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 38: Where tractors and vetkoek collide

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

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

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 It made sense to close down the plants that were using outdated technology and instead, use the larger plants that generated much more electricity at higher efficiencies.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m guessing this was jumping!

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

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

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

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

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

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!