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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A seven metre diameter butterfly valve

I can’t be kept away from work. I don’t know if that’s a pity or I’m just weird. Then again, it’s not everyday that you get to see a hydroelectric power station in a drought-ridden country. It also awakened that technical side of my brain which has been lying dormant for a few days.

Built along with the dam is the Gariep Power Station. This is one of two major hydro stations in the country and on the Gariep River. There are four micro-hydro stations that do exist in the Eastern Cape – namely Collywobbles, Ncora, First Falls and Second Falls, but these are used for grid-stabilisation and are not under the control of Eskom Generation but rather under Eskom Distribution.

At present, the Gariep Power Station uses four generators rated at 90MW each to produce 360MW of power with the head of around 55m. The generators are presently being refurbished and by next year, this station will be generating 440MW. The Vandekloof generators will still be larger, but there are only two there. This value is impressive when one sees the dimensions of the dam wall. We won’t compare it to the 22000MW of Three Gorges…Getting into the station was pretty easy – well for me at least! With prior arrangement, the staff will happily take you around the station. No photographs are allowed though.

I get to the dam slightly early and attempt to get into the power station. This proves a problem seeing that there are two gated entrances. I’m a bit puzzled but I choose the gate on my right. Actually, I know that this entrance is the wrong one but I take it anyway. I obviously haven’t learnt my lesson after encountering the shooting range a few days earlier. Luckily, I don’t end up in some experimental farm but I do get a great view of the dam wall. Viewing it from a platform hundreds of metres away takes away the beauty of the scale of this wall. Coupled with the colossus of water it holds back, the wall looks pitifully small. That is until you see it up close! This wall is not solid but has a series of tunnels embedded in it. One such tunnel is so huge that there is an annual church service that is held within it. One can arrange tours of such tunnels if one wants.

At around 12h00, I meet a distinguished gentleman named Lucas Van Heerden. He has been working at this plant for many years and stays in the nearby hamlet of Gariep Dam (a town!). The town reminds me of a minor holiday town on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast – albeit, a MUCH more laidback version of it. The station is pretty small and has the dimensions of maybe a single generator-set in a coal-fired station. On the ground level are huge circles painted onto the floor. Underneath each lies a vertically-mounted 90MW beast. The diameter of each is roughly 10m. That’s five of the tallest people you know stacked on top of each other. Pretty huge I tell you…

Taking the stairs down, I encounter the turbine. The hydro plants in South Africa, due to the small size of these plants, are used for peaking power. Simply, this means that when South Africa requires vast amounts of electricity, these stations run. When the load requirements drop, the station is switched off. Hydro stations are built for this purpose because of their very nature – liquid water turns the turbines. Without water, the turbines don’t turn. If these don’t turn, no electricity can be generated. This principle is built into the mechanics of the system so the absence of water does not cause damage to the system. Compare this to a coal-fired station – steam is used to turn the turbines. Steam must be generated by burning coal to heat up water to the required temperature. Water takes a while to heat up hence; coal needs to be burnt for quite a while before optimal conditions are reached. Cooling is then needed to extract the most energy out of this steam. Even with this simplification, one can see that this process is rather complex. Compare this to: Open sluice gate; run water through turbine; make power. One can see that hydro plants are much more suited to the peaking criteria!

As I walk into the room leading to the turbine (the power station was off), I encounter the tailrace pipes that transport the water to the turbine. At this point, Lucas explains to me what I see. When the station is not being used, water must not be let through to the turbine. This is controlled by a valve – a seven metre diameter butterfly valve at that. I look at shocked. I’m in shock and awe and my mouth can’t close because, well, it’s so freaking huge! Lucas sees me and gives the knowing look of, “Ja, I know.” I love being an engineer.

The station also has no control room. All controls of the station are handled via National Control. All alarms are, likewise, sent directly to National Control. If there are any faults, an operator sitting at national control calls up an engineer or technician and the fault is sorted out. Then again, this station maybe gets two alarms per week – something that should trickle through to coal stations. Okay, enough with the words, this is just awesome!

Lucas and I chat for a while about peaking, the new refurbishments of the generators, the new coal-fired stations and the role of renewables and the current financial situation of Eskom and the world in general. We also talk about a pending C&I upgrade to the plant which would render all the employees, which have been working there since the plant was commissioned, useless. The joys of technology…I bid Lucas farewell and leave the station extremely impressed by this great technology.

Hydroelectricity is loved and loathed by various green energy aficionados. The one school of thought sees the damage that dams do when built. Whole ecosystems are wiped out by building a simple dam. The Narmada Valley in India is a prime example (so are all the new dams in China.) The other harps on about the carbon-free energy that we get from this type of power generation. I guess the Gariep is special in this case – the ecosystem around the Gariep is thriving and provides a haven for many endangered species. Then again, most local Nature and Game reserves are built around artificial bodies of water. Without these, most of our flora and fauna would be decimated. Whilst doing this, the station provides the non-industrial electricity needs of several provinces without doing any harm. I wonder if the damage done whilst constructing this dam is offset by the role it’s played in conserving our natural resources…

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.

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…

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…

The Election Brigade: Think Jacob wielding an Axe

So elections are upon us again. Thinking about the glorious year, 1994, means you have to think back 14 whole years. I remember being nine years old and enjoying every minute of the campaigning and going to the polling booth. My parents were both VERY involved with the elections and my mum was actually an officer at a polling booth. She was the first person to vote at that station mind you. I also remember actually being allowed into the polling booth to actually seeing what goes on. I had that whole ink sprayed on my hand (it had quite a nice taste if I remember correctly) and those UV machines were mind-blowing! It would seem that as a nine year old, most of it would have gone over my head but alas, I wasn’t the average nine year old. My knowledge of politics then is probably greater than most peoples’ knowledge today and these people are going to be the ones determining who runs our country! More election stories later – let us go on with what this blog is really about – one PIW (President-In-Waiting) Jacob Zuma.

So much has been said about Mr. Jacob Zuma (Who I’ll refer to as JZ from now on – that will be explained), our apparent heir to the presidential throne of the country. The mere fact that he has been nominated as the preferential candidate for the ANC has caused ripples locally and internationally. Unlike Thabo Mbeki, JZ comes from a completely different background. Yes, he was a hero of the struggle but unlike Mr. Mbeki, he didn’t end up going to university to plonk out a few pieces of paper. Instead of being a diligent student that ate a roti roll every Thursday because the Indian vendor on campus made this delicious beans curry, he instead went to what a t-shirt I have refers to as “The School of Hard Knocks.” He also doesn’t smoke a pipe – well not the European styled one at least! Whereas a proper president like George W Bush has a single wife who he loves and cherishes, he prefers to spread this love around collecting a wife every twelve months or so. He also seems to spread his love hygienically with his use of a shower after any love spreading sessions. He also had a “generally corrupt relationship” with convicted corrupteer Schabir Shaik. He also has a voice that’s better than any of the Idols contestants. Quite a colourful individual don’t you think? Almost as colourful as a guy who is anti-establishment, was once a boxer and even divorced his wife and married the ex-wife of a friend of his – wait, that was another president of ours!

This rainbow of colour has meant that a whole bunch of disgruntled disgrunts have a huge problem with him assuming the throne to rule our glorious land. His lack of moral culture is not what our country needs – we need a president that will have a perfect moral standpoint to guide us through this troubled time where the world’s economy has collapsed and whilst trying to boost the calibre of our country, we need measures that will keep the country from collapsing. Basically, a NEPAD on steroids that will allow South Africa to gain a mythical status of a country that left the Third World and entered the First World in under 20 years. I think somewhere included in these hopes is details on how to build an anti-gravity machine and start a colony on Europa.

So, a man like JZ can’t do this? Why can’t he? Is it because he sings and dances after each speech he makes? Is riling up a crowd not allowed? Does a good president just nod and accept? Or does a good president merely make up a catch-phrase that drives people to sing and dance? Wait…hmmm, that’s not right. It’s quite clear – JZ is a people’s president. Much as Barack Obama has won the hearts of everyone around the in his country, JZ does the same in South Africa. He is a populist and he is there to give the people what they want – wait, not want; need. And he is doing this using techniques used by a lot of successful people – he is selling the JZ brand. Let’s look at the simple abbreviation of his name. Although it has no connotation to the rapper, JZ is catchy and easy on the mouth no matter what your mother tongue maybe. Instead of using his name, he has a nickname – much like so many famous people e.g. Bono. His lifestyle is analogous to so many rich and successful people – so many corporate moguls and royalty lead a hedonistic life filled with pleasure yet they quite successfully are able to run countries and companies that are several times the size of small countries. His entourage is made up of the latest Black BMW’s which is THE car of choice of the hub of Africa – Gauteng. He has his own theme song like a wrestler does and his speeches mesmerise much like a preacher. He is a brand and people like brands – deep down, you want to be like the head of, let’s say a premium-watch brand and have a yacht in Monte Carlo and a llama farm in Peru. You also want the house that you see on MTV Cribs and even deeper down, you would love throwing a party for your 16 year old like the one’s they throw on “My Super Sweet 16.” He’s not going to turn down anything materialistic like Ché Guevara did. So why question the moral fibre of someone who is merely living that dream?

Another issue around JZ is the apparent hunger for power as perpetuated by our national jester, affectionately known as JuJu. Back at the famous ANC National Convention in Polokwane held just over a year ago, Thabo Mbeki was ousted from the leadership. A few months later, he was removed from the presidency. This was hailed by critics as a low-point in our democracy. It’s so unprecedented that your president is removed from office. It’s a disgrace! What was clear was that the ANC took a hard-line on hunger of power and not conforming to what the policy for the country was. Back in 1994, the ANC promised a “Better Life for ALL,” which has turned into a better life some, albeit a rather huge “some” and a life still filled with poverty for others. Post-1994 has brought a life that is magnificent for this “some” – the sheer choice that we as South African’s have is astounding. We have one of the world’s most progressive constitutions. Career wise, we can become whatever we want and excel in it. We have the world’s best cricket and rugby teams. We have access to countless services offered by Europe and America. We can buy the latest and greatest in technology and some of our leading technology companies are consulted with before products are given the green light for the international market. We have been given the freedom to become insanely rich. So rich that members of the South African public are able to buy Aston Martins and make South Africa the third (or is that second) largest market for Aston’s in the world.

However, we also have one of the fastest growing rates of discrepancy between the have and the have-nots. We have an economy that brings such luxury to the high-classes but at the same time means that more and more beggars appear at the robots at your favourite intersections. The economy has built a hugely successful middle-class that can excel and quickly move to the lower rungs of high society but this has not filtered down into the townships on the edges of the city or the rural settlements in Limpopo. I’ve seen with my own eyes the closing down of so many “corner shops” run out by small-to-medium enterprises. Drive to a small town in Mpumalanga and you probably will end up eating at a Nando’s or Mochacho’s chicken outlet. The local shops don’t exist anymore and neither do their suppliers as the contracts for materials provided to these chain stores are coming from another enterprise that’s selling products nationwide and making a huge profit. Although these enterprises provide work, the workers are paid a pittance and the owner is the one that is benefiting the South African dream. And so the knock-on effect goes on – as there are none of the local shops open, people aren’t given a choice of where to buy and they are now forced to buy from a chain store with inflated prices. But this pittance of a salary is nowhere close to allow them to have a decent life. As a result, the person stays in below that poverty line even though life has been made “better.”

What JZ is bringing, with help from the SACP and COSATU, is a hope to the downtrodden people. It’s a way to undo these wrongs brought to these people that weren’t actually brought about apartheid but brought about through measures to better the county. I’m not saying that the policies since 1994 haven’t been good – au contraire, they’ve allowed our country to bloom like nobody could have predicted (not even Eskom!) It’s now time for the country to bring everyone that promised life.

Let me just digress and give you another election story. During the last elections, I was an observer at a polling station near my residence in Durban. A couple walked in along with one of the couple’s parents – an elderly woman. This elderly woman wasn’t really clued up about politics and basically was there to just cast her vote (as a real citizen should) as a way to vary her day. Listening to her being so non-coherent about the ballot and not even knowing what was on the ballot made me think to myself – democracy is a farce. Here I am, with so much more knowledge about making a choice on that ballot paper yet my vote counts exactly the same as hers. That seems like a terrible injustice – placing the fate of our country in the hands of someone that obviously knows nothing about it.

My election story above was what I thought about when coming up with the ideas for this blog. Why democracy works is because it takes into account every soul in this country. Even the elderly lady without any political knowledge is amounted the same rights in this country. She may not be able to comprehend the magnitude of what it is to vote, but she does deserve a life with access to clean water, a pension to survive on and the right to live in a dignified way. What you make of that life beyond that is dependant on you and is helped out by all the favourable laws passed since 1994. However, there are still people who are not living a dignified existence. THAT is what JZ is bringing to the table – a right to a dignified existence. Actually, it’s not JZ, but the ruling party, the ANC. We’ve seen it happen that Mbeki was ousted for not acting in a way that is good for the country so there is no reason that JZ could be ousted if he strays too far from this path (Maybe I’m wrong but I really do hope I am right on this!!!) The ultimate aim here is to have a country where the ALL people are happy. It’s not only the people that shop at Woolworths Food that must be happy. It must encompass those workers from Woolworths Foods, their extended family and the communities of their extended families. The unions are up in arms with news of the countless retrenchments in the resources industry because this is denying people a right to a dignified existence. Yes, big business needs to take whatever measures required to avoid bankruptcy but this MUST be balanced by the cost it has on people. It’s also why the unions are at war with Trevor Manual even though so many businesses love him. The upper classes, classes that sometimes believe that they have rights outstripping those of the lower classes, have been amazingly catered for in the last 15 years and now, it seems it’s time for the lower classes to have their day.

Now, if you remember the beginning of this blog, I detailed how JZ is a rock-star with questionable morality. I can’t agree with him on the moral grounds – it really is impossible for me to do so. But being that rock star that he now is, is so important – he commands the worship of a rock star exactly the way you may idolise a real rock star. He is the rags-to-riches hope that millions of South Africans need to allow them to believe that tomorrow will be a better day. He may be a flawed individual but at the end of the day, he is going to deliver just as you know that your favourite band will deliver when you see them in all their glory on stage whilst doing what they do best.

Day 37: Hi, my name is Fred and I stuff toads

So I start of here as I regularly start off – cursing myself for not blogging earlier! This is especially important seeing that I actually had some real cool things to blog about. Alas, the thoughts have evaporated high into the stratosphere to be maybe found one day by a Russian oke name Johan – you know globalisation nowadays, names aren’t the best way to figure out where somebody is from.

I remember reading something somewhere about this lecturer that invited an old guy to his class one day and made him come to the front of the class and answer any questions fielded by the students. So the students started of asking him the usual stuff that you ask people when you meet them – basically, stuff which just lets you get to know the person on the surface. It’s something people do – never really delve really deep into someone when you first meet them. So after a while, there was that atmosphere of like boredom, well, not boredom, but that feeling you get when you run out of things to ask people and then talking to them starts feeling a bit weird because you seemingly have nothing to talk about! Anyway, then one student asked the dude what made him so special and then the guy told them this really awesome story. I can’t remember what the story exactly was but after that question broke the ice, the students were engrossed with the guy’s stories and they ended up talking to him for a few hours.

Something similar happened to me today with this guy I met. He basically had been with us for two full days taking us for Presentation Skills and, well, I knew that he appeared to be a good oke who, course-wise, was actually a real good facilitator even though the method he used would make you think he wasn’t! Just on that, basically, for the whole first day, he basically briefed us on certain skills and then left us for an hour, then told us some more stuff. This went on for the whole day and, because my presentation was done already, didn’t really feel right to me! Well, on the next day, when I did the presentation, everything came together and by the end of the day, I was seriously impressed. I need think and put my finger down on this style of teaching though!

Anyway, at the end of the second day, which was the end of the course, I asked him a few questions and it just brought this depth that I wanted to explore more and more and more! He is a writer by profession, per se, as he has a book that will be released soon and he also plays music – I think he does gig doing blues and jazz type music. He actually is in the process of self-teaching himself the saxophone. The saxophone is a pretty difficult instrument to actually play mind you! His son also plays in a relatively new, but pretty successful Metal band.

There is a little theory I have which I apply especially to Durban. In Durban, it seems that everybody there is a stoner. People from all walks of life; colour, creed, economic stature, social stature – people in every sector of life smoke! Getting hold of weed is easier than shopping for bread at Spar. It’s absolutely everywhere and is probably the reason why a lot of people don’t go hungry at night – they have a little business selling weed! Also, the types available are endless as you can pick and choose the potency and price that you want and you will get some weed of that price somewhere! BUT, the thing with this is that if you don’t know where to get weed from or if you don’t smoke because you were never exposed to it, you WILL be completely oblivious to this! You could live your entire life not meeting a single smoker or even a dealer. You would believe that weed, as a drug, is not a problem at all.

I’m sure everyone remembers the movie, “Fight Club,” with its underground culture of bare-fist fighting to satiate the needs of some people. I’m sure you remember Guy Ritchie’s, “Snatch,” with the unregulated boxing matches run by prominent underworld figures who accept bets on matches that are thrown. Well, take these two movies, remove all the niceties like gloves, medical care, and staying alive and you won’t get anywhere close to what is, apparently, rife in the underworld of South Africa. What actually is happening is that there are these Fight Clubs run by the underworld guys where they get people to fight to the death and there is a whole gambling system attached to this. Also, there apparently are a lot of young children who are pulled into this and they are made to fight opponents that they could never match up to. And, as I said before, these fights are to the death. The scary thing is that this is happening in the world and, if you are reading this from a city in South Africa, it’s happening less than 50km away from where you are presently sitting. There is a movie that’s in the pipeline that will expose this but, well; it will only come out by next year. Imagine how many people are going to lose their lives by then. It’s quite mind-boggling to really believe that the type and nature of parallel lives people in this country actually lead. Then again, look at that kid who did some sword-wielding whilst wearing his Slipknot mask and ended up killing some innocent guy. I’ll go into at some other point in time. Anyway, I met another dude that was involved with this. Scary huh!

Anyway, the whole amazing thing was that I got exposed to something in the world that I would never had known about if it not had been for asking this guy what he’ll be doing after the course. And this too was provoked by him saying that he won’t be doing this course with subsequent students for the next month because of commitments with his publishing firm. And without that, I would have not found out about the guy involved in the film. The untapped knowledge out there is so vast yet we, as people, haven’t fully tapped into it. The other thing is, how do you actually find out if someone actually has stuff of value to impart onto you? You can’t really go up to some person waiting for their burger at KFC and start a conversation with them with the line, “So what make’s you so interesting?” I guess that blogging by people in the know helps and my new found favourite toy, StumbleUpon which has completely altered my life even though I’ve been using it for a week! Just bookmark your site and someone will surely find it and maybe, just maybe, it will help them in their lives in some way.

Day 19: Procrastination

The one certainty about this course was procrastination. It has actually been such an awesome week that has gone pass but each day, I keep on procrastinating and saying that I will start my project tomorrow or I’ll update the blog tomorrow.

Well, first things first, this blog won’t cover the whole week but I will (hopefully) get back to that in time! This week started on Tuesday actually – the weekend, which extended to Monday was brilliantly spent around 700km away in Durban. So that meant that on Tuesday morning, at 5am mind you, I had to trek from my place in Johannesburg to Witbank. Leaving at 5am wasn’t too bad especially since there was no mist and I encountered one of the most beautiful sites – the sunrise over the Highveld. It’s nothing compared to those beautiful sunrises one sees in Durban, where the sun slowly peaks over the ocean on the horizon and within an hour, it blazes and warms the souls of Durbanites. On the Highveld, well, the sun peeks over the, um, veld! The stunning red crept over the hills in the distance and bathed the barren landscape in a weak shade of yellow. It’s as if the sun wasn’t trying that hard to make any real impression on the Earth. It was beautiful though!

Driving in the dark, though, has a major problem – you can’t see pedestrians. And when you are travelling at 120kph and some random guy wearing impressively dark clothing takes a casual stroll across the freeway ten minutes before 6am, it’s something that makes you go “WTF!!!” I was lucky that this brave soul had comfortably crossed the freeway and was a good metre away from my car as I passed. You never know what you would do in a situation where you hit someone who is crossing the freeway. And the scary thing that I thought about was that with life as it is nowadays, the one n problem that people will consider is the time you lose on your travel schedule. I had to be at Duvha Power Station before 7am and if I had hit the guy, I would have never made it there in time. So the choice would have been stop, see what happened and help the guy or just drive on. It’s scary that the second option is an option that really could be taken!

The day was interesting with a walk down of some auxiliary systems of Duvha Power Station. This included the Precipitators and Water Cooling Plant. It’s amazing how much water is actually used at a power station. And when you look at the clouds coming out of the cooling towers, it just amazes you about the huge scale that power generation exists upon. There will be more about this later in another blog.

These three weeks have exposed me to something that I can’t make sense of just yet. Apparently, a South African peculiarity is that people of especially White and Black origin eat meat at every meal! A meal is almost not considered a meal if there is no meat present. And this meat is properly prepared steaks, chops and chicken – it seems the fish are lucky as they aren’t considered a proper meat! I was in Ermelo yesterday and at the Spur, where I had supper, I ordered the Enchilada and the waiter asked me if I’d like Beef or Chicken in it. When I said I want vegetables (because I’m vegetarian) it didn’t register as a proper choice. It appeared as if he was pre-programmed to either bring Enchilada meals that have Beef or Chicken in them and anything else is just wrong and the world might explode. Similarly with my sister, who was also somewhere in the bundus like me (Zeerust in the North-West to be precise) relayed a similar story. She is also vegetarian and she was forced to eat meat because the chefs didn’t cook the vegetables in a way that would constitute a meal. The vegetables were just boiled and were meant as an accompaniment to the meat. The meat that they did cook was almost gourmet – perfectly cooked steaks, roasted lamb, grilled chicken and the like. And, people ate this at every meal! Anyway, when I was a meat eater, I think I ate meat a maximum of four times a week. This is not because I fasted but because eating that much meat was not necessary. There are countless vegetable dishes that provide a more than adequate meal. Eating meat 21 times a week (yes, even at breakfast) just doesn’t register in my mind. Yet, I have witnessed people eating meat for all three meals in a day and they do complain if there is no meat!

The interesting thing about this is that it does show that the prices we pay in South Africa are really low. People from all socio-economic classes eat meat everyday which does give an indication that meat is readily available at a reasonably affordable price. When I discussed this issue with some people, they did point out that meat overseas does have a high premium attached to it and this means you can’t cook meat at every meal. This forces you to search for an alternate and, as a result, this helps in health terms. This whole meat issue does explain the size of some people I’m guessing. Then again, I’m not a doctor so I won’t factualise that link! But anyway, this has made me think of the state of things in South Africa and the world as a whole. Globalisation has meant that everything around the world is slowly settling towards a common price. Whether you buy an item in Hungary or in South Africa, because of global competition (and price-fixing!) you will pay around the same amount. And that is what is happening in several sectors. Coal, for example, is needed around the world for energy use and because South Africa has so much, they can supply everyone! This means that to buy coal in South Africa, you will need to pay a higher amount than before because there is a market outside the borders that is willing to pay a higher price than the historical price that a local paid. At some point, there will be equilibrium as such – the local price will compete against the international price so the miners will be happy selling their coal to either market. I hope that makes sense!

Now, how does this tie in with the meat? Quite simply, South Africa has historically had cheap meat. Maybe it was the self sufficiency of the Apartheid government that put us in this situation but because we were forced to have enough livestock to sustain the country, it was possible for meat to be sold cheaply as it was abundant. Cheap meat means you eat meat – and lots of it! So your culture is grown around providing meat to eat at every meal. As a child, you grow up expecting meat and not having meat means the meal is severely deficient. Now, taking the coal example of above – I hope you can see where this is going? The globalisation is going to drive food prices higher and now, people won’t be able to afford “eating” (i.e. eat meat!) and hence, they go on strike! They couple this with a grievance against the high electricity prices which is directly related to coal and what do you get – a nationwide strike which we had this week!

All in all, this means that the global energy crisis is caused by the smugness that South African’s have of eating meat at all meals! Wow, who would have thought that!