An old-fashioned (free) National Road

MOST PEOPLE from the Western Cape probably find toll roads an anathema.  We only have two throughout the whole province — the Huguenot Tunnel and Chapman’s Peak Drive, and one can understand why both are toll roads (although one wonders how long Chapman’s Peak will remain one, given that it’s been such a disaster).  For the rest, travellers (and tourists) don’t pay tolls to get from A to B.

So I decided to take an old-fashioned (and free) National Road from Mokopane to Pietermaritzburg — the N11.  (The thought of all the traffic around Pretoria for Jacob Zuma’s coronation also discouraged passing through Pretoria.)

The trip started early, in the dark, and it was long after crossing the N1 near Marble Hall (in Mpumalanga Province) that I was already cursing the SA National Roads Agency.  At the first of many stop-go sections, traffic was allowed from both directions onto the single lane — rather frightening, not to mention dangerous, on a road under construction in the dark!

One must wonder why such long sections of road have to be single lane (with little construction work in sight) because it just increases the waiting time at either end.  This alone, with the slow single lane sections, probably added two hours to our total trip time.

Driving past Groblersdal reminded me that the late Hendrik Schoeman, a minister of transport in the 1980′s, had been one of SA’s most successful farmers and farmed around there.  Harold Gorvy, a prominent businessman, and I first met him (and tourism minister, John Wiley) in 1985 after the Pierhead Festival which had demonstrated the public attraction of Cape Town’s derelict docklands.  Both agreed to form an inter-departmental commitee to report on redevelopment of the area.  That committee was headed by Arie Burggraaf and led to the V&A Waterfront!

It’s a fascinating area and, like Tzaneen which I visited a few weeks ago, is one of the few areas in Limpopo I’ve visited that is extensively cultivated.  Most of the towns impressed for their cleanliness and more sense of order than I’d seen in Limpopo — Grobersdal and Middelburg stand out in this respect.

What has really become evident in these travels is the importance of municipalities in making or breaking tourism.  Unfortunately, few have a clue… if they are not one of the 95-or-so local authorities that are technically bankrupt!

Here at the entrance to Mpumalanga, the contrast between cultivated areas and typical bushveld is more apparent. The next surprise was coming across the Loskop Dam.

Loskop Dam is located in a really stunning area, and there are a number of resorts that capitalise on this.

If I think of tourism/leisure developments along the Western Cape’s Garden Route and West Coast, I’m sure it won’t be long before the Loskop Dam area sees a mini-boom.  One hopes that effective environmental and aesthetic controls will be in place before it begins.

Middelburg

Driving south-east from Middelburg, the topography is characterised by more rolling hills and valleys; one has entered the Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal grasslands.

This is part of the South African Grassland Biome, now unique among the grasslands that once used to cover nearly 50% of Africa’s surface. A change in climate around three million years ago allowed trees to encroach into these grasslands and create the savannas we know today.

I couldn’t help wondering what economic benefit the area held — it’s sparsely populated apart from occasional sheep.  Well, montane grasslands and fynbos are effective “collectors” of rain water. The southern montane grasslands of Mpumalanga provide year-round water supply essential for the cooling of power stations.

One out-of-date statistic I came across says that the eight Eskom power stations in Mpumalanga supply 70% of SA’s energy needs.  Over 2,000 km² of the Mpumalanga Highveld is taken up by South Africa’s major gold and coal deposits, much of which are mined in opencast pits.

I must find out about environmental legislation governing the mining companies (and maybe someone can answer it in the comments).  The waste heaps are a blot on the landscape.  The heavy-vehicle traffic on the road also made me think back to the 1980′s, when it was very difficult to get road-haulage licences to favour SA Railways.  Maligned as it was then, it reduced the number of trucks on the roads and the damage they do to road surfaces.  Companies should be forced to use rail transport more often!

Grasslands... and very few people!

Outside Volksrust, the last town in Mpumalanga before entering KwaZulu-Natal, a signpost points to Majuba, immortalised on 27 February 1881 as the main battle of the First Boer War where the Boers crushed the British. Over 280 Britons were killed, captured or wounded against Boer casualties of one dead and five wounded.

The battle is historically significant because it led to the signing of a peace treaty and the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the newly created South African Republic, ending the First Boer War.

The Boers’ fire and move tactic employed by the Boers in the final assault on Majuba Hill was years ahead of its time.

Following defeats at Laing’s Nek and Schuinshoogte, Majuba ratified the strength of the Boers in the minds of the British. “Remember Majuba” became a rallying cry in the second Anglo-Boer War.

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The N11 ends just past Ladysmith where it joins the N3 which links Gauteng to Durban.  Here we joined a toll road for the first time and, yes, it was a pleasant experience!  Wide roads, a dual carriageway with a wide median and spectacular scenery through the Natal Midlands.  But when the upgrading of the N11 is finished, there is little doubt that it will become the route of choice from the north.  It will be a splendid drive through memorable scenery.

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