The bridge, the construction of which I found myself working on, was to be the second longest of its kind at the time in the southern hemisphere, 2256 feet. It became known as the C.R. Swart Bridge, Charles Robberts Swart being the last Governor General of South Africa and the first State President of the newly established Republic of South Africa in 1961. I wondered why he would have a bridge in South West Africa named after him, then discovered that he was a fascist sympathiser during WWII, and this being an ex-German colony, it made some sense. Keeping in mind that his one brother died as a child in an English concentration camp in which he and his family were incarcerated during the Boer War, it is perhaps understandable that he was not keen on the Brits.
The Swakop River only delivers surface water to the sea maybe once in five to eight years. The rest of the time it is a winding ribbon of sand. What moisture there is flows under the sand. Some farmers up-river tap that from wells for stock, home and a little irrigation usage, depending on the inland rains. Some miles outside Swakopmund was a vegetable farm at Goanikontes. The veggies were planted right in the river bed. Despite the fact that when the Swakop flooded it would sweep all the crops away, it was still a success as that event happened so seldom.
The old German-built railway bridge had been swept away, built, as it was, right at the edge of the sea across the river mouth. Our bridge was situated about a mile inland. The frequently changing sand road to Walvis Bay lay to one side of the bridge-works.
Pier-beams were sunk down to bedrock across the river. Most of the footings went below sea-level and necessitated a system whereby caissons were used to keep the water out with air-pressure, thus working inside these was akin to diving as far as the pressure was concerned, without the cooling effect of the water. The work was not only stressfully hot, loading sand and blasted rock, it was dangerous. A diver, Mike Omaha was killed, outside the caisson, when a charge blew the top of the airlock off and a flying chunk of concrete hit him on the head. Bad day at the office, as a Portuguese carpenter broke his arm when he fell off the scaffolding.
Thankfully, I was excused when tested for work in the caissons; I had a cold and my ears hurt badly when the pressure built up.
My work was with a team responsible for making, laying and stressing the cables used in the deck-beams. This was done in a long shed to house the 150 foot beams. Each cable consisted of twenty five quarter-inch wires, to be nail-headed with a hydraulic header machine, then placed in conduits. There were eleven cables to a beam, six beams to a span. Each cable in a beam differed a little in length, depending on its position, so measurements had to be extremely accurate. All were placed inside the formwork which was closed by the carpenters before the concrete was poured.
When the beams were mature enough, the shuttering was stripped to be used for the next one and the beam was moved outside for a further period, then our job was to stress each cable to 351 kips and to grout the conduits before they were moved by a gantry out onto the pier beams.
Such a feeling of achievement as the bridge grew across the river bed; something that would still be there in a hundred years! In later years, when I talk about the structures that I have been a part of, it is always ‘I built that!’ bridge or road or mine head-gear or whatever. Man’s desire for immortality in things that will be left behind when they are gone, maybe.
Soon after I arrived in Swakopmund, by mid-May, 1968, I was to experience that phenomenon they call the East-Wind. Dressed in shorts and tee-shirt, covered by a track-suit and a warm jumper, I would leave my prefab room on site to be greeted by thick cold mist; every surface outside would be dripping with moisture. While working on the bridge, a warm breeze would start by nine o’clock, coming from the East over the desert; increasing slowly until the sky glittered with mica dust and pushed the fog cloud back over the sea. Then the layers of clothing would come off until one was only in shorts again. The hot, particle-laden wind would increase to such an extent that we would have to take cover amongst the beams to avoid being sand-blasted. Only by four in the afternoon would its fury abate and the fog would come rolling back in, and the clothing come back on. East-Wind could repeat, day after day, for a week or two.
It explained why some vehicles that one saw were completely bare of paint only on one side. They had been parked outside in the East-Wind.