The unsung heroes who built SA
New book gives engineers and builders their rightful dues, writes MYRNA ROBINS
JUST after this fascinating book arrived, the tragic incident involving the collapse of a temporary pedestrian bridge in Sandton occurred, killing two and injuring others. The media coverage was extensive, accompanied by criticism of the contractor and pronouncements on accountability.
While we await the results of the investigation, it’s worth remembering we seldom see headlines celebrating the successful conclusion of another major mountain pass, tunnel, bridge, harbour or dam in our vast country – yet many of these projects are built with astonishing ingenuity and few thankfully result in major tragedies caused by contractors, their workers or materials.
Whether driving through the Huguenot tunnel – or taking the old Du Toitskloof pass instead – whizzing up the wide road that Sir Lowry’s Pass presents today these monuments to past and present engineers continue to induce admiration.
And, as Manglin Pillay, chief executive of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering notes in the book’s foreword, developments that have improved the safety of road and rail transport, water supplies, sanitation and shipping are seldom recognised, partly because civil engineers are poor storytellers. This title, at least, goes some way to rectifying that anomaly.
Tony Murray is unusual in that he is not only a prominent figure in local civil engineering circles, but has been chronicling the history of his profession in this country and – as proven by this title – presents the results in an appealing form that requires little scientific knowledge from the reader.
He offers no fewer than 33 stories of structures in our country, listed chronologically. The historic circumstances precede a pen portrait of personalities involved in decisions and actions – usually government officials who appoint a civil engineer to head the task force. The trials and tribulations of construction follow and, if the original project can be visited today, details are given.
The original pass over the Hottentots Holland mountains, built between 1828 and 1830, was named after colonial governor Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, who asked newly appointed surveyor-general and civil engineer Major Charles Michell to design a route to enable Overberg farmers to take their produce to the Cape market without using the dreaded Gantouw Kloof. The pass was widened to a four-lane highway in 1984.
Michell was also responsible for building the hard road across the Cape Flats, the Montagu pass over the Outeniquas and the one through Mostert’s Hoek to Ceres, which carries his name.
Another of Michell’s pet projects was to provide lighthouses along the coastline to increase the safety of shipping, an area neglected by officialdom.
Eventually, funds were made available for the building of lighthouses at Agulhas, Cape Point and Mouille Point.
The Agulhas lighthouse – which celebrated its centenary in 1949 – has been saved from demolition more than once, and is today a national monument that attracts visitors to this southernmost point of the continent. Other gripping stories include those of the Swartberg Pass, the Victoria Falls bridge and the building of the Table Bay Harbour from start to the present V&A Waterfront.
From the north, the building of the Vaal Barrage and Kariba Dam are worth digesting, along with the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme.
Eclectic content to suit every traveller is complemented by photographs, some of which are historic gems.
This well-produced softback deserves a place on our bookshelves, preferably alongside that equally enjoyable title, The Romance of Cape Mountain Passes, by Graham Ross.
ENGINEERING FEAT: Sir Lowry’s Pass was named after colonial governor Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, who who commissioned a route to enable Overberg farmers to take their produce to the Cape Town market.
THUNDER: The rail bridge dividing Zambia and Zimbabwe near Victoria Falls.
PET PROJECT: Green Point Lighthouse, Mouille Point.
Megastructures and Masterminds: Great feats of civil engineering in Southern Africa, by Tony Murray (Tafelberg).