On the road again

2010-05-03 00:00

BACK in 2007, recommending Peter Delmar’sThe N3 Book, a fascinating compendium of stories related to places through which the N3 passes, I concluded that anyone “who has ever pressed foot to accelerator on the N3 should not be without a copy”. Well, substitute N4 for N3 and the same applies to The N4 Book — The Road to Maputo.

I wasn’t the only person impressed by Delmar’s earlier book. So were Trans African Concessions (TRAC) who operate a section of the N4 west of Witbank to Maputo in Mozambique. They approached Delmar, a freelance journalist and Times columnist, to apply the same formula to the N4, and along with Tsb Sugar and the Maputo Development Corridor funded his research and travelling expenses plus the publishing costs. “And the best thing was they said ‘we are not going to tell you what to put in the book’,” says Delmar.

Divided into six chapters detailing different sections of the route, the book consists of “short factual stories ... relevant to specific areas through which the N4 passes between Pretoria and the Mozambican capital, Maputo.” These stories encompass matters literary, geological, industrial, historical, biographical, piscatorial and just about any other subject you care to mention.

“The N4 takes in such a range of peoples — Basotho, Southern Ndebele, the Shangaans — so culturally and historically it’s very diverse,” says Delmar.

There are also plenty of photographs and maps while odometer readings from designated start points at the western and eastern ends of the route (plus in some instances approximate GPS co-ordinates) allow you to get your bearings on what happened where.

Along the N4 there are several places with KwaZulu-Natal connections, none quite as poignant as the farm Uitkyk where King Dinuzulu ka Cetshwayo died in exile. The farm lies “just northeast of the N4 and shortly before you reach Middelburg”. Following the 1906 Bambatha rebellion, Dinuzulu was put on trial for treason, public violence and sedition and in 1909 sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He was released in 1910, at the time of Union, but not allowed to return to Zululand. He was granted a state pension and the farm Uitkyk, where he died of heart disease in 1913, aged 45.

Among other historic figures encountered on the N4 is Winston Churchill (who seems to pop up all over the place escaping from the Boers) but a pleasing feature of Delmar’s book are the sites he features related to more recent events and those involved in them, such as “one of South Africa’s most moving monuments: the site of the 1986 plane crash that killed Mozambican president Samora Machel” to be found on the Nelspruit to Komatipoort stretch of the N4 (see box).

There also some choice examples of South African Gothic such as the “aircraft standing forlornly by the side of the road (in 2009 it was being used to advertise a fried chicken franchise)” to be found on the same stretch as the Machel monument.

The plane is a De Havilland Caribou that saw service in the Vietnam war. Tough planes capable of taking off from short runways, Caribous were first manufactured in 1958 — in all, 307 saw service all over the world. This one ended up by the N4 because there was once a significant SAAF base at Komatipoort “used to impress on Mozambique apartheid South Africa’s military readiness.”

Local legend has it that the Caribou was grounded by officialdom when caught smuggling cigarettes in the 1990s. As is often the case, local legend is romantic but wrong. The plane first appears on record back in 1962 when it was bought by the U.S. army and sent to Vietnam where it saw action with the 92nd Aviation Company and was nicknamed the Rebel Rouser, complete with Confederate flag painted on its fuselage. From 1976 it served with the New Jersey national guard and was later based at a small island in the Pacific. In the mid 80s it was bought by a South African company believed to have been involved in sanction-busting and providing support to anti-Marxist rebels in southern Africa. “It certainly worked in Mozambique,” writes Delmar, “and was ‘parked’ at Komatipoort in 1992, its last landing strip.”

Across the border into Mozambique, on the Komatipoort to Maputo stretch, you’ll pass what is thought to be the burial place of one of the great characters of South African literature, Jock of the Bushveld.

The book recounts the adventures of the famous Staffie who accompanied its master, Percy, (later Sir Percy) Fitzpatrick on his trips as a transport driver between Lourenço Marques and the Lowveld in the 1880s. After Fitzpatrick left the transport business and went to live in Barberton, he realised Jock was miserable living in a town and gave the dog to his friend Tom Barnett, who ran a supply store in what became Mozambique. Barnett accidentally shot and killed Jock, mistaking him for another dog that had been after his chickens.

In 1947 Fitzpatrick’s daughter Cecily Niven retraced the routes described in Jock of the Bushveld. “She writes about finding where Jock was buried, and amazingly she gives the GPS coordinates,” says Delmar. “I used the co-ordinates and reckon South Africa’s most famous dog is buried just 400 metres from the road.”

Asked for his favourite story, Delmar demurs but then confesses to a soft spot for the fishing stories. There’s a section on trout fishing at Dullstroom but what really caught Delmar’s imagination is the fish that exist only on a 60-kilometre stretch of the Elands River where, trapped between two waterfalls, a unique species of yellowfish has evolved. “Found nowhere else, the Bushveld Small-Scale Yellowfish was officially recognised as a species of yellowfish —  one of 10 — in 2008.”

Delmar also followed in the footsteps of John Buchan — “in 1903, he was a young, well-educated Scottish colonial administrator, whom the world would one day remember as a writer of cracking thrillers” — and tried his hand at catching tiger fish. “I was doing research (strue) on the Nkomati. I was looking for tigers but only caught this blooming catfish.”

• The N4 Book — The Road to Maputo is published by Parkview Press and is available at bookshops and at various service centres along the N4.

THE turn-off to the Malelane Gate of the Kruger National Park and the Jeppes Reef border post with Swaziland takes you to one of South Africa’s most moving monuments: the site of the 1986 plane crash that killed Mozambican president Samora Machel. A top-class museum has been built on this remote site right next to the borders between South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland.

Born in Gaza province in 1933, Machel was a revolutionary and the first president of independent Mozambique. In 1986, he and his entourage were returning to Maputo from a meeting of the then Southern African Development Co-ordinating Committee in Lusaka, Zambia. Machel was anxious to get home for a birthday party he had planned for his wife, Graça.

After the crash there were suggestions that Machel had had a premonition of his death; what did he mean the day before when he said: “I pity those who will remain alive”?

Approaching Maputo, the Soviet crew of the president’s Tupolev 134 aircraft made a premature 37-degree turn. It has been stated that the crew mistook a VOR signal from the Matsapa airport in Swaziland for Maputo. Without being in voice contact with the airport in Maputo, the crew descended to below 3 000 feet, assuming that the capital had suffered one of its periodic power failures. A 32-second ground-proximity warning system alarm was ignored and the aircraft crashed into a hillside, slid across the shared border and broke up, the parts coming to a shuddering halt before bursting into flames. Of the 44 people on board, only nine survived.

The crash, in South Africa, created an international sensation. Almost immediately there were claims that rogue South African intelligence operatives had placed a mobile beacon to mislead the pilots, and that the South African police, when they arrived on the scene, did nothing for the survivors, but busied themselves collecting documents from the doomed aircraft. There were even claims that Matsapa airport was managed by a member of the Italian mafia with close links to South African intelligence, and that the same intelligence agency had infiltrated a spy into the Maputo control tower. And it was claimed that the apartheid government had unofficially sanctioned an under- cover operation to kill Machel, with whom it had signed a non-aggression pact only two years earlier.

The monument at the crash site features a collection of steel pipes, one for each of the 35 victims of the crash. The rust on the pipes symbolises the tears shed for the victims and the blood of the dead and injured. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the pipes set up a mournful sound that either mimics the sobs of the bereaved or the roar of a jet aircraft. It is a tragically poignant memorial.

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