2000, Bastion Construction.
My last month actually working for Maun Senior Secondary School was August 1999, but I ran a team we called Maun Sec Construction Unit to pass the profit to the school. After a couple of profitable contracts, it was decided to close it, (“We are a school, not a business.”) although headmaster David Tregilges agreed that I continue to use my office there in exchange for managing the school maintenance crew. I based my newly formed company, Bastion Construction, there.
I designed the car park and slope protection for the newly built Maun Lodge across the road from the school. Bastion Construction built two semi-detached houses for Air Botswana, three houses for Matshwane Primary School staff, a workshop for JJTyres.
We did the maintenance for Maun Lodge and built four thatched chalets behind the hotel. Several other houses and cottages kept us busy for the next few years, too.
Two especially interesting contracts, while not very lucrative, bear some extra detail in the telling.
A Concrete Figtree
Norwegian Lars Elvenes was, and still is, a roadworks contractor in Maun, building roads, airstrips and earthworks around Ngamiland. We met at the annual party held Fleming Olsen, a Dane who started and built Delta Water International School where Sheila got the post of Art Teacher. Several Scandinavian men chose to marry Motswana ladies and the couples lived in Maun, and we were honoured to be invited to the Olsen party several years running. It was Lars’ dream to have an elevated platform that would reach above the tree canopy at his home on the Thalamakane River from where he could mount a telescope to watch the stars. After discussing this project each year, Lars eventually found himself in a position to start building. We decided on a concrete fig-tree.
With high tensile steel embedded in four widely spaced 1 cubic metre concrete blocks, I made ribbed roots come out of the ground and begin their trip to the heavens. Two metres above ground, Lars took me aside and asked if I could embed a Jacuzzi inside the trunk? With decking around it for sunbathing, of course. And conduits in the trunk for electric cabling as well as fill and drain pipes…
What a challenge! The first difficulty was getting the bricklayers to stop thinking straight lines and smooth surfaces. We shaped branches with chicken netting around steel, covered with geo-textile cloth filled with concrete and plastered with render coloured with pigment.
Above the decking is a staircase of flattened branches, leading first to a barbecue platform, then up to the stargazer’s platform. I built in several buckets with drain holes to serve as creeper plant pots.
The other challenge was quite different.
Our architect friend, Julian Hair, was asked by Dougie Wright, the well-known hunter and safari operator, to visit Shinde Camp to solve two problems with their lodge dining room. It consisted of a deck in the tree tops, covered with a canvas arch, reached by a wooden walkway ramp. Just below it was a lounge stocked with wildlife books. The views from either platform over the Okavango Swamp, through the branches, was awesome. The birdlife and wildlife is prolific.
The first problem was that the decks, built on huge poles buried in the wet ground, would move considerably in the wind. Secondly, rain would be blown in under the arched canvas, wetting the guests. However, closing in the ends would cut out the magnificent view. Julian’s suggestion, that they put Perspex windows in, would keep the view but act as a sail and make the structure sway even more. So, unable to come up with a solution, he suggested to Dougie that I go and have a look. I was flown out to Shinde for a visit in late November 2001.
At the time, they had a tractor and trailer taking the long round trip via Kwai to service the camp with supplies as it was too wet for trucks. Log stays were suggested to brace the poles together, but the tractor could only carry a few at a time. I decided on four to lock the up-rights together, then diagonal wire bracing to anchor them. Old bolts were to get larger washers, and wire bindings to prevent further splitting at the old holes.
I designed three baby-carriage type awnings with Y12mm high tensile steel bowed rods encased in the canvas fixed to hinges which spanned the five metre width of the deck. There was a cord running from the centre of the lower arch to the upper, so that, in inclement weather, the awning could be lowered to keep out the rain, and raised again afterward so that the view was again clear. Two awnings were destined for the dining deck and one for the lounge.
The material was loaded on the trailer. When we heard that it had arrived, Sheila’s son, Nicholas Simkin, who was visiting at the time, and I were flown to the Shinde Camp airstrip and given a Meru tent for our short stay. While the camp canvas-maintenance lady and her industrial sewing machine tackled the awning covers, Nick and I bolted on the poles, threaded the four thick wires on every diagonal and proceeded to wind the wires into ropes which steadied the whole structure. It was backbreaking, skin blistering work, but as the staff were not allowed to depart for their Christmas break until the work was done, there were suddenly a lot of willing helpers.
Several years later, Dougie told me that it was all still working well, much to my delight.