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…

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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.

Straight roads, more straight roads and the disappearance of Tortoise

I was at the Toy Shop in Woodmead a few months ago. I had just got an email at work instructing me that I will be put on forced leave for 15 days in June. Yes, that is indeed more leave than some companies give their employees per year. I hadn’t taken these days off and, as with the laws with all government and parastatals, one MUST take a certain amount of leave within a certain period otherwise the employer can be blamed for not allowing their employees adequate breaks. Most companies just pay their employees off – I think this system does work better as it means you don’t suffer from work burnout. Anyway, back to the point; whilst in the pursuit for a box of assorted Lego, an amazing thought lit up in my cranium – use those two weeks for a roadtrip around this beautiful land of ours, better known as Msanzi but also known as South Africa.

Two months or so of planning culminated with me departing Jozi and seeking my fortune in towns not founded on Gold. The planning was top secret with a select few (i.e. people I needed help from or people I wanted to come along…and a few extras :)) basically so I didn’t have to explain to people what and why and how and with who and all those really buggy questions that didn’t need answering because, frankly, I wasn’t sure myself. The intent behind a roadtrip of this nature was solitude, peace, relaxation and appreciation by the sites that the country offers. Two weeks of no internet and devoid of contact via cell phone. I had an itinerary planned but, well, let’s just say that is out the window and I don’t know what my next move is until I make it. It’s scary, yet great.

Leaving Jozi was easy. A brown haze bathed the city in a noxious mix of the wonderful flavours being spewed out all from over the Vaal Triangle. Crosby, Stills and Nash accompany me as I headed due south towards the industrial town of Sasolburg on the R59. This town was built upon the exploits of coal – this time, to produce oil for automobiles and the like, from coal. This plant is one of the biggest contributors to the pungent smells that sometimes engulf Gauteng. The plant was producing so much that I couldn’t even see Lethabo Power Station which usually is visible from at least 30km away. It is an impressive site though showcasing the ingenuity and drive that South African engineers had in the past and still have today. The plant itself looks like a city and due to the low oil prices of yesteryear, after the units at Secunda were built, it was said that such a large undertaking would never be viable for Sasol to undertake in the future. Low and behold, Sasol wants to compete with Eskom for the precious yet abundant coal of the Waterberg and a new plant is to be built up North near Lephalale. I do hope they put in some equipment to keep the air clean…

I continued along the R59 to the hamlet of Parys. I have visited this quaint little town before and had a party of note. This time, I see it in a sober state – it’s just so pretty. It really is a good looking town with everything that you want (well, there is no Louis Vuitton store but c’mon, this is the Platte land!) is neatly available around the corner. I soldier on towards Vredefort (I didn’t see any dome or crater). The road was superb – the section between Parys and the R501 turn-off to Potchestroom had not a single pothole and made for fun driving. I soldier towards Viljoenskroon and the nothingness that characterises the Free State Platte land. It boggled my mind – look left and you see a featureless, flat landscape. Look right, it’s the same! It is, however, perfect for growing crops – the silos in the Free State are of a size unimaginable.

Viljoenskroon provided a welcome stop for me. I struggled to actually find a food store in the town. After a drive through the entire town (which took me two or so minutes), I happened upon the Total Service Station (which had Excel petrol) and the garage shop which sold a variety of food. And by food, I mean meat – even the Margherita pizza had meat. I found a Vegetarian option. Free Staters aren’t renowned for the pizza making abilities. It filled me at least.

The R59 can be thought of as a service road. If you are going towards the major centres (like Kimberley and Bloemfontein), it is advisable to take the N1 or N12 – the other roads are farmer’s roads. It cuts through the farmland and offers farmers a route to transport their wares to the required destination. As a result, weird sites do occur such as two tractor drivers driving side-by-side, even though the road is a single-carriage way in each direction, so the drivers can have a nice chat. I waited a few minutes for them to talk their stories before I got past! Just before that, I encountered a van transporting maybe 20 old geysers. Now we know where old geysers go to die…

My intended route from Viljoenskroon onwards was at Hoopstad, join the R34 and go towards Bloemhof, the Bloemhof Dam and the N12. Just before Hoopstad, I turned right onto the R34. Throughout my journey, I was travelling West and the sun happily stayed on my right. Turning onto the R34 meant the sun would be glaring down at me head on. The road glistened from the years of dripped oil – this oil is the type that’s embedded in the surface and poses no slippery road threat. It does shine A LOT though! As I accustom my eyes to this new sensation, a very chilled out brown cow decides it’s time to cross the road. As I’m travelling at 120kph, this cow becomes rather big rather quickly. I swerve right and miss the cow by, well, very little. My car is top heavy and starts snaking. I swerve back left to correct the car then back right and then left again. Very lucky to be carrying the extra weight from my luggage, the car corrects and I am thanking God for keeping me safe! The cow merrily walks across the road. I pull into Hoopstad to regain my composure.

The town has a really nice cathedral and some Indian people. Actually, all these Free State towns now have Indians!

The cow experience was an important one: Be vigilant. One can go for countless Advanced Driver courses but unless you implement this, you will always be in danger. Watch the road and look out for anything that is suspicious and look for escape roads always. Your life is on the line and I think it’s best if you do take care.

The cow was a product of the township adjoining Hoopstad. Travelling the country, one notices the set form of every town in South Africa – a previously advantaged White town (with all the tourist features) with a township next to it. In most cases, the township is bigger than the actual town lets not tell anyone that. Hypothetically, if a new town springs up in South Africa, I wonder what the layout would be. This layout has worked – provide the town with a readily-available labour force. Yes it has worked but It also has brought immense poverty, hardship and terrible living conditions to millions but lets not mention that either. I doubt any chartered accountant in this new hypothetical town would want to live next door to a domestic servant though…

The R34 tested my alertness as it is a severely potholed road. At the end of it is a reward in the form of the Bloemhof Dam – an exquisite body of water in the middle of dry and drab Platte land. This, unfortunately, is where Tortoise, my companion who is a tiger, decided to leave us. He liked the place way too much. I’m going to be a terrible dad!

Joining the N12, I entered Bloemhof where I intended to stop but it was devoid of any substance that would warrant a stop. Not stopping was a pretty bad choice in the end as the road between Bloemhof and Warrenton is severely under construction. Christiana was my next stop with very little light remaining. I have heard this town is highly visitable but the dying of the light meant I had to rush. Although, I witnessed a wonderful sunset – the first of many I presume over the Platte land.

The drive between Warrenton and Kimberley is, well, it was night so I’ll just say “appeared” rather, to be a gentle downhill seemingly reaching the nadir in the centre of the Big Hole! Around 50km before Kimberley, one is greeting by the city lights of this town – stretching kilometres in each direction. It gave me that feeling when you drive down at night on the N2 from Umhlanga towards Durban.

The size of the town judging by those lights was pretty misleading as when I reach there, I’m picked up by Kershen who leads me to his place. When we get there, he tells me that we just drove across town in five minutes. Oh well, it is dark though. I will explore more in the morning. Tonight I shall be taken to The Halfway House Hotel, better known as “The Half”. Since 1872, it has provided an oasis for thirsty travellers making their way between Cape Town and Jozi. Pretty appropriate – Here’s to inebriation…

Day 8: Is that a Power Station or are you just happy to see me?

Driving down the N12 is quite an experience. It’s actually a really boring freeway with not a lot going for it. It’s not like the Karoo stretch of the N1 or the Free State stretch of the N3 which is surrounded by pure nothing – this is just an arbitrary freeway that passes some really random looking farms as you drive further and further into the East which sucks you in with its mist. Moreover, today I drove the route at 120kph whilst only using the white line on the right hand side of the road as navigation. The Eastbound drive is marred by the rising winter sun and you really can’t see anything that is more than 50m in front of your car. Nevertheless, I don’t think my speedometer dropped below 120kph! However, there is one feature that actually awestruck me today.

After travelling 70km or so past the OR Tambo Airport, one approaches a slight incline which peaks out and results in an amazing site. No, it has nothing to do with an endless green landscape or mountains like those pictures taken in the States as you approach the Rocky Mountains. It’s a manmade monstrosity known as Kendal Power Station. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the world and holder of countless records. As you reach the peak of the incline, in the distance, the six cooling towers and the two smoke stacks engulf the landscape. You are around 50km away from the station but its grandeur just stares back at you. Maybe it’s because of my career in the Power Utility industry but these stations do amaze me. The sheer scale of it all is mind-boggling and moreover, as we have realised in the last few months, its operation is vital to the well-being of humanity. Without electricity, we are just cave men!

I’ll try getting some pictures of it and posting then but hey, next time you drive the N12, keep this in mind and draw your own conclusion.