MEGASTRUCTURES AND MASTERMINDS: Great feats of civil engineering in Southern Africa by Tony Murray. Published by Tafelberg, 2015.
Just after this fascinating title arrived, the tragic accident 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 from the investigation into the causes of this horrific accident it is seldom that we see headlines celebrating the successful conclusion of another major mountain pass, tunnel, bridge, harbour or dam across our vast country, yet there are more of these projects than there are major accidents caused bycontractors, their workers or their materials.
Perhaps because my better half was involved as geologist and civil engineer with building roads and the like for several years, I am conscious of infrastructural achievements: 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, while comparing it to its former condition, these monuments to past and present engineers continue to induce admiration. And, as Manglin Pillay, CEO of the SA Institution of Civil Engineering notes in the 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 story-tellers. This title, at least, goes some way to rectifying this omission.
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 by the reader. He offers no less than 33 stories of structures in our country, listed chronologically. The historic circumstances precede a pen portrait of the personalities involved in decisions and actions – usually government officials who appoint the civil engineer to head the task force. The trials and tribulations of construction follow, and if the original project is one that can be visited today, details are given.
The original pass over the Hottentots Holland mountains, built between 1828 -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 that would enable Overberg farmers to bring 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 aross 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 around 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 that 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. Diverse 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.