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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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.

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[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

Who knew the Free State was this pretty

Leaving Kimberley actually was nowhere as easy as leaving Jozi. The time I spent there was great. Filled with great times with old and new friends, I learnt a lot about our country and how it is run as well as learning a lot about me. Even though this is the case, it was time to leave – my yearning for the ocean tugged at my calf muscles telling them to get a move on. It would be a few days before I eventually get to the ocean – a lot of South Africa still lay ahead of me.

My initial plans would take me westwards towards the diamond-strewn West Coast along with the cold Benguela Current that ravishes this desolate coast. Instead, I head east on the N8 between Kimberley and Bloemfontein. It seriously is a supremely boring road with nothing going for it whatsoever. One feature stood out – what appeared to be a huge, dried body of water now resembling a salt pan. I still don’t know what this was as it was pretty huge to be, um, insignificant.

Travelling along the N8 takes you into the non-scenic part of Bloemfontein. I was here back in 2001 and honestly, remember nothing about the actual city. This scene of industria and construction that I am greeted with doesn’t do much to help the image of the city. I do see four cooling towers that are now the property of FNB with a disused power station across the road. Early 60s architecture and low rising chimney stacks give away the age of this relic. Cooling towers command such awe. The simple design is purely functional but the aesthetics command such respect. It is a testament to human ingenuity. I drive further and get even more lost in Bloemfontein. I see a local construct of the Eiffel Tower. I use this as a sign that I really need to leave this city!

The N6 is nicknamed the Friendly Route – after Aliwal North, the route is fashioned upon what the R62 in the Cape has become. Then again, Aliwal North is in the Eastern Cape (or is it?) and the Free State is renowned for its lack of scenery. Au contraire – this part of the country borders Lesotho. Driving south, the right hand side of the road is Platte Land and whilst the left is has gentle, undulating, straw coloured hills with patches of happy green dotting the landscape. The gentle hills give one but a hint of the marvels of the Maluti.

Just outside Bloemfontein, I stop at the Cheeta Padstal for a bite to eat. The place is a quaint little winkel manned by a tannie. After shocking her with my Indianness, I look at the menu and see something called a “pannekoek” which I order. The tannie explodes like I just mentioned the words that set of the apocalypse. Okay, that didn’t happen but apparently these take way too long to make so she wouldn’t be able to make it for me. I get a Cheese and Tomato sandwich and a Coke and settle into the eating area. It was just right. Knitted ornaments adorned the room with the simplest tables and chairs neatly set. It was just so homely. She served my food – it tasted so great even though it is the easiest thing to make. You could taste the love and care put into it. I get a knitted ornament, pay and leave. The bill came to a grand total of R30 with the gift included. Makes one wonder about the establishments in metropolitanland where you pay that three times the price for only a piece of cardboard slapped together mechanically that’s coloured to look like Cheese and Tomato.

At the little town of Smithfield, I take the R701. Quaint little town but I just had that vibe that I shouldn’t get off the car. The R701 is like a whole new world altogether. It’s Gariep country – or, as the authorities has christened it, The Gariep Lake Route. The Gariep Dam is South Africa’s largest dam where around four rivers converge. Named after the Gariep River, which is also known as the Orange River, this dam is the closest thing we have to a lake (I lie – we have ONE natural lake in Limpopo known as Lake Fundudzi. It’s a magical lake set deep in Venda mythology and Venda country. You need a special permit to grace its shores.) My destination: A little Free State town called Bethulie.