Antipodal Odyssey, Part Twee: On the Highveld

– Continued from Part Een –

Now on the ground in South Africa with no further flights on the itinerary, getting to site was the next priority.  From Kimberley, we were to head to Boshof, the next town over, so to speak.  It was fifty kilometers east, across the border between Northern Cape province, where we were, and Free State.  How to get there?  By car, of course.

There at the Kimberley airport, just outside the door to the terminal, was a host of rental cars.  We soon had one of our own and as we loaded it up with our baggage, things got weird.

IMG_3136In South Africa, they drive on the left.  That means the driver sits on the right.  Which, for someone who’d spent his entire life in right-hand traffic countries, is incredibly bizarre.  I put my luggage in the trunk (or boot, as it were), and circled around the car to the passenger’s seat, on the left.  I couldn’t get over how odd being a passenger on the left felt.

As we proceeded away from the airport, we of course stayed to the left on the road.  It was trippy.  I kept expecting our driver to retake the “normal” position in right lane.  To get to our route from the airport, we first took a left turn out onto the main road, which is naturally the analog of a right turn here.  Without a doubt, were I driving, I would have made a broad arc into the right lane and oncoming traffic.  No chance I’d spent a minute driving down there.

All of the road signs gave numbers in kilometers.  That’s nothing new; I saw that in Canada.  Not seen in Canada though: a lot of the businesses and other signage along the outskirts of Kimberley that we drove through were written in Afrikaans.  That was new.  A few even had a third language aside from English and Afrikaans, which I believe was likely Xhosa, but I’m not sure.  South Africa has eleven official languages, so pick one of the nine remaining, I guess.

Since it was already late Tuesday morning, we needed to get to work, and immediately set out from Kimberley to site, despite having just completed a whole 36 hours of traveling.  As we headed out of Kimberley, I became incredibly lost; my sense of direction was scrambled by the position of the sun.  I remarked about the sun in the last post, as well as here.  It was summer there in the southern hemisphere and as such, the sun was mostly overhead.  However, it was just north enough of the east-west zenith to throw my brain off its normal calibration.

IMG_3145The geography of central South Africa, also known as the Highveld, was flat.  Well, flat-ish.  It was very lightly rolling hills, mostly grass covered with scrub and trees dotting them.  Aside from hills a few tens of meters tall, there were no other distinguishing geographic features.  Just prairies seemingly forever.  Around the outside of Kimberley were several large shaft mines, one forming a very large artificially flat dark grey mound, in front of which stood machinery and buildings.

The color of the fields, combined with beautifully puffy-clouded blue skies reminded me a lot of the prairies of South Dakota between the cornfields of the Midwest and the ruggedness of Wyoming.  Honestly, one of the biggest drawbacks of coastal California is the lack of interesting clouds.  The open skies here reminded me a lot of home in Western New York and this trip would see a handful of absolutely spectacular skies.

Before long, mainly due to our average speed of 100+ km/h on R64, we came upon the very small town of Boshof, Free State.  It appeared to be an oasis in the middle of nothing, with many tall green trees, houses along the main road, stores and general civilization.  It was, however, kind of messy.  On the streets there appeared to be lots of trash and scraps.  Weeds grew in the spaces between curbs and road.  Many of the lawns along the way had uncut grass.  For such a small town, there were people walking around everywhere.  Loitering on the sidewalks, riding bikes, some just lollygagging through the middle of the road.

IMG_3152The stores and shops were bright with pastel colors and big signs in various languages.  The older buildings tended to use more Afrikaans, while English was the go-to language for everything else.  Some of those places were a bit run-down looking.  If I had to compare to something local, I would say the central intersection of Boshof might be most like the part of the East Bay visible from BART on the way to Oakland.  Granted, this town is maybe five blocks wide, rather than sprawling and completely built up, however that general feeling was there.

While the road was swarming with tens of people, there was relatively little vehicular traffic.  Ours was the only car on the roads I saw passing through town.  We turned left to the north onto a bumpy, stony, rough road and proceeded for about ten vibration-filled kilometers.

IMG_3158Shortly thereafter, a large sign, the corner of a triangular fence, and a field of photovoltaic modules appeared in front of us.  The sign denoted the name of the project, Boshof Solar Park, and the fence enclosed the expansive field, stretching for hundreds of meters to the north.  The fence was tall, a mesh of metal with parallel wires, electrified conductors, striping up to the top about ten feet high.  The entry gate was a checkpoint entirely surrounded in this fence.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by security personnel.  They manually opened the large entryway, inspected the vehicle, and examined each of us through the right-side driver’s window.

Then one of them handed the driver a tube.  Yellow and black plastic, like a flashlight.  It beeped and he passed it on to the passenger side.  What is this thing?  It’s a breathalizer, he replied.  Blow into it until it beeps.  Obviously intoxication on a job site is forbidden; I was taken aback at the extent to which they would enforce such common-sense behavior.

Once we’d all passed the test, we were ushered through the checkpoint where even more idle security personnel lounged in a building to the left.  As we came through, a few rushed over to open the inner gate for our car.  And then we were inside the PV site!

We looped around to the job trailers not far from the entrance and stepped out onto red dirt and grass.  It was hot, pushing 30 degrees at about noon.  Pulling open the thin plastic and fiberglass trailer door, I felt a blast of cold air, spawned by the air conditioning unit hanging in the back.  It was nice.  Loud, but nice.

I haven’t mentioned this yet — I was sick.  I’d had a cold since the day after Christmas and, now ten days later, was hopefully in the process of getting over it.  It seemed to come and go in waves.  At this moment, however, I was in dire need of tissues for my stuffed yet runny nose.  Perhaps it was the dust, which coated every surface with a fine sheen, or the tall grass fully bloomed in the summer.  I took a few hits of sore throat spray as well, to normalize myself into stable working condition.

IMG_3161As I settled at the long table in the conference trailer, I found my first opportunity to utilize my final preparations.  Behind attached to the wall was a power strip.  It looked like any regular white-plastic-with-a-red-button power strip, except its receptacles were the three-circular-holes-in-a-triangle sort.  Exactly what I’d expected.  I happily grabbed one of the adaptors, stuck my American plug into it, and shoved the combined apparatus into the power strip.  It worked flawlessly.  Who knew it would be that simple?

The team and I spent a very short time planning our attack strategy for the visit before we decided to head off for lunch.  After all, it was pushing mid-afternoon already and all of us had spent the morning traveling.  (Some of us spent a bit more time doing so…)  So we headed off again, this time back down the stony road to Boshof.  You know, the only civilization within fifty kilometers.

IMG_3172In town was a coffee shop.  At least, it looked like a coffee shop.  The actual building looked like it might have been a gas station at the time; the front patio area was shaded by a structure similar to those covering the pumps at a typical gas station.  The patio was, however, adorned with rustic tables, tons of plants, and decorative fencing.  Inside was even more eclectic.  Flowing light curtains, clean square wooden tables and chairs, surrounded by vintage cookware, an old-timey Coca-Cola machine, fake flowers, a reading area with books and magazines in Afrikaans, among many other random accouterments.

The staff there was white Afrikaner, pretty obviously so from the look of them, I thought.  Our South African compatriot conversed with them in Afrikaans, while us American folk had no problem using English.  Their English-speaking accent was different from anything I’d heard, even the South African I’d heard from high-profile folks like Elon Musk and Shartlo Copley.  It was almost Australian, but with a harsher, almost Scottish flair.  Brit-ish, I suppose.  Absolutely unique.  I’m kind of a language/dialect nut, especially for the variety found on the British Isles and broader Commonwealth, but my knowledge of South African English dialects is totally limited.  Perhaps the Highveld folks have their own dialectal families?

In any case, we sat down to eat.  The menu was a laminated tan-colored paper, written in English.  That is, except for the dishes which have only an Afrikaans name.  The food items were strangely diverse, but also surprisingly familiar.  There were hamburgers, fish and chips, chicken strips, quesadillas, stews, various sandwiches.  I was almost hoping for something more… ethnic?

The prices listed were in Rands, the official currency of South Africa.  Most of the items were on the order of tens of R, seemingly expensive for a meal until one notes the exchange rate, which had been roughly 11 ZAR to 1 USD at the time.  They were actually incredibly cheap, something like three dollars for a plate of chicken strips, which is what I ordered.

They were okay.  Edible, satiating, good with the lemon provided, nothing to write home about, ironically.  I was struck by a few other things at that meal, however — mostly about water, something we in America take for granted (even in a severe drought).

Before we ate, we ordered drinks.  My South African colleague ordered still water.  Not unusual, except for the fact he explicitly requested still.  Back home, that’s just water.  Well, they also have sparkling water, which seems to be drunk just as commonly.  All of it comes in bottles shipped from elsewhere in South Africa.  It would seem that regular water is non-potable in that area, perhaps drawn from wells.  Running water wasn’t lacking by any means, it’s just not something safe to drink.

Next door to the eatery was a water store.  They stocked bottles, both of still and sparkling (the latter denoted by a green-tinted bottle) as well as the giant containers one would find on a water cooler.  I recognize the utility and my brain rationalized that into being a “normal” sight, but I don’t ever recall seeing a dedicated water store anywhere in America.  Definitely not in the cities where I’ve lived.

IMG_3177As the check for dinner was tended to I looked around the restaurant a bit.  The bookshelves with only books in Afrikaans, or perhaps old enough to be straight Dutch, I don’t know, the power sockets all with South African ‘M’ plugs, the open/closed sign on the door, which read “Open/Oop” and “Closed/Gesluit” on each side.  The architecture inside was very old feeling, almost a mix between the stucco of Spanish architecture here in California and the colonial style of northern European settlers.  Combined with the bright, hot sun, the fully leafed trees, and the cool breeze blowing through the open door, it felt almost tropical.  The closest thing I can relate is Hawaii — some of the places I’d been on those islands were also very old feeling, architecture and styles from the sixties and seventies at least, dotting the tropical landscape.

The hazy warmth outside, however, was certainly similar to a summer day back in New York.  It was just the right amount of humid to make me second-guess my whereabouts.  There would be an intense moment of geographic confusion driven by the weather a few days later.

When we got back to site and through the security checkpoint again, we spent the day doing work stuff, as we were there to do.  First thing, we headed over to the project substation, which interconnects the 60 megawatt project to a pair of 132kV transmission lines via an adjacent switching station.  It was very shiny, even moreso than an unfinished substation I was at, at a recently energized project near Bakersfield.  I blame the bad mojo of Bakersfield for staining our electrical equipment.  Compared to the smoggy mess that is the southern San Joaquin valley, central Highveld South African air was pristine.

The bright metal glinted in the sun, whilst humming at a tone 20 Hz lower than the buzz I’d been accustomed to in the Western Hemisphere.  This trip was my first experience with a 50 Hz grid.  It seemed to work just the same as usual. (As an electrical engineer, I understand several of the important differences in detail, but none of them were at play or affected me in any way… so it was the same!)

Inside the substation control building was not quite like I’d imagined.  Picture the inside of a stealth bomber, or the bridge of a high tech warship, or the dimly lit interior of a submarine — now imagine the opposite.  I was a little disappointed in that it was extremely bright, walls blankly white, lit with fluorescents, and the equipment inside was minimal, encased in switchgear cabinets and relay panels.  Several of the protection units were the same old Schweitzer devices we use here.

IMG_3216After the tour of the control building, we headed over to a collector system skid.  These consist of the inverter units fed directly by the solar panels, a switching and fuse section, and a step-up transformer to increase the inverter output AC voltage to a low-loss high voltage suitable for collection at the substation.  At this site they were built into standard shipping containers, which was pretty neat to see from the interior.  The inverter bank was radiating heat into the already parched summer atmosphere, humming along doing its power electronics thing.  The transformer was shut down for safety before we could open its compartment up, which is good news because its bus bars were just there out in the open.  If you touch a 190 V bus bar pushing out 428 kVA, you’re gonna have a bad time.

From this skid, we drove to another.  I’m not going to go into detail about this one for job-related reasons.  It was the primary reason we’d needed to go to the site.  Basically, it wasn’t working and we had to figure out why.  Having seen a working skid up close, I thought I might have been prepared to dig into the root causes for this one.  I was wrong.  Fortunately, this was still our first day on site and we had a few more days to gather as much information and first-hand evidence as we could to help solve our problems.

When we returned to the office trailer just a few hundred feet from this skid, I crashed.  It was getting later into the afternoon and my biological clock was, I think, set to around 3am at this point.  Jet lag is a bitch.  Unfortunately, it would only seem to get worse.  Before 5pm, we drove back to Kimberley, rolling back across the prairies into the Northern Cape again.  Reaching the area, we skirted along the northern side of town to a remote hotel outside of the city limits, and checked in.  I could barely hold a thought at the time and I’m pretty sure I spelled my name wrong when I signed the registration sheet.  My mind was a mess.

I retreated up to my room, which to my predisposed idea of an African hotel room was incredibly misaligned.  It was super nice (although not quite Germany-nice), with vividly painted walls, clean new furniture, sunk lighting and a relatively comfortable bed.  I washed up a little and went to settle in for a quick nap before dinner.  I tried to connect my computer to the hotel’s (and evidently, the nation’s) Wi-Fi system, ironically named “AlwaysOn.”  As you might have guessed, I couldn’t get on.  I dozed off for maybe half an hour before my alarm went off.

IMG_3301We went to dinner at a casino restaurant next door.  Oh right, the hotel was adjacent to a casino.  Not a large one, but really very random given the lack of anything else in the area.  Out front they had a small security checkpoint consisting of a metal detector and a single attendant keeping guard.  It was a mild inconvenience to have to empty my pockets just to get some food.

Inside felt like any casino.  Marble walls and floors, bright flashing signs, numerous televisions, dim ambient lighting, loud sounds and, of course, ugly carpet.  It smelled like one too, though it was basically smoke-free.  Come on Vegas, even South Africa only allows smoking in the smoking room at casinos!

The casino restaurant was off to the left.  It was very open, with no walls separating it from the gambling floor; only a waist high banister near the entrance.  It had quite high ceilings, trimmed with dark wood and featuring several large chandelier-type lights hanging down.  The walls of the restaurant were covered in vertically striped wallpaper and adorned with black and white photos of 19th century Kimberely, the heyday of its mining culture.

Up high above the bar in the center of the restaurant was a TV showing soccer.  This led us to a discussion about sports, chiefly soccer and the 2010 World Cup, cricket, one of the most popular sports in the Southern Hemisphere, and rugby, the other most popular sport in the Southern Hemisphere.  We’d get into a bit more detail regarding these sports at our next dinner in this restaurant the following evening.  Stay tuned!

For drink this night I’d had a lemonade.  It was odd– sparkling and not sweet.  Perhaps their idea of lemonade is not the same as mine.  In any case, it didn’t really hit the spot so I also got a bottle of still water to quaff.  For my food I ordered a hamburger.  It was also strange and I really don’t know why.  I didn’t really like it, but I ate it all anyway.

I was a little disappointed in the quality because service was super super slow.  Either that or time slowed to a crawl in my jetlagged state.  While waiting, I almost fell asleep in the booth.  However, I must say the staff was super super nice.  Almost extremely so.  In addition, the price of dinner was extremely cheap.  In all, what I ordered cost less than 80 rand, which as I mentioned above, is roughly $7.

Upon completion of dinner, we headed back to the hotel to finally get some sleep.  But first, I stopped to look up.  Outside it was dark and above there were stars.  But they were new.  For me, it was almost a completely new set of stars.  In the north, Orion floated there upside down.  Above and to the south, I recognized nothing.  Despite the remote location, the parking lot’s flood lights obscured the darkest points of light, but I was able to pull up my Google Sky Map application and browse around.  The south pole was there above the horizon.  That to me is still unbelievable.  One thing I wish I’d done more on this trip, given the fact that there really wasn’t much in the area to sight-see, was stargaze.  I’m sure I’ll get down deep below the equator again at some point!

Back in my hotel room, I crashed again.  Lights out.  Day one, one of the longest days of my life, was finally complete.

– Continued in Part Drie –

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