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Diamonds And Dust: 69 - The Bridge

...Now one day around 1973 or so there arrives about a dozen big new shiny Caterpillar dump trucks. These are brand new state of the art trucks to replace some of the aging off-road trucks and haulers that are on the mine. They are massive. The tyres are something like 8 ft tall and the truck empty weight is 50 tonnes with a payload of about 50 or 60 tonnes. Standing 4 metres tall, 10 metres long and 5 ½ metres wide, they are an impressive sight.

There was only one small problem. Whoever had ordered the trucks had forgotten a tiny detail. The bridge was only 4½ metres wide...

Malcolm Bertoni tells how a little guy solved a big problem and got his reward.

To read earlier chapters of Malcolm's vivid account of diamond mining in Namibia please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/diamonds_and_dust/

To obtain a copy of his book click on http://www.equilibriumbooks.com/diamonds.htm

Because Oranjemund was a closed town at that time, employees could not take anything into the town that could not be x-rayed – if they did then they couldn’t take it out again. These included motor vehicles. So privately owned motor vehicles had to be kept outside the town. There were garages provided for the employers on both the Namibian and South African side of the bridge. The garages on the Namibian side were called Swarkops (“Black Hill”) due to the blue/black rocky outcrop where it was situated. The garages on the South African side were called Dunvlei. The name evidently came from a lagoon that existed there in the old days, but had long since gone.

The Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge was the bridge over the Orange River connecting South Africa with Oranjemund in South West. It must be about 600 or 700 metres long. But it is only a single lane, so there are traffic lights at each end to control the flow of traffic.

It was built high enough to handle any floods that occasionally occurred, although this was very rare as all the dams that had been built along the Orange reduced it to pretty much a trickle.

This classic story was told to me by someone who was actually there and is as factual as I can remember.

Now one day around 1973 or so there arrives about a dozen big new shiny Caterpillar dump trucks. These are brand new state of the art trucks to replace some of the aging off-road trucks and haulers that are on the mine. They are massive. The tyres are something like 8 ft tall and the truck empty weight is 50 tonnes with a payload of about 50 or 60 tonnes. Standing 4 metres tall, 10 metres long and 5 ½ metres wide, they are an impressive sight.

There was only one small problem. Whoever had ordered the trucks had forgotten a tiny detail. The bridge was only 4½ metres wide as it was a single lane. The new trucks couldn’t get over the bridge – they were just too damn big. So there were all the engineers, senior management, and other hangers-on with tape measures, calculators, blue prints, drawings. The works. There would have been at least 20 or 30 of them, walking up and down the bridge talking, shouting and gesturing at each other. It must have been an amusing sight.

There were all those shiny new trucks parked on the South African side unable to get over the bridge into South West Africa and to the mine. Whoever had ordered the trucks must have been feeling sick in his stomach with all that expensive high-tech machinery standing idle. He was probably starting to pack his bags as his job was worth shit. While all this was happening the rest of the mine was trying to get on with their jobs.

After three or for hours everyone was at their wits end. Could we hire a helicopter? Helicopter? Are you fucking kidding? Where are we going to get a helicopter to lift 50 tonnes? What if we took the wheels off, put them on a low-bed and do it that way? Out came the tape measures. No. It was still too big by about 18 inches. Back to the drawing boards.

Whichever way they were going to get the trucks across would take time and cost money. They might have to drive the trucks all the way back to the highway via Port Nolloth, turn left towards Vioolsdrif, drive up to Keetmanshoop, then turn left again towards Luderitz and then drive down the Luderitz-Oranjemund road and get across the river that way. It would take at least a week or so to do.

During all this, an Ovambo who had driven his truck over the bridge, stopped on the South West Africa side and casually walked back over the bridge towards the group of people huddled together in the middle. He looked at the trucks, looked at the bridge, looked at the people and seemed to realise what the problem was. He walked up to someone who seemed to be doing most of the shouting and who appeared to be in charge.

“Baas.” (“Boss.”)

“Yes? What do you want? Can’t you see we’re busy?”

“Boss. Do you want to get the new trucks over the river?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Boss. I can get the trucks over the river for you.”

“What?”

“Boss. I can get the trucks over the river for you,” the Ovambo said patiently.

“The bridge is too narrow. The trucks won’t fit.”

“I know boss. But I can still get the trucks over if you want.”

By this time the white boss was getting impatient with this black bastard who was only an ignorant dumb-arse truck driver. What did he know?

“Didn’t you hear me you idiot. The bridge is too narrow. Now and let me get on with solving the problem.”

With that the guy turns away and leaves the Ovambo standing there.

The Ovambo looks around at the spectacle and leans against the bridge railing watching this lot. After about 30 minutes of watching the antics of all these so-called experts he walks back to the guy and taps him on the shoulder.

“Boss. Do you want to get the trucks over or not?”

The guy wheels around and wants to punch the Ovambo. Before he can do so, someone else, who seems to be the Real Boss and who has come to look at the situation, comes over and asks:

“What’s going on?”

The guy explains that this idiot says he can get the trucks over to the other side and that he wishes he would piss off and leave it to the experts to sort out the mess.

Real Boss takes the Ovambo to one side.

“You say you can get the trucks over?”

“Yes boss. I drive trucks. I can show you how.”

Real Boss looks at him. He seems fairly sane. Didn’t smell of alcohol. Seemed rational. Why the hell not? They had nothing to lose.

He nods.

“Ok you show us how.”

So Real Boss then takes the Ovambo to the nearest truck and he climbs up and tells the driver about the Ovambo who then climbs up into the cab.

Real Boss then proceeds to clear the bridge for the truck and the Ovambo leans out of the cab and tells him.

“No boss; they can all stay on the bridge.”

Our Ovambo then starts instructing the driver who fires up the engine and they start rolling. But instead of heading for the bridge, they head for the riverbank.
Everyone starts waving their hands and running around in even more panic, if that was possible. Where the hell are they going?

The truck rolls down the riverbank, out onto the sandy riverbed and majestically crosses the river which had all of six inches of water in it. It takes them at least five minutes to cover the 700 metres while everyone watches open-mouthed. Since the trucks are 4 wheel drive, have a high ground clearance and are designed for off-road and rough conditions, they cruise across the river without any problem. As someone said afterwards: ‘It was a piece of piss’.

There is a cheer as the truck lumbers up the embankment on the South West side.
Real Boss starts grinning and quickly directs the other trucks to follow the first one and within 30 minutes all the trucks are across.

There were so many red faces that it would have lit up a city. Real Boss looks at the so-called experts and shakes his head. What a bunch of wankers.

Real Boss goes back across the bridge and shakes the Ovambo’s hand and slaps him on his back as they both grin from ear to ear. They stand together watching the rest of the trucks clamber up the embankment and drive into town.

There is even a happier ending to the story. Real Boss gave the Ovambo a cushy job in his office in town, including a nice salary increase. Isn’t it great when the little guy has a win?

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