Day 57: I drift…

So it’s a Tuesday and we finished up at the plant yet again. This time, though, it was the last day at the Plant. The Electrical Reticulation didn’t really take that long so hey, no more ash-covered overalls (and other body parts) until I need to come here for actual work. We do visit National Control later this week but that’s not really part of the plant. Nevertheless, I did enjoy going up and down the monstrous plant a lot. ANYWAY, back to the blog – today was, well, a drive of necessity I guess. The reasons for this will come up in later blogs but these little roadtrips do tend to allow the mind to float away into the beauty of this amazing country of ours. Now, the one problem was that I had no idea where to actually go as Kruger National Park is WAY to far away for a single days drive and I had gone through a good part of the coal-seams of Southern Mpumalanga. So, North it was and BAM – Groblersdal. Take the N11 to get there and I can do a circular trip by taking the R25 and R544 back. I expected a drive mimicking the elements of the other drives – little did I know that I was in for a big surprise…

I don’t know if anyone remembers that dreaded series on SABC3 called “Avenues.” Avenues are basically tree lined streets and I found this out when I was a kid – one of the trillions of bits of information I did pick up in my formative years which I am rather thankful for. The main road near my house is an avenue and, well, over the years, the trees have been felled with special mention to the one really old tree which was uprooted when they widened the road. I was quite sad when it did happen hey. Anyway, I got to the outskirts of Middelburg and came across several of these avenues. They are really beautiful and have such a sense of serenity to them.

The first revelation of the trip was the greenness of it. Compared to my journeys south, this trip actually didn’t have mine dumps and coal trucks breaking the road to shreds. On the side of the road, I saw this device. Tractors rule!

I saw this brilliant sign on the way. There actually is this bottle store in the middle of nowhere. I actually wanted to stop and get something but, well, I analysed the risk and stayed in my car. Besides, there were dogs sleeping outside.

Another thing I realised during this trip was that South Africa is blessed with this amazing network of National N roads. This road ran around 100km with twists, turns, dips and mountain passes yet there was not a single pothole on the entire route. I will agree though that the N roads are kept in tip-top shape as compared to other roads. The delays between maintenance is shorter than those of R and municipal roads and as a result, some of the R roads, like the one in an earlier blog and the R25 that I encountered later on this trip were in quite bad shape. These are taken care of as is the case with the R544 – the tar was freshly laid upon this barren stretch of scarcely used tarmac. The number of cars that I encountered there was minimal yet the road had been renovated. I have heard somewhere that our road network is one of the world’s best. And yet, people complain…

And then I saw it…the Loskop Dam. All the greenery and curvy, mountain pass type roads of this route had to mean something and the answer was that these led one onto the breathtaking Loskop Dam. The approach to the dam had several signs telling one about this dam but I was not prepared for this heart-stopping sight. The drive, from Middelburg, takes one up and down a mountain pass and then onto a false flat before flinging you back up another mountain pass. When one reaches the summit, the beautiful blue hits brandishes one’s eyes and you can’t help but be awestruck by this site. I was lucky that the day was a marvellous, summer’s day and the dam’s true beauty was not lost. Originally built in the 1930s, it now is around 30km long and is used mainly for irrigation of the farms around Groblersdal and Marble Hall. There is a nature reserve in the conservancy area of the dam with accommodation and what promises to be a rather awesome holiday only about 150km away from Johannesburg! Looking back at the photographs, they really don’t do the dam justice. Guess you just need to visit it for yourself 🙂

This was erected next to the dam wall. Oddly enough, the graffiti in the palm was not evident when I took out the photograph.

Just north of the dam are the vast farms that provide the country with its vital food source. I also encountered the farms that supply McCain with vegetables. Although it is almost a fake greening of the landscape, these farms do give the Northern parts of Mpumalanga this touch of beauty not evident in the South.

Groblersdal is the typical small town in Mpumalanga. Next to this liquor store was what appeared like a cross between a pub, club and shebeen. Situated on one of the main roads, this uh, establishment had some banging tunes resonating from the speakers and the distinct smell of Black Label that has been spilled. Did I mention this was at 2pm on a Tuesday…

Just before I took the R25 guiding me towards Bronkhorstspruit, there was this curiosity on the side of the road with around 500m of make-shift stalls on the side of the road with people briskly doing trade of fresh fruit, vegetables and curios. It really did look odd hey. Anyway, just after this flea-market was the turn-off onto the R25. This road starts of in Johannesburg and takes you all the way here. So, whereas most people join the R25 at the other end, I joined it at the opposing end. It greeted me with a dead cow on the side of the road. I did not take a picture!!!

I mentioned the newly-laid tar on the R544, which I branched off onto from the R25. Travelling down the R25 would take you to Bronkhorstspruit which is around 50km away from Witbank towards Pretoria. The R25 would then take you through Kempton Park and onto Johannesburg. It’s not an impressive road by any measure though unlike the road above – smooth roads taking you into the horizon…

I’m not really sure what this monument commemorates. If I had to hazard a guess, it would be some war memorial. Then again, anyone with eyes would associate the old coat of arms and antique shotgun to a war memorial!

This was truly the weirdest thing I have seen in my entire time here. It is, what appears to be, a truck tyre graveyard. Old tyres don’t get retread or melted down to make new ones – they travel from far and wide all the way to Witbank to die in peace on a farm 25km from the town. I somehow thought about the Elephant Graveyard from The Lion King and then realised that apparently Glenwood in Durban is actually an old Elephant Graveyard which explains why there are so many ants there. Not sure how true that is though!

As dusk crept up on me, I concluded my journey by driving into a derelict part of Witbank that I had not encountered before. At this point, one has to use gut instinct and prior knowledge of the town to figure out where to go and how to actually get back home. Nevertheless, as darkness fell and I reached home, it seemed, for once, an ending that I wouldn’t have liked. Whereas the day allowed these gems of realisation to shine on me, I ended up in a dirty metropolis at night with carbon spewing from the multitude of vehicles rushing home after an equally polluted day. I guess everything doesn’t end with a happy end but you need to cherish the memories that you gained on the way – even though they were fleeting drive-bys or short-stops like I made at the various attractions on the way. Nevertheless, it has been something I don’t want to forget J

Day 38: Where tractors and vetkoek collide

I took a drive to Bethal. Yes, that is indeed what I did. We finished early at the Plant today so, using my adventurous spirit and petrol that I wasn’t paying for (I did but we’ll get to that in time) and took a drive to this well, little town. I was going to call it a hamlet but it was rather industrious looking as such and can’t really be called a hamlet. Then again, it is in Mpumalanga – the part that possesses all the coal mining towns. I did enjoy the drive thoroughly actually even though it wasn’t really that scenic. Then again, it was prettier than the drive to Ermelo. Oh well, I’m rambling – let us get to the pictures.

What possessed me to drive to Bethal was basically the Duvha turnoff. On our way out of Witbank, there goes a road that takes you deep into Mpumalanga. Before we get that deep, we turn at Duvha. What lies beyond? Does it take me to the land of milk and honey? Apparently not – it’s more like a badly kept road with several potholes and the marvellous view of mine dumps. It does clear up and just before you hit the R35, you get a nice view of Komati Power Station.

Komati is one of the Return-To-Service Stations that was mothballed in the late 80s and early 90s when supply way outstripped demand. Basically, there were several stations running for around 50 years, with 50 year old technology. It made sense to close down the plants that were using outdated technology and instead, use the larger plants that generated much more electricity at higher efficiencies. At that time, there were plants like Kendal with generators producing in excess of 600MW whilst older stations, like Taaibos and Highveld had generators rated at 60MW. Komati was one of the “old school” stations with, if you look at the picture, eight cooling towers. The generator set consisted of five 100MW units and four 125MW units – not as much as the six-pack stations but better than the antiquated 60MW units. Anyway, in recent years, electricity capacity has dictated that Komati, like Grootvlei and Camden, be brought back into service. So far, Camden is back online and Komati will be brought back onto the grid within a few years. One can see the new smoke-stack that has been built – just one of the modernisations that has been introduced to the station. Like Hendrina, these larger, older stations make for exquisite viewing and as I’ve said, it’s not exquisite like the Italian lakes but well, they do have that effect of awe on the mind!

The R35 runs, basically, between Middelburg and Bethal. From my experience, it was a relatively well used road (and by this, I mean that you passed a car every five to ten minutes as opposed to other roads where you won’t see a car for half an hour!) in really good condition and the odd sign pointing to a German sounding town. There were a lot of these towns on the way mind you.

As with all of these R roads, they have these weird little quirks which make the drive oh so enjoyable. One incident on this road was the appearance of this tractor on the road. As luck would have it, there was oncoming traffic when I reached the tractor! Once these cars passed, the tractor made a very sharp right; drove across the other lane and into the field. I just looked at it with that look on your face which mixes a smile, laughter and WTF.

So I reach Bethal and drive around, admiring the town. Then I find a Baby Friendly Hospital. Apparently, the other hospital in town is waging a war against babies since 1996 with both factions now at a deadlock. Bloodshed might follow in the next few months. Watch the press. Lol

As with all quaint, little towns, Bethal is equipped with a rather pretty looking church with a steeple!

It also has the obligatory Indian businessman that buys a centre and makes a pretty good living by selling to the townsfolk.

If you have read my blog, you would know how dumbfounded I am that people eat so much meat. Well, this just dumbfounded me even more – the store name implies that it is your one-stop vegetable market yet…THEY SELL CHICKEN!!!

I’m guessing this was jumping!

And this all brings me to this take-away establishment – a rustic looking tea room type shop claiming to sell. “The Tastiest Take Away Ever.” It’s a relatively eye-catching store on the main road into town and my eyes (and stomach) were drawn to it just to test out this claim. My problem was that, as a vegetarian, I was not able to sample their finest cuisine. Nevertheless, I thought that a good way to test the place out was to order Vetkoek which should, ideally, taste divine regardless of the filling. Herein lies my second problem – I walk into the shop, take a look at the menu and alas, it is in Afrikaans which is hardly a language I am strong in! I recognised the words “vleis” (grr…more meat!) and “kaas.” The kaas option would mean probably vegetarian unless these people grated some biltong along with the cheese. Judging from the menu, I wouldn’t be surprised. So I walk up to the counter, order a “Kaas Vetkoek” in my best Afrikaans, hand over my R5 (Yes, ONLY R5) and get back a paper bag with oil visibly seeping into it. It looked yummy, it tasted yummy too! It probably had more oil than a tanker as well. Seeing that I’ve not tasted a lot of Vetkoek, I’ll go with say that this was the ‘tastiest ever.’ Lol!

Oh I also bought boxers from this random clothing shop. R15 each – almost as cheap as Durban! I also ran out of petrol on my way to Bethal meaning I had to fill petrol! Shock! Horror! The sad bit was the petrol claims were not on my name meaning the R100 that entered the tank was lost from my pocket forever. It was truly a sad day…

The trip back took me back on the R35. The one thing I don’t enjoy is travelling the same road twice. It almost seems a waste of, well, exploration. It does have it’s perks in that you are able to stop and take pictures of the weird and wonderful sites that you didn’t capture onto celluloid because you were travelling at 120kph and by the time you stopped, you were a good half a kilometre down the road. You also “know” the route so any potholes will be anticipated and you can time yourself pretty well – especially if sunset is pending. These R roads usually have cat-eyes but there are many that don’t – travelling at night on these roads is not recommended. But these reason pale in comparison to driving down the great unknown through scenery you have never encountered before. Luckily, around 10km outside Bethal, there was a sign indicating, “Witbank.” So I took it…

The excitement of this road lay in the fact that it was nearing dusk and there were no cat-eyes on this road! Also, if you have listened to travel stories from people who go out to the mines, you are sure to have heard the mythical stories of driving at 120kph on the dirt skirtings on the side of the road just to avoid the potholes that would devour your entire car even if you had a Hummer. This road started beautifully – long, gently sloping and incredibly straight roads with maximum visibility where you could unleash the true power of your car. A few kilometres later, the road had me driving more on the dirt than on the road with occasions where I braked from 120kph down to around 20kph just to navigate the potholes. This coupled with me trying to beat the sunset made for one of the most exciting drives I’ve ever taken.

Tired, I entered into the municipality of Witbank with Duvha welcoming me back to civilisation. What I saw was the bare soul of industrial Mpumulanga and what we have done to it in pursuit of fuel, power and money. It was a rewarding drive though and, well, it put a smile on my face!