Turning Stones into Bread – The Bloodhound SSC Project & The People of Mier FeaturedWritten by Ryan Swano
Heading north into the Kalahari Desert leaving Upington Airport for the 182km trip to our first stop in Askham and then on to Rietfontein another 86km west on the R31, we were really impressed that the roads are in an absolutely superb condition.
A stretch of the R360 road is in fact where test cars with special permits are allowed to drive at up to 250kmh.
Askham is one of those very small desert towns with a rustic ‘one-of-everything’ that you only see on TV adverts and if you blinked you would have missed it.
The main attraction in Askham and our reason for stopping was The Diamond T Coffee & Gift Shop for the delicious cakes and desserts they serve. The building was originally a bus station erected by the SA Railways for the big red Diamond T half buses that transported goods and passengers along the dusty routes to and from larger towns.
No, there is no railway line…
From there we headed west to just outside Rietfontein in the former Mier Local Municipality now known as the Dawid Kruiper Local Municipality after it was merged with the //Khara Hais Local Municipality.
Of course everybody still continues to call the specific region Mier.
We purposely passed our destination, the Kalahari Information Centre & Tented Camp, to see the Namibian border post which was less than a kilometre further west.
Yes, we went glamping... The tents are set on concrete slabs with two electricity outlets and a light in each tent. I’ve slept on a quite few hotel beds that are not as comfortable as those in our tents.
You are welcomed to the camp by Hendrik en Gertruida Bott, as if you are relatives who have at last made the trek to come visit the family up north. Affectionately known by everyone as Oom Bott and Tannie Bott, their hospitality is boundless and it is clear that being the owners of this establishment is a natural extension of their personalities.
Besides an array of lapas and braai areas there are of course actual brick and mortar buildings including a reception building with a little coffee shop and offices, a showroom for crafts which are created on the premises by San artists , a fairly big dining hall that doubles as a small events venue and ample ablution facilities for guests.
After checking in, taking some time to relax and getting to know our hosts and fellow travellers over coffee, we were off to have a sundowner in the middle of Hakskeenpan which we passed 15km back on our way to the Botts.
We were accompanied by Peter McKuchane who heads up the Northern Cape Tourism Authority’s involvement with the Bloodhound Project.
The vast expanse of the Hakskeenpan is treacherous in that even during the day one could easily get lost on the pan.
We went there at dusk...
The stunningly beautiful sunset quickly turned into darkness and we were marvelling at Oom Bott & Peter’s stories of people getting lost in the dark on the pan. Suddenly our generator powered flood light died out.
One could literally hear hearts skipping beats, then Oom Bott said “kyk op”.
As we looked up, a magical night sky unfolded and we could virtually see all the ‘milk’ of the Milky Way. Someone remarked that it is as if one could simply reach out and grab a star from the sky.
Oom Bott revealed that there are only a handful of older folk and perhaps even less of the younger !Khomani San who have been taught the traditional art of navigation using the stars as it is the only way to find your way out of the pan.
Asked whether he knew this art of reading the stars, Oom Bott mischievously smiled at us.
Fortunately the pan is now being grid-mapped with GPS coordinates.
Besides helping prevent people from getting lost on the pan, there is another reason for the GPS grid map.
The largest continually flat and most even land surface on earth is home to The Bloodhound SSC Project.
Hakskeenpan is where on 11 October 2017 the current land-speed record holder, British Royal Air Force test pilot Andy Green will attempt to first break his current record by aiming for 800mph and over a three year period improve on it in an attempt to reach the magical mark of 1000mph (1600km/h).
His previous record set in 1997 was the first time a land vehicle broke the sound barrier when he topped out at 763mph (1,227 km/h).
The Bloodhound Supersonic Car will be travelling so fast that GPS guidance is the only way to make sure that it stays on track.
The attempt to set off a sonic boom for the first time in a land vehicle traveling on South African soil that will attract thousands of enthusiasts, fans and a horde of media people however had one major problem that needed to be overcome; the very flat surface of the pan was in some places covered with millions of pebbles and stones.
The Bloodhound Project, for which the hosting bid was initiated through the Northern Cape Tourism Authority has since its inception created numerous jobs for members of the mostly poor surrounding communities of Rietfontein, Groot Mier, Klein Mier and Andriesvale
The stones on Hakskeenpan, all of 16000 tons thus far, were hand-collected by 350 workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. These workers will continue to be involved in surface preparation.
The stones will be used to build a museum in the town of Rietfontein and a monument has already been erected on the site listing the names of each and every person who has collected the stones.
For part of the year the pan is completely flooded by flash torrents of summer rain but this flooding and the drying out that follows is exactly what contributes to keeping the surface of the pan flat and level with a very consistent hardness.
Perfect for high speed racing...
Though work is stopped during the annual flooding followed by up to three months which it could take for the pan to completely dry, those who benefit from the employment opportunity are grateful that they can contribute to their households and put food on the table.
As someone remarked... They are turning stones into bread.
All other work and business opportunities related to The Bloodhound Project are aimed at first and foremost benefitting the surrounding communities.
Another major benefit is that with the expected influx of international media, the areas surrounding the pan now boasts some of the fastest available mobile 4G internet speeds in the country provided by cell phone network MTN and many of the schools are equipped with Wi-Fi.
For dinner back at the tented camp we were treated to a variety of mutton dishes, stews and curries, including traditional Kalahari ‘afval’ or like we call it at home, ‘pens en pootjies’, potbrood, and a selection of deserts. The rest of the evening some the glampers spent around fire-pits while others disappeared into their tents.
After Breakfast we said our goodbyes to Tannie Bott while Oom Bott accompanied us to the site where the museum is to be built in Rietfontein. This is where besides explaining the significance of the project to us, Oom Bott pointed out that “Elkeen in die Kalahari het ‘n bynaam”.
Nichnames are a prominent feature in the Kalahari; nearly everybody has one.
Among the 350 names on the monument honouring those who have collected the stones since 2010, one could see a few of the names recurring three or four times. As a tradition, first names are passed on in families and where certain surnames are common, it so happens that a few families will have a specific first name running in all of them. There could be four or five people in the region named Johannes Willemse, therefore it would be no use asking around for someone by their birth name. You have to be specific and ask for Groot Hannes, Hansie Klein Oor or something like Poot Willemse.
We left Rietfontein full of hope for the future of the people of Mier but then one question I have not asked kept nagging at me.
A countdown clock for the Bloodhound SSC record attempt started on 11 October 2016 in a ceremony involving Andy Green’s team, the sponsors, and officials from all levels of government, international media, local entrepreneurs and members of the community.
At the ceremony countless certificates and medals were handed out to people for their contributions thus far and Oom Bott was appointed the official community liaison officer of The Bloodhound Project.
We had to follow up and ask that one question bruinou.com still had.
With a year to go for all the main preparation work to be over and done with, what happens to the people who have all had jobs until now?
What form of sustainability is there, if any?
There is indeed a long-term plan to create spin-off events after the three Bloodhound land speed record attempts starting in 2017.
The annual Speed Week event that was held until 2014 on Hakskeenpan attended by many of South Africa’s top drag racers is set to return to the pan after the Bloodhound run in 2017.
This event has also in the past seen thousands of drag racing enthusiasts, fans and media descending on the area.
There are also plans to bring various other motoring events to the pan as well as a number of other festivals. These will all require support services and though the events will not be numerous and constant, they will provide economic opportunities where previously there were none.
For The Bloodhound Project, there are many peripheral services that are being set up and though it could possibly taper down dramatically after the third year, the aim is to properly equip local service providers in order to create sustainability.
Starting with the people who collected stones, various accredited training programmes will be implemented so that these people will become employable after the event.
The first Bloodhound event itself and the activities leading up to it will require a large number of security personnel and 200 of the 350 stone collectors will be trained as certified and accredited security officers. They will be the security personnel of choice for future events and they will also be eligible for employment in other regions, in fact, they can be employed as security officers anywhere in the country.
Training programs which already exist for those wanting to make use of opportunities in the hospitality sector will be extended and expanded.
A permanent tented camp will also be established closer to the pan which can accommodate up to 500 people. These will also require services, maintenance and administration for which locals will be trained.
Whether this tented camp will be privately owned or run by a consortium along with the Dawid Kruiper municipality has not been made clear to Bruinou.com but Oom Bott who is also expanding his own facilities sees it as a wonderful opportunity for more people in his community to benefit beyond October 2017.
Of course you do not need to wait for any major event to visit Mier.
In all that vastness of nature there is so much more to see than you ever could imagine. Numerous safaris including the one operated by Oom Bott are available around Rietfontein, Groot Mier, Klein Mier and Andriesvale.
With the amazing cultural heritage and a community spirit that is almost tangible, the legendary hospitality of the Kalahari people keeps first-time visitors coming back again and again.
As we left Rietfontein on the next leg of our trip heading to the famous red sand dunes of the Kalahari, plans for my return to Mier and Hakskeenpan were already taking shape in my head.
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- Bloodhound Project
- Andy Green
- Land Speed Record
- Kalahari Desert
- Northern Cape
- South Africa
- Economic Growth
- Dawid Kruiper