Left in the dust

2013-08-23 11:00

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Hakskeenpan in the Northern Cape is flat, long and wide – and just the spot to set a land speed record. Johan Bakkes looks around.

Some time in the next year or two, Andy Green, a British mathematician and pilot, wants to race faster than 1 609km/h (1 000 miles per hour) on Hakskeenpan in Mier, which is tucked between Namibia and Botswana in the Northern Cape.

I’m driving my bakkie across the brutally dusty province to find out what is happening in the remote area surrounding the 19km long, 5km wide pan.

What is the local community up to? Are they gearing up for the speedster’s attempt to smash the world land speed record in their community – printing commemorative mugs and embroidering pillowcases in anticipation of the event? Or is it all just a mirage on a salt pan? To get there, I pass through Brandvlei, where British racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell attempted to break the land speed record at the dry salt Verneukpan more than 80 years ago.

A resident Kola Zandberg recalls, ‘Our farm bordered on the wild, empty pan, which is flatter than flat, 57km long and 11km wide. It’s that every-five-minutes-nothing-happens-and-then-it-lasts-for-half-an-hour desolation.

My mother says when Campbell raced on the pan, it was like a fun fair, complete with tents, big fires and even a gramophone that played music. The people of Brandvlei and Kenhardt erected stalls with all kinds of things to buy.’

Campbell failed to break the world record of 372.33km/h – but he lived to tell the tale. Unlike fighter pilot and South African land speed record holder Johan Jacobs, who fatally crashed here in 2006 while driving his jet car ‘The Edge’.

I picture the tragic accident in my mind’s eye. Not much is left of a car and its passengers when you lose control at 500km/h…

Later, when I talk to Nuchey van Neel, a tourism consultant at Kenhardt, I realise it’s not only these two daredevils who have torn across the dusty pan – the whole region is speed crazy.

After all, the Kalahari Desert SpeedWeek happens further north in Hakskeenpan from 14 September and the All-Tar SpeedWeek took place at Upington airport in April this year.

I motor up to Upington. ‘Why do you race?’ I ask Willem Engelbrecht, a municipal manager in this thriving Northern Cape town. ‘Because the distances are so vast here,’ he says. ‘We drive a road to conquer it. We don’t say we’re “quickly” driving to Pofadder for nothing – and Pofadder is 300km away.’

Upington’s runway No. 17/35 is damn long – in fact, it’s the fifth longest in the world. ‘4 900m,’ says Gwen Wessels, the airport’s fire and rescue captain, as we drive across it. ‘Another 1 100m if we include the stopway.’

The runway was built in the old days when apartheid planes couldn’t refuel in Africa and a Boeing 747 had to fly to Europe in one haul. It’s also currently Nasa’s southern hemisphere landing spot for spacecraft. As I inspect the endless stretch of tar, I realise Jan Els, organiser of these annual speed-freak events, certainly does have vision.

I head 200km north of Upington, to Askham and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. About 80km to the west of Hakskeenpan, I notice the first signs of the upcoming speed record-breaking event that promises to see British Royal Airforce pilot Andy Green behind the wheel of the pencil-shaped Bloodhound SCC supersonic car, powered by a jet engine and a rocket.

At Cilia and André du Toit’s coffee shop, a small red wooden car with washing-machine wheels is for sale.

‘What do you think about the fuss?’ I ask.

‘We’re very excited,’ they say. ‘We’re a poor community, work is scarce – anything that will bring people to this area is beneficial. We’re just uncertain about when it’s going to happen.’

Then I reach Hakskeenpan. In front of me lies a stretch of earth almost 20km long and 1.1km wide. This is where Andy wants to break the land speed record of 1 000 miles per hour in 2014 or 2015.

That’s damn fast – faster than a bullet fired by a Magnum .357… Four and a half rugby fields in a second… and then he needs to stop! That’s why the people of Mier removed every last pebble from the ‘track’ by hand. Up to 6 000 tons – the sums say 20 tons per person – in temperatures that ranged from -6°C to 48°C. Clearly, they want this car on their pan.

‘We want the project to improve the lives of the Mier community,’ says Drinie Samson of Northern Cape Tourism when I get to the clean and cheerful town of Rietfontein. I visit Hendrik and Gertruida Bott’s Kalahari Tented Camp. ‘We have plans with all these things, but this mustn’t be just a fleeting moment. We need to take out something sustainable,’ Hendrik says.

Yes,’ Deon Noubitsen and Jan van der Westhuizen of the Khomani San community agree. ‘It mustn’t be only one magic moment. We’ve had too many such moments and then afterwards… nothing.’

The Mier district includes five dusty, lonely hamlets – Groot Mier, Klein Mier, Loubron, Philandersbron and the greater Rietfontein, which is in spitting distance of the Namibian border post.

I meet up with Jeán Lambrecht, owner of Molopo Kalahari Lodge, at a restuarant in Upington. ‘This region is unforgiving,’ he says while we tuck into a delicious springbok pie. ‘A business opportunity will pass by as fast as that Bloodhound SCC.’

He tells me about the ‘homestay’ project, where the people of Mier will open their houses to visitors; the water pipes, pipelines and boreholes Jan Els and his SpeedWeek team are busy with at Hakskeenpan; the box car project for kids; the Bloodhound project’s science and maths plowback into schools.

On the drive back across Grootvloer I come to the conclusion there are big things stirring in the Northern Cape – and although they hinge on a once-off historic event, the spin-offs don’t need to be fleeting.

Inspired, I accelerate to 140km/h on the long, straight homeward stretch of tar between Brandvlei and Kenhardt.

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