BEING THE SURVEYOR OF AN AIRFORCE BASE DURING THE 1980’s
The South African Defence Force, now the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), was involved in a Bosoorlog or Grens oorlog (Bush war or Border war)1 from 1966 till 1989.
In order to protect the most northern borders of South Africa, a number of smaller, shorter perhaps, airstrips or airfields, sometimes referred to as tactical airfields, were constructed or in some cases upgraded.
Examples of the above are Ellisras, Punda Maria (in the Kruger National Park) and then a full scale air force base with a 4000 m runway at Louis Trichardt.
The construction at Louis Trichardt was given the project name Braambos.
A Little Bit of Background
I joined the South African Airforce during June 1972. My initial mustering was Construction Machine Operator and I was deployed at 402 Airfield Maintenance Unit (402AMU) with head quarters at air force base Ysterplaat in Cape Town. I completed the training course on 11 February 1976.
During 1977, I got involved in construction surveying while the airport at George in the Southern Cape was under construction.
I later got permission to study surveying full time and enrolled at the Cape Technikon, now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
I completed the National Diploma Surveying in November 1981 and was transferred to Swartkop Airforce Base to 400AMU and re-mustered to Topographical Surveyor early in 1982.
Braambos3 – The Beginning
During April 1982, I was called to air force head quarters to see a civilian chap by the name of Roelf Liebenberg who was working in the design office. He handed me a small piece of paper with two handwritten co-ordinates on it for the points X & Y.
He asked me to go and set out these two points upon which I asked where these points are supposed to be since there was neither co-ordinate system nor the full X co-ordinate (southing).
He answered that it is roughly thirty kilometres from Louis Trichardt4.
With much “prodding” and almost begging for more information, it was revealed that the two points are situated somewhere on the farms May, Edna and Flurian and that you have to take a turn off about 30 kilometres before Louis Trichardt at Bandelierkop and then “just follow the gravel road”.
Little did I know at the time that this survey job was to become my trial survey.
The Search for Data
Obviously, the scant pieces of information were not remotely sufficient to enable me to set out the two points. My first stop was the office of the Surveyor General in Pretoria. They have a register with farm names with districts where the farms are situated.
From the information I obtained there, I could determine the number of the 1 : 50 000 Topo Cadastral sheet on which the farms were situated. Now there is an old saying that goes as follows “you need not know everything, just make sure you know someone who can help you to find the information needed”.
Such a person was my student friend Gerhard Visser who worked at Trig Survey2 in Mowbray, Cape Town. He had access to all the surveying information that I could possibly want. Co-ordinate lists, triangulation sheets and whatever else I needed.
Gerhard collected the required information and then hand delivered it to Ysterplaat air force base where it was dispatched on the first aircraft en route to Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria. I could collect it the following afternoon.
I was told that a whole set of instruments, used by my predecessor, warrant officer H. A. Kotze, was waiting at the technical stores. I am not sure what I expected, but to my absolute horror, I discovered that the theodolite, a Wild T2 single second instrument, inverted image and still fitted with a split bubble to the vertical index and a Wild DI 10 distomat, was the instruments awaiting me.
Now, I must mention at this point, for the sake of the younger surveyors that this was way before Total stations, let alone Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Although the Wild T2 was used widely at the time, it was mostly the automatic indexing model with upright vision.
The Wild DI 10 Distomat made its appearance in the United Kingdom in 1969 and there was a small tag dangling from the container with 1969 stamped on it.
The rest of the surveying equipment was adequate and although old, everything was in excellent working condition and well looked after.
Since there was no time to waste on haggling about instruments, it was a matter of packing the equipment, metal pegs, metal tags for Y and X, tents, stretchers and whatever else was needed for the survey.
I was given two field assistants, newly employed I think I should add. One of them, a friendly chap named Aaron was previously a bedding attendant at the army college and Solomon worked in a small spaza shop. My mode of transport was a ten seater Land Rover which was later on known as the Defender.
Arriving on Site
Travelling to Braambos covered a distance of roughly 420 kilometres, a distance that could easily be done in one day. I was told that the owners of the three farms were well aware of my arrival. The farms were expropriated with compensation, although their livestock was still on the farms and one of the farmers lived full time on Edna. Flurian had a furnished house but the owner lived in Pretoria.
I could choose where I wanted to pitch camp.
Starting the survey
For once during this assignment, the angels smiled on me. I discovered that a trigonometrical block beacon was within 250 metres from X.
Block beacon with GPS - Photo supplied by Gerhard Visser
That evening I did some pre-calculations to enable me to set up on the beacon, find orientation and place point X.
Early the next morning I was up and out and set up on the beacon by 05h30. Disaster struck! I could not see a single trigonometrical beacon to enable orientation. I was rattled to say the least. After about an hour of straining my eyes and total disbelieve, I decided to give it up. None of the trigonometrical sheets or co-ordinate lists shed any light on my predicament.
I took my two assistants to town, Louis Trichardt, to buy some food stuffs and I marched into the police station to enquire about the local land surveyor, the one thing I did not found out before I left Pretoria. I was directed to a Mr. Kitt Sutton. What a remarkable friendly and helpful gentleman. He asked his wife for tea and once we settled down I explained my predicament.
He smiled and sort of asked by making a statement at the same time said “you are from Cape Town?” I nodded and he started laughing adding “you guys from Cape Town are always over eager. Wait till 16h00 and you will have all the beacons your heart desire”. “The visibility, I found out was not good in that area in the early hours of the day”. He suggested that I give it a second try at round about 16h00.
Staring the Survey – Take Two
At 16h00 as instructed, I was back on the beacon and ready to start my observations and as Mr Sutton has predicted, all the beacons that I needed and more were there!
A little bit of disbelief, but I was indeed very relieved. Once oriented, it was time to set out X.
Now setting out with the DI 10 took a bit of a roundabout method. The easiest way was to set out a point on line, but a little bit further than required. Once done, you would then measure the distance between that temporary point and in my case, point X.
Please keep in mind that Aaron was a bedding assistant and Solomon worked in a spaza shop. So I had to climb off the beacon, helped them with the tape, fortunately the distance was less than 10 m, to measure backwards to X’s position. Head back to the beacon, direct them on line, tell them to check the distance and knock in the peg. Then take a second walk there to check on the distance myself. Mission accomplished for point X!
Since the 4 km centre line had to be opened for the geological survey, I decided to traverse through to point Y and then close the traverse on another trigonometrical beacon.
When I asked Roelf Liebenberg about vegetation and the density of bushes, he said it was nothing to worry about. Luckily I am someone that mostly prepare for the worst case scenario and therefore I had brought along adequate cutting tools. It did take about a kilometre or so to get my two field assistants to understand that I just want to be able to see through along the centre line and not to drive down the centre line.
I was able to close the traverse on a closer known point of which the co-ordinate was supplied by Mr Sutton.
After placing point Y and checking it, I returned to Pretoria.
Returning to Braambos
I returned to Braambos later during 1982 to start with the setting out of the taxi ways and control points for and amongst others the helicopter area, workshop area and then the positions for the perimeter fence which stretched over roughly 30 km.
Shortly after arriving at Braambos, a Captain Mark van den Berg and a corporal Jan Rens together with two field assistants from the South African Army arrived on site. Captain van den Berg and his team was tasked to check the accuracy of the positions of X and Y.
At this point, it was plain sailing. The necessary bush cutting had been done and they left for Pretoria about two days later.
I was later on shown a letter that Captain van den Berg wrote; stating that X placing was within 1cm and that of Y within 2 cm. He attributed this to different types of electronic distance meters being used.
I had passed my trial survey I was told by Colonel Thiart, just, I was never told that this was my trial survey!
Dangers on site and off site
As we were not operating in a war zone, there was little danger in the form of terrorists or dangers of land mines. These were found much closer to the far northern border of South Africa.
Danger however in the form of snakes was a reality. The rinkhals, also called the ring-necked spitting cobra, is a venomous snake that could spit its venom a distance of about one and a half meter. These were frequently encountered, but in the majority of the encounters, they would move off into the bush without posing a threat to anyone.
Another snake that I thankfully never saw, except for a piece of skin that was shed by its bearer, is the luislang,(rock python - Python natalensis). These could reach great lengths, about six meters or longer with a body diameter of easily 100 mm or more for full grown snakes.
There were however some real dangers off-site in the form of waterholes (pubs) in town. Now one must understand that we had the two main ingredients for trouble, readily available, booze (alcohol) and politics.
During 1983, South Africa was in a heavy turmoil with the ongoing political battle, not only because of apartheid, but also because of the heavily opposed political views amongst the government and the opposition parties. The Conservative Party and the Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reconstituted National Party) were the two main opposing parties and fiercely so to say the least.
The barman at the Hotel Louis, Oom (uncle) Gidi, was an ardent supporter of the Reconstituted National Party. One evening, after a few beers too much, one of the national servicemen started mocking oom Gidi to the point where he lost his normal very well self control and subsequently gave the servicemen two well aimed fist punches which resulted in two proper swollen blue eyes.
That was the end of the privilege of the national servicemen to visit waterholes in town.
My quest for a new electronic distance meter (EDM)
Since I was responsible for all control points, checking of points placed by the two civil engineers who assisted with the general construction surveying and setting out, I really felt that I needed a new and more modern EDM. I enquired about a WILD DI4 and the price would be more or less R13 000.00. I approached the officer commanding who promised to find funds to procure a new EDM for me.
Alas, at the time when I resigned from the South African air force, the answer always remained the same “we do not have money in the budget”. No matter how much begging I did, no money was the constant answer.
In view of the fact that the calculated budget for the earth works alone was R60 million in 1983, this was an extremely small price for an instrument that would have eased my life dramatically.
I resigned from the South African air force with my last working day 30 November 1983.
I then pursued a career in lecturing at the formerly known Cape Technikon, now known as The Cape Peninsula University of Technology and retired on 30 November 2019 after thirty six years.
References & Notes
- Trig Survey now known as National and Geospatial Information that resort under Land Affairs and Rural Development
- The completed air force base is now known as Makhado Air Force Base
- Renaming of Louis Trichardt to Makhado was announced in the SA Government Gazette on 14 October 2011, but Makhado was reverted to its old name of Louis Trichardt during October 2014.
Retired Lecturer/Registered Surveyor (South Africa)
e-mail: [email protected]