From power plants to metal mines

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 23, 2019

Today represented the last really long driving day of our road trip. We started in Witbank / eMalahleni in Mpumalanga Province, crossed Gauteng Province through southern Johannesburg, passed through Potchefstroom in the Northwest Province, brushed the Free State due to a caprice of Google Maps, and then concluded our day in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. We drove through more than half the provinces of South Africa in one day!

The big dip after Potchefstroom took us through perilous potholes.

Mining SA

The colonies and Boer Republics of southern Africa might have remained somewhat obscure if it were not for the discovery of vast underground riches in the late 19th century. Gold, copper, diamonds, platinum, palladium, chromium, vanadium, manganese, uranium, and coal have all become major mining industries in the country. Our long drive today took us through the heartlands of almost all of these industries!

This image comes from a website concerned with the ecological damage of coal mining in Mpumalanga.

Even a short drive in Mpumalanga province will establish its dominance in power production. We would still have a multi-tower power plant in our rear view mirror when the next came into sight on the horizon. Natasha noted that it makes a lot of sense to generate power as close as possible to the coal mines that fuel the plant. One by one, the coal-fired plants in Cape Town have closed, while nuclear and hydroelectric plants have remained live. A drive along the N12 in Mpumalanga will show both the coal mines and the plants they drive.

This image of the Majuba plant comes from a post about reducing damage from coal-fired power plants.

I knew very little about the mining industry before coming to South Africa. One word that has new significance for me is “tailings.” When a miner ships a cart to the surface, only part of its contents will be of use. Certainly, a diamond miner wants to avoid re-examining the dirt that has been separated from precious stones. The waste dirt doesn’t go back into the mine but is rather mounded into piles of tailings. As we drove around Johannesburg, we saw yellowish hills formed from the ejecta of gold mines. In Mpumalanga, black plateaus have been formed of coal mine tailings. These mounds speak to the amount of toil that has taken place beneath the surface.

This photo has been cropped from one appearing in a post concerned with the health hazards of “tailings.”

Our N12 traversal of Johannesburg was somewhat improved by the fact we weren’t stopping. On the other hand, our crossing took a long time because we were entering from the NE and exiting by the SW. I thought were were nearly through but was surprised to see a sign marking the exit for the Apartheid Museum; we still had plenty of city to go! We were still in the area of Eldorado Park when Natasha mentioned a bathroom stop would be welcome. We were truly in the sticks before we found a likely-looking gas station. I only wish the bathrooms had been as clean as the station exterior!

We encountered a series of big-name mines as we passed west on the N12. One even advertised itself as the deepest mine in the world (currently at a depth of 4 km)! I was really surprised to see just how far apart the different shafts associated with a given mine could be on the surface. Certainly the galleries below ground cover a lot of horizontal space, too.

A few moments at “Potch”

I had been curious about Potchefstroom since I learned it housed one of the premiere centers in metabolomics for South Africa. At one point, I even planned a research visit of three months to learn how our work could fit together! Since our route from eMalahleni to Kimberley ran directly through the city, I asked Natasha if we could stop to see some of its historic buildings.

The Potchefstroom city hall, opened in 1909

We made our stop at its town hall, completed in 1909. At first, I was tempted to compare “Potch” to Kirksville, the town surrounding Truman State University (where I received my first research experience). Natasha corrected my impression by noting that Potch would still be needed to support the mining and agricultural sectors of the Northwest Province even if University of the Northwest didn’t exist.

Natasha boldly volunteered to handle the remaining leg from Potch to Kimberley (estimated at 3.5 hours). For some reason, Google Maps led us on a merry chase down the R501 to the R59 (a route parallel to the N12, lying to its southeast). The route quickly took us into the fringe of the Free State. We tried to follow its instructions, but we soon found that we couldn’t drive at 120 kph or even 80 kph without being battered to smithereens by potholes. Even the “patched” ones were frequently quite jarring. By the time we reached Bothaville, we were both done. We turned west on the R504 and didn’t stop until we had rejoined the N12.

Those clouds rolled into a thunderhead around the time we reached Kimberley.

The remainder of the route down wasn’t particularly exciting, but a smooth drive was entirely worth it. Near the small town of Britten, I saw a dry salt pan to the right. I took a photo of the lovely cloud formations that were rolling together in the skies. As we drew nearer to Kimberley, though, those clouds were a distinct threat. We could see huge showers all around us, and some of the first sprinkles landed on us as we drove into our AirBNB near the Honoured Dead Memorial. We were fortunate to avoid much rain as we dashed off to the Northern Cape Mall for a run to the Woolworth’s grocery. Natasha and I both decided we felt too worn to sit down for the new Star Wars movie. I am sure that we will find the time to see it, though!

1 thought on “From power plants to metal mines

  1. Pingback: Our holiday road trip: crossing South Africa | Picking Up The Tabb

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