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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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 20: I hate it when I forget my camera

Facebook has caused one really noticeable phenomena amongst young people that was really overlooked before is the photograph. Well, in actual fact, I don’t think that many people actually print out these photographs and display them as was the case before, but the digital still has really seen a boom. These ease of uploading countless pictures up onto the internet for the world to see has meant that having a digital camera or camera-enabled mobile phone is a must. I’ve embraced this fully – I think I’ve uploaded over a thousand pictures onto Facebook already! Anyway, this blog is not about pictures – simply because I forgot my freaking camera!

The site when you approach Duvha is similar to Kendal in the spectacular nature of it all. The one thing I noticed on the Tuesday morning that I drove to Duvha first was that at the turn to the station, it appears as if the station is situated in a valley. How smart – having these smoke stacks rising 250m into the air and then situating it in a valley meaning the mean height of the exhaust fumes is exactly where our air that we breathe comes from! Then, as I drove for another ten minutes, the true nature of this structure hit me. Mind you, the speed limit on that road was 100kph and driving for 10 minutes gets you pretty far! I don’t really know if I can use the word “beautiful” to describe a power plant but it’s something that comes to mind. It really is a hideous structure built purely for purpose and without any real aesthetics taken into account but the monstrous size of it all has this weird beauty to it. It’s kinda like Saturn or something. A bunch of gas molecules that have a strange affinity to each other so they randomly attract to each other and they end up looking real good. Come to think about it, that’s how humans are! Your girlfriend of boyfriend is a bunch of molecules attracted to each other because of some arbitrary code in the DNA and the final product is something relatively beautiful.

I didn’t take my camera so I didn’t get a picture!

On Wednesday, I was subjected to torture beyond belief. It was enough exercise to last till the London Olympic Games in 2012. This reminds me that I should have an Olympics blog sometime soon! Back to the topic – my group was taken for a tour of the ash dams. Ash dams are one way of disposing of the parts of the coal that haven’t burnt during combustion in the furnaces of the power station. South Africa is unique in that the quality of coal used for power generation is of the lowest calorific value in the entire world. This is why our electricity is so damn cheap in comparison with the rest of the world but it also means the stations take MUCH more strain than any similar station overseas. It also means that around 40% of the coal put into the furnace is not burnt and is left over as ash. This ash is fine like powder and there is 35 tonnes of it coming out of every furnace every hour of every day of the year. And remember, there are six of these per station. So when you have 210 tonnes of waste being produced every hour, it’s something that needs to be sorted out! One option is to sell this ash to cement companies as it makes real good cement but with sheer amount of waste being produced, these companies cannot buy all this ash. The ash dams, hence, are these immense stretches of dull silver that reach out past the horizon. These are a result of a mixture of water and ash being ferried away through pipes away from the station. When we entered the dam area, I was just shocked at the size and beauty of this all. For kilometres on end, one sees this barren beauty with the desert like ambience and quietness. As we walked on, one sees water trickling along this grey matter creating an image of hope even in this desolate wasteland. As we walk further, we approach a large body of turquoise water with a rickety, old wooden pier hastily constructed on one of the shores. The whole ambience has the eerie feel of the chemically polluted Ural Sea in Russia. The turquoise colour, I was told, is a result of chemicals in the coal that are disposed of with the ash. The water, though, is reclaimed and as much as possible is sent back into the plant to help with the removal of new ash from the coal that is being burnt. As with the power plant itself, this cancer on the landscape had a certain beauty attached to it.

I didn’t take my camera so I didn’t get a picture!!

The beauty, though, was replaced with hate and tiredness. Walking around the Ash dams, well – the “small” part that we explored was a 10km trek! This done in overalls, with safety masks and helmets as well as those uncomfortable, heavy and metal-tipped safety boots! Oh, and it was one of those uncharacteristic hot days in August – Damn you global warming! Though there is some irony in that statement *cough*

After having a bit of a rest, I took a road trip that afternoon to the smaller town of Ermelo. The 125km trip would take me on the N4 and then N11. The N4, let me tell you, is to be avoided as the toll road costs R33-00. Seeing that I travelled on it for maybe 5km after the toll, I was not impressed one bit! Then again, I don’t even like paying for parking at shopping centres but anyway! Apparently there is a back road (I suspect the R555) to Middelburg and then from there, one can just join the N11 down to Ermelo. The drive down the N11 is one that strains the mind. It is straight and when I say straight, I mean like on a 100km stretch, there are maybe five gentle curves with the drive through the town of Hendrina the only time when you need to move your steering wheel more than an angle of 5°. The drive is a brilliant drive through the Highveld with it’s brown Winter coat on. You also pass a road to the town called Amsterdam (wonder if they sell any herbs there) and the immense coal fields of Mpumalanga. The grand scale of these minds and the openness of the Highveld boggle the mind and make this seemingly easy drive much more difficult than one would expect. Then again, my mind thinks too much so maybe that’s why I say that! You also pass the immensely enormous Hendrina Power Station – that with ten generating units (as compared to the six each at Duvha and Kendal) and the eight or so cooling towers. I passed the station at dusk and it was a beautiful site – shining light in the cold darkness of the surrounds.

I didn’t take my camera so I didn’t get a picture!!!

So anyway, the moral of the story is that I need to get a camera. It should be a decent one at that seeing that I want pictures that will look good. I was using a Sony digital the other day and although it’s packed with features and really one of the better ones out there, the pictures didn’t come out as good as I wanted them too. Then again, I didn’t modify the settings but just pointed and shot and hoped for the best. I say that they should just write better code so the pictures undergo better processing before the camera decides how to capture them but what do I know? Lol. Getting a camera would help though – at least this blog will get some pictures!