you drive through Middelburg, the roadside is home to several vendors selling metal windmills. At first, this site is rather strange with the immediate thought being, “This is not Holland. Oh wait, are we in Holland? I knew I should have stayed away from that weed.” Actually, South Africa is home to, I think, the most windmills in the world. I probably am making this up but this simple contraption is responsible for life out in this thirstland. Using a simple mechanical concept, these extract water from boreholes and provide the famous Karoo Mutton with the precious commodity called life – well, that is until they’re used to make Lamb Shank in some fancy Melrose Arch restaurant.

I stop at one of these stalls and am greeted by a friendly old man, a few friends of his and his son. I have a soft spot for windmills although my interest lies in the three-blade contraptions that provide electricity. Nevertheless, I have a little chat with the man and I purchase a small windmill. I bid his son and him farewell as I go on my way. They both smiled and saw me off. It felt right.

I find it so weird that people insist on bargaining with roadside, flea market or robot vendors but don’t bargain with Spar or Checkers. These vendors livelihood is based on a per-sale basis. To them, an extra R10 means the entire world to them and could mean that their family won’t starve for that night or that their family can be clothed properly and won’t freeze that night. Yet, when people (the type that don’t really worry about where their next meal or Reebok sweater is coming from) encounter these vendors, they must bargain with them even if it saves them R10. What purpose does R10 serve to one these days? Will parting with an extra R10 cause one any harm? As I’ve shown, that extra R10 WILL cause a world of good for the recipient. If one does feel like saving that extra few bucks, why doesn’t one bargain with the chain stores. These stores definitely don’t need that extra money. Yet, I don’t think anyone has ever gone to a Pick ‘n Pay and told the cashier, “Ah, the bill is R320. How about I just give you R300?”

My next stop is a padstal at Jachtpoort. This might have been an old train station though, from the sign I saw outside. It seems to be just a legend fabricated by the owner – like Lost City or the Phantom Ship at uShaka Marine World. I purchase something called Honeybush Tea from this store. It’s similar to Rooibos but instead, is made from the Honeybush plant endemic to the region. I get some dried peaches as well. I wonder if dried fruit is the vegetarian equivalent of biltong.

YAY! My first mountain pass! The Lootsberg Pass is an old South African pass which doesn’t climb very high but does have a great view of the Karoo at its summit. I go up the wrong way and, well, it’s pretty boring. I have a special regard for mountain passes – the triumph of man to conquer a mountain, one of nature’s greatest weapons.

The Naudesberg Pass is next – a much heftier adversary with its gentle switchbacks set on steep inclines. Again, I do the pass from the wrong way around but on the other end; I’m greeted by the majestic Karoo. 🙂

Graaff-Reinet is South Africa’s fourth oldest town – behind Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Swellendam. I guess this explains the “ff” at the end of the first part of the town’s name. It is an extremely pretty town – even the townships of uMasizakhe and Kroonvale on the outskirts of the town have a weird charm about them. Nestled on the U-bend of the Sunday’s River in a nook beneath the Sneeuberg Mountains, the town has a grandiose church with its towering steeple as the centrepiece. All the roads are wide avenues with ancient trees adorning its verges. About 250 buildings in the town have been declared as National Monuments adding to the prettiness of the town.

I stay at a supremely well-equipped, self-catering house called, “The Red Geranium.” In true kitsch fashion, there was a red geranium in a pot on the wall outside and it was in bloom! It’s run by an old tannie that has seen every type of individual that this world has to offer so she really wasn’t that interested in anything I had to say. Granted, there was cricket on but hey, it’s cool. It must be noted that her rusks are probably the tastiest in the world. I was quite excited about being in this marvellous town. Who knows what adventures lay ahead…?

A seven metre diameter butterfly valve

I can’t be kept away from work. I don’t know if that’s a pity or I’m just weird. Then again, it’s not everyday that you get to see a hydroelectric power station in a drought-ridden country. It also awakened that technical side of my brain which has been lying dormant for a few days.

Built along with the dam is the Gariep Power Station. This is one of two major hydro stations in the country and on the Gariep River. There are four micro-hydro stations that do exist in the Eastern Cape – namely Collywobbles, Ncora, First Falls and Second Falls, but these are used for grid-stabilisation and are not under the control of Eskom Generation but rather under Eskom Distribution.

At present, the Gariep Power Station uses four generators rated at 90MW each to produce 360MW of power with the head of around 55m. The generators are presently being refurbished and by next year, this station will be generating 440MW. The Vandekloof generators will still be larger, but there are only two there. This value is impressive when one sees the dimensions of the dam wall. We won’t compare it to the 22000MW of Three Gorges…Getting into the station was pretty easy – well for me at least! With prior arrangement, the staff will happily take you around the station. No photographs are allowed though.

I get to the dam slightly early and attempt to get into the power station. This proves a problem seeing that there are two gated entrances. I’m a bit puzzled but I choose the gate on my right. Actually, I know that this entrance is the wrong one but I take it anyway. I obviously haven’t learnt my lesson after encountering the shooting range a few days earlier. Luckily, I don’t end up in some experimental farm but I do get a great view of the dam wall. Viewing it from a platform hundreds of metres away takes away the beauty of the scale of this wall. Coupled with the colossus of water it holds back, the wall looks pitifully small. That is until you see it up close! This wall is not solid but has a series of tunnels embedded in it. One such tunnel is so huge that there is an annual church service that is held within it. One can arrange tours of such tunnels if one wants.

At around 12h00, I meet a distinguished gentleman named Lucas Van Heerden. He has been working at this plant for many years and stays in the nearby hamlet of Gariep Dam (a town!). The town reminds me of a minor holiday town on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast – albeit, a MUCH more laidback version of it. The station is pretty small and has the dimensions of maybe a single generator-set in a coal-fired station. On the ground level are huge circles painted onto the floor. Underneath each lies a vertically-mounted 90MW beast. The diameter of each is roughly 10m. That’s five of the tallest people you know stacked on top of each other. Pretty huge I tell you…

Taking the stairs down, I encounter the turbine. The hydro plants in South Africa, due to the small size of these plants, are used for peaking power. Simply, this means that when South Africa requires vast amounts of electricity, these stations run. When the load requirements drop, the station is switched off. Hydro stations are built for this purpose because of their very nature – liquid water turns the turbines. Without water, the turbines don’t turn. If these don’t turn, no electricity can be generated. This principle is built into the mechanics of the system so the absence of water does not cause damage to the system. Compare this to a coal-fired station – steam is used to turn the turbines. Steam must be generated by burning coal to heat up water to the required temperature. Water takes a while to heat up hence; coal needs to be burnt for quite a while before optimal conditions are reached. Cooling is then needed to extract the most energy out of this steam. Even with this simplification, one can see that this process is rather complex. Compare this to: Open sluice gate; run water through turbine; make power. One can see that hydro plants are much more suited to the peaking criteria!

As I walk into the room leading to the turbine (the power station was off), I encounter the tailrace pipes that transport the water to the turbine. At this point, Lucas explains to me what I see. When the station is not being used, water must not be let through to the turbine. This is controlled by a valve – a seven metre diameter butterfly valve at that. I look at shocked. I’m in shock and awe and my mouth can’t close because, well, it’s so freaking huge! Lucas sees me and gives the knowing look of, “Ja, I know.” I love being an engineer.

The station also has no control room. All controls of the station are handled via National Control. All alarms are, likewise, sent directly to National Control. If there are any faults, an operator sitting at national control calls up an engineer or technician and the fault is sorted out. Then again, this station maybe gets two alarms per week – something that should trickle through to coal stations. Okay, enough with the words, this is just awesome!

Lucas and I chat for a while about peaking, the new refurbishments of the generators, the new coal-fired stations and the role of renewables and the current financial situation of Eskom and the world in general. We also talk about a pending C&I upgrade to the plant which would render all the employees, which have been working there since the plant was commissioned, useless. The joys of technology…I bid Lucas farewell and leave the station extremely impressed by this great technology.

Hydroelectricity is loved and loathed by various green energy aficionados. The one school of thought sees the damage that dams do when built. Whole ecosystems are wiped out by building a simple dam. The Narmada Valley in India is a prime example (so are all the new dams in China.) The other harps on about the carbon-free energy that we get from this type of power generation. I guess the Gariep is special in this case – the ecosystem around the Gariep is thriving and provides a haven for many endangered species. Then again, most local Nature and Game reserves are built around artificial bodies of water. Without these, most of our flora and fauna would be decimated. Whilst doing this, the station provides the non-industrial electricity needs of several provinces without doing any harm. I wonder if the damage done whilst constructing this dam is offset by the role it’s played in conserving our natural resources…

I listen to Heavy Metal and take death and destruction wherever I go

I believe Tony Cox was soothing me with his mellow vibes that are as far away from heavy metal as I am from Jozi. Innocently sitting in my cosy room in this wonderful B&B, I decide to use the bathroom. After washing my hands and immediately receiving a bout of frostbite on my poor fingers, I proceed towards the towel hanging on the rail. A normal person grabs a bit of the towel, wipes of the excess water and replaces the towel in its former position. I did this, well most of it. I grabbed a bit of towel, wiped of the excess water then BAM! A miniature dust cloud erupts gently caressing my nostrils with the sweet smell of plaster. I look at the towel railing and alas, I have the two towels and two metal poles in my hand. The wall now shows off its new hole and the floor is littered with the metal railing and some plaster. I’m in shock – seems that half my holiday budget will be used to fix a wall. Alas, the lady running the B&B told me not to worry about it. Nice lady. Anyway, the following morning whilst showering, the cover of the cold water tap came off pretty easily although I know this has happened to the covers I use at home. Shoddy build quality has reached the southern Free State – pity.

Chasing the sun around the Lake District

For some odd reason, the route around the Gariep Dam is called the Gariep Lake Route. As far as I know, a lake is a natural body of water whereas a dam is enclosed by a dam wall made of some sort of structure – be it man-made or made by beavers in North America. Whatever the reason, the drive around the dam is one of the most amazing drives in South Africa.

In 1971, a marvel that showcased South Africa’s engineering skill was opened. We’ll forget that the project was given to a French company for a moment as I tell you about the Hendrik Verwoed Dam (now called the Gariep Dam) – built in the Ruigte Valley; the dam wall stands 88m high and is almost a kilometre in length. The amount of enclosed water is staggering. Think of the distance from Amanzintoti to Verulam. Now think of how far apart Durban is from Pietermaritzburg. The mighty Gariep Dam is larger than this…

The round trip is a “tourist” circuit consisting of the R701, R390 and the R58. The circuit is quoted as being 134km long – I honestly feel it is much longer. The road is spectacular. It is a perfectly tarred masterpiece stretching out to the horizon in this most amazing land. The sleeping Free State greets the remnants of the magestic Maluti. Together, they dance and meet in this beautiful valley – a valley now that is pivotal in allowing millions of South Africans to quench their thirst and live.

The road is just great. I’ve thought long and hard on ways to describe it but I just can’t do it justice…The route starts outside Smithfield on the 70km or so drive to Bethulie passing the Tussen-die-Riviere Nature Reserve. On the way, I was greeted by maybe five potholes and probably the same amount of cars. Climbing over each hill is a signal for you to hold your breath. Emerging on the horizon is beauty that you have never experienced before. Go over the next hill and the beauty is outdone as the giant snake of the Gariep pulls you closer and closer. I’m sure those stunning posters of roads leading into mountains are taken here and not at the foot of the Appalachians and Rockies! Although a day earlier, I felt scared because of what unknown fears lurked on the sides of the N12 outside Kimberley, the fear of this road was far greater. In all its beauty, this road defined “alone…” A cry for help goes unnoticed and unheard. It is here where you truly experience yourself and your reality.

The Gariep has this natural sense of mystery, power and greatness. Starting in the Drakenberg, this river, also know as the Orange, is the lifeblood of South Africa. Downstream of the Gariep is another mega-dam, Vanderkloof, home to South Africa’s largest hydroelectric scheme. Even more downstream is the wonder of the Augrabie Falls. Further downstream is the river mouth at Alexander Bay. Here, the mighty Gariep releases her diamonds into the Atlantic. Visit Alexander Bay and you’ll see how important these diamonds are to people…

Anyway, the Gariep is home to an ambitious project. South Africa is a drought country – the water we have is precious and not abundant. Not a year goes by without warnings (that we don’t heed) about South Africa having serious water shortages within a few years. The Gariep has a water tunnel on its eastern shores that connects to the Great Fish River that nourishes the Eastern Cape. Its use is similar to the Lesotho Highlands Project at Sterkfontein Dam in KwaZulu-Natal – when water is sparse; it is transferred from the Gariep to the Great Fish to provide the province with water.

I’m a sucker for dramatics and I was hoping to experience awe at the first sight of water from the Gariep. This, obviously, never did happen. After a quick stop in Bethulie to offload, I set about remedying this by embarking on another infamous sun-chasing mission to capture the sunset over the Gariep. My destination lay 60km away on the south-eastern banks of the Gariep at a hamlet named Oviston. The R-roads are infamous for their lack of shoulders, cat eyes and fences. With knowledge of the cow incident still pretty fresh, I speed on hastily as the sun falls. It light bathes the land in a lazy orange that intensifies as the sun retreats more and more. I push on…

I reach Venterstad and soldier onto Oviston as the orange glow deepens. Looking back, darkness encroaches. I start to panic and wonder if I will make it in time. I (obviously) have never been to the Gariep before and I have no knowledge of the terrain that I will encounter at Oviston. I wonder what the view would be like and if this mad trip was worth it. I reach the town and the waters edge. On one side of the dam, the sun kisses the horizon with its most intense shade of orange. On the other is nature’s most beautiful view…

I sit on the rocky banks, perched on a rock gazing at this site. A heron calls from the distance as the sun extinguishes over the Gariep. I smile 🙂

I linger. In actual fact, lingering could spell my death. I have a half an hour drive back to Bethulie on a road strewn with cattle and untold creatures of the dam. Obligatory on all routes travelled at night is the car without lights. It amazes me how people travel with minimal vision. In this wilderness, the hazards multiply. I easily pass them and approach the Bethulie Bridge. I am home and safe – a relief. However, the Bethulie Bridge has something in store for me…

Bethulie

Patrick Mynhardt did something incredible – he introduced the world to his hometown in the one-man show, “The Boy from Bethulie.” Obviously, I had to go check what this place was about. Armed with a lot of history, and established around the countries most important water source, this town, well, disappoints. Driving into town, the town’s façade is dreary – the main street has the eerie feel of a town with so much potential but doesn’t know how to show this to the world. Maybe my expectations were too high!

Bethulie houses two extremes of humanity. Two kilometres north of the town, is a wire sign in Afrikaans reading: Bethulie Kampherhof. To the uninformed and those not fluent in Afrikaans, this would be one of those signs you see on a road and forget it a few seconds later – just like those hand-painted signs for painters and tree-fellers that adorn many robots. To those in the know, this is home to South Africa’s worst concentration camp…

Concentration Camps were not solely Nazi run for the non-Aryan. These camps have been utilised in war long before World War 2 as effective tools to control the enemy. During the South African War that occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the British set up several concentration camps where civilians were placed and tortured – most of the times, to death. The camp at Bethulie was the countries worst. Here, mostly Boer women and children were brought (concentrated) and kept in subjection. Countless names adorn the walls of the monument signalling that this was not just a camp for control and work – it was a death camp. Overall, 26 000 Boer women and children and about 15 000 Blacks were killed in these camps. In contrast, about 3 000 Boer soldiers were killed in battle…

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Whenever I attend funerals, visiting the cemetery is always a real hard experience. This is not even done at night when most of your “scaredy-catness” comes out. Places of death hold so many stories – lost to this world. Places of mass-murder are worse. The founding name of the town was Moordenaarspoort… Okay, I really can’t put more words to this…

The amazing thing is that the victims here had no connection to me whatsoever. Nor could I relate to their suffering and oppression. Yet that feeling persists…

Two kilometres from the Bethulie turn-off in the OTHER direction is one of the greatest feats of South African engineering. The Bethulie Bridge connects the Eastern Cape and Free State. It is 1152m long concrete structure spanning over the convergence of several rivers that drain into the Gariep. Viewed from afar, it’s immensely huge. Driving across it, it doesn’t fell like it though. In this desolate region, your car is the only automobile for miles. You drive onto the bridge doing 120kph and 30 seconds later, you’re over the bridge. Only by peering over at your odometer will you notice that a whole number has changed because of this crossing! It’s also a very boring looking bridge – typical late 60s/ early 70’s South Africana.

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Both these monuments are of extreme importance and showcase our humanity. The bridge showcases our local engineering brilliance in its most extreme form. The camp, a showcase of the inhumanity and disrespect humans can have when interacting with other human beings. However, both these monuments have no awe surrounding them. As I mentioned, if you don’t know the history behind these two and you are on your way to Oviston or Burgersdorp on the other side of the dam, you probably won’t even notice the camp and after 30 seconds, the bridge will be just another bridge that you’ve driven over. I don’t know – my opinion is that these two are important to all South Africans and should be made so. There are so many less important monuments in the country that have such fanfare and hype built around them that when you see the actual article, like an 18th century kitchen knife, your mind tells you that you should be in awe because this is really important. Maybe the Free State authorities will, one day, realise this…

Bethulie has the vibe of an artist’s town. It is full of inspiration – it’s perched on the banks of a great lake, the koppies around it are magnificent and there is untouched greenery at the end of most roads. Even the litter bins are hippy-inspired, multi-coloured spectacles.

Adjoining Information is an unmanned book-shop. The wall has several cut-outs and photocopies detailing the history of the town. Small towns always have these second-hand bookshops where you can pick up so great literary pieces. I found Olive Schreiner’s “Story of an African Farm. “ I felt that I had to get this book here in the land she wrote about – well, not really but I mean, buying it at Exclusive Books in Sandton is just so bland. The Honesty Box was a great touch – the sign that this is not Jozi.

I stayed at a new Bed & Breakfast called Old Watchmakers. Again, I surprised the owner with my Indianness but she really tried hard to make me feel welcome. It is a new place and in time, it should be a really great place to stop. Rates were very affordable and they also make excellent cakes for your afternoon tea.

I spoke to a local antique shop owner about the town and the hospitality industry. Small towns like Bethulie rely heavily on the city folk coming through town and spending their corporate Rands here. The economic recession has hit the smaller towns that normally got alternate holiday traffic. He told me that I was probably the town’s only visitor on that particular day whereas normally, most of the B&B’s in town would be at least half full with this changing to fully occupied during the high season. With less money being available for people to spend, their holidays are either forfeited or they go to the traditional centres where they either have a holiday home or family. The thing is that coming to this town (except for the petrol costs!) is very reasonable. The prices here are not inflated and staying in the accommodation is the fraction of the cost of any traditional holiday centre and the hospitality is orders of magnitude better.

The problem with this town is that my first impression still stuck. It’s really a great town. It’s welcoming and has so much to offer – I only touched on a few elements of what the town has to offer. However, the town needs to really show visitors the personality it has. Maybe it’s just me! I still recommend this town. Do take a visit – you will be surprised 🙂

Baine’s Insane Lane

Sir Thomas Bain (did I just inadvertently knight this deceased gentleman?) was a legend. Maybe I’m biased seeing that I am an engineer, but he was the most prolific road builder South Africa has seen. Yes, he has been dead for many a decade but it is through his visionaries that so many of our mountains are navigable. Wherever there was a seemingly impossible mountain to cross, he gathered up a handful of convicts and blasted his way through it. Leaving sometimes little reminders about the dangers of the area, he is responsible for some of South Africa’s greatest mountain passes. The fact that none of the EIA’s would get passed nowadays is beside the point.

With this as my guide, I see a road sign pointing towards Baine’s Vlei. The history behind this great man suggested to me that this lake (or dried up salt pan – it is winter!) would have something special about this. It didn’t occur to me that this being the Free State, nothing really is spectacular. I drive on [1]. I drive along for ten or so minutes at a considerable speed passing several farms along the way. I approach a gate with a rusted sign post. I drive on [2].

I drive on and encounter a military land submarine type device thing that is parked of in some bush looking as if it’s on a rather important mission. I also see an indecipherable Afrikaans sign with the word “skiet” meaning that they are shooting something. I drive on [3].

At this point, I should tell you that in the 1800s, one Thomas Baine came to Africa with some of his contemporaries, such as David Livingstone. He was an artist and explorer – I doubt he had any idea how to build a road! He is famous for documenting a famous Baobab island in Botswana which has proved useful in our understanding of these majestic trees. He also has a small town in southern Zimbabwe named after him and the nature reserve just outside Grahamstown bares his name. Back to my story…

I come across another apparent stop point with a gate. It’s opened. I drive on [4]. All of a sudden I am in a military compound straight out of a Soviet nuclear test facility where they torture people and hybridise them with primates. I flee. I have learnt not to be an idiot. Well, hopefully.

—————-
[1] SIGN ONE: He is an idiot
[2] SIGN TWO: He is a dumb idiot
[3] SIGN THREE: He is a full-time idiot. When he fills in form and it asks for his occupation, he must write IDIOT.
[4] No comment