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…

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Starry, starry night

It’s late in the day – so late that in human terms, the day will soon become a new one. In cosmic terms, this passing of the time is insignificant. Looking up, this cosmos speaks to me in its ancient language of energy, light and awe. Standing alone in the Karoo, I look around seeing darkness in its purest form. Our lone fire dots the ground a few hundred metres away. I tread the N12 walking over the extinct cat-eyes. They provide guidance to those travelling this road but in this darkness, they’re just like the fossils that scatter this arid landscape. It seems that every star is out tonight. Never have I seen the Milky Way shown of with all this splendour. I look away and then stare again at this glittering sky. When you look up again, more stars appear out of the nothingness. Silence is broken by the cry of the Jackal. In ancient times, the diamonds that are scattered across the world were thought to be products of the stars. At least fifty million carats of diamonds have been unearthed from Kimberley alone in the last hundred or so years yet the sky’s still painted with so many of these glittering dots. It shows us how insignificant we are as individuals in this universe of ours yet we’ve rape, pillaged and killed so many just to show someone else that one man is better than the other. But tonight, I look at the stars and only the stars.

How to get haunted by the ghost of Cecil John Rhodes

Armed with my amazing camera, a warm jacket and my intrigue, I set off into Kimberley to do my tourist deeds. Our proposed stops: The Big Hole and McGregor Museum.

Mention Kimberley and the first thing that most people will think about is The Big Hole. Hang out with the wrong people and they’ll probably go on about Kimberlite and it’s origins but we’ll assume you’re hanging with the right people. It is an excavation dug out of what was actually a hill (Colesberg Kopje) entirely by hand in the pursuit of diamonds. The hole is enormous – reaching 240m below the surface with further tunnelling down to one kilometre. This was all done is a period of just over 40 years. And, as I said, dug entirely by hand!

As is the case with most major spectacles, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen, books you’ve read, stats you’ve heard or whatever, seeing the spectacle blows you away. Coming from Durban, I am pretty familiar with the quarry just before the Umgeni Road turnoff whilst going north on the N2. That quarry is pretty enormous yet it was done mechanically – very little pick work to achieve the depth. The Big Hole is several magnitudes larger and the water now occupying it pities in relation to the amount of blood and sweat that the miners shed whilst attaining this. It shocks and awes you. To think, man has gone to such depths for a tiny little shiny rock.

The Big Hole, being not the most exciting attraction, comes packaged with a short film and a “re-creation” of mining conditions of the time. The diamond rush was frantic and ended with a few celebrities – or tycoons per se. The two primary figures were Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato. Different in personality, these two effectively started big business in South Africa forming the huge diamond company De Beers. I actually wanted to visit the De Beers boardroom but I wasn’t sure exactly where Warren Street is. Prior to diamonds being mined by the bucket load in Kimberley, not a lot was known about how these stones came into being and where to mine them. Finds were of the alluvial type happened upon by a lucky passer-by. A guard in the village of this passer-by would have happened upon the lucky passer-by admiring it one day. He would ritually behead this, well, not-so-lucky passer-by, take the stone and give it to the King and get a Knighthood or become an Earl of something. With the discovery of Kimberley’s riches, this effectively started an industry that never existed to begin with. The two men become ludicrously rich as they controlled the diamond trade worldwide – pouring money into research and then buying off all the diamond fields discovered as a result of this research. As opposed to just these mined diamonds from Kimberlite, South Africa is blessed with alluvial diamonds littering the depths of the Vaal and Gariep (Orange) Rivers. Alluvial diamonds are found along the north-west Coast of South Africa in large quantities. Diamonds are also mined offshore off the coast of Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay. Diamonds are also industrially made for use as cutting tips. De Beers have operations in all these areas.

These two were also the masterminds behind an unrecognised genocide. To get these diamonds, in a time before we had the huge Majuba’s and Kendal’s to provide power for machinery, mining was done solely by hand (um, hence The Big Hole) and this labour force was sourced from the indigenous tribes inhabiting Southern Africa. Men left their villages, walked thousands of miles in the roughest conditions and then were made to work and live in rougher conditions for a pitiful salary. Furthermore, diamond mining was a new form of mining. Very little was understood about the geology and where research had been done mining techniques for other materials – like gold, copper and coal, these techniques could not be directly applied to the Kimberlite rock that these diamonds were popping out of. As a result, an unknown number of labourers lost their lives in pursuit of the riches of two men. Nowhere in Kimberley did I even find a mention of even an estimated number of people who had died. Come to think of it, I didn’t read anything about deaths directly caused by De Beers. Mining of precious commodities is still a dangerous exercise with way too many people losing their life in pursuit of a wage that barely makes ends meet.

Speaking to people, it seems as if the town of Kimberley always has (and still is) in the grips of De Beers. Its growth kept at the rate that the company wants. Kimberley housed South Africa’s first street light. Because of the industry, it was also the first centre to use electricity. The first South African Stock Exchange was hosted here. The first flight school was here as well. The city had tramlines at a time when Jozi and Durban were still tiny outposts with not a lot going for them. It’s amazing that a town with such prestige ended up taking a back seat to the Big Three cities in South Africa when the potential for growth was there. When I drove into town a few days ago, the stars dazzled me. The reason they could do that is because there is very little industry here to pollute the sky of the Platte land. Surprising seeing that the mighty Vaal River is just a few kilometres away – unlike in Johannesburg where the only proper river, incidentally also the Vaal is almost 100km away.

The next stop was McGregor Museum. It is a museum worth a visit with it’s in depth look into how Kimberley came about from the earliest inhabitants, right through to the diamond rush, the Siege of Kimberley and up to modern times. Cecil John Rhodes has a marvellous cardboard cut-out in one of the rooms as well. We decided to attempt to get the own back for the millions that he has affected over the past century. I think the molestation of his ear helped a little. I also think his ghost will be haunting us as well.