This story is a translation of an article that was originally published in South Africa on 28 July 2013 in the weekly magazine “My Tyd” (Eng: My Time), a supplement to the Afrikaans language Sunday Newspaper “Rapport”. The original text is by Johan Bakkes, translated to English by Juanita du Toit and edited by Jackie Viljoen. We thank Rapport for the permission to translate and publish this article online.
The original article can be viewed at http://www.rapport.co.za/MyTyd/Nuus/Tussen-hier-Mier-20130725 and the photo gallery is at http://www.rapport.co.za/Galleries/Image/Fotos/Suid-Afrika/Tussen%20hier%20en%20Mier
Hakskeenpan in the Northern Cape is part of Mierland. It is flat, long and wide. It is the perfect place to set up land speed records. Johan Bakkes went to look and talked to the people.
The email read: “How would you like to do a bit of a story with a few photographs about this place and this ‘project’? Is this just a flash in the pan which will be forgotten after the event? We hear that the local community is cleaning up the place pebble by pebble.”
I have two immediate problems. Firstly, I am not a petrol head or a speed freak. The fastest I have ever gone in my truck is about 130 km/h on the long, straight road between Brandvlei and Kenhardt. Simply because the shrubs there are not even knee-high and so offer no hiding place for a traffic cop. Secondly, I am no longer writing …
But then again, the Kalahari is the most beautiful part of our country and a young chap is seriously wooing my photographer daughter. This may be the last chance for dad and daughter to bond.
And so we head for the Kalahari. Whether I can or cannot write …
What is happening in Mier? What does the local community think? Are they having coffee mugs printed and pillow cases embroidered in the meantime? Is the place readying itself for a Big Event? Or is this only a mirage on a saltpan?
Sir Malcolm Campbell, Verneukpan and the Blue Bird are synonymous with speed records. That is, at least here in South Africa – you can ask the old folks. That is why Cara and I first stop at the Grootvloer-en-pan-area near Brandvlei in Boesmanland.
Kola Zandberg tells the story. “Our farm was right next to Verneukpan. My mom used to say that it was like a fair when Campbell came to race on the pan. There were tents and huge campfires and even a gramophone for music. People came from Brandvlei and Kenhardt and put up stalls to sell all kinds of stuff. At the time Campbell aimed to break the then world record of 231,36 miles per hour.”
Verneukpan is rough, desolate and eight farm gates far. And in Boesmanland a farm gate is very far. The pan is flatter than flat, 57 km long and 11 km wide. It is that every-five-minutes-nothing-happens-and-then-it-lasts-for-half-an-hour kind of desolation.
In my mind’s eye I can still see how Johan Jacobs disintegrates in his “The Edge” jet car in 2006 on Verneukpan. He was a fighter pilot and South Africa’s speed champion. Not much remains of the car or the driver if the driver loses control at 500 km/h. And his daughter was only five years old …
I am delighted by my daughter’s professionalism with her camera. I become philosophical. How quickly life flits past? How brief is that togetherness with a daughter before some other hero replaces you?
The people from Kenhardt do not even know where Hakskeenpan is. At least, that is what the young girl in the coffee shop says. But then again, she comes from Upington.
I have a chat with Oom Pieta Baard. He is the factotum and general supervisor at the Eiland resort in Upington. Like me, he is somewhat sceptical about all these goings-on at Hakskeenpan. “But if you do not test something, you will never know whether it will work”, is as much as I can get from him. I like Oom Pieta, an ex-army man.
From Nuchey van Neel (born as Illanuschka Jansen), a tourism consultant for the Northern Cape government, I learn that this entire region is speed mad. Do I know about the Kalahari Speed Week at Hakskeenpan or the All Tar event at the Upington airport?
I realise that Andy Green and his Bloodhound SSC (Supersonic Car) is but the tip of a huge iceberg in this scorching Northern Cape.
“Why do people around here drive so fast?” I asked Willem Engelbrecht, the municipal manager of Upington.
“We have vast distances. We go to get to the other end. It is not for nothing that we say ‘we are just quickly going to Pofadder’”. Pofadder is 300 km. Willem knows. He comes from Steinkopf. It is a long way to Steinkopf.
Runway number 17/35 at Upington airport is hellishly long. In fact, it is the fifth longest runway in the world. Gwen Wessels says the runway is 4 900 m long, with another 1 100 m if one adds on the stop way. Gwen, Cara and I drive down the runway in the fire engine.
The runway was built in the apartheid era when fully-laden Boeings could not refuel anywhere in Africa. Currently this runway is the landing site in the Southern hemisphere for all NASA space aircraft. A million tonnes of table grapes is exported from here annually. While Cara is documenting this long strip of tarmac, I realise that Jan Els, the organiser of these speed freak get-togethers, has vision.
We point the truck northwards, towards Askam and the Kalahari Gemsbok Park (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park). The one guy who knows what is going on in the Northern Cape is Jeán Lambrechts. Jeán owns Molopo and a number of other resorts. He tells me by telephone that I should contact his son, Reinhardt, at Molopo.
It is 200 km through Kalahari dunes. My soul drinks the scenery. Cara is driving. I am watching her out of the corners of my eyes. I can see her happiness. This is the country of her heart.
Askam is grey with dust in the middle of the day. I forgot that everything is closed between one and two in the countryside, as it should be. One should not rush through the countryside, or at least that is what I believe.
However, Cilia and André du Toit do offer us coffee at Cilia’s Diamond T Coffee Shop. And here is the first sign of the Bloodhound and the prospective attempt at Hakskeenpan, which is about 80 km to the west. It is a red toy car, with wheels from a washing machine, for sale. I buy it on the spot.
“And what are you guys saying about this whole drama?” I ask the Du Toits.
“We are very excited. Our community is poor. We have few job opportunities. Anything that will bring people here will benefit us. But we do not know when this will happen.”
“And what about Jan Els’ speed week?” I ask.
“Yah, that was something. That drew some 4000 people. And there is another one this coming September.”
Next thing we are at Hakskeenpan. We are looking at a completely flat landscape 20 km long and 1,1 km wide. This is right here where Flight Commander Green, sometime in 2014 or 2015, intends to challenge the land speed record of one thousand miles per hour.
That is damned fast – faster than the bullet out of a Magnum .357. It is four and a half rugby fields in one second. And then he still has to stop. It makes my stomach turn. If something goes wrong … (I wonder whether he has a daughter.)
This is the reason why the people of Mierland picked up each pebble on the “track” by hand. As much as 6 000 tonnes of it. I calculate that it is 20 tonnes each in temperatures from -6 °C to 48 °C. It is obvious that they want this car here.
Mierland consists of five dusty, desolate settlements – or at least that is how I remember it from a previous vist. Groot Mier, Klein Mier, Loubron, Philandersbron and the slightly larger Rietfontein, just before the border post with Namibia. The people who live here are poor, their pride is tempered by the fierceness of the desert.
“We want this project to have a positive influence on the lives of the people of Mier,” says Drinie Samson of Northern Cape Tourism. The small wooden toy car goes “glug-glug” over Hakskeenpan.
The last time I was here was five years ago. Rietfontein is remarkably neat. Somebody did a painting job here. Everything is clean and sprightly. A new and less dejected wind whirls through the town. We stop at the Kalahari Tent Camp of Oom Hendrik and Tant Gertruida Bott, just outside the town. Everything is beautifully neat and at Reception is a huge poster of the Bloodhound.
Oom Hendrik and Tant Gertruida are both crack Kalahari chefs. They cater for a crowd of micro-light pilots who come for a bundu-bash at Koppieskraal and Inkbospan. What next? We are going to look for them.
Everywhere you look it is just aeroplanes, Bedouin tents and huge cooking fires. Before I can stop him Flight Sergeant Kevin Burden takes Cara and there they go so that she can see Hakskeenpan from the air.
While we wait around the fire Oom Hendrik tells the story.
“We have big plans with all this stuff. But it must not be just a flash in the pan. We want to create something that is sustainable.”
“You go and chat to Jeán Lambrechts and Jan Els.”
“Yes,” agree Deon Noubitsen and Oom Jan van der Westhuizen of the Khomani-San. “It must not be only a moment of fascination. We have had too many short-lived projects and when it is over, we have nothing.”
One cannot come here without visiting the Gemsbokpark (Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park).
“What an experience,” I say to Cara when we lie in our sleeping bags and watch the heavens. “How do you feel about everything that is going on here in the North West? You also love this place and its people?” I am asking her.
“I am not sure that this area can support so many people in one go. What about the ecological impact? But I believe that the Northern Cape should also get its moment of glory.”
Somewhere we hear a jackal howl.
Our last stop is a lovely breakfast with Jeán Lambrechts and his daughter at the Silver Spoon Bistro in Upington.
“There are big things happening in the Northern Cape,” he says while we nibble at the gorgeous springbok pie.
“This is an unforgiving place. Business opportunities flash by as fast as that car. You must keep your eyes peeled and when you see an opportunity you had better grab it.”
Jeán tells of the “Home stay” project whereby the people of Mier will open their homes to visitors. Jan Els and his Speed Week team are busy with water supplies, pipelines and boreholes. There is a go-cart project for children. The Bloodhound project is fostering maths and science in South African schools.
While we drive back through the Grootvloer of Boesmanland I realise that there are big things happening in the Northern Cape and it does not have to be short lived.
I will always have this time that I spent with my daughter. Hakskeenpan will be immortalised, just like Verneukpan before it.
If anybody reads this, it means that I did begin to write again. Writing is timeless.
I push the truck to 140 km/h on that long, straight road between Brandvlei and Kenhart.