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Jo'Burg Days: A Trip To Katse Dam

…The Highveld scenery is wide and spacious; with golden grasslands and scattered outcrops of suikerbossie [Transvaal Protea], small wattle and gum plantations and then the blue expanse of Loch Vaal with its attractive sail boats…

Barbara Durlacher journeys to see the Katse dam, one of the biggest civil engineering projects in the Southern Hemisphere.

It takes approximately five hours by coach from Johannesburg to Fouriesburg where the tour group stays during the four nights they explore the area. The Highveld scenery is wide and spacious; with golden grasslands and scattered outcrops of suikerbossie [Transvaal Protea], small wattle and gum plantations and then the blue expanse of Loch Vaal with its attractive sail boats. But as we approach the ‘Maize Triangle” of the Eastern Free State, enormous stretches of cultivation appear. Maize, or mielies, cover the land which in a good year can grow above head-height and bears two to three cobs of delicious crisp corn niblets, and latterly, hectare upon hectare of equally tall golden sunflowers, bright petals shining in the fierce light, all packed with healthy, oil-bearing seeds. In these heavily cultivated areas, the alien space-ship-shaped grain silos dominate the horizon, their bulbous granaries served by a small wandering railway line, a couple of abandoned red-brick station houses, and great flocks of birds gobbling up the spilt grain and seeds.

A welcome coffee break at Heilbron and then around 3pm we pull into the thriving town of Bethlehem. This is a familiar name to South Africans, as, in the unlikely possibility that you have never passed through the town on your way to Natal or the Drakensberg, it is frequently mentioned in the weather reports. Lying between the Maluti and Drakensberg ranges, winter temperatures in this small town are lower than anywhere else in the country, and evoke amazement at how cold it can be in these parts.

Here hostess Marti Craig joined the bus while her husband Clive took passengers to the local offices to organise day visas. Passports are mandatory for the trip into Lesotho, so for those whose passports out of date, it was necessary to get day visas. Arriving at the charming Fouriesburg Country Inn owned by the Craigs, we soon settled into our comfortable rooms, and later enjoyed a visit to a local camping spot to view the rock formations and enjoy the cold clear air and stretch our legs.

We assembled later in the bar for a drink followed by an excellent three-course dinner. After the meal, a retired Civil Engineer from the nearby village of Clarens with an engineer’s interest in one of the biggest Civil Engineering projects in the Southern Hemisphere gave us an excellent slide talk on the construction of the Katse Dam. Despite the group’s exhaustion and their desire for an early night, he managed to hold our attention long enough to impress upon us just what a vast undertaking the dam had been. His interested audience asked him many questions and he spent some time answering them, all with the greatest courtesy.

Thanks to his extensive knowledge, he brought the forthcoming visit to the dam alive, and without a doubt everyone enjoyed and appreciated the enormity of the achievement more after gaining such a detailed insight into the construction. Many of the technical difficulties were explained through his excellent collection of slides, and the dam’s size and importance soon became apparent. The body of water held back by the enormous wall was emphasised by his many references to it being a “BIG dam,” and the following day, we understood what he meant.

Early autumn mornings in the Eastern Free State are dark and cold, and it was a rather subdued bunch of people who huddled in the bus at 5am for the trip to Katse Dam. But within 10 kilometres we were at the Caledonspoort border post, and thanks to Clive’s preparations the previous afternoon, we cleared passport control with minimum delay.

Before long we started the climb up to the summit, and there was plenty to see on the way. Terraced fields with a thin covering of soil stepped precariously down the steep hillsides, exhaustedly cradling their impoverished crops of wheat or barley. Here and there, clusters of stonewalled thatched huts grouped together in sociable huddles, the smoke from their early morning fires drifting thinly into the still, cold air. Early risers wrapped in colourful blankets clumped around in gumboots, seeking a sheltered corner while they waited for the pot to boil and the early morning porridge.

The sandstone mountains of the Maluti range are beautiful, with colours ranging from warm terracotta through buttercup to palest cream, but entering Lesotho the character of the country changes. Here we were climbing the Drakensberg massif, the uKhahlamba or ‘Barrier of Spears’ and the mountains are of a very different character. Dark and brooding, these granite and basalt peaks tower to a height of 10 000, and are known as the Black Mountains, or Mantsonyane. And still we climbed higher, always following the west-flowing streams which eventually lead to the steep valley where the dam is situated. Finally we breasted the crest and saw the mountain chain dropping away at the watershed. Stopped at the viewpoint, the sign said “Mafika Lisiu Pass. Elevation 3090 metres” (nearly 10 000 feet for those who still think Imperial) and we climbed out to enjoy the view. Looking back the way we had come, we could see the road spiralling down the hillside, curve after curve away into the hazy distance; hardly more than 20 metres on the straight before another bend came into sight.

Admiring the view, we marvelled at the yard-long icicles hanging off the cliff face, and the sugar-dusting of snow on the higher peaks, and shivered inside our thick insulation as the biting wind whipped around our noses and scribbled at our ears with icy fingers. Later I asked about the gradient on the 11 kilometre stretch from the police control post to the summit, and was told that it’s around 1:40 (1:45 is the steepest a non-four wheel drive vehicle can manage). So this pass is a real engineering wonder. A top award was given to the builders for constructing the horseshoe curve near the top where the supporting wall had literally to be built out into space. Heaven knows how it was done, as looking back on the way down, it’s amazing to see it cantilevering away from the mountain. It’s easy to see the reason for the award.

Arriving at the dam we were overawed by the sheer size of the undertaking. The enormous face of the wall, [equivalent to the height of a seven storied building] rises up from the valley bottom, and holds back the water for 20-30 kilometres. The waters of the dam are not the shallow circular expanse we had expected, but a narrow winding ribbon of extremely deep water, ideal for a storage dam. With a smaller surface area, there is very little evaporation.

The detailed information given by Mike the previous night began to fall into place, and his descriptions of the enormous construction difficulties came clear. Five years in the building, working around the clock every day of the year; a concrete truck carrying 30 tons of dry bulk cement traversed the pass every 20 minutes, night and day. It was necessary to keep the raw materials coming. During the winter when snow blocked the roads, the snowploughs worked overtime, keeping access routes clear in appalling conditions. The back-up operation necessary to keep the construction on track was a logistical nightmare, and it’s a credit to the contractors that there were so few fatalities, and that they completed the job on-budget and within the specified date.

Heavy-duty truck drivers were recruited locally; some had previous experience from working on the Rand gold mines, others were untrained. A driver-training school and huge repair sheds were established at Ficksburg; all material was railed there and then transported up the pass to Katse. To amateurs like us, it was difficult to conceive the sheer magnitude of the job, but as we began to appreciate the extent of the undertaking, we wondered what the eventual cost must have been.

To give some idea of the transport fleet necessary to meet these challenging logistics, at the end of the construction period, the auction sale disposing of the trucks and associated materials took three years. This gives some idea of the enormous back-up operation necessary to create a dam which is recognised as being one of the three biggest concrete-walled constructions in the southern hemisphere.

A quick stop at the Katse Lodge, and then back to the bus heading for the dam wall. Here we were met by one of the very informative black guides. As we walked the passages inside the wall, she explained the technical aspects of the workings and showed us the enormous turbines, the computerised detection and safety systems, and the operation of the pump/storage scheme.

After lunch at the lodge, we started the return journey, accomplished with much companionable chatter, which gradually faded into silence as sleep overtook us. We revived on our arrival back in Fouriesburg at 6:30pm. Wonderful new impressions and much to see; including brief glimpses of a mountain existence and a culture very different from our own. Life in these high windswept uplands requires fortitude, strength and a very hardy constitution.

The next day we visited the Ash River outfall, where we saw the water emerging from the tunnel. As we now knew, this starts at the intake tower back at the Katse Dam, and flows by gravity 80 kms through the mountains to burst into the sunlight at this channelled millrace. The water falls into the small Ash River and from there it gravitates to the Vaal Dam. Eighty cusecs/hr, 24-hrs/day, 365 days a year – it’s a very impressive to see this pristine, icy water rushing out of the tunnel, and to know that without this fine engineering achievement, Johannesburg, the economic heart of South Africa, and it’s huge commercial and residential satellite towns would have run out of water years ago.

Even more impressive is the following inscription.

“Delivery Tunnel North.
The most outstanding Civil Engineering Achievement
in the International Category in 1998.
Awarded by The South African Institute of Civil Engineers.

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