Lessons learnt from fire making

We used these dead trees to make a fire the other night. It was a great fire – so hot that metal started melting. Well, I realised that the wood we used wasn’t dead at all. In winter, trees tend to wilt and lose their leaves. In spring, these leaves reappear and the tree rekindles and springs back to life. The trees, hence, look dead but are actually alive. Um…oops!

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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.

Dark nights

My last night in Kimberley – this town actually is so amazing. There really is so much in this town and it is so enjoyable. Then again, my company was superb beyond measure. Also, the girls of Kimberley are probably the hottest in the country. No seriously – I heard that guys from Jozi come to party in Kimberley just because of this. The agenda for this last night was to see the flamingos of Kimberley. The flamingo thing never did happen. I found myself being left outside some mall in the middle of town. The town has quite a few of these mall things. The one thing I have noticed about towns is that malls are like these standardised models placed all over the country. In an attempt to make your town more Jozi-like, insert a mall with the usual chain stores. It is great for marketers as setting trends and controlling consumer habits can be done countrywide whereas before, if a town didn’t have an Edgars, penetrating that market with your merchandise was pretty difficult. It can be seen as a good thing but I don’t know, I love the quirkiness that towns without chain-stores have. Maybe I’m just a romantic.

My purpose for visiting aforementioned mall was to meet an old friend of mine. Meeting my friend was really awesome. It’s quite amazing how people have ended up in corners of the country that you never would believe. Kimberley ain’t too bad – my cousin was in Ermelo for a year which is not the epicentre of “happeniningness.” Yet it does allow one to see the country and experience what you never would normally experience. In some cases, the quite country life might end up as something you want. Or instead of sticking to the metropolises of Jozi, Cape Town or Durban, you find the quiet hustle and bustle of Port Elizabeth, East London, Bloemfontein or Kimberley more appealing. Anyway, here’s to the next meeting. 🙂

As I waited outside said mall (without a name), a Corsa Diesel speeds through the parking lot with A-Team music blurting out the windows. Two masked men jump out, bundle me up and throw me into the car. In an instant, they have left the parking lot, speeding away to an undisclosed destination. Well, that’s what was supposed to happen. They got the A-Team music right and I was handed a dop. I think that makes it alright.

The destination was an undisclosed though – a spot south of Kimberley on the desolate N12. Drive twenty kilometres out of town and you experience vast openness with pure nothingness all around. The lack of industry means a clear as glass sky. Tonight was cloudless. Tonight we saw every bit of the Milky Way and then some.

Armed with a lot of brandy and some KFC (I ate chips – I found out that they actually make a MOERSE sized chips if you ask. Sweet!), we crowded around a rather empty bin at the rest stop. We lacked fire. The bin looked perfect. We started a fire out of the KFC packaging. After a while, we realised that this was not going to be a sustainable fire without wood. Using my MOERSE flashlight which can be used to signal to aliens if required, we looked around and found a lot of twigs and dead branches on the floor. We chucked these in. These, however, weren’t working. We ventured further. We found bigger branches. Not satisfied, we jumped over the fence in search of wood. We found a dead tree. And then we found another two. A friend phoned us. We told him where we were and instructed him to bring wood. He brought these several tree stumps 30cm in diameter. Man, that fire was great. It got so hot that the metal was glowing red. The paint on the outside of the bin melted away. The bottom of the bin actually threatened to break away because of the intense heat!

The night was darkened by an event which actually taught me something about myself. I’ve always thought of myself as open-minded and open to experiences of the alternate kind. After all, how would I be going around South Africa by road if I wasn’t? Two of the guys took the car back to town leaving three of us, as I saw it, stranded on the N12. I freaked out completely. To me, this is a national road and your only safety net is gone. If anything happens out here in the wilderness, there is nothing you can do. That’s how I saw it. I lost my nut and took off with the guys worse than I have ever done in my entire life. Their argument was that this is Kimberley and they have done this for the last ten years – incident free. The thing is, as I saw it, I can fully understand that aspect but…It’s the, “but,” that stands out – anything can happen at anytime no matter where you are hence the constant vigilance.

What is right? I still don’t know. I can’t fully accept that my losing my marbles was the right thing to do. Neither can I say I was wrong to go that berserk. Small town life in South Africa is a completely different ballgame to big city life with all the issues that come along with it though. Which “life” you choose to lead is up to you. It did show me that I am that city boy with the city boy mentality. That mentality does mean you are intrinsically safe in all situations because you make sure you are, but it also means the tranquillity of the small town life eludes me. It’s something I need to correct before I get back to Jozi.

Meanwhile, in the distance, the jackals keep barking…

Roar young lions, roar

Since 1994, a culture that has developed is the celebration of our public holidays in a huge way. Then again, these holidays are of extreme significance marking important events in the shaping of our country. One of the most important holidays – well, in my view – is the June 16th holiday marking the day that the students of Soweto rose up against the education department and told them NO, we will not be subject to your oppression. The image of Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after Pieterson was shot by riot police became an important anti-apartheid image. Today, I celebrated this auspicious day in Galashewe Township in Kimberley.

I had been to the Township the previous day – Kimberley in general is such a friendly town. People around greet you when you drive past and the drivers are courteous. Terribly terrific I tell you. The Youth Day rally featured the Northern Cape premier and the Education MEC. They were to give the usual speeches followed by some live entertainment – more on that later.

The speeches – well, these were pretty good actually. Though at the moment in South Africa, I guess this period just after elections is full of promises. The foundations have been laid and it seems that the governments of each province as well as central government are keen to tackle the issues at hand. One huge revelation I found out about this province is the huge amount of corruption going on that really can’t be dealt with by national government. It’s pretty easy to do:

• Tender for a government contract that will be handled by either local or provincial government.
• Make sure that the right officials will be getting kickbacks.
• Organise with the auditors that they will get kickbacks too.
• Get the contract – organise a sub-standard event and pocket most of the money.
• Allow other companies to bid for smaller events and let them get it. Also, pay them off with a small cut so that they are kept happy and it appears that there is no corruption seeing that your company is not getting every event.
• When national government needs proof of what happened, make paid-off officials write the report.
• When an audit is required, get the paid-off auditors to give you a clean bill of health.
• National government now has word from two separate sources that you are clean and doing a good job. They approve as they don’t have any reason not to believe the two independent sources. Also, no complaints have been made because you’ve paid off the competition, so National government is happy.
• Rinse, lather, repeat…

It’s a deep rabbit hole and unfortunately, it is happening and the taxpayers are the ones who are losing out. The thing with it is that, as I have mentioned, national government has absolutely no reason to go into these issues as nobody is complaining about it and the documents that have been submitted say that everything is right. If you were on the board of a company and got two separate reports stating that one sector of your company is running normally, would you go do an investigation as to why it is normal?

Just before the transition in presidency, there was an act passed which, mind my uselessness in terms of constitution law, attempted to centralise government much more than it is at present. Basically, this would mean that in cases like this where a lot of corruption is occurring, by going to the local or provincial government, nothing will be done because of the corrupt officials. If you do go higher, to maybe SARS or to the new monitoring department, this corruption can be weeded out. This is happening. I heard stories that the HOD that gave a contract to a corrupt contractor was sacked and is under investigation. Good things are capable of happening after all…

With all this floating around my head, I walk into the VIP section. Okay, now this was purely by chance as Kershen is one of the greatest guitarists that this world knows so he would be playing as lead guitar for Grace Gomolemo. I carried his equipment in so BAM, I ended up in Grace’s seats in the VIP section. Anyway, the first thing I notice is a bevy of overweight ladies dressed exquisitely in those hugely popular African crossover garments. I’m sorry – all I could think about was, “fat cats!”

Grace Gomolemo is a brilliant and pretty popular singer on the South African Gospel music scene. Her voice is absolutely angelic and when I met her, I just got that vibe that she is doing it because she is truly talented and has that passion and love for music. I don’t react that favourably to gospel music – I don’t really like music of the devotional kind. However, maybe it was because I couldn’t understand a word that she sang or it was just the intricate intertwining between the variety of vocals and instruments, but damn, it sounded absolutely amazing! I was very much tapping my feet and bobbing my head as I sat amongst these people who weren’t able to move much.

The crowd didn’t react that favourably to Grace’s performance. I found out why just as she ended her set. Three rather built black guys walk into the VIP enclosure holding the characteristic thick plastic briefcase that their type carry. You could see the Jozi in them. They were DJs. Rather good DJs at that – the formidable DJ Vetkoek vs. Mahoota. That actually is just one person – the one dude was the guy who did the setting up and the other helped him DJ. The crowd saw this and went wild like you wouldn’t believe. I looked over towards the fence that was used to separate the VIPs from the normal folk (so much for ending segregation…) and the look on this one young girls face was much like that of a Beatles fan from the 1960s.

Before they graced the stage, another guy came up on stage (he is a rather accomplished local singer but alas, I am forgetful) and sang a revolutionary song – it was the one, “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy.” The premier and the MEC and their entourage got up on stage and jived. It felt really great! There was so much of energy and power being exuded by those onstage and the crowd. One quirk though – Kershen had a Chris Hani t-shirt on and when Grace shouted, “Viva, Chris Hani, Viva,” the crowd were rather perplexed. One of the lines in the revolutionary song was mis-sung, “That’s why I’m a communist.” Yeah, that works. Earlier the crowd was singing a lot of praise for Julius Malema though. He does have support. A lot of it, mind you…

After this, and whilst the big DJs set up, two rappers from Kimberley took the stage. We weren’t sure who they were but wow! The rhymes were just unbelievable. Even the big Jozi DJs were amazed at what they were hearing. The talent we have here is phenomenal. I don’t think any American rapper could come anywhere close to what this local duo dished out. The Americans would retreat back into their G5’s and jet their way back home.

You’ve never truly experienced house music until you experience it in a township played by DJs that ARE house. It was electric. The love, passion, flavour, rhythm and everything else was just so much more pronounced. These rallies are truly great South African events. If you haven’t been to an event of this magnitude, do yourself a favour and go to the rally at the next public holiday. It was really a great way to spend the day…

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.

Warped food – good for the soul

I’ve mentioned the famous pub in the middle of Kimberley town known as The Half. Since being an epicentre of the diamond rush, it has built itself on this heritage. The pub is filled with memorabilia from years gone by – I actually think a lot of these are original prints rather than like the replicas that adorn pub walls all over the world. My first night in Kimberley was way too much a blur for me to remember much about the bar. We returned to it at lunch time, this time to partake in their magnificent cuisine.

As is the case, wherever I go, there are no vegetarian options whatsoever. People are carnivores. The whole omnivore story is the biggest farce in history. Anyway, my only option was a Margherita pizza (this time, WITHOUT any meat) with a selection of toppings. I added olives and mushrooms. Kershen loaded his pizza with bacon and well, the third choice was rather interesting.

Have you ever been to a pizza place, looked at the menu, realised that every optional topping is too mouth-watering to be left of the pizza and then you order just a single extra topping instead of all? Off course this has happened to you! We didn’t do that. We ordered a pizza with everything. I lie – we left out the bananas and anchovies. Bananas are meant for runners and sundaes. Anchovies don’t exist in South Africa. So actually, it did have EVERYTHING!

The bartender was pretty pleasant as well. That’s what my friends said. She forced a draft and jagermeister down my throat. Do note that this was the first meal of the day. Also note that this occurred before the meal was ready. The joys of being a foreigner! I don’t really like drinking beer with food. It works with some foods but not with pizza. Yeah, I’m weird. Lol. After making fun of me for not drinking my beer, the waitress brought me a strawberry milkshake. In keeping with the theme of the day namely, getting me drunk really quick, she added a shot or three of strawberry liqueur to the milkshake. It tasted pretty good. Anyway, only a piece of the pizza was finished at The Half. I think the pizza lasted around three days! Good times 🙂

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.